Returning (to) Communities

Critical Studies
Vol. 28

Myriam Diocaretz
European Centre for Digital Communication/Infonomics
Anne E. Berger, Cornell University
Ivan Callus, University of Malta
SteIan Herbrechter, Trinity ana All Saints, University of Leeas
Marta Segarra, Universitat ae Barcelona
Amsterdam - New York, NY 2006
Returning (to) Communities
Theory, Culture and Political
Practice oI the Communal
Edited by
SteIan Herbrechter and
Michael Higgins
Cover illustration © by Dr. Jim Cross L.R.P.S.
Cover design: Pier Post
The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements oI 'ISO
9706:1994, InIormation and documentation - Paper Ior documents -
Requirements Ior permanence¨.
ISBN: 90-420-1898-4
©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2006
Printed in the Netherlands
Our gratitude goes out to all the participants of the “Communities” conference at
Trinity and All Saints (TAS), College of the University of Leeds, in September 2003.
Special thanks to Derek Mckiernan for the idea, as well as to Nick Couldry, Angela
Smith and John Storey. We are also indebted to the department of Cultural Studies
and the Faculty of Media at TAS, and the Centre for Research in Media in Cultural
Studies at the University of Sunderland for their support.
This book is dedicated to Margaret and Thomas Higgins.
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Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins 9
Section One: Conceptualising Communities 19
Comprehending Community
Richard Tyler 21
Theorising Europe from the Other Shore: Derrida, Community and the
Exemplarity of Europe
Ivan Callus 29
Heterogeneous Community: Beyond New Traditionalism
Thomas A. Lewis 55
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre: Community, Difference and
Multicultural Theory
Lou Caton 73
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
Ipek Demir 89
Jean-Luc Nancy: An Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
Oleg Domanov 111
Webs as Pegs
David Bell 127
Section Two: Communities and Cultural Praxis 141
Multilingualism and its Discontents: Hetero-Lingual Collectivity and the
Critique of Homo-Lingual Communities
Antony Adolf 143
Cultural Property and Collective Identity
Elizabeth Coleman 161
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
Johanna Gibson 173
Britain’s Railway Engineers: The First Virtual Global Communities?
Di Drummond 207
“Nazi fans” but not Neo-Nazis: The Cultural Community of “WWII
Eva Kingsepp 223
Putting the Cult Back into Community
Jackie McMillan 241
Mediated Self-Representations: “Ordinary People” in “Communities”
Nancy Thumim 255
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
Renée Dickason 275
The Bubble of Diaspora: Perpetuating “Us” Through Sacred Ideals
Bano Murtuja 293
Section Three: Communities and Political Practice 313
The Gay “Community:” Stabilising Political Construct or Oppressive
Regulatory Regime?
Tammy Grimshaw 315
Cull MAFF!: The Mobilisation of the Farming Community During the
2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Epidemic
Sam Hillyard 331
Conflict and Cohesion: Official Constructions of “Community” Around the
2001 “Riots” in Britain
Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain 347
Aboriginal Politics, Self-Determination and the Rhetoric of Community
George Morgan 367
Building Heavens, Havens or Hells? Community as Policy in the Context
of the Post-Washington Consensus
Marjorie Mayo 387
Contributors 401
Qui peut jamais oser un “nous” sans trembler? (Derrida, 2001: 169)
There is a price to be paid for the privilege of “being in a community”
– and it is inoffensive or even invisible only as long as the community
stays in the dream. The price is paid in the currency of freedom,
variously called “autonomy,” “right to self-assertion,” “right to be
yourself.” (Bauman, 2001: 4)
In the precarious equilibrium between particularism and universalism,
(individual) freedom and (collective) security, it seems inevitable that in our
“age of uncertainty,” the desire for community “returns.” The return to
community in its many guises – in its irreducibly plural or singular
manifestations (always as “communities”) – consists both of a recalling the
communal as a site of resistance and critique, and of a re-membering, re-
assembling a quite different sense of community (turning community inside-
out, a community of singularities). In the face of such a return, the challenge
for thinking the communal is not to relinquish the achievements of more than
thirty years’ of scepticism about everything “common” (common sense,
being and having in common, commonwealth, etc.).
This volume assumes the ambiguity Zygmunt Bauman finds in
community, as something that is always already lost, and sees it as an
opportunity for a critical return to and of community. Together, these essays
might be seen as an instance of what Bill Readings called “community of
dissensus” (1996) – an intellectual community that “dwells in the ruins” of
the “post-historical university” or “global(ised) culture” – a thinking
community that does not already presuppose that one speak the same
language or that agreement lies at some kind of “origin” of a community. The
essays constitute “singularities;” they are speaking and listening to each
other, are “indebted” to each other without being aimed at a consensus – a
community that does not presuppose anything that may be in common.
Rather than “being together” these essays are merely “thinking together.”
Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins
That community is returning can be seen in the proliferation of its
current “postmodern” or “posthumanist” conceptualisations: phantom
communities, deterritorialised communities, virtual communities,
communities without unity, communities of strangers, imagined and
imaginary communities, etc. It is clear that the norms and practices of living
together, addressed through the rhetoric and allegories of community, have
become an issue again in cultural theory. Whatever the period, it seems that
ideas of some greater good must invest into some form of the communal.
Whether liberal or Marxist, conservative, radical or progressive, the
inevitable theoretical confrontation is between the individual and society,
between the subject and its ideology, identity, difference and their
From Raymond Williams’ “knowable” to Stanley Fish’s “interpretive”
community, Jacques Derrida’s “community without community,” Jean-Luc
Nancy’s “inoperative” and Blanchot’s “unavowable” community, Giorgio
Agamben’s “coming comunity,” being together (Heidegger’s Mitsein)
remains an idea as monstrous as it is desirable or inevitable, but always in
crisis. As new cultural, social, political, legal and ethical models of solidarity
are being sought to serve planetary “risk societies,” this volume investigates
communal issues as diverse as communitarianism and the irreducibly
political nature of community; globalised, virtual and cyber-communities;
identity politics and community (communities of ethnicity, gender, race,
etc.); community of and in the media; questions of ethics, justice and
community; communities of knowledge and tradition; and the problem of
integration, inclusion, cohesion for “multicultural” communities.
The first section of chapters offers a number of diverse engagements
with the central notion of community. Richard Tyler discusses how we set
about defining the term in the opening chapter “Comprehending
Community.” He tracks its eighteenth-century convergence around the
immediacy of the local and familiar – “community” as a warming counter
balance to the cold force of state – before he settles on a discussion of the
multiple relationships of support and power that run through community’s
contemporary employment. Against this background of contradictory
histories and a disputed present, Tyler shares Wittgenstein’s view that, as
with any other word, the definition of community depends upon the period
and circumstances of its use. Alongside their other concerns, our
contributors have sought to explore the indeterminacy that characterises the
use of community in general. Yet, although often implicitly, much of the
collection is in sympathy with Tyler’s appeal to Foucault in demanding we
engage with the matter in hand with one eye to the movement and exchange
of power.
Introduction –Returning (to)Communities
Ivan Callus examines the contrast between the ideality and the
realities of community in relation to the “European Community.” His essay
directly engages with the central ambiguity of the concept of community,
namely to what extent can community practicably contain and transcend the
qualities of the particular and the singular. The relation between the singular
and the universal is one of the central levers for Derridean deconstruction. In
following Derrida’s The Other Heading Callus’s paper investigates the
positioning of Europe and the rhetoric of Europe’s “responsibility” as
“exemplary” instances of the promise and the failure of the spirit of
community. It anchors this discussion to the context of Malta’s recent
accession to the European Union.
In his chapter “Heterogeneous Community: Beyond New
Traditionalism,” Thomas A. Lewis begins to unpick the version of
community that invokes a collective set of traditions. He argues against a
form of “new traditionalism” that rejects ideas of proximity and common
interest for a composite of post-Enlightenment narratives around virtue and
righteousness. In the place of this new traditionalism, Lewis argues for a
way of seeing communities that defines them by their shared systems of
practice, thereby enabling us to exploit “the commonalities in our
understanding” of such universally desirable visions as social justice. The
next chapter, too, is keen to resolve the conceptual difficulties with the way
community has come to be used, although Lou Caton’s concentration is on
“multiculturalism,” and in particular Stanley Fish’s attack on the coherence
of multiculturalism, where Fish presents it as strewn with irresolvable
difference. For the resolution of such difference, Caton makes the case for a
redeployment of Sartre’s cogito, but in a manner that recognises the potential
in the transculturalism of the existential subject.
