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community without community Arrow vol 6 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 1, 2007


Community Without Community

Vijay Devadas & Jane Mummery
University of Otago & University of Ballarat


Nothing is more instructive ... than the way Spinoza conceives
of the common. All bodies, he says, have it in common to expr-
ess the divine attributes of extension ... And yet what is common
cannot in any case constitute the essence of the single case.
Decisive here is the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidar-
ity that in no way concerns an essence. Taking-place, the comm-
unication of singularities in the attribute of extension, does not unite
them in essence, but scatters them in existence.

Giorgio Agamben, 1993: 18-19.

1. The idea of community and identity formation has had a vexed history within critical theory. It has come under critique from various fronts: traditional Marxists are critical of its focus on culture not economics; postcolonial studies is critical of its appeal to a romanticized view of community; and it has been criticized, specifically by the poststructuralists, because of the essentialism and politics of othering that takes place in the affirmation of community and identity. These criticisms or interventions are highly instructive as they call on us to rethink the terms of community by asking for a re-consideration of the ways in which notion of community is conceived, how it is constituted, and what are the implications of constituting the discourse of community in specific ways? What does it mean to say, as Agamben (1993: 1) puts it, "to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim"? What does it mean to say to a concept like community?

2. To articulate such an idea, in terms of the various interventions, begins by first rejecting or challenging conceptions of community that reproduce a collectivity that is built upon, engenders and fosters a sense of closure, continuity, unity and universalism. In other words, we must reject the kinds of assumptions that prevail in the work of Benedict Anderson's (1983) Imagined Communities (as well as those that unproblematically draw upon Anderson's conception of community) precisely because this contribution is premised upon the notion of community as collectivity that is unified, continuous and enclosed. As Anderson says clearly, the community that he imagines, within the auspices of the idea of nation, "regardless of the actual inequalities and exploitation that may prevail ... is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship" (1983: 16). In other words, the idea of community that is manifested here not only enacts a closure of potential and possible forms of collectivization, but more crucially proposes that such an idea of community breaks down the complex relations and networks of power that constitute the notion of community. In a certain sense, one could perhaps argue that Anderson's idea of community is highly egalitarian, especially if we take this up through the Subaltern Studies route and its commitment to producing a politics of "horizontal affiliations" (Chakrabarty, 2000: 16). But such an attempt to rescue Anderson cannot be sustained. For Subaltern Studies, the reorganization of community through horizontal affiliations opens up an alternative form of affiliation that disrupts established and nationally sanctioned means of conceiving community. In short, the idea of horizontal affiliation as a means of community formation opens up other potential and possible forms of association: this is an opening up of the idea of community. For Anderson however, it is not the same thing because he sees horizontal affiliation as a way of producing a community whose fraternity is premised upon a shared and undifferentiated sense of belonging to the nation: this is a closing down operation that seeks to silence differences, inconsistencies and contradictions within the idea of community. Anderson is not alone in this: Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer for instance in Sources of the Self and Interpretation and Social Criticism respectively, in seeking to appeal to shared understanding as the foundation for values idealise modern society as a harmonious, non-conflictual community.

3. The idea of community that Anderson (and Taylor and Walzer) conceptualise is built on closure or closing down multiple forms of affiliations. In other words, it is premised upon a foundational violence (Derrida, 1992). And here the foundational violence of the collective, unified community erases differences, contradictions, and forms of being and belonging that do not necessarily align with the constitution of the idea of community. Against this idea of community, we wish to recuperate the potential of community informed by the poststructuralist tradition. While there are various scholars in this tradition who have intervened in the notion of community (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and so on) we will keep to two - Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben - to reclaim   the idea of community in these terms: as "community without unity" (Nancy, 1991), a "coming community" (Agamben, 1993). This rethinking of community not only marks a turn in the way we might conceive of the constitution of the idea of community, but also a shift in the way in which we might mobilise community as a means of rethinking the terms of solidarity.

