The Coming Community
Author: Giorgio Agamben
Publisher: H//O//F, Norway
Two attempts at forging political and social communities characterised the last century; both of them suffered shipwreck. The first, Soviet communism, initially seeking justice, wanted to create a community based on collective ownership and was ruled by a self-appointed elite – the proletariat of the dictatorship. The second was fascism – with injustice as its foundation – fascism wanted to build a community based on biological purity and strength that was ruled by a self-declared dictator. Both forms of society shared a central feature with other communities established by humans throughout history – whether it’s been those of the clan, class, race, religion, war, gender or the fatherland. The communities we know are established through creating a barrier between ourselves and the surrounding world, and by excluding those who it fails to dominate.
In Russia, communism was replaced by an oligarchic capitalism where the people are now fused together by an exclusivist and religiously supported nationalism. While in the West, increasingly eroded forms of democracy were replaced by hyper capitalism (which is in the process of spoiling all the world’s resources) where the people are fused together by ideological self-glorification and the illusion of individual freedom as a new heaven over the plundering of humans and nature.
«Rethinking the ideas of the community after the catastrophes of the 20th century hasn’t been easy.»
The possibilities of community
Rethinking community after the catastrophes of the 20th century hasn’t been easy. This also offers a partial explanation as to why an aggressive type of capitalism has enjoyed a free reign; obvious alternatives haven’t really been accessible. Except for the isolated attempts of experimentation with flat power structures in the 60s and 70s, as well as important, ongoing and largely unheeded experiments with eco-collectives and eco-villages today, little progress has been made when it comes to envisaging alternatives to exclusion-based communities. But in 1983 the silence was broken when Jean-Luc Nancy published La communauté désoeuvrée (The Inoperative Community). Later the same year appeared Maurice Blanchot answered with La Communauté inavouable (The Unavowable Community). In 1990, the book that is the subject of this article, Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, was published; in 1994, the American Levinas translator, Alphonso Lingis, released The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common; and in 1998 Roberto Esposito published his analysis: Communitas (Community).
The main source of this series of philosophical works can be found in Georges Bataille’s experiments with and reflections on what a community might be, which he undertook from 1935 and onwards. Bataille viewed colonialization and oppression of people and nature as the result of capitalism’s and communism’s emphasis placed on labour, work and action. No matter what one may think of Bataille: With great personal commitment he asked again and again what a community that is not based on oppression, acquisition and exclusion could look like.
Where the academic philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy rethinks a community primarily as something where one does not work out a new violent identity, but solely comes together to share, and where the more literarily inclined Maurice Blanchot explores communities of love and literature, Agamben – with his philosophical archaeology – seeks to open a new communal space. And where the phenomenological and experimenting Lingis focuses on community’s sensual experiences, Esposito looks to Roman law and biopolitics to demask the destructive genealogies of communities while seeking new ones. One thing unites these projects: The downsizing of the Western ego and the question:
How to avoid a repetition of the violence that communities inflicts on themselves and their surroundings?
Of all these central works in newer continental philosophy, Agamben’s book is the only one translated into Norwegian. That’s in itself an event. The Community to Come is a complicated book, and some would even say sophisticated or philosophically inclined. But that’s only on the surface. With this work (which leads up to his Homo Sacer series on power and powerlessness), Agamben emerges as a philosopher to be reckoned with. The book is also an ontology – an investigation into what exists and how it exists; a precondition for being in a position to say something significant about the world and politics. It is short and fragmentary, written with a high degree of abstraction, and it consciously alludes attempts to be defined.
«Agamben thinks we’ve all become petits bourgeois.»
Agamben uses the first chapters of the book to present «what being such that it always matters». And what always matters is the particular – you, me, the guest, the stranger, a «whatever singularity» – exempted from definition, attributes and belongings – being neither doomed nor saved, red nor blue. Paulus would have said neither man nor woman, Roman nor Jew, circumcised or non-circumcised – and with equal worth as any other «whatever singularity». Agamben’s project is in turn how to find freedom and space for the existence of this «whatever singularity», that is always repressed and being itself a potential repressor of others.
«The truth opens up both for itself and for the untrue», Agamben quotes from a saying, before proceeding to turn central concepts in our culture inside-out to show how entities like common and private, good and evil, the particular and the universal are not opposed to each other, but presuppose each other. They flow into each other, and are even on some deeper level dependent on each other – and finally – dissolving each other. And it is in this open, non-exclusive space Agamben seeks to find the seeds of the community to come, where «whatever singularity» can find love and comfort. Agamben’s dismantling of Western metaphysics in many ways resembles Chinese philosophy’s understanding of hilltop and valley, yin and yang, where light and shadow, hot and cold, strong and weak, one and many presuppose each other in a more or less neutral world where life – according to Agamben – perhaps can be lived the way it is. That is, before it’s determined and classified, before it expels and is expelled.