Ipek Demir’s essay assesses the contribution of philosopher and historian of
science Thomas S. Kuhn to our understanding of community. Demir
confronts Kuhn’s idea of a self-interested scientific community, entrenched
around a given paradigm of knowledge, and asks whether this accounts for
the development and change that is generated within these communities. In
an assessment that offers lessons for the internal dynamic of communities in
general, she shows how Kuhn paid insufficient attention to the necessity of
an internal process of concession, recasting and negotiation, and tells us how
a revision of the work of Kuhn will reaffirm his overall usefulness in critical
community studies. Oleg Domanov also seeks to deepen our understanding
of community by rethinking the work of another of the main theoretical
contributors to the field, Nancy. Like Caton, Domanov also suggests a greater
prominence for the individual subject, but bases this on what he sees as
Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins
Nancy’s difficulty in articulating community with an event-based ontology,
such that account is taken of the seemingly irreconcilable unfolding of Being.
David Bell’s chapter then argues that it has been a systemic
misreading of the limits of community in some quarters that leads to the
continual restatement of what he sees as the badly conceived “bowling alone”
thesis; the suggestion that traditional forms of community are in decline. In
his discussion, Bell’s attention is focussed on the role of the technologies of
the World Wide Web in the maintenance of community. Drawing upon and
critiquing the metaphor that the Web might offer a ready-made “peg” upon
which one might hang one’s jacket, Bell is keen to dispute the position of
Bauman and a number of others that the Web fosters a peculiarly artificial
and transitory form of communal engagement. Yet while the temptation
might be to discard the tricky term community altogether, Bell considers it
crucial to harness its complex and productive force in the discussion of
technology, and concludes by suggesting that the attention to degree and
context accorded to discussion of “real life” communities be extended to their
Web based counterparts.
The second section of chapters is gathered around an exploration of
the culture of communities. As we will go on to see, this does not imply
either than the conceptual foundations of community were settled in the last
section, or that its role in political practice is to be left until the next. Rather
we join with the critical tradition that sees all forms of cultural engagement
as having profound cultural and political consequences in exploring complex
ideas and practices of community.
Antony Adolf’s chapter, firstly, encourages us to critically reconsider
the role of language in undergirding community, pointing to those
circumstances in which linguistic practice limits the terms within which a
given community is permitted to operate. Adolf argues that the dominant
theories of community have had at their heart an assumption of “homo-
lingualism,” thereby setting themselves and the communities they describe
within expressive boundaries. Drawing upon a number of online examples,
Adolf tries to demonstrate how a new mode of “hetero-lingualism” widens
the scope of community and offers an inclusive and multilingual mode of
Elizabeth Coleman then turns to the role of cultural property in the
formation and maintenance of collective identity. Her approach to “cultural
property” is informed by the 1954 Hague Convention’s definition of objects
central to communal heritage; an emphasis on preservation of what are taken
to be significant artefacts later confirmed by UNESCO. Both of these bodies
were dedicated to the preservation of cultural property, and Coleman sees the
success of this as of key importance. She argues firstly against a widespread
Introduction –Returning (to)Communities
distraction with the cultural and contextual contingencies involved in
attaching significance to cultural artefacts, and uses the rest of her chapter to
make the case for a renewed concern with the role of significant cultural
property in understanding the institutional and social characteristics of
Institutional factors have a significant role in Di Drummond’s chapter
too, although her concern is a specifically historical one. Drummond
examines how British railway workers of the nineteenth century coupled
communication technologies and the migratory possibilities of international
commerce, and in so doing developed a global “virtual community.” It is
Drummond’s central contention that the roots of the “virtual community” are
more deeply entwined with the development of nineteenth century multi-
national capitalism – and the working class experience of this – than the
accounts of Rheingold and others would have us believe.
Both Eva Kingsepp and Jackie McMillan look at specific instances of
cultural practice, and explore formations of community in contexts of
alternative identity formation. Kingsepp looks at the interest of a fan
community of World War II enthusiasts in the Nazis and Nazism. She
highlights the extent of this community’s appreciation of the stigma that
attaches to their interests and activities, and reflects upon the intellectual
labour they employ in constructing a form of “shadow cultural economy” that
structures their consumption practices while countering the accompanying
potential for shame. McMillan also picks up the issues around how certain
communities come to be stigmatised in her chapter on rescuing “cults” as
communities. She posits that cults do not differ markedly from other forms of
community. In support of this, she deploys notions of subjectivity to show
that the drive to form communities has much in common with a need to
subscribe to a cult. Furthermore, McMillan argues, the most compelling
evidence that cults offer an insight into dominant social mores is offered by
the rabid enthusiasm with which they are kept apart and marked off from
mainstream communal activity.
The next two chapters offer different ways of looking at the
expression and reproduction of communities in the media. Renée Dickason
examines the way community has been mobilised in British television
advertising. Her analysis, which looks at material from the 1950s onward,
finds that community is used as a means of promoting the dual values of
consumerism and citizenship. As well as selling goods or – in the case of
government advertising, endorsing or prohibiting certain activities – British
television advertising is the business of promoting modes of conduct.
Accordingly, concludes Dickason, examining the treatment of communities
in advertisements offers another useful handle on establishing and critiquing
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those modes of conduct in a position of dominance. Nancy Thumim’s chapter
is the second to be concerned with communities in the media, where she
discusses forms of public participation television. For Thumim, though,
public participation television presents a more explicit means by which the
media tries to reflect everyday life. She argues that while the ostensible
purpose for such productions as Capture Wales and London’s Voices is the
granting of “ordinary” individuals a particular kind of public voice, the
central discourse of “ordinariness” is assembled from discourses of
community. Thus, what is presented as television’s moment for the individual
is in constant submission to the allure of the communal.
The symbolic emphasis on community that we see in the titles of these
public participation programmes applies also to Bano Murtuja’s discussion,
although her concern is with how the symbolic enactment of community
works within lived environments. Murtuja explores how discourses of
community shape the identification of the diasporic Pakistanis in Britain and
Germany. Significant for her is the confidence with which the signifiers of
unity and identity are brandished within these communities as evidence of
their internal coherence. For all the appearance of an outward assuredness of
belonging, Murtuja shows us that community boundaries and the layers of
symbolism through which they are maintained are subject to processes of
continual renegotiation and threat.
The third section looks at how community operates as an element of
political praxis, both in terms of engagement and of policy. It is first to the
capacity for collective political action – added to the need for a forum of
interpersonal engagement and support – Tammy Grimshaw turns in her
discussion of the gay community. Yet, for all its necessity, Grimshaw’s focus
is on the gay community’s dual role as a regime of power and control. While
she acknowledges that these misgivings are actively expressed as part of the
intellectual discourse within the gay community, she outlines the dilemmas
of the Foucauldian approach that such communities limit and regulate
activity, and enforce difference and exclusion. Pointing to and explaining the
importance of narratives in communal strategies of liberation and
advancement, Grimshaw presents a call for a more inclusive gay community,
built more explicitly around broader humanist values.
As much as any other, Sam Hillyard’s chapter – “Cull Maff: The
Mobilisation of the Farming Community” – places in relief the
interconnectedness of the cultural and political elements of community.
Hillyard looks at the UK farmers’ response to an epidemic of foot and mouth
disease (FMD) amongst their livestock, and the attendant communal
isolation. In her chapter, she talks both of the necessity of such communities
of shared interest as that constructed by the farmers, and of the technologies
Introduction –Returning (to)Communities
by which such collectives are gathered and sustained. Hillyard shows how the
farming community occupied their familiar role of the “other” to the more
dominant urban body, while demonstrating how FMD added to this sense of
otherness the qualities of blight, subjection and infestation. Yet she seeks to
venerate neither the farmers themselves nor the notion of community they
help exemplify. For even as they united around common cause, the farming
community fragmented from within, yielding forth internal divisions of
finance, policy and strategies of engagement.
The chapter by Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain looks at the
conduct and subsequent coverage and discussion of another direct form of
community action, focussing on a period of civil unrest in 2001 and the
constructed role of a UK urban community. Bagguley and Hussain show how
what were presented as a series of “riots” offered the background for a
construction of “community” designed to operate with and give foundation to
a racialised discourse of governmental control. To a great extent, then, they
show how the rhetoric of community is here turned against the very people it
pretends to serve.
