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Thomas Bedorf


Thinking the community responds to a crisis in political philosophy in two ways: Against the real or alleged fragilities of modern societies it responds with the promise to provide what is 'only' society with a social connection that transcends social atomism. And it asserts its ability to provide foundations for the political arena that are more open than those provided by various forms of liberal political thought with their general affinities for rationality and consensus. It is also the promise of political foundations without the need for occidental-rational exclusions.

The point here is not a renewal of the dichotomy between community [Gemeinschaft] and society [Gesellschaft] (Tönnies), which is in itself apolitical since it juxtaposes 'the' (common) culture against the 'merely' political, thus defining the notion of community by reference to an identity which produces exclusions. It is for this reason that the new thinking of community (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. The relations that constitute the notion of community must maintain their autonomy with regards to any possible entities to which these relational links may refer. That is what might be called the irreducibility of the relational links. Successfully maintaining the irreducibility of individuals with regards to the notion of community implies that closure of the community is impossible. Strictly speaking it even means that community does not exist, even though interrelationship as community is unavoidable. "Never identity, always identifications!" (Nancy)

These preconditions for thinking community can be explained in further detail with the help of Nancy’s proposal to characterize communal being as a singular plural being: We are singularities, original albeit contingent existences (not to be confused with individuals), who never exist in isolation but always with ... With whom? With others. What the distinction between continuity and contiguity is meant to emphasize is the fact that the communal dimension is not a dimension of the existence that is 'in-each-case-mine' [jemeinig] (Heidegger) but rather something like a lateral connectedness of the many with each other. A tension exists between plurality and singularity which it is impossible to reduce either to pure subjectivity or to unbroken collectivity, since individual meaning cannot exist without relating to others at the same time.

The transition from these social-philosophical descriptions to political considerations will inevitably involve a good deal of disambiguation. It is true that the protagonists of community thinking emphasize the fact that politics, particularly radical democratic politics, must be concerned precisely with not prescribing and legitimizing any institutional, judicial, ethnic, cultural, or other structures. But the 'empty space of power' (Claude Lefort) is at best a determination of the political, rather than of politics, and usually very little is said about the latter. By no means does it follow from the notion of community as a singular plural being that plurality ought to be kept open. What emerges from the thinking of community, therefore, is a normative deficit, due to the fact that otherness and difference are not sufficiently differentiated.

Ever since Plato’s Sophistes the other (heteron) has been regarded as the other of the same (tauton). To speak about the one requires differentiation from the other. The pure 'One' does not speak (except perhaps to say 'Om'). The paragon for the thinkers of community is the ontological understanding of otherness as difference. While the notion of a plurality of singularities means precisely not to assume the formal identity of (otherwise different) individuals, we still lack a concept of otherness that would be able to import a normative impulse into the community.

All this could be conceivable, following Derrida, Levinas and Waldenfels, if one takes into consideration the experience of an absolute otherness with regards to which no social reference is possible because it can be experienced only as an otherness that is withheld. Structurally speaking the theory of alterity conceives of a dual otherness one absolute and one social although the two can never be separated. Intersubjective or social experience – assuming for the time being that such a difference makes no difference – consists in being addressed by an absolute otherness to which the experiencing subject must respond (the minimal ethics of responsibility). The address of the response, however, cannot be the (withheld) absolute Other but only the social other manifesting in roles, situations and symbolical contexts. There is therefore, in Waldenfels’ words, a divergence between the origin of the address and the destination of the response.

Applying this outline of a formal theory of alterity to the politics of community results in a shift in description. We are confronted with plural singularities, but these do not merely ‘exist,’ they confront us with demands for us to cope with and answer to. Quite similar to the thinking of community, the social relation can therefore never be determined as a structure or identity. The social is in flux and consists in a continuous back and forth between response and demand. The perspective, however, is that of an Ego who is aware of being addressed by the Other, not the perspective of an ontologist of the social who exposes the very structures of community.

Expressing the version of the social espoused by alterity theory in terms of recognition leads to the assertion that we can recognize the Other only as a social other, i.e. as this one or that one, with such and such a culture, and with a particular role. But if this absolute Otherness, which is what makes us respondents in the first place, eludes our grasp, then every recognition must at the same time be a misrecognition. A normative tension exists therefore in the fact of social relatedness, which we can determine to be a 'misrecognizing recognition'. We are not just plural singularities. In giving recognition we are related to each other, and we must give recognition in the knowledge that complete recognition will never be possible. Nancy’s slogan "Never identity, always identifications" can thus be understood not only as the expression of an irreducible difference but also as the unavoidable normalization of an irreducible alterity.


Thomas Bedorf, Dr. phil, Lecturer at the Institute for Philosophy at the FernUniversität in Hagen. Studied Philosophy, History, Romance Studies and Political Science in Münster, Paris and Bochum. 1997 M.A. in Philosophy. 1997-1998 Member of the DFG postgraduate programme "Phenomenology and Hermeneutics" at the Universities of Bochum and Wuppertal. 1999 Fellow at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. 2002 Ph.D. at the Ruhr-University Bochum, 2008 habilitation in Philosophy at the FernUniversität in Hagen. 2009/10 Visiting Lecturer in Naples and Vienna. Selected publications: Dimensionen des Dritten. Sozialphilosophische Modelle zwischen Ethischem und Politischem (Munich: Fink 2003); Das Politische und die Politik (ed. with Kurt Röttgers, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2010); Verkennende Anerkennung. Über Identität und Politik (Berlin: Suhrkamp 2010).

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