Agamben uses the «anti-novels» of the Swiss writer Robert Walser as examples of the way to get there. Walser has a neutral, nondescript and exhausted literary language, and in his novels’ equally insignificant, unremarkable characters who do not strive to be something is represented by the petit bourgeois. Agamben thinks we’ve all become petits bourgeois as we slip under the radar, giving up on the idea of making a trace, of being someone…and instead merely exists, indifferently, without an identity, without conflict, in a world that we «let be».
«It’s a community beyond good and evil, where life is lived the way it should be.»
Agamben sees the alienation produced by consumer society and commercials as a way out: With a cabbalistic interpretation of Shekhina – the presence of the divine – and the nothingness of all things, he lets the anonymous body take off the mask handed to us by advertising and mass entertainment. Outside awaits freedom; a state without identity or authenticity – man has been released as a singularity into a non-exclusivist community.
Rather than building systems and logical arguments, Agamben poetically juxtaposes his philosophical excavations, wresting away from philosophy a non-controlling, non-exclusive space – wresting away an ontology that neither captures nor lets itself be captured – so as to give space to what really matters, namely the existence of «whatever singularity» – you, me, the guest, the stranger, his or her life. Agamben is an extremely well-read and sophisticated archaeologist. He moves freely and eclectically from Aristotle to Jewish Cabbalism, from the language of advertising to Christian Medieval theology, mixing high and low, old and new, while seamlessly mixing concepts from thinkers like Simone Weil (whom he does not mention), Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault.
The Community to Come is a learned, rich, complex and at times impenetrable text. Here and there it borders on mysticism: Agamben empties the being of a patriarchal God with one hand, while he reintroduces Spinoza’s concept of the divinity of all things with the other. He then draws it all into the realm of the profane before finally presenting us with «the solution»: a shimmering aura. The text is difficult to criticize, being both evasive and depictive at the same time. Then again, this is what Agamben – and the community to come – is aiming at. For in the community, we do not come together in order to confirm values (which means excluding other values), but to share, yeas – to renounce identity. It’s a community that consistently eludes the power of the state – peopled by «whatever singularity» that is– you, me, whom the state can neither identify, put to work, govern nor punish. Nor do we want power. It’s a community beyond good and evil, where life is lived the way it should be, according to Agamben, as we refrain from realizing ourselves as value, identity, power.
Agamben draws deeply on impulses from Gershom Sholem’s studies of Jewish faith and Walter Benjamin’s messianism: Another world, different from the violent world of today, that must come. And this future world, it seems, will be presented to us as a gift in the shape of grace. And it will be absolutely identical with our finite, profane world, but with a very small difference, namely a displacement that will make it into something completely different once it’s been realised. What this displacement entails is somewhat unclear. But we need to imagine the marking of identities as something we have abandoned – an empty shell we have stepped out of and left behind us.
The ethics of abnegation
With The Coming Community, Agamben introduces us to terms that he will develop further in the Homo Sacer series, where man is understood as being subjected to biopolitics. We already find ourselves in a camp, a German läger, where our capitalized lives – our biology – is governed and regulated by forces beyond our control. Agamben draws the terms potentiality and actuality from Aristotle. A carpenter is given the task to make a chair, while the baker to bake a loaf of bread. But man as such has no duty to actualise his potential. On the contrary, it is in the very act of not actualizing our potential – of not building a dam, not founding an empire, not going to war that a space for ethics is opened up. Man can realise a possibility, or he can refrain from doing so. And it is precisely here, in this space between potentiality and actuality, that re-flection occurs, where we as the «being-in-language-of-the-non-linguistic» can imagine and reimagine ourselves and where the seeds of the new community can be found, in abnegation and through passivity and non-implementation.
The Coming Community is a book that insists on not being taken into possession. Translating it cannot have been an easy task. In Espen Grønlie’s Norwegian translation Agamben’s language has an appropriate air of unfamiliarity that works well. In its Norwegian version, the book comes across as a work you have to engage with and work with. So what kind of a book is this? A dream-factory untouched by realism – of the laws of biology and geology that we’re all subjected to? Well yes – to an extent. Nature and animals’ possibility to live on par with that of a «being such as it is» is absent in this human-exceptionalist universe. An abstract, masculine, bookish intellect seeks freedom in its own closed history, from a position where desire, angst, fear and rivalry has been overcome.
What we’re dealing with, then, is a utopia. A pure utopia. But a necessary utopia, where new relations between language and the world are explored and new realities are all but conjured up. But that’s the way it should be. Every necessary change that hasn’t yet found its form starts with an idea, which is constantly on the look-out while feeling its way ahead. The Community to Come is just such a book.