4. What Nancy and Agamben offer in The Inoperative Community (1991) and The Coming Community (1993) respectively is a conception of community that is marked by a shift in thinking of the idea of community as a concept that we always already occupy, of being in (hence one is red, French or Muslim, or an activist), to one that sees it as a concept that does not have a guarantee of meaning, identity, belonging; a concept that does not have an essence - that of a unified collectivity. This is Nancy's idea of "community without community" (1991: 71). Agamben shares a similar critical trajectory in his designation of the coming community - a community "without destiny and without essence, the community that returns is never present in the first place" (Wall, 1999: 156). What Nancy does here is shift the question of, or on, community away from one invested in the notion of identity and belonging (being-in) to an idea of the community that ceaselessly works to produce more democratic, open and fluid relationships with others to foster a sense of "being with." (Nancy, 1991: 33). Like Nancy, Agamben also proposes the idea of community that is based on the notion of belonging without identity. This is a community of singularities, fragments: it is "of a being whose community is mediated not by any condition of belonging ... nor by the simple absence of conditions ... but by belonging itself" (Agamben, 1993: 85).

5. Opening up the idea of community in these terms breaks the umbilical cord that has tied the discourse of community and identity to essence: more specifically, it ruptures the foundational violence upon which Anderson, Taylor and Walzer's notion of community is built upon by untying community from its unproblematic link to a unified and universal identity. What is going on here is a refusal to mortage community to identity and to the foundational violence upon which it is built by proposing an alternative conception of community that produces new constitutions and networks of relationships that are not hinged upon predisposed notions of community and identity. What is produced in such a reconstitution, in the constitution of a "community without community" (Nancy, 1991: 71) is a network of relations, a multitude (to use Hardt and Negri's term in Empire) which is concerned not with what race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or culture community is premised upon. Rather it is a community which is concerned with the relations that are formed across these categories (being with) and which at the same time recognizes that this community-without-identity is also "without either representation or possible description''; it is "an absolutely unrepresentable community" (Agamben, 1993: 24-25).

6. The idea of community that we see in Nancy and Agamben remains absolutely unrepresentable because there are no terms, concepts, or representational axioms that could claim to represent this idea of community. It remains absolutely unrepresentable because such an idea of community works against the very idea of community, whose very foundation is that of collectivising, of constituting a "being in" and of producing foundational modes of representing that community. Pitting Anderson (and Taylor and Walzer) against the rethinking of community and identity, and the impossibility of representing community as put forward by Agamben and Nancy interrupts normative accounts of community and at the same time calls on us to recuperate community not as a passive idea (of already being constituted) but as an active one, and as activity.

7. Community as an active idea, as an interruption, demands working from the notion of the impossibility of collectivity. This is a refusal of the fixing that takes place in the name of the collectivity of the community precisely because its foundational discourse is built upon the idea of community that "ceaselessly resists collectivity itself as much as it resists the individual" (Nancy, 1991: 71). Nancy's invocation of a ceaseless resistance or refusal to collectivity - central to his conception of   "community without community" - shatters the very foundations of conjuring community (as identity and belonging, marked by an appeal to singularizing and unifying traditions, histories and myths). After all, Nancy and Agamben's community does not work from the premise of collectivity, and this puts into crisis the foundational logic and violence on which the idea of community is conceptualised. Community as an active idea thus calls for a refusal, an unworking of the very terms upon which this idea is constructed. Such an unworking "indicates ... the interruptive dis-order inherent in order as the self-critical archive of its very possibility. This means that a community can only imagine the fictive harmony of its members with its collective representation by repressing the contingency of its own institution" (Levett, 2005: 431-2). As an active, interruptive idea, community in this sense calls for a continual unworking of totalizing and exclusionary myths of collectivity upon which community is formed. As an activity, community calls for the opening up of other possible and potential networks of relations, of living and being with others. In that sense, as activity, community can be conceived as a process, a battle or struggle to establish linkages, connections and relations even though the very impossibility of categorisation, of communities, continues to haunt the activity of community.