George Morgan’s analysis of the political appropriation of community
sees it emerge not from the civic authorities, as with Bagguley and Hussain,
but rather from the marginalized groupings themselves; although the form of
“community” to surface is problematic nonetheless. Morgan’s chapter looks
at the discourse of community employed by clusters of Australian Aboriginal
people moving from their traditional, less-populated centres to urban areas,
offering a focus on particular areas of Sydney. Morgan argues that the
disadvantage that greeted them encouraged the construction of a rhetoric of
community as a means of establishing a symbolic identity and fostering an
internal support system within a racially hostile environment. Yet, Morgan
presents the form of community that emerged as dependent upon
mythologised notions of pastness and ethnic authenticity that serve only to
pass over the post-colonial circumstances of the Aboriginal population,
obscure the diversity contained within that population, and remove any
impetus of communal action on the basis of the political and cultural terrain
as it develops.
In the final chapter of the collection, Marjorie Mayo provides a range
of the dominant ways of looking at community, whether it be the terms of a
particular sort of cultural belonging, the organising framework of political
action, or the rhetorical basis for the exercise of governmental control. She
reminds us of the fears of Sennett and others that the balm of community
makes tolerable the excesses of capitalist-driven modernisation, so that the
symbolic power of community becomes complicit in the destruction of
localised forms of belonging. Of course, in terms of how it ought to inform
Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins
political policy, a stress on community offers the means to focus on the
marginalized and deprived areas. Yet, as Mayo and her fellow contributors
have shown, this aid can bring a significant cost in submission to political
control, even as other, parallel discourses of community offer a means by
which local activists can organise and maintain a watch on the organisation
of central power. Taking the US case as her focus, and steering between the
pragmatics of political power negotiation and the renewed emphasis on the
local, Mayo outlines the case for our maintaining a watching brief over the
political influence of the neo-liberal strand to the current Washington
consensus, offering a reminder of the range of political articulations available
to those powers that would use community to serve their own interests.
Running through all of these chapters we can detect the movement and
exchange of power, manifest in and set against activities of identity formation
on the one hand and practices of distinction and exclusion on the other. Yet,
in addition, it is necessary to point out that these issues also predominate in a
series of debates that our contributors do not address head on, in particular
around the matter of gender. Although from this collection alone Kingsepp,
McMillan, Grimshaw and Murtuja all touch either on gender roles or on the
maintenance of sexual identity, it remains generally the case that the
community in its “unmarked” form still tends to lean towards the patriarchal.
This has long been a concern for feminists in particular, and there has
developed a tradition in feminist thought of remobilising the terminology of
“community” to describe the gathering together and mutual discourse of
those women situated in the outer reaches of the formal civil realm.
At times, this feminist use of community has been explicit, such as
with Coates and Cameron’s (1988) series of essays looking at women in
“speech communities”, or Radway’s (1987) study of the reading practices of
the women of a small US town, whereas on other occasions it has remained
implicit, as with Clarissa Smith’s (2002) study of a community of women
formed around the consumption of erotic entertainment. Responses motivated
by the issue of gender also differ. They sometimes operate at the level of
direct engagement, as with Prokhovnik’s (1998) examination of the place of
women as citizens, where she looks at how to secure the inclusion of women
within the political community. Alternatively, responses might reappraise
how events are rendered, as when Spence (1998) highlights the role of
women within a community based political struggle. All in all, though, an
appreciation of the role of gender should be one of the matters to inform our
reading of community as we move through the chapters to come.
Introduction –Returning (to)Communities
Works Cited
Bauman, Z. 2001. Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge:
Coates, J. & D. Cameron. Eds. 1988. Women in Their Speech Communities. London:
Derrida, J. 2001. “Lyotard et nous.” In Jean-François Lyotard –L’exercice du
diffé rend . Ed. Dolorès Lyotard et al. Paris: PUF.
Prokhovnik, R. 1998. “Public and Private Citizenship: From Gender Invisibility to
Feminist Inclusiveness.” Feminist Review 60(1): 84-104.
Radway, J. A. 1987. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular
Literature. Revised edition. London: Verso.
Readings, B. 1996. The University in Ruins . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Smith, C. 2002. “They’re Ordinary People, not Aliens from the Planet Sex! The
Mundane Excitements for Women.” Journal of Mundane Behaviour 3(1):
Spence, J. 1998. “Women, Wives and the Campaign against Pit Closures in County
Durham: Understanding the Vane Tempest Vigil.” Feminist Review 60 (1):
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The concept of “community” has a chequered history, in the course of
which it has inverted its sense, from meaning a general group to
meaning a very particular group. In current usage, its sense remains
diverse, retaining many historical uses, but also acquiring a weak
usage (meaning “people” or “the public”), as well as a strong usage
(meaning a group with some form of intrinsic identity). From a
Foucauldian perspective, these latter may be understood as strategic
alliances, challenging government and domination, and taking the
form of original communities or local communities or vocational
communities. “Community,” as term and as strategy, is a technique of
What do we mean by community? If “the meaning of a word is its use in
language,” as Wittgenstein would have it (Wittgenstein, 1963: para43), then
we must ask, how do we use the word “community?” But Wittgenstein’s
approach prompts two further questions – who uses the word, and why?
We may begin by considering the history of the usage of the term (cf.
Williams, 1983). “Community” is a modern word, and its history traces
tensions between senses of domination and subordination, of generality and
intimacy. It has its origins in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when it
was incorporated into late Middle English. Its adoption was concurrent with
terms like “public” and “private,” “nation” and “state,” “civil” and “society,”
significantly all from the governing languages of Latin and French. These
terms were articulating the development of what might be called a horizontal
conception of social organisation. The vertical, feudal world of personal
alliance was being replaced by the social strata of the emerging nation-state.
In its earliest uses, “community” referred either to an organised body of
people, large or small (as in religious community, meaning monastery or
convent), or to the common people, the commonalty within such a body,
those who were governed. It was distinct from “society,” which then meant
Richard Tyler
In the Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the
mercantile stratum grew stronger, new conceptions of self and others
developed. Hence, the use of “community” shifted from people to their
relationships. It could refer to common ownership (“anabaptists that hold
community of goods”), or social communion (“men have a certain community
with God in this world”), or common identity (“the points of community in
their nature”).
The Medieval and Renaissance senses merged in the Modern era of
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and “community” began referring to
the people of a district or neighbourhood. In the context of larger and more
complex social development, urban and industrial, a contrary sense of
immediacy and locality emerged. “Community” and “society” transposed
their original meanings. The rationalists redeployed “society,” which
acquired its modern abstract and general sense of a system of common life.
By contrast, the romantics used “community” to refer to a significant local
human network. “The contrast, increasingly expressed in C19, between the
more direct, more total and therefore more significant relationships of
community and the more formal, more abstract and more instrumental
relationships of state, or of society in its modern sense, was influentially
formalised by Tönnies (1887) as a contrast between Gemeinschaft and
Gesellschaft” (Williams, 1983: 76). The ground for the present deployment
of “community” was laid.
The history of “community” therefore is complex. The complexity
continues in present-day usage. Currently, uses survive from every stage of
the term’s history. We still refer to religious organisations as “communities,”
as they did in the Middle Ages. (And we recently belonged to the European
Community, now the European Union.) As in the Renaissance, we can refer,
for instance, to “a tremendous community of purpose among the groups.”
But the dominant sense of “community” persists from the Modern period, the
idea of community as the network of significant relationships among a
localised group of people.
This sense has been seized upon and given
prominence, for example, in the government’s policy of Sustainable
Communities: “communities are more than just housing, they have many
requirements... economically, socially and environmentally” (ODPM, 2003).
However, such use of the term by authority not un-naturally gives rise to

Historical examples are taken from The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1944).
Current examples are mostly taken from British National Corpus (1995).
This sense may be extended metaphorically, as in “trees or shrubs carefully selected
for their usefulness in supporting a diverse wildlife community.”
Comprehending Community
suspicion. And there are instances of fairly clear abuse. A case in point is
another (former) government policy, care in the community. “It has long been
argued by feminist critics that “community care” is merely a euphemism for
care by the family – which in turn means care by women.”
