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Panelli and Welch

Panelli and Welch

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Published by: Phil Samuels on Sep 21, 2010
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Area
 
(2007) 39.3, 349–356
 
Area
 
Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 349–356, 2007ISSN 0004-0894 © The Authors. Journal compilation © Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007
 BlackwellPublishingLtd
 Questioning community as a collective antidoteto fear: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘singularity’ and‘being singular plural’
 
Richard V Welch* and Ruth Panelli**
 
*Department of Geography, University of Otago, Dunedin, New ZealandEmail: rvw@geography.otago.ac.nz**Department of Geography, University College London, London WC1E 8RGRevised manuscript received 30 March 2007
 
Community has long been a key academic concept and lay narrative, especially incommentaries of rural as opposed to urban life. Although community is proffered as anantidote for a plethora of emotional, social and policy challenges in contemporary Westernsocieties, we argue that it is problematic. Previously, we suggested that community is adevice mobilised in response to fears surrounding finitude. In this paper, we again draw on Nancy’s theorising of singularity and being-in-common, but also engage with his yet more fundamental conceptualisation of ‘being singular plural’ to suggest directions for new geographies of singular and collective life.
Key words: 
 
‘being singular plural’, community, fear, others, singularity 
 
Introduction
 
In lay, popular and policy terms, community continuesto be invoked as a hope, a vehicle and a respon-sibility, via which numerous social and politicalchallenges might be overcome. Indeed, despite thepolitical suspicion levelled at attempts to claim com-monality, and its more extreme renditions that emergein fundamentalism, nationalism and totalitarianism(Nancy 1991 2000; Secomb 2000; Donovan 2002),community, understood as some achievement of ‘common-being’,
 
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continues to appeal and be strateg-ically mobilised (Staeheli and Thompson 1997;Rodriguez 1999; Mackenzie and Dalby 2003). Anintriguing issue is why this should be so.As we have suggested elsewhere (Panelli and Welch2005), deeply felt experiences of the ‘finitude of singularity’ (Nancy 1991) motivate social constructionsof community as collectives of would-be common-beings. We outlined how Nancy shows that thechallenges of singularity (as the singular experienceof finite existence) result in attempts to assuage thiscondition via the construction of ‘common-being’-based notions of community, even when these con-structions are demonstrably mythical and politicallysuspect (Nancy 1991). But the drive to imagine/ create collective frames of experience or connection,such as community, appears undiminished, notwith-standing the twentieth-century critique and dissolutionof God, sovereign, and the hopes of socialism andcommunism, and the more recent ‘demand that weare capable of saying “we”’ (Nancy 2000, 41–2).How can we account for this disjuncture betweenthe ontological position developed by Nancy, whichrejects ‘common-being’, immanent community as afiction, and repeated empirical examples of groupsendeavouring to construct such communities? Andwhat are the implications of this disjuncture for researchin human geography? In this paper we first outlineNancy’s theorising of the conditions of ‘singularity’and ‘being singular plural’, and their ramificationsfor community. We then consider ways in whichbeings appear to step back from the senselessness of singular finitude (Luszczynska 2005) to engage with
 
 
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Welch and Panelli 
 
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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.
 
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In
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).
 
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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
precedes 
 
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-
 
with
 
-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
being-with
 
(i.e. a co-existing
with
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
singular 
 
plural 
 
.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 [
 traction
 ] and thedrawing together [
 tension
 ] 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’
 
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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
 
 
Questioning community as a collective antidote to fear 
 
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Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 349–356, 2007ISSN 0004-0894 © The Authors. Journal compilation © Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007
 
singular plural posits connection
as opposed to 
 
same-ness; a togetherness ‘insofar as it spaces them [thatis the togetherness spaces the plurality of singulars];they are “linked” . . . [but] they are not unified’(Nancy 2000, 33).Thus, while ‘with’ gestures to the possibility of ‘connection’ and ‘between’, as conceptualised byNancy (2000, 5), these are complex notions in thatthey
expose 
 