8. It is this refusal to surrender to the notion of community as being in, that brings together the collection of essays for this issue of Borderlands. Collectively, they focus on the praxis of identity/community formation and how this formation can always be different, while at the same time stressing how any version or conception of community promotes certain discourses. What is at stake here is community, or more precisely how the thinking of community and identity is produced.

9. Daniel Hourigan starts us off on a consideration of this question by interrogating, in his essay 'Biotech Fantasia', the way biotechnology has become an "ideological phenomenon" that has effectively worked to question not only our understanding of ourselves but our understanding of how we should regulate our interactions with others. What is the effect, Hourigan asks here, of accepting biotechnology's description of us being no more than our genes? Does this make "the 'I' that desires and wills ... a meaningless formula"? Utilising Zizek's work, Hourigan's answer is 'yes' but that this does not necessarily have to entail the complete loss of ethical possibility and community. Rather it highlights the need to rethink "the ethical content of biotechnology" (Hourigan, 2007), so as to enable a post-rational bioethics.

10. Also addressing this question of how thinking of community and identity is produced, Geoffrey Whitehall in 'Politics after the Event' explores the concept of Asia/Pacific as an instrument of control. In this paper Whitehall explores the "competing political grammars used to conceptualise the Asia/Pacific community", showing how these various grammars work to normalise and discipline certain "political possibilities" over others. As he asks in this paper, what happens when we revision the pacific community along with political practice in terms reflective not of an ordered spatiality (continents and nations surrounding a contained ocean) but rather of "errant currents and temporal horizons"? At the very least, Whitehall insists, such a politics needs to give over engagement in "onto-political posturing" and instead "generate temporal horizons of becoming" (Whitehall, 2007).

11. Also at stake are issues of rethinking solidarities and of producing affiliations, issues that are considered by Rodney Fopp and Gaurang Sahay, who call for a reconsideration of the terms of solidarities we have built with both Marcuse and Marx's thoughts respectively. These papers open up a critical and productive means of "being with" with Marcuse and Marx. In his paper, for instance, Fopp argues that it is time we revisited Marcuse's lengthy article 'Repressive Tolerance'. Initially vehemently critiqued for what were perceived to be its "obvious partisanship", its "anti-liberal themes", and its "antidemocratic and intolerant implications", Fopp argues that this article rather makes a range of important points concerning the "paradox of tolerance". After all, as Fopp notes, Marcuse realised that

in some circumstances there comes a point that tolerance is undermined or threatened to such an extent that the only consistent response (that is, the response consistent with tolerance) is in tolerance (Fopp, 2007).

And this point, Fopp suggests, is actually now. Or, more specifically, he notes that a Marcusean analysis of tolerance in contemporary Australia, for instance, would be an exercise well worth pursuing.

12. In his turn, Sahay interrogates the framework and discourses of Orientalism and their subsequent production of various political, social, ideological and artistic conceptions of the Orient by the West. Specifically, Sahay argues that the "permanent epistemological dichotomy" that is assumed in the discourse of Orientalism is not only manifest within the work of Karl Marx, but has impacted upon his conception of the progression of world history. As Sahay critically points out, Marx can be understood as systematically arguing for the necessity of Western imperialism on the basis that this is the only way Oriental societies will become "subject to dialectical transformation" and thereby capable of revolutionary progress (Sahay, 2007).

13. On quite different ground, Alice Mills and Jeremy Smith in their paper 'Strategies of social activists' propose an alternative means of conceiving the community of social activists. Analysing interviews held with self classified social activists, Mills and Smith aim to demonstrate that the methodology for Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) developed by Robert Dilts in reference to the strategies of genius can also be successfully applied to a "linguistic study of social activism". More concretely the authors suggest that their analysis in this paper - part of a larger project - clearly "illustrates NLP's power to elicit patterns of behaviour in the field of social science enquiry just as much in Dilts' fields of the arts and technological invention" (Mills & Smith, 2007).