In fact, there are two major divergences from the traditional, romantic
notion of community, both related to issues of control, and both returning (in
different ways) to the earliest notion of community as the commonalty, the
common people. One of these divergences effectively uses “community” as a
synonym for “people,” with the “warmly persuasive” connotations noted by
Williams. In this sense, “community” is used in three increasingly specific
ways. First, “community” may be used very broadly as an alternative to
“general public” – for instance, “it’s for government to regulate on behalf of
the community.” Secondly, and very commonly, “community” may refer to
the inhabitants of a particular area. An instance was the infamous Community
Charge (or Poll Tax), which was simply a charge levied on the residents in
general of each local authority. A third usage is more specific still.
“Community development,” or even more “community action” or
“community regeneration,” refer to local populations who may benefit from
development or action or regeneration – who are thus by implication
disadvantaged in some degree.
All these uses endeavour to take advantage
of, and exploit, the connotations of “community.” None however entail the
significant intrinsic networks of the romantic concept. And all are inherently
paternalist (top-down) in their usage, they differentiate between those with
greater and lesser power. These uses may be characterised as a weak sense of
The other major divergence from the romantic concept works in the
opposite direction, and is grounded in a strong sense of the term. It is bottom-
up and “polemical” (in Williams’ term). It is used in a general sense in the
notions of “community politics” or “community arts” or “community

The romantic sense of “community” may now be honoured more in the breach than
in the observance. This is one of the implications of Bauman (2001): he furnishes a
number of characterisations of this romantic concept, by Tönnies (“an understanding
shared by all its members,” p. 10), by Redfield (“distinctive, small, self-sufficient,” p.
12), by Dench (“the fraternal obligation... to share benefits among their members,
regardless of how talented or important they are,” p. 58). In the long term, the
romantic idea of community may turn out to be temporary; the term was indeed used
for four centuries without any of the modern “warmly persuasive” connotations
(Williams, 1983: 76). See also Delanty (2003).
Community investment, according to Business in the Community, has to “benefit
charities or not-for-profit organisations representing economically and socially
disadvantaged groups” (Guardian, 2003: 7).
Richard Tyler
relations.” In these cases, the term is adopted by the participants themselves
(or their advocates), against paternal authority; and it does stake a claim to
significant intrinsic networks (it also trades on the warmly persuasive
connotations). Thus, community politics is about bottom-up empowerment,
and community arts is about spontaneous, non-canonical creative action, and
community relations is about justice for marginalised groups (as for example,
in the former Community Relations Council).
Here, “community” is making
a play for power.
This usage occurs also in a specific sense, to refer to particular groups.
Its polemical use here is to stake a claim to identity. One of the strongest of
these is the claim by people of a locality to their own distinct identity.
Frequently this is independent of, and often contrary to, notions of
community imposed by authority, and it is manifest especially in the
formation of local community associations. Another strong use of the term is
made by groups asserting identity, not on the grounds of locality, but in terms
of some form of common origin. The most common of these is the idea of
ethnic community (for example, Caribbean or Gujerati communities).
this sense of community may also be adopted by groups with other shared,
inherited characteristics (working-class, deaf communities). A third (more
recent) development, modelled on these uses, asserts the identity of groups
diverse in location or origin, but common in their commitment or vocation,
such as professional communities (farming, scientific communities), or faith
communities (Christian, Moslem communities), or recreational communities
(gaming, rambling communities). Here, “community” is claiming recognition
within the social system.
It is clear in fact that in most of its current uses, the term “community”
is used in a polemic sense. Frequently, its users simply trade on its generally
positive connotations: a community notice board may simply be one available
to local people. But it may also be used in a more particular, hopefully
persuasive sense by authority, as in community service, community care,
community policing, community workers, Community Health Councils, and
so on. On the other hand, it is also used assertively by the subordinated or
those seeking recognition of their identity, like community associations,

“Community relations” in fact may be used in two ways: (a) here in the CRC, it is
used in the strong sense, referring to groups with strong senses of identity; but (b) it
may also be used in a weak sense, as in “community relations, such as involvement
[by the police] with youth clubs, schools, etc.,” referring to an institution’s relations
with the local population.
There is an interesting contrast between “language community” (all who speak a
particular language) and “community language” (the language spoken by a
marginalised group).
Comprehending Community
ethnic communities, professional communities, etc. The former use by those
wielding greater power has given rise to the weak sense of community, the
latter by those with lesser power has developed its strong, romantic sense.
The term “community” therefore plays its part in power relations. So
also do the relationships signified by the concept in its strong sense. In fact,
Michel Foucault has argued for an approach to power as a matter of
relationships. He has rejected the traditional notion of power as something
which may be possessed, which is held by the few, and which is deployed
negatively, as a prohibition on the many. On the contrary, he has argued that
power is pervasive, that is, it is implicated in all our relationships, we are
constantly engaged with others in tactics of power, whether at work or at
home, or shopping or leisure. And power is productive, that is, it is a positive
force in society. Foucault describes power as “action upon action” (Foucault,
2001: 340), the impact each of us has on what others do. Thus, everything we
achieve with others is enabled by power relations.
Indeed, for Foucault, “power comes from below” (Foucault, 1979:
94). He says, “there are three levels to my analysis of power: strategic
relations, techniques of government, and states of domination” (Foucault,
1997: 299). By “strategic relations,” Foucault means individual
confrontations, where “some try to control the conduct of others.” By
“techniques of government,” he means “not only the way institutions are
governed but also the way one governs one’s wife and children.” Foucault
also calls institutions, like schools, hospitals or prisons, “power blocks.”
Finally, the “states of domination” are the “wide-ranging effects of cleavage
that run through the social body as a whole.” Foucault has in mind the
dominations of class, gender and race.
To these levels, or rather between these levels, we should add
“communities.” In the tactics of our strategic relations, our daily micro-
relationships, we constantly seek alliances, in order to control the conduct of
others, or to avoid being controlled. These alliances may remain local and
transient, like a group of neighbours in a street. But they may increase in
scale and longevity, until at length they become power blocks, or techniques
of government, for instance, as a faith community consolidates into a church.
Or communities may sustain (or subvert) states of domination, as the gay
community has done.
Communities then are loose systems, alliances of

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault suggests that “the appearance in [the]
nineteenth century... of a whole series of discourses on homosexuality... made
possible a strong advance of social controls... but it also made possible the formation
of a “reverse” discourse: homosexuality began to speak on its own behalf, to demand
that [it] be acknowledged” (Foucault, 1979: 101), in other words, the beginning of a
gay community.
Richard Tyler
strategic relations, weaving between, linking and challenging, power blocks
and dominations.
We can identify three aspects of the power relations in these loose
alliances, or communities. They originate of course in social networks.
Individual relationships (the grounds of power) interconnect, and these
connections proliferate as a network of relationships. In a village, for
example, everyone ends up by knowing everyone else. Such networks, in
order to be sustained (to maintain their power) develop typical forms of
behaviour, or social norms. Interests and values and practices are shared
within the network. In the village, there are expectations of how everyone
should behave (which may become stifling). Finally, the participants devise
social sanctions to maintain these norms. Approval is accorded to those who
sustain them well, disapproval to those who do not. The best in the village
become local heroes, the worst may become scapegoats.
These loose systems emerge from our most immediate relationships.
In our modern culture, the most prominent of these are family and friends and
neighbours. Each of these may serve as a catalyst or model for strategic
alliances, for loose systems – or communities.
The family is the first community.
Born into a family, we inherit a
ready-made network of relations; each family has its own micro-culture; each
has its “blue-eyed boy” and its “black sheep.” But there is no end to the
family. Each in turn is related to others. Families form clans, clans become
communities, eventually ethnic communities. Or caste or class communities.
They are connected by a community of origin. Other networks may be
grounded in perceived common origins, such as sexuality or disability (the
gay community, the deaf community). The family then, with its social
networks, social norms and social sanctions, is the model for what may be
termed “original communities.”
Unlike families, friends are chosen. Friends are introduced to other
friends, and friendship networks are developed. Friends are found and made
at work and play, for instance. Friends share interests and experiences, and
common assumptions about behaviour. The ultimate sanction of course is
ending the friendship. Such networks arise, not from common origins, but
most often in pursuit of common goals – the vocational goals of a profession

These three features derive from the idea of social capital. Though this basic
concept is anti-Foucauldian, its features lend themselves readily to Foucault’s account
of power. See Aldridge & Halpern (2002), and Field (2003).
