Communities are in the realm of contemporary art often seen as romanticised situations, as performed or represented in meetings and dinners of relational aesthetics. The term “Relational Aesthetics” functions already as a closure of very different approaches and therefore did level in a way the earlier critical voices/artistic positions, like Fluxus or practices which are described in Suzanne Lacy’s writings on “New Genre Public Art.” But the situation has changed in the last five years; now, crisis and catastrophe are always around the next corner, or to be more precise—it is always one click away. This click might start a financial breakdown, a new war, or just some terroristic acts. Here in the scenarios proposed by Szuper Gallery in their latest works, we are actually after the big bang, which restages the catastrophe with an elaborate environment and a big group of performers; the work is inspired by the project they did in the series New Social Sculptures at the Kunstmuseum Thun. Whatever happened did already happen, and it did through everybody in an unknown space, a space in which all rules and all behaviour patterns we have learned seem to be somewhat ridiculous. To quote the publication by Szuper Gallery on the work Étant Ballet:
“It begins with the aftermath of an incident, an explosion. A group of people run ashore an unexpected landscape. Everything is about to happen, but nothing seems to have changed. How might the alterations to the organic world, the world of matter might affect them? The setting: a mystical landscape, a crash site, in the wild or in the rush of a blackout. Pulling apart the ‘ballet’ of the food system in short scenes and absurd narratives the performance deconstructs the simple act of living.”
To refer to Fredric Jameson’s claim, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism in our consumer societies. The melancholy in this work by Szuper Gallery reflects the momentary situation. A utopian “beyond capitalism” one just cannot imagine. But I would like to go back in bit in time and space to question the problem of our lost utopia in relation to communities and our possibility to act as community.
There was, especially after the collapse of all socialist systems in the former Soviet Union, a strong urge by leftist cultural producers and post-Marxist philosophers to reconsider their thinking on notions of community without following a reductive path of (a neo-liberal or morally conservative) communitarianism and to define other, new possibilities, and to open up new spaces of thought, even if there might be a melancholic undertone in some considerations. After the breakdown of the so-called socialist systems, it became clear that the revolution had eaten up its children; instead of freeing human beings as equals, again something else has happened. Therefore,
communities produce finalization gestures and exclusions towards the outside and homogenization within—as a sociological definition would emphasise. The contemporary philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy stated even much more drastically with respect to the former socialist countries: “That the justice and freedom—and the equality—included in the communist idea or ideal have in effect been betrayed in so-called real communism is something at once laden with the burden of an intolerable suffering (along with other, no less intolerable forms of suffering inflicted by our liberal societies) and at the same time […] favour resistance to this betrayal.”
But not only is the issue of communities as excluding to the outside and homogenising in the inside seen as problematic, but also the figure of an autonomous subject position has been under attack for a long time. Especially feminist thinkers, such as Jacqueline Rose, Kaja Silverman, Sigrid Schade, and Judith Butler have deconstructed the subject position as a subject in the central position in the world as a fata morgana.
Using Freud and Lacan to claim a feminist position, they deconstructed any fixed gender position as something illusionary. Gender and the made-up attributes are something conceived through language not nature. Furthermore, initiated in the constitution of a subject in a very early age, the small child sees itself as a whole, closed image and starts to misinterpret itself along these lines. In spite of recognising oneself as a split, already spoken entity, a bundle of drives, thoughts, urges, and orders, one imagines oneself as a being that is in charge, in control of oneself and the surroundings. So, as the misconception of oneself is based on the projection of a perfect and complete image, it initiates the imaginary register (in Lacan’s terms) of a given subject or entity.
In an article I have written together with Lars Gertenbach, we argue that this illusionary closure is also in charge when communities are constructed; the modus of identification does not only work through words and slogans (which would mean in a Lacanian terminology the Register of the Symbolic), but also in the modus of an illusionary whole image—based on the illusion of a whole, perfect image of a subject.
