An important moment in the debate about the community took place in France between 1983 and 1994. Its background was 'the crisis of Communism' (the fall of the 'socialist' governments in Eastern Europe was part of the zeitgeist; these political events should perhaps also be interpreted in connection with the end of the utopian ideals of 1968). Incidentally they should also be considered in connection with the emergence of liberal thought in the sense that the notion of the individual, which in a sense forms the central point of liberal thought, is the anti-thesis to any possible community. In any event the question remains: Does community stand in opposition to the individual?
The second background consists in the development of a thinking of pure communication (Habermas) as the paradigm of a new human community.
The third background was the emergence of various neoracist movements linked to the re-emergence of forms of nationalism.
The debate about community to which I refer here is just one intellectual episode in a long chain that traverses the reflections of Western political thought. On these pages I want to make reference to just a few texts. In 1983 Jean-Luc Nancy published a text in a journal (Aléa, 4) by the title The Inoperative Community, which contained important references to Bataille’s work.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s George Bataille had written a number of texts in which he talked about the relationship between community and Communism and the 'demand of community'. In particular he developed the notion of sovereignty as an ontological and aesthetic concept. The notion of sovereignty, which has nothing to do with national sovereignty, concerns that which is opposed to the dimension of submission in the human sphere. In this text, written in the 1950s, Bataille analyzed the community as a negative community, as a literary community, and as a community of love. It was in this context that he placed the relationship between Communism and community. The international political situation and the socialism of Eastern governments formed the background. But in his considerations Bataille tried to think the necessity of community beyond the political situation.
Nancy says: "Bataille initially had the bitter experience of Communism being 'betrayed'". Perhaps Blanchot responds to these words when he writes: "There is no such thing as a concept dishonoured or betrayed. What does exist are concepts that are 'inappropriate' without their actual or apparent abandonment (which is not the same as their simple negation), which prevents us from calmly rejecting or discarding them".
This small book by Blanchot stands in conversation with Nancy’s text. The author questions the negative community (first part) and the community of love. In doing so Blanchot relies on texts by Bataille (in a first step) and on a love story by Marguerite Duras (in a second step).
In 2001 Nancy writes a preface to the Italian edition of Blanchot’s La Comunità inconfessabile. His text also appeared in France and consisted in a brief summary of the debate about the community that had taken place in the 1980s. Two concepts of this text in particular are worthy of emphasis here: Nancy remarks that already the title of Blanchot’s book contains a critique of his book The Inoperative Community. Blanchot wrote The Unavowable Community in order to underline that community is unavowable. He does not want to say that community is unspeakable but that it is unavowable. Nancy understood the danger. But he did not continue the debate about the community. That is another important point, in my opinion.
He did not continue the debate because in the meantime the use of the concept of community had undergone important semantic changes. What I referred to as one of the backgrounds to this debate, the emergence of racist and nationalist movements in Europe, came into play here. Ethnic communities and nationalist identities came to the surface. The notion of community increasingly came to indicate essentialist entities referring to the idea of a substance. Already in The Inoperative Community Nancy had remarked: "The actual awareness of the loss of community has Christian origins", and: "To this day history has been conceived against the background of the lost community – to be recovered or reconstructed". Towards the late 20th century the religious and Christian dimension returned with new and dangerous political dimensions. Nancy had already turned to different concepts, although these were concepts which (perhaps) did not contain such danger: Being-with [Mitsein], Existence-with [Mitdasein], the Communal; notions which we already find in Heidegger, although they should be thought anew.
The reference to Heidegger is important for various reasons. In a book on the subject of community Roberto Esposito argued for the importance of Heidegger’s work because of the way in which he thinks community on the basis of the figure of the other. Community thinks itself with and through others. Although Heidegger’s philosophy can sometimes contain dangerous references to the national community [Volksgemeinschaft], Heidegger knows that community can neither be reconstructed nor planned. But these intuitions about being different are even more important because they are based on a fundamental thought: Heidegger’s concepts of Being-With [Mitsein] and Being-In-The-World [In-der-Welt-Sein] refer to the question of community as a question of Being-Towards-Death [Sein-zum-Tode-hin].
This analysis forms the basis of Blanchot’s explanations of community. Significantly, Blanchot writes: "This is what establishes community. There would be no community if the first and last event were not communal, which for everyone cease to be capable of being communal (birth and death)." The Being-Towards-Death speaks of the impossible commonality of mortal existence. Death is the true community of mortal existence.