“The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family,”
according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1955: 6). In fact, Rousseau’s calculated, rational
notion of the social contract articulates the modern conception of society, against
which the emotive, romantic idea of community developed.
Comprehending Community
or trade, or the vocation of a voluntary cause or calling. Friends then (again
comprising network, norms and sanctions) are the ground and model for
“vocational communities.”
Finally, we are surrounded by neighbours. We inherit our relations,
we choose our friends. We find our neighbours (who may well become
friends and relations). Neighbour networks arise from simple proximity, and
they extend by means of adjacency. They develop norms of neighbourliness.
Good neighbours are popular, bad neighbours are shunned. What these
networks share is not the past or the future, but the present, the here and now
– their shared space, social and geographical. Neighbours and neighbourhood
networks, norms and sanctions are the ground of “local communities.”
Original communities, local communities and vocational
communities, oriented to past, present or future, are strategic alliances arising
from different kinds of shared relationships. As each of us has family, friends
and neighbours, so each of us (in the exercise of power) participates in a
range of alliances or communities.
We are now perhaps in the era of Postmodern Community. The word
“community” (in consequence of its history) is used in diverse (and
conflicting) ways. No grand narrative holds them together – there is no
essential community. At the same time, assertive (strong) communities are
multifarious, and everyone participates in different kinds of communities, at
different times and for different purposes. Clausewitz said, war is politics
pursued by other means. Foucault reversed this: rather, politics is war
pursued by other means, that is, by the exercise of power as opposed to the
exercise of force (Foucault, 1980: 90). In this case, the use of “community,”
both the term and the strategy, is a weapon in that war.
Works Cited
Aldridge, S. & Halpern, D. 2002. “Social Capital: A Discussion Paper” Cabinet
Office, Performance & Innovation Unit. Available at: http://www.cabinet- .
Bauman, Z. 2001. Community. Cambridge: Polity Press.
British National Corpus. 1995. Available at:
Delanty, G. 2003. Community. London: Routledge.
Field, J. 2003. Social Capital. London: Routledge.
Foucault, M. 1979. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction [1976]. London:
Penguin Books.
———. 1980. “Two Lectures” [1976]. In Power/Knowledge. Ed. Colin Gordon.
Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press.
Richard Tyler
———. 1997. “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom” [1984].
In Ethics. Ed. P. Rabinow. London: Allen Lane.
———. 2001. “The Subject and Power” [1982]. In Power. Ed. J.D. Faubion. London:
Allen Lane.
Guardian. 2003. “The Giving List [supplement].” 17 November.
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. 2003. “Sustainable Communities.” Available at:
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1944. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rousseau, J.-J. 1955. The Social Contract [1762]. Trans. G.D.H Cole. London: Dent.
Williams, R. 1983. “Community.” In Keywords. London: Fontana.
Wittgenstein, L. 1963. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.
This paper examines the contrast between the ideality and the realities
of community. It does so through discussing the extent to which
community can practicably contain and transcend the qualities of the
particular and the singular. The discussion proceeds on the basis of a
critique of the study of the relation between the singular and the
universal that is provided in Jacques Derrida’s The Other Heading.
Derrida’s book can be seen to position Europe and the rhetoric of
Europe’s “responsibility” as “exemplary” instances of the promise and
the failure of the spirit of community. On that basis, and through
reference to other related works, the essay discusses the
correspondences between ideas concerning community, Europe,
alterity, and politics.
Something unique is afoot in Europe.
—Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading
I should like to start with an axiom. Community is not achievable.
Like all other axioms, this one has a terseness that is problematical.
This terseness, which in fact determines the statement’s effectiveness, calls
for scrutiny and interrogation. Yet the difficulty is that like all other
expositions of axioms and as with all explanations of jokes, the attempt to
clarify what is intended will appear laboured. Spelling things out will seem
untrue to the esprit of the original and more economical statement.
Nevertheless, the attempt to explain the axiom must be made, if only because
it provides the cue for this essay’s discussion on the links between (a) notions
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of community and of community spirit (b) the work of Jacques Derrida, and
(c) a certain understanding of the spirit of Europe, the spirit which might
make it possible to speak, however implausibly, of European community.
The explanation might proceed as follows. Community, from Latin
communis, “common,” is not achievable because it assumes the possibility of
casting in commonality the singularities of all who come together to receive
and work for, in good faith but occasionally less so, the promise of a
togetherness which appeals to solidarity in the name of some binding and
shared principle or essence. Community therefore depends on a synecdochal
movement. In that movement the subsuming, generalising whole and the
constituting individual units overcome the differentiatedness of the latter to
achieve harmonious mutuality. Accordingly community, if achieved in a
manner that goes beyond the contractualities arising from co-existence and
co-affiliatedness, would both contain but also transcend – and the promise
lies precisely in the prospect of this transcendence – the qualities of the
particular, doing so without reducing them or doing violence to them. Indeed
it might be argued that community is properly achieved when the qualities of
the particular are released and not stifled, and when they are helped to realise
themselves better. Yet it is not difficult to see how the uniqueness of the
particular could unsettle the generalisability inherent in the common. It is the
specificity of that uniqueness, which is of course always valuable in itself,
that clouds the promise of community. All the clichés about self-interest and
the difficulty of ensuring ésprit de corps suggest the disappointment of the
promise of community. Further clichés about the pressures towards self-
denial and the denaturing dynamics which groups can inflict upon their
members would be relevant too. That community is unachievable and
unsustainable, therefore, is as much a cliché as it is axiomatic. As I shall
argue, however, the deceptive ease with which this conclusion suggests itself
repays further reflection.
Indeed the axiom, or cliché, bearing upon community’s
unachievability could do with further scrutiny in regard to its own
underpinning of the relation between the particular and the general. How
might the axiom achieve availability to general understanding? Axioms are
themselves very particular expressions, and containing them within
language’s commoner and more generally comprehensible parameters is
never easy. In the exposition of this essay’s opening axiom – an explanation
that brings home the contrast between the peculiarity of the axiomatic and the
relative unremarkability of a more referential idiom – one in fact finds
allegorised the difficulty of achieving community. The allegory, to call it
that, turns on the difficulty of rendering uniqueness (in this case represented
by the axiomatic) unto shareability (in this case represented by the promise of
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
the explainable, which always promises the common-er language that, by
definition, is more accessible to the community). In this singular and
axiomatic statement on community one therefore finds, latent within the
axiom and openly within the explanation of that axiom, the opacity of the one
to the many and to the many-as-one, and, also, commonality’s lack of
suppleness when seeking to accommodate the particular.
What might happen, then, if this example of the axiomatic is itself
opened to exemplarity? Might it not thereby encounter a further dimension of
particularity, compelling the axiom heading this essay to come to terms with
its own generalising impetus? How, in other words, might an axiom which
upholds the specificity of the singular find its guiding general idea challenged
if read through some very specific singularities indeed? What are the very
specific examples that might mount that challenge?
The primary example chosen for discussion in this paper involves the
idea of European Community, of the European community. (There are, of
course, critical differences of connotation in these two designations –
European Community and the European community – which will be heeded
below). It will be shown that in the particular case of affinities between the
idea of Europe and the idea of community, and of the amenability of the one
to the other, the axiom that heads this essay appears to hold. Indeed, the
axiom holds in a manner that must prompt further reflection on the nature of
the difficult relation between the sweeping effectiveness of the axiomatic and
the stubborn specificity of the example, and, additionally and as itself an
exemplifying case, on the character of Europe and what it might hope to
summon in the name of the spirit that moves it.
As a preamble to that, it is worth recalling that the European
Community existed statutorily once, though it does so no longer. The
European Community existed, as a name and more than in name. This name
– European Community, the European Community – had currency. The spirit
behind the name was initially economic, as indicated by the name the
European Economic Community (EEC) that became current after the Treaty
of Rome in 1957. That took a little bit further the European Coal and Steel
Community which had originally come together in 1951, and it also
incorporated the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). In the
beginning, therefore, and for some time afterwards, the spirit moving
Europe’s claims on community was not too rarefied. Then, after sundry
developments, the Community was renamed. In 1992, in the town of
Maastricht, the EEC was given a new name. The name became The European
Union, a name which in some contexts has become glibly synonymous with
the various referents of Europe. The notion of union therefore replaced that
of community, as if in acknowledgement of its greater achievability, and
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possibly in recognition that difference(s) could otherwise undo commonality,
whereas different interests would not necessarily undermine union.