“Thus,” argues theoretician Thomas Bedorf, “defining the notion of community by reference to an identity which produces exclusions. It is for this reason that the new thinking of community (by Blanchot, Nancy, Esposito) must seek to avoid such proximities. It can achieve this by ascribing to that notion the contours of an impossibility: by speaking of the ‘unavowable‘ (Blanchot), the ’unrepresentable‘ or ‘challenged‘ (Nancy), the ‘dialectical‘ community (Esposito). Notwithstanding the differences in detail, a common intention unites these proposals to think community not as an entity (by whatever historical name it may be called: people, nation, culture, class) but as relation.”
It is in this sense that the famous notion of “Being-Singular-Plural” by Nancy, and his re-reading of the term “being-with” originally coined by Heidegger, was of such big interest for all cultural producers and political subjects. “Being-with” is a situation in which a “human being” finds itself; being with others is what constitutes a human being, it is its condition to come into the world—to put it in simple words.
Nancy endeavours to show that, even beyond the boundaries of a concrete (ontic) community, on the more fundamental ontological level we are granted a “being-with” that exists not only “beneath” all respective communities, but also even before we are subjects. To circumvent the usual juxtaposition between the individual and the communal, as well as classical concepts of identity and subject, Nancy reverts to the “singular/plural” dichotomy that, in his view, expresses more clearly that these two terms have to be thought of as interlinked. When, in his work Being Singular Plural (2000), he accordingly attempts to develop “being-with” as a fundamental prerequisite of existence, this accordingly implies “that the singularity of each is indissociable from its being-with-many and because, in general, a singularity is indissociable from a plurality”. Furthermore, Nancy brings into the discussion not only the moment of birth, but also the moment of death, as something that defines “community” profoundly if we try to reconsider the notion of community from scratch: “A community is the presentation to its members of their mortal truth […]. It is the presentation of the finitude and the irredeemable excess that make up finite being: its death but also its birth, and only the community can present me my birth, and along with it the impossibility of my reliving it, as well as the impossibility of my crossing over into my death.”
From a Lacanian perspective, he refers to the register of the “Real” in a subject constitution: the lack, the split, the thread of vanishing, the imperfect and shattered.
So now we have a concept of community that is in a condition of “inoperativeness” (“désœuvrement”), borrowed from Blanchot by Nancy (Nancy 1991). Blanchot used this term in the sense of interruption, non-consummation, and intentionlessness: no project follows from the discussion; a community is not objectifiable and not institutable. Nancy applies this to the concept of community in the sense that this fundamental community cannot be realized—or put into operation—on the social and political (i.e. ontic) level. It remains unimplementable in the sense that it cannot be realized or represented (Nancy 2001/2007).
Now we have an inoperative community and we have a human being, whose status is more than precarious. How could we think about any political action, any political articulation together with these concepts? And what does political mean in the context of the arts? Oliver Marchart has claimed recently in a talk in Zürich that decidedly what makes art political must be political criteria, not artistic ones.
Acting politically according to Marchart means acting collectively as the first condition.
Acting politically means acting in an organised way – as a second condition.
Acting politically means acting strategically (third condition).
Acting politically means acting conflictually (forth condition).
These four criteria of collectivism, of organisation, of strategy, and of conflictuality— constitutes the nucleus of the political, the minimal condition of political action, if we follow Marchart.
Why collectivity, he asked?
One cannot act as a single person, rely on others to act, get together to act; one has to create some sort of collectivity to be an actual subject of a particular political act.
Without mutual organisation one cannot claim an influence in a system; one has to have a shared political goal, and one needs a strategy to circumvent institutional impediments—this he sees also as an intrinsic part of becoming political, nobody acts in a political vacuum.
Political action is in itself conflictual, otherwise one would reach goals without obstacles, without strategy and without organisation. It is fundamentally interested and positioned.
These are now two very different notions, and both of them are convincing.
Actually, in a meeting with Jean Luc Nancy in a workshop in Zürich, he was asked by Oliver Marchart why he did not deal with the problem of hierarchies and power relations in his notion of community and of being singular/plural. Nancy answered that he was just not so interested in this problem, and in his presentation it seemed that he was obviously more interested in transcendental ideas of the notion of "being-with"—a "being-with" that would in that sense include animals, plants, and even material objects.