Why is community necessary and impossible? Blanchot wonders whether community is a demand. In what sense can we speak of a demand of community? What exactly is at stake in this question of community? Blanchot remarks that it is the Communist demand, to be precise, the relationship between the demand and the possibility/ impossibility of community. Blanchot demonstrates that Bataille investigated community as a demand. Bataille presents this demand as a principle: the principle of incompleteness (principe d’incomplétude). In that respect, Bataille’s answer to the question 'Why community?' is loud and clear: He believes that a principle of incompleteness lies in the background of all being. It is important to emphasize here, however, that this incompleteness does not demand the requirement of completion. Blanchot writes: "The insufficient being does not seek to connect with another in order to form a holistic substance with him. [...] The being does not strive to be recognized but to be contested. [...] Thus the existence of each and every being demands the other or a plurality of others. [...] For that reason the being demands a community: a finite community, since it finds its principle in the finiteness of the beings which constitute it [...] There are therefore only communities which are small in number [...] Community is therefore not, within the boundaries which it would draw for itself, the simple commonality of a shared will to be as many [...] It does not seek what could put an end to it but rather the excess of a lack which becomes more and more profound to the extent that it is satisfied". How are we to understand this insufficiency? In what is one insufficient? Blanchot explains: "The absence of community is not the failure of community: it belongs to it as its extreme moment, its ordeal, which exposes it to its necessary disappearance". The community thus has the following unique position: "It takes upon itself the impossibility of its own immanence [...]. The community accepts and in a sense indicates [...] the impossibility of community".
The possibility of community is connected to its impossibility. Here Blanchot demonstrates how the impossible community is linked to the question of Communism. Communism presupposes equality as the basis of its discourse. Equality presupposes the complete immanence of man. Anything that prevents man from being a purely individual reality must be eliminated. Equality demands that the individual confirms itself with its inalienable rights. Blanchot writes: "The individual asserts himself in his inalienable rights, in his refusal to have an origin other than himself, in his indifference with regards to any theoretical dependence from an other who is not an individual like him. [...] But if the relationship between man and man ceases to be a relationship of equals but rather introduces the other as unrelenting [...], a different kind of relationship posits itself [...] – a relationship that one will hardly dare call 'community' any more. Or one affirms such a designation, wondering what is at stake in the idea of community and whether it might not ultimately posit the absence of community, regardless of whether or not it ever existed." And further: "That is indeed one of the characteristics of community: when this community dissolves, it leaves the impression that it could never have existed, even if it existed."
The community of love (May 1968, a couple ...) is paradigmatic for the latter aspect. But there is more: The essential aim of the community of love is the destruction of society. The community of love is a war machine: "The community of the lovers [...] has as its essential aim the destruction of society. Wherever a temporary community arises between two beings, who are or are not made for each other, a war machine is constructed, or rather, the possibility of a disaster which, albeit only in infinitely small dosage, carries the threat of universal annihilation".
For a certain while Esposito thought that community is what we need and what at the same time is impossible to implement. We lack what community means for us. We share the lack of community. He explains this thinking by reference to the philosophical tradition: from Heidegger to Kant, from Kant to Rousseau. Rousseau criticized Hobbes because the English philosopher had eliminated all dimensions of community with his reference to fear. Rousseau counters with concepts such as liberty, justice, equality. He concludes that community is simultaneously what we need and what is absent from our horizon.
The impossible community is thus the impossibility of thinking the proper essence of community as something that results from its historical and genealogical constitution.
Roberto Nigro, Philosopher, Director of Programmes at the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris; academic staff member at the Institute for Theory at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK); since July 2009 habilitation project at the ZHdK on the cultural history of coups and their representation; since February 2010 conception and coordination of the lecture and seminar series Inventionen (in collaboration with Gerald Raunig).
Focus areas: Political philosophy, critical theory, structuralism / post-structuralism, cultural studies, history of science.
Selected publications: Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant's Anthropology, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2008; 'La question de l'Anthropologie dans l'interprétation althussérienne de Marx', in Jean-Claude Bourdin (ed.): Althusser, une lecture de Marx, PUF, Paris 2008; "Foucault e Kant: la critica della questione antropologica", in: Mario Galzigna (ed.): Foucault, oggi, Feltrinelli, Milano, 2008.
1 Then, Paris: Christian Bourgois éditeur, 1986. Jean-Luc Nancy, Die undarstellbare Gemeinschaft, Edition Patricia Schwarz. Stuttgart, 1988. [Engl.: The Inoperative Community]
2 Georges Batailles, "La souveraineté", in OEuvres Complètes, Vol. 8, Paris: Gallimard, 1976. [Engl.: Sovereignty]