How could one proceed to think this Europe if one did not want to
refer to the archives of the old Community, which achieved as much as it
could, or to the constitutions and the charters and the resolutions and the
documents of the Union, of union, which was arguably constituted because
the promise and the promises of European Community, of community, were
not achievable?
How might Europe – as community and/or as union but also as idea –
be thought if one did not want to refer to the standard works, like Jacques Le
Goff’s recent but already unavoidable The Birth of Europe (2005)? Could
one viably respond to that question by stirring clear of the discipline that
would seem most proper in such a context, a discipline that is becoming ever
more popular and “commoner:” “European studies?” In other words, how
might such reflections proceed if they wished to avoid having to route
themselves through reference to those works in European studies that, for all
their very praiseworthy rigour and for all their care in being particular and
correct and scrupulous in what they do, are perhaps in another sense not quite
particular or idiosyncratic, and not too minded, either, to Europe’s
singularity? And how, further, might Europe, as community or as union, be
thought if one did not want to refer to the standard books and studies about
community, to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), for
instance, seemingly so relevant to a community arguably as imagined as
Europe’s, or to less “standard” and indeed quite particular works about
community which themselves seem to name characteristics of today’s
Europe, like Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community (1983), or
Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (1986), or Giorgio
Agamben’s The Coming Community?
What might happen, then, if one were to refer instead to a work that
theorises Europe, and speaks of the dangerous contrasts between exemplarity
and universality: a work which contrived at the time of its publication to
speak of “today’s Europe” in a manner which has necessarily become
anachronistic and which yet remains oddly and timelessly relevant and
urgent? What would the stakes be if that text were a very singular work by a
theorist and philosopher who has always spoken of the logic of singularity –
even and especially when speaking of Europe – and who has cast the
singular, perhaps paradoxically, as a principle of the universal and as an
agent of the universaling? Specifically, Derrida’s The Other Heading:
Reflections on Today’s Europe (1992), which asks “to what concept, to what
singular entity should this name [Europe] be assigned today?” (Derrida,
1992: 5). This is a question which, as will be shown, Derrida reconsidered
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
repeatedly later and indeed one he returned to just before his death. Although
those later contexts will be referred to later, it is The Other Heading that I
should like to focus on here, because it provides some intriguing points of
reference for any discussion on the conceptualisation of Europe, community,
and politics.
Additionally, I should like to attempt some brief reflections on the
experience of a country which has always been both at the centre and the
margins of Europe, and which joined the Union in Europe’s enlargement in
2004. The case of Malta is a very particular one indeed. It is pertinent to this
discussion because it seems to answer to Slavoj Žižek’s description of a
singulier universel, of “the paradox of a singular that appears as a stand-in for
the universal” (1998: 999).
These two very particular examples, both problematically subject to
the generalisable, are considered in turn below, though in view of the space
available it is to Derrida’s work that most attention will be directed. It will be
shown that both offer very specific frameworks in which the broader question
of community’s achievability, and of the dubious appeal to “a community of
connaturality and of the ‘same,’” might be addressed (Caputo, 1999: 188).
A First Heading: Jacques Derrida’s The Other Heading: Reflections on
Today’s Europe
In his reflections in “Autoimmunity,” an interview with Giovanna Borradori
on the subject of September 11, Derrida was pessimistic about the subject of
Europe. He declared that while he hopes for “an important role for Europe”
in world politics today, he does “not see it.” It could be said, on that basis,
that the oxymoronic entity known as “the international community” finds no
lead “in Europe or the European community such as it exists or announces
itself de facto” (Derrida’s emphasis).
This view should hardly be surprising.
It is well known that Derrida has long been suspicious of any appeal to the
communal. “I don’t much like the word community,” he once said. As John
D. Caputo has shown, that dislike arises from a distrust of “the community of
identitarian fusion” and of its lack of amenability to “the irreducible,
untranslatable idiomatic quality of the singular.”
Hence Derrida’s
Derrida (2003a: 118). It should be noted here that in all texts cited in this paper,
authorial emphasis is used extensively. From this point onwards, therefore, and unless
otherwise stated, all italics in quotations should be assumed to be there in the original.
Caputo (1996: 25-26). Elsewhere, Caputo has drawn further attention to Derrida’s
unease with the word community: “In the same vein, I was wondering why the word
‘community’ (avowable or unavowable, inoperative or not) – why I have never been
Ivan Callus
dismissiveness of any notion involving ‘the international community’ does
not arrive as a surprise. The phrase ‘international community’, which can be
heard bandied about by the media with the same casualness with which
reference is made to, for instance, “the Muslim community,” “the Christian
community,” “the gay community,” or “the disabled community,” is classed
by him as “oxymoronic.” It might be possible to go further, and not shrink
from saying that such phrases are practically moronic in refusing to recognise
that what they would designate and delimit has not come together as such, in
spirit or according to any letter. Instead, they stand in as grandiose
alternatives for plainer designations like “Muslims,” “Christians,” “gays,”
and “the disabled” that, though scarcely more differentiating, are at least
more honest in not invoking or claiming a concertedness that does not
necessarily obtain. More important than this, however, are the tone and pitch
of Derrida’s remarks in “Autoimmunity” on the subject of Europe, on the
Europe of today, on Europe as it stands today. They set up an intriguing
contrast with his thoughts on the same subject in The Other Heading:
Reflections on Today’s Europe.
Before commenting further, it is as well to point out that that book
contains two texts by Derrida originally published in newspapers – and
newspapers, as the annotations show, will together with online documents be
quite privileged sources for this discussion.
In the first of these texts, which
is the one that will concern us here, Derrida is readier to consider Europe not
in terms of its status as a tortuously constituted, fastidiously decree-regulated,
and very politically minded player in world affairs, but rather in terms of
perceptions of the spirit of Europe and of its genius, and hence as a driving
idea or vision for everything that might be bodied forth in its name. He
acknowledges that “the very old subject of European identity indeed has the
venerable air of an old, exhausted theme” (1992: 5), but remarks also that “a
certain Europe does not yet exist” (7).
He thereby suggests that an ideality of
Europe remains to be achieved even while it remains a guiding idea:
able to write it, on my own initiative, and in my name, as it were” (Derrida, 1997:
The essays are “The Other Heading: Memories, Responses, and Responsibilities”
(originally published in Liber, Revue européenne des livres, October 1990, no. 5), and
“Call It a Day for Democracy” (1989; originally published in the supplement of a
special issue of Le Monde, in Le Monde de la Révolution française, January 1989)
both in Derrida (1992).
There is a very clear performative aspect in the axiomatic tone and idiom adopted
throughout Derrida’s essay, and much of its effectiveness lies in the manner in which
the generality of the axiomatic is deconstructed through attention to the logic of
exemplarity. Except for indulging in the gambits with which I start my discussion and
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
From what state of exhaustion must these young-old Europeans who we are
set out again, re-embark [re-partir]? Must they re-begin? Or must they depart
from Europe, separate themselves from an old Europe? Or else depart again,
set out toward a Europe that does not yet exist? Or else re-embark in order to
return to a Europe of origins that would then need to be restored,
rediscovered, or reconstituted, during a great celebration of “re-union”
[retrouvailles]? (Derrida, 1992: 8)
So many Europes, then, so many idealities, so many possibilities – or
headings – for Europe. And from this catalogue of Europe’s idealities and
directions Derrida raises the issue of cultural identity, and of what a cultural
identity of Europe might be. He refers to a statement by François Mitterrand,
then the French President, that Europe “is returning in its history and its
geography like one who is returning home” (8). Derrida wonders whether
such sentiments are “desirable.” That they are not is suggested by his
hazarding of another “axiom:” “what is proper to a culture is to not be
identical to itself.” For Derrida, then, the proper of European culture (as of
any culture, for that matter) would rather involve a “non-identity to itself…
the difference with itself [avec soi]” (9). This proper, it might be added, is a
principle of resistance to any subsuming, aggregating force, to any impetus
given to configuring collective identity on the basis of what is specific to the
constituting singularities. Playing on the senses of “home” originally invoked
in the Mitterrand statement, Derrida uses also the resources of
[a] strange and slightly violent syntax: “with itself [avec soi] also means “at
home (with itself)” [chez soi] (with, avec, is “chez,” apud hoc). In this case,
self-difference, difference to itself [difference à soi], that which differs and
diverges from itself, of itself, would also be the difference (from) with itself
[difference (d’)avec soi], a difference at once internal and irreducible to the
“at home (with itself)” [chez soi]. It would gather and divide just as
irreducibly the center or hearth [foyer] of the “at home (with itself).” In truth,
it would gather this centre, relating it to itself, only to the extent that it would
open up to this divergence. (10)
The consequence of this productive wordplay is greater awareness of how
“difference” from any European “center,” or the externality to and
the subsequent brief references to them later, I do not have the space in this essay to
discuss the rhetorical ploys through which Derrida maintains some very productive
play between notions of the axiomatic, the general, and the exceptional. I would
therefore refer the reader to the excellent reflections upon those issues contained in
the introduction provided by Michael B. Naas (in Derrida, 1992: vii-lix).