I would like to open up Marchart’s apodictic and slightly dogmatic demands, because while I agree with his standpoint for being positioned—for taking up a case—I would ask for a more subtle understanding. For example, with Brechtian theatre one could ask oneself what is more important, the content or the V-Effect: an interruption—this disturbing moment when the visitors are recognising that they are just in a theatre, not absorbed in the play; the illusion provided by the imaginary function is made impossible by the V-Effect. I would say, both are important but not always both parts have to happen on an equal level, or be of equal importance.
Oliver Marchart claims for political art to make antagonism visible and to present platforms where this could happen. Art in his view can then only become political when it acts in the four paradigms—collectivism, organisation, strategy, conflictuality—when it is informed by the notion of antagonism as developed by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. I agree, but again I would like to argue that furthermore there are possibilities for art that could be derived from Nancy’s philosophical approach. In a way, one could claim for an art practice which is informed by that notion of "being-with" a certain subtlety, thinking of a community as something without a project, without an articulation and maybe not without an interest, but more of an interest into singular/ plural co-beings. In a way, one could get something like an utopian perspective that contains the promising idea of a overall proximity, a closeness, an intimacy—and which also points to the problematic of any given community. This makes me think for example of dinners for and by women all over the world initiated by Suzanne Lacy alongside the more famous and more outspoken sculpture dinner party by Miriam Shapiro, a topic which Elke Krasny is researching in depth right now. This makes me think about practices, which form more hidden bonds, which create strange and ephemeral projects and products, like the many get-togethers by Fluxus Artists. This makes me think of practices, which disturb exactly that imaginary register that installs images of pseudo-communities inside a subject and which creates images of whole subjects. It makes me think of distrusting big organisations. It makes me think of acting in weird ways—in ways that would not end up in organisations but could be projecting other existences without a formulated agenda. Being connotated as a woman, which denies me in a Lacanian sense being a subject anyway, makes me embrace my otherness. It makes me think of accepting my own strangeness, my own weirdness and share this with others—temporarily as we know.
To quote from Foucault: “[T]here is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent; still others that are quick to compromise, interested, or sacrificial; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations.”
In this way, I would see art and cultural production also involved in this field of power relations with the possibility to speak from a special space of representation, a place that can be seen as a marketplace of ideological representations.
And I would like to end with a quote by Björn Etzold from an article in this issue on communities, “Being-With” of OnCurating. Etzold came to the conclusion: “that Marx’ thinking of practice gives up both the Aristotelian distinction between praxis, theoria and poiesis (because all of them become a form of practice) and the Greek distinction between bíos and zoé, which carried such importance for Arendt (as well as later for Agamben). Practice is production of life. The modern era produces life. Unlike Arendt, Marx is not concerned with re-inventing the old Greek valuation of practice in this context and re-prioritizing the political over the social question, but rather with a new thinking of practice on the basis of these conditions. He conceives of it as a practice of articulation through which individuals create each other and which derives its "poetry" exclusively from the future.”
For further reading we would like to provide a list of consulted literature:
Anderson, Benedict (1991): Imagined Communities. New York: Verso.
Durkheim, Émile (1968): The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press.
Emmerich, Marcus (2007): Jenseits von Individuum und Gesellschaft. Zur Problematik einer psychoanalytischen Theorie der Sozialität. Giessen: Psychosozial-Verlag.
Esposito, Roberto (2010): Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. Translated by Timothy Campbell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Essbach, Wolfgang (1993): “Gemeinschaft – Rassismus – Biopolitik”, in Pircher, Wolfgang, ed. Das Fremde – Der Gast. Vienna: Turia & Kant, pp. 17–35.
Freud, Sigmund (1989): Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Norton.
Gertenbach, Lars/ Henning Laux/ Hartmut Rosa/ David Strecker (2010): Theorien der Gemeinschaft zur Einführung, Hamburg: Junius.
Heidegger, Martin (1996): Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Lacan, Jacques (1960): “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, in idem: Ecrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock Publications, 1980.
Lacan, Jacques (1977): “The Line and the Light”, in idem: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London and New York: Karnac.
Lacan, Jacques (1981): “Of the Gaze as Object Petit a”, in idem: Erratum of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Toronto: Parasitic Ventures Press, 2011, pp. 42ff.
Lacan, Jacques (1977): “What is a Picture?” in idem: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York and London: Norton, 1981.