, as well as
 
bridge 
 
, the distances, differ-ences and spaces separating singular (plural) selves.For Nancy, the potency of ‘connection’ and ‘between’exists in a conception of community as a connec-tion of beings-in-common that distances at the verymoment that it appears to bind:
 The ‘between’ is the stretching out . . . and thedistance opened by the singular as such . . . There isproximity, but only to the extent that extremecloseness emphasizes the distancing it opens up.(Nancy 2000, 5)
 
This perspective contrasts with previous uncriticalsenses of ‘with’ and ‘connection’ in myths of com-munity constructed as common-being. Indeed, Nancy’sontological position challenges much existing academictheorising about being and community by suggestingthat community cannot be a construction but is theevent-of-being-with, or that which constitutes being.As such, Nancy requires us to question our ownontological position and to delve into the ways thatwe know we are. At one and the same time, heproffers the potentially releasing possibility thatbeing is being-with and, therefore,
of 
community –but that for beings there is no avoiding awareness of the senselessness of singular finitude. Perhaps notsurprisingly, relatively few human geographers havetaken up the offer and sought to articulate Nancy’sontological take with the world of would-be sociallyconstructed experience. Yet, we believe, the devel-opment of such links promises a nuanced understand-ing of human engagement with social collectives.In the sections of the paper that follow, we proposea way forward; to employ Nancy’s take on ‘being’and ‘being singular plural’ to theorise the compulsionbeings display in (re)creating collectives/communitieseven when aware of the limited effectiveness andshelf life of such collectives. The objective is to bebetter positioned to undertake research that empir-ically identifies the limitations of such collectives and,thereby, gesturing to the possibility of a revitalisedapproach to research in human geography. In the firstinstance, we propose a re-reading of geographies of community and fear.
 
Re-reading geographies of communityand fear
Our interest in Nancy’s philosophy stems from itscapacity to illuminate the articulation between com-munity and the experience of fear (Liepins 2000;Welch 2002; Panelli
et al 
 
. 2004). With respect tocommunity, both uncritical and more nuancedaccounts engage with ideals of belonging. Uncriticalstudies add to, and reinforce, this idealisation,presenting community as a predominantly positivephenomenon, where members share common ex-perience and consequently a sense of belonging.More nuanced accounts show that such notionsare the product of commercial, popular and laydiscourses that depict ‘community’ life in highlyconstructed terms (e.g. Halfacree 1994 1995;Mackenzie and Dalby 2003). However, even thesecriticisms do not explain why such constructions arerepeatedly invoked, nor do they provide a robusttheorisation of the way difference is managed withinsuch collectives.Developments in geographies of emotion havehighlighted the relationship between experiences of community and fear. Much of the literature has hadan urban focus and exemplified how social forma-tions and places are uncritically constructed; forexample, the way family, home and neighbourhoodhave been associated with harmony, order andsafety in comparison to other more threatening anddisordered urban spaces (Cresswell 1992; Pain 2000;O’Dougherty 2006). The inappropriateness of con-structing the urban in this simplistic, binary way,however, is well noted (Warrington 2001).
 
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Similarly,other studies have challenged the often assumedurban:rural binary, progressively demonstrating thefiction of rural communities as places of tranquillityand safety, presenting evidence that fear and crimealso coexist there (Valentine 1997; Yarwood andGardner 2000; Little
et al 
 
. 2005).The articulation between fear (of the unknown, of strangers) and the process of othering is strong inthese works, but there is a need to unpack the pro-cesses involved. Rural-based studies have begun tocritique community where numerous ‘Others’ (includ-ing young people, travellers and itinerant workers)are identified as disruptive, threatening beings whogenerate fear and mistrust and who must be man-aged to the margins of rural society (Sibley 1995;Kraack and Kenway 2002; Little
et al.
 
2005). Hitherto,the presence of such fear and Othering has beenexplained in terms of difference and its perceived

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