Ivan Callus
“divergence” from any “home” for Europe, undoes talk of where any
European specificity might lie. Intriguingly, therefore, Europe’s specificity –
its proper and its identity – is undone by its very specificities. These
specificities, then, trouble that which might make it possible to be general
about what is specific to Europe. Consequently to speak of union or
community within Europe is, at best, to be blithe and glib about the complex
relation between what is specific and what is general within Europe.
Yet Derrida is aware that there might be a new “today” for Europe –
or, at any rate, for the rhetoric attending it. If there is to be “a singular advent
of Europe,” one beyond the “sinister” program of a “New Europe” but also
“beyond all the exhausted programs of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism,”
vexed reflections on what is proper to or divergent from the home, or hearth,
of Europe would be vexingly unhelpful. Yet it is through that awareness that
Derrida makes his reader aware, in turn, of what is most peculiar to Europe,
and hence of where its particular genius, or spirit, might lie. Through further
recourse to wordplay – this time on the word cap (meaning, among other
things, “heading,” or “direction,” but also “title”) and also on the title to his
essay, L’autre cap [The Other Heading], and hence through invocations of
alterity – Derrida works up to the observation that “the heading of the other
[is] perhaps the first condition of an identity or identification that is not an
egocentrism destructive of oneself and the other” (13-15). The twist here is
that Europe, as it happens, has always been a cap in relation to the other: cap
in the sense of cape or headland but also cap in relation to leadership, to
being the head. This superficially tendentious claim – one that is hardly
respectful of either alterity or difference – is rooted in Derrida’s textured
reading of a number of key passages by Paul Valéry, including some taken
from a significantly titled Valéry essay, “La Crise de l’esprit, Note (ou
L’Européen).” Derrida shows how Valéry “described and defined Europe” as
“a cape, a headland” (20). This, he suggests, reflects a “spiritual geography”
(the phrase is Husserl’s) of Europe. Europe, indeed, “has always recognized
itself as a cape or headland, either as the advanced extreme of [the Asian]
continent… the point of departure for discovery, invention and colonization,
or as the very center of this tongue in the form of a cape, the Europe of the
middle, coiled up, indeed compressed along a Greco-Germanic axis, at the
very centre of the center of the cape” (19-20). Indeed, Valéry describes
Europe as “a kind of cape of the old continent, a western appendix to Asia. It
looks naturally toward the west. On the south it is bordered by a famous sea
whose role, or I should say function, has been wonderfully effective in the
development of that European spirit with which we are concerned” (21). It is
with this spirit, with the Mediterranean vocation of Europe, that Derrida now
becomes concerned, but also and above all with the implications of Valéry’s
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
reflections on the durability of Europe’s pre-eminence in the face of the
Now, the present day brings with it this capital question: Can Europe maintain
its pre-eminence in all fields?
Will Europe become what it is in reality—that is, a little promontory [cap]
on the Asian continent?
Or will it remain what it seems—that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial
globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body? (22)
There is a very vexed politics in Valéry here, of course, but the focus
in this discussion has to fall not on that, but on the implications for the
relation between the general and the specific that Derrida ultimately draws
from his analysis of Valéry. Before that can be indicated, it is important to
note that for Derrida the question of Europe’s “capital” must be responded to
in a manner that remains aware of two potential senses of capital. These two
senses envision capital as “reserve,” as a property particular to Europe and
from which Europe derives a unique value, but also in the sense of a centre
which gathers to itself but also directs, headingly (the play on cap and capital
remains, thereby, productive), what it constitutes itself as in the face of the
other: “How can a ‘European cultural identity’ respond, and in a responsible
way – responsible for itself, for the other, and before the other – to the double
question of le capital, of capital, and of la capitale, of the capital?” (16). That
there is an ethics implied in this, one which counters the temptation toward
supremacy implicit in Europe’s identity as Valéry or even Mitterrand
implicitly construct it, becomes apparent in the suggestion that Europe’s
singularity – its unique vocation, so to speak – lies, very complexly, in its
singular capacity to call to what is other to it:
Europe today… is at a moment in its history (if it has one, and indeed is one,
i.e. identifiable), in the history of its culture (if it can ever be identified as one,
as the same, and can be responsible for itself, answer for itself, in a memory of
itself) when the question of the heading becomes unavoidable. Whatever the
question may be, the question remains. I would even say that this is necessary:
it should remain, even beyond all answers. …This question is also very old, as
old as the history of Europe, but the experience of the other heading or of the
other of the heading presents itself in an absolutely new way, not new “as
always” [comme toujours], but newly new. And what if Europe were this: the
opening onto a history for which the changing of the heading, the relation to
the other heading or to the other of the heading, is experienced as always
possible? An opening and a non-exclusion for which Europe would be in
some way responsible? For which Europe would be, in a constitutive way, this
Ivan Callus
very responsibility? As if the very concept of responsibility were responsible,
right up to its emancipation, for a European birth certificate? (16-17)
The parentheses in the above passage are of course important, not least
because they immediately cast doubt on the identifiability of any shaping and
unifying coherence within Europe: on anything that generalisingly summons
to notions of “Europe” disparate entities and spirits. However, what emerges
even more startlingly is the identification of Europe as a principle of
responsibility. The equation of European cultural identity, of “a European
birth certificate,” with a genius for intuiting and responding to the opening of
history, for opening onto possibility in a non-exclusive way and hence in a
manner ever mindful of and minded to alterity, is a truly intriguing idea. It
suggests that what could be singular to Europe might be its very singular
capacity to resist its own very unique potential to exert a universalising
energy, and hence to leave open and unintegrated, unassimilated to itself or to
its politics, the singularity of what is very peculiarly and particularly non-
A vain hope, perhaps, in Realpolitik, and in the relations of the
European Union, whose genius perhaps rather lies, famously, in making
much of the rhetoric of “unity in diversity.” That rhetoric, it is easy to
cynically say, lies rather in a pragmatic understanding of the difference of the
other: an understanding whose function is mainly a troubleshooting one,
minded to coming up with practical and acceptable solutions to the problems
that spring from diversity, so that what is other does not bar the route to
where Europe might be headed. In this regard, the change in the name of
Europe (or, at any rate, in one of Europe’s names) from Community to Union
is less than coincidental and more than practical. It acknowledges that it is
axiomatic, so to speak, that community is unachievable, though union – at
least politically – is not. It also illustrates how difficult it has become to
perceive “Europe” as separate from the European Union – does not even
Derrida, by the time he comes to write “Autoimmunity,” recognise that
All the more reason, therefore, to persist a little while longer with The
Other Heading, which explores the question of a Europe perceived
differently, on the basis of a “difference à soi.” This difference prompts “the
temptation, risk, or chance of keeping at home (with itself) [chez soi] the
turbulence of the with, of calming it down in order to make it a simple,
interior border – well guarded by the vigilant sentinels of being” (26). What
would occur, however, were that turbulence not to be subject to any calming?