Lacan, Jacques (2000): “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I in Psychoanalytic Experience”, in Elliot, Anthony, ed. The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. Malden, MA et al.: Blackwell.
Makropoulos, Michael (1997): Modernität und Kontingenz. Munich: Fink.
Makropoulos, Michael (2012): “Crisis and Contingency: Two Categories of the Discourse of Classical Modernity”, in Thesis Eleven, v111 n1 (20120906): pp. 9-18. [http://www.michael-makropoulos.de/Crisis%20and%20Contingency.pdf, accessed on 29 November 2013].
Marchart, Oliver (2007): Post-Foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Metz, Christian (1982): The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Translated by Celia Britton et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (1991): The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (1992): “The Compearance: From the Existence of ‘Communism’ to the Community of ‘Existence’”. Translated by Tracy B. Strong. In Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 3, August 1992, pp. 371–98.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000): Being Singular Plural. Translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (2001): La communauté affrontée. Paris: Galilée.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (2007): Die herausgeforderte Gemeinschaft. Translation of La communauté affrontée into German by Esther von der Osten. Berlin: diaphanes.
Rose, Jacqueline (1986): Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London and New York: Verso.
Salecl, Renata (1998): (Per)versions of Love and Hate. London: Verso.
Sarasin, Philipp (2003): “Die Wirklichkeit der Fiktion. Zum Konzept der ‘imagined communities’”, in idem: Geschichtswissenschaft und Diskursanalyse. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 150–76.
Schade, Sigrid and Silke Wenk (1995): “Inszenierung des Sehens: Kunst, Geschichte und Geschlechterdifferenz”, in Bussmann, Hadumod and Renate Hof, eds. Genus – zur Geschichte der Geschlechterdifferenz in den Kulturwissenschaften. Stuttgart: Kröner.
Taylor, Charles (2003): “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate”, in Matravers, Derek and Jonathan E. Pike, eds. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. New York: Routledge, in association with the Open University.
Theweleit, Klaus (1987–1989): Male Fantasies. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Vogl, Joseph (1994): “Einleitung”, in idem, ed. Gemeinschaften. Positionen zu einer Philosophie des Politischen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 7–27.
Žižek, Slavoj (1992): Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, New York: Routledge.
Žižek, Slavoj (2000): “Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!”, in Back, Les and John Solomos, eds. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge, Str. 594–606.
Žižek, Slavoj (2005): “Beyond Discourse Analysis”, in Butler, Rex and Scott Stephens, eds. Interrogating the Real. London: Continuum, pp. 249–61.
9 Sigrid Schade and Silke Wenk, “Inszenierung des Sehens: Kunst, Geschichte und Geschlechterdifferenz,” in Hadumod Bussmann and Renate Hof (eds.), Genus - zur Geschichte der Geschlechterdifferenz in den Kulturwissenschaften, Stuttgart 1995.
11 Thomas Bedorf, "Being Other, Being Different: A Normative Gap in Thinking the ‘Impossible Community’?" in Elke Bippus, Jörg Huber, Dorothee Richter (eds.)"BEING-WITH, Community – Ontological and Political Perspectives," OnCurating,Issue 7. Accessed Jan. 2014. http://www.oncurating-journal.org/index.php/issue-7.html#.UtMAGCRARwU
Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne,Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2000.
Jean-Luc Nancy, La communauté affrontée. Galilée. Paris, 2001.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Die herausgeforderte Gemeinschaft, translation of La communauté affrontée into German by Esther von der Osten. Diaphanes, Berlin, 2007.
16 Oliver Marchart, talk on the political in the arts at conference Third, Fourth, Fifth Spaces - Curatorial Practices in New Public and Social (Digital) Spaces,8–9 Nov. 2013, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich. See also the video recording http://www.curating.org/index.php/talks/third-fourth-and-fifth-spaces-curatorial-practices-in-new-public-and-social-digital-spaces, accessed Feb. 2015.
19 Elke Bippus, Jörg Huber, Dorothee Richter (eds.)"BEING-WITH, Community – Ontological and Political Perspectives," OnCurating,Issue 7. Accessed 15 Feb. 2015 http://www.on-curating.org/index.php/issue-7.html#.VOMyNEh-O80.