14. Next Todd Waller advances the need to account for emotions in discussions of identity and community within the specific example of a conflict resolution workshop held in Serbia. Using his experience as a conflict resolution workshop facilitator along with insights drawn from the work of John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum, Waller argues that social justice education - especially that carried out in "regions of conflict such as the Balkans" - would benefit from being reminded of the intimate connections between one's emotions, values, and desired outcomes in social activism. As Waller stresses, what is needed is a teaching approach that "does not shy away from emotions while engaging students intellectually on issues of justice that are deemed critical for the future of their communities" (Waller, 2007).

15. In addition to these papers, the issue also carries a response from Jaco Barnard to Kay Schaffer's report on the conference - 'Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission' - which appeared in the previous issue of Borderlands. Barnard's aim here, he stresses, is to supplement Schaffer's account of the conference in the form of a disagreement with her account that he hopes "will be taken in the spirit of what is at stake: reconciliation, truth, transition, South Africa" (Barnard, 2007). We would also add our hopes to Barnard's, and would add that such critical exchange is part of what we see as essential both to Borderlands and to effective "intellectual communication, scholarship and practice" (Burke, 2001).

16. The range of papers in this issue, the community that is the papers in this issue, thus collectively describe, explore and critique the idea of community and identity by proposing alternative conceptions and formations that open up, and calls on us to ceaselessly unwork the idea of community, identity and solidarity. They not only deal with the idea of community but also provide a productive entry point for the "sharing out of a space ... a being-together without assemblage" (Nancy, 1991: 32) to further our ongoing discussions of the idea of community and identity.


Vijay Devadas lectures in the Department of Media, Film and Communication at the University of Otago, Aotearoa. His works have been published in Senses of Cinema, Critical Horizons, and Critical Arts and in edited book collections, the most recent of which is a chapter on ethno-nationalism in Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India's Other Film Industry.

Jane Mummery is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ballarat, Australia. She is the author of The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics (2005), and her research turns around the ethico-political possibilities of contemporary Continental philosophy. Her most recent work is published in Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy and Philosophy Today.


Our thanks to the rest of the Borderlands team for all their work in getting this issue together.


Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, London.            

Agamben, G. (1993) The Coming Community. Michael Hardt (trans). University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London.

Barnard, J. (2007) 'Reflecting on Achievements, Celebrating Failures. The Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness Conference: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (A Response to Professor Schaffer)'. Borderlands e-journal , 6.1.

Burke, A. (2001) 'The Borderlands Manifesto'. Borderlands e-journal.

Chakrabarty, D. (2000) ' Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Historiography'. Nepantla: Views from South, 1.1: 9-32.

Derrida, J.   (1992) 'Force of Law: The Mystical "Foundation of Authority"'. Mary Quaintance (trans). In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. Drucillia Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson (eds). Routledge, New York: 3-67.

Fopp, R. (2007) 'Herbert Marcuse's "Repressive Tolerance" and his Critics'. Borderlands e-journal, 6.1.

Hourigan, D. (2007) 'Biotech Fantasia'. Borderlands e-journal, 6.1.

Levett, N. (2005) 'Taking Exception to Community (between Jean-Luc Nancy and Carl Schmitt)'. Journal for Cultural Research ( Formerly Cultural Values ), 9.4, 421-435.

Mills, A. & Smith, J. (2007) 'Strategies of Social Justice: An NLP Interpretation'. Borderlands e-journal, 6.1.

Nancy, J. L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. Peter Connon, et al. (trans). University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London.

Sahay, G. (2007) 'Marxism and the Orient: A Reading of Marx'. Borderlands e-journal, 6.1.

Taylor, C. (1992) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wall, T. C. (1999) Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Waller, T. (2007) 'Cultural Globalization in the Balkans: Perspectives on Morality, Identity and Social Justice'. Borderlands e-journal, 6.1.

Walzer, M. (1987) Interpretation and Social Criticism. Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Whitehall, G. (2007) 'Politics after the Event: Exceeding Asia/Pacific'. Borderlands e-journal, 6.1.

© borderlands ejournal 2007



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