Welch and Panelli
Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 349–356, 2007ISSN 0004-0894 © The Authors. Journal compilation © Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007
collectives that promise to assuage fear by position-ing Others. Finally, we suggest a reading of Nancy’stheorising that allows new geographies of singularityand collectives to be imagined.
Concepts of community, singularity and‘being singular plural’
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy holds key concerns aboutthe excesses of community, national sovereignty,identity politics and war.
The Inoperative Com- munity
(1991), Nancy engages debates surroundingcommunity. He critiques constructions of community,and contends that community can never be theidealised fantasy of common-being, nor a unityof experience or perspective. Instead, he proposescommunity as an imprecise collective of beingswho have in common the experience of singularfinitude; singular beings who variously understandthe exigencies of living as beings-in-common (Panelliand Welch 2005). Each being more-or-less explicitlyexperiences existential challenge (awareness of thesenseless meaning of death) in the contexts in whichthey live. In this sense, a community of beings-in-common is always a shifting and incompletely workedphenomenon ‘that remains porous and malleable’(Soriel 2004, 219), and inevitably remains inoperative(Nancy 1991; Rose 1997a; Secomb 2000).
While Nancy’s thinking, to this point, emphasisessome reasons for on-going human engagement withcollectives such as communities, it does not detailwhere and how finite existence is experienced, nor thesignificance of space and place for the inoperativecommunity (Panelli and Welch 2005). We suggest itis necessary to engage some of Nancy’s deeper theor-ising, specifically the ideas developed in his
Being Singular Plural
(2000), to gain a clearer picture.Key to understanding Nancy’s theoretical positionwith respect to community is his conception of ‘Being’.He proposes to ‘reverse the order of ontologicalexposition’ (2000, 31) – that is, to reverse how wemight understand the world and our being in it. Hechallenges past proposals that Being
thepossibility of being-with-others, philosophically dis-solving the contention that there is ever a ‘single,substantial essence of Being itself’ (2000, 12, 29).Instead, he emphasises (the experience of) Being as a‘co-existence’; always a case of ‘being-with’, where the‘with’ is not subordinate to the notion of Being. Indeed:
it is not the case that the ‘with’ is an addition to someprior Being; instead, the ‘with’ is at the heart of Being. . . if Being is being-with, then it is . . . the ‘with’ thatconstitutes Being; the with is not simply an addition.(2000, 30)
Thus Being involves being-
-others, and ‘thesingular-plural constitutes the essence of Being’(Nancy 2000, 29). Being in this simultaneouslysingular and plural form involves continual cross-referencing between ‘self’ and the non-self ‘other’not as binary poles but as a continuous condition of co-constitution.Extending from his exposition of ‘Being’, Nancyargues that ‘self’ and ‘other’ are more closely entwinedthan is acknowledged in binary constructions thatpromote the ‘self’ and demonise the ‘other’. Accord-ing to Nancy, ‘Self’, as a singular plural being, occursonly in conjunction ‘with’. That is, ‘Self’ is experi-enced as
(i.e. a co-existing
a pluralityof singularities). The distance and spacing of ‘with’frame the recognition of ‘others’ within the totalityof ‘being-with’; ‘self’ and ‘other’ are each essentialcomponents of the
.How might ‘others’ be recognised? According toNancy, the plurality of singularity means that, beyonda particular singular being, the others implied in‘being-with’ are some distance across a ‘void’. The‘with’ is:
a mark drawn out over the void, which crosses overit and underlines it at the same time, therebyconstituting the drawing apart [
] and thedrawing together [
] of the void. (2000, 62;original/translators insertions)
This coincident drawing apart, and drawing together,enables an ontological framing of an ‘other’; a wayto think, not just about the condition of being,but also about the existence of other beings. Theidentification and ostracism of an ‘Other’ is alsorelated. Nancy’s (2000, 10–11, 20) discussion of ‘accessing the origin’
and his related contentionabout distinguishing between ‘other’ and ‘Other’,concludes that the former is a core component of being, ontologically, whereas the latter is a socialconstruction designed to ameliorate frustrations atnot fully comprehending our collective state of being.In Being, beings navigate the existence of singularplurality as well as plural singularity in ontologicalways, i.e. that shape how we might think about thecondition of existence (including what we experi-ence in the social world). But this co-existence doesnot infer a collective of singulars in some unified‘society’ or common-being ‘community’. Rather, being