What would happen if the peculiarity of what gives rise to that turbulence
were instead not calmed, not quelled, by any practice of surveillance
safeguarding a more general and common idea of Europe? Again, the
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
recurrent importance, in the idea(s) of Europe, of relations between the
general and the singular emerges. Indeed, Derrida is very clear on that, even
going as far as to equate Europe with an example that, paradoxically but
fatefully, contains the universal within it. The following passage spells this
Europe is not only a geographical headland or heading that has always given
itself the representation or figure of a spiritual heading, at once as a project,
task, or infinite – that is to say, universal – idea, as the memory of itself that
gathers and accumulates itself, capitalizes upon itself, in and for itself. Europe
has also confused its image, its face, its figure and its very place, with that of
an advanced point… with a heading for world civilization or human culture in
general. The idea of an advanced point of exemplarity is the idea of the
European idea, its eidos, at once as arché – the idea of beginning but also of
commanding (the cap as the head, the place of capitalizing memory and of
decision, once again, the captain) – and as telos, the idea of the end, of a limit
that accomplishes, or that puts an end to the whole point of the achievement,
right there at the point of completion. The advanced point is at once beginning
and end, it is divided as beginning and end; it is the place from which or in
view of which everything takes place. (24-25)
The importance of this passage cannot be overemphasised. The idea of
Europe as a guiding example for the universal – as a political project headed
to a point where this privileged and very singular example becomes the
universal, so that the two might become coextensive – finds its sharpest
expression here. Europe, if it could be achieved, would then be the name of a
commonality, of a communis, wherein the disparateness within the universal
might come to rest, resolved.
Under these circumstances, that it is axiomatic
that community – or Europe – cannot be achieved might almost seem
Derrida, of course, knows that:
[I]t is necessary to make ourselves the guardians of an idea of Europe, of a
difference of Europe, but of a Europe that consists precisely in not closing
itself off in its own identity and in advancing itself in an exemplary way
toward what it is not, toward the other heading or the heading of the other,
indeed – and this is perhaps something else altogether – toward the other of
the heading, which would be the beyond of this modern tradition, another
border structure, another shore. (29)
For Derrida’s acknowledgement of the Hegelianism implicit in this (cf. 1992: 32);
the reference to “the form of the Hegelian moment wherein European discourse
coincided with spirit’s return to itself in Absolute Knowledge…”
Ivan Callus
No community, then, in Europe’s name. Only a communion, a
communicability, with the other. For this possibility to open up would be to
think Europe differently. Indeed, that would depend on “an impossible
axiomatic which remains to be thought.”
In question, then – and this
provides a link to the point from which this discussion started – is an
axiomatic which, almost unthinkable, is very far from being clichéd. One
might almost say that the hope that breathes in it is the hope in its becoming
clichéd. That different thinking that it would bear could occur only at “the
moment of krinein, [in] the dramatic instant of a decision that is still
impossible and suspended, imminent and threatening,” at the moment when
at stake is nothing less than “[t]he crisis of Europe as the crisis of spirit” (31-
32). A different Europe therefore becomes consequent on an impossible
thinking. This Europe will not come to pass, not from the ideality of the other
shore invoked in the above passage, and almost definitely not even from the
Mediterranean shore from which Derrida but above all Valéry before him
speak: “All Valéry’s works are those of a European from the Greco-Roman
Mediterraenean world, close to Italy in his birth and his death…” (35).
The twist, of course, is that Derrida, born a Sephardic Jew in Algeria,
comes all too appositely from the other shore. He insists on this, in at least
two places in The Other Heading:
[I am] someone who, not quite European by birth, since I come from the
southern coast of the Mediterranean, considers himself, and more and more so
with age, to be a sort of over-acculturated, over-colonized European hybrid.
…In short, it is, perhaps, the feeling of someone who, as early as grade school
in French Algeria, must have tried to capitalize, and capitalize upon, the old
age of Europe, while at the same time keeping a little of the indifferent and
impassive youth of the other shore. (6-7)
[T]his Mediterranean shore also interests me – coming as I do from the
other shore if not from the other heading (from a shore that is principally
neither French, nor European, nor Latin, nor Christian)… (35-36)
As himself an example of what cannot quite be made subject to
Europe’s generality, Derrida therefore finds himself uniquely well placed to
ask if it is possible to “project a center, at least a symbolic center, at the heart
of this Europe that has considered itself for so long to be the capital of
humanity,” and “at the moment when the fable of a planetarization of the
European model still seems quite plausible” (36). He is realistic enough to
recognise that new “capillarities” have broken out as a result of the fact that
On this issue see Caputo (1999: 187).
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
“the centralizing pulsions do not always go through states” now, but through
“private and transnational empires” (37). For him, though, a more pressing
problem is that while a responsible Europe “cannot and must not accept the
capital of a centralizing authority,” it also “cannot and must not be dispersed
into a myriad of provinces, into a multiplicity of self-enclosed idioms or petty
little nationalisms, each jealous and untranslatable” (39). European
community, then, together with the European Union, must transcend both of
these contrary temptations.
It is an impossible demand. It would not require an in-depth
knowledge of the history of Europe to realise that the demand is in the nature
of an aporia. Derrida recognises it as such: “Neither monopoly nor
dispersion, therefore. This is, of course, an aporia…” (41). It is an aporia for
another reason. Such a responsibility, which opens onto the impossible, can
by definition not be part of a program: “When the path is clear and given,
when a certain knowledge opens up the way in advance, the decision is
already made, it might as well be said that there is none to make:
irresponsibly, and in good conscience, one applies or implements a program”
(41). But without the program there would then be a need for a
resourcefulness that is incalculable, for a resourcefulness of and at the limit:
“The condition of possibility of this thing called responsibility is a certain
experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible: the testing of
the aporia from which one may invent the only possible invention, the
impossible invention” (41). More and more, then, it seems that Europe as
theorised by Derrida becomes an impossible entity. It is impossible in the so-
called “real” world, where it is bound by and headed forward on its many
programs – most recently, of course, on its constitution. The program,
significantly, is always of “the order of the possible” (45). It is impossible too
in its ideality, in the aporetic responsibility to which it is “unrealistically”
Derrida, however, is not a quietist. He acknowledges that it is not
really an option to remain suspended between these two impossibilities, and
that a different thinking of Europe therefore becomes all the more important.
Later, as will be shown below, he will go as far as to campaign for that
Europe together with Habermas. In The Other Heading, meanwhile, the
following may be found: “[O]ne will always be able to ask what an ethics or
a politics that measures responsibility only by the rule of the impossible can
be: as if doing only what were possible amounted to abandoning the ethical
and political realms, or as if, inversely, in order to take an authentic
responsibility it were necessary to limit oneself to impossible, impractical,
and inapplicable decisions. If the two terms of such an alternative translate at
once an unsolvable contradiction and an unequivocal seriousness, the aporia
Ivan Callus
is reflected or capitalized in abyss and requires more than ever thinking
differently” (45-46). This thinking devolves upon a thinking through of
Europe’s capital, of its central place, but also upon how “the hypothesis of
this capital always concerns language, not only the predominance of a
national language, tongue, or idiom, but the predominance of a concept of the
tongue or of language” (46-47).
And here things become deeply interesting. For if it is a question, not
to put too fine a point upon it, of which language Europe is to speak – or, to
put it even less coyly, of the distinction between the language(s) Europe
speaks de facto and the language(s) it would speak ideally, when being truest
to its spirit – then this very ethical talk of Europe’s responsibility, of
Europe’s arché and telos, of the aporias thrust upon Europe, could well be
reduced to a rivalry between hegemonies divided across nationalistic lines,
and hence between – to get specific – English and French, for example.
Derrida works up to this gradually, and with exemplary tact. Implicitly
recognising the link between “the predominance of a national language” and
nationalism, he comments that “[n]ational hegemony claims to justify itself
in the name of a privilege in responsibility and in the memory of the
universal” (47). In that claim, it is made to seem that “what is proper to a
particular nation or idiom would be to be a heading for Europe; and what is
proper to Europe would be, analogically, to advance itself as a heading for
the universal essence of humanity” (48). This, of course, is all too possible,
as centuries of European history show. But the truly interesting moment
occurs at a point in Derrida’s argument where the tact briefly fails, and where
some uncharacteristic petulance is witnessed. First, he draws a telling
example from the fact that “all the majorities of the French Republic… claim
for France, which is to say, of course, for Paris, for the capital of all
revolutions and for the Paris of today, the role of the avant-garde, for
example, in the idea of democratic culture, that is, quite simply, of free
culture itself, which is founded on the idea of human rights [droits], on an
idea of international law [droit].” Then, in a perhaps unguarded moment that
is deeply eloquent, both in itself and also in its context, the following: “No
matter what the English say today, France would have invented these human
rights…” (49-50; my