The Coming Community is a rich, complex and at times impenetrable text drawing you into the realm of the profane before finally presenting us to «the solution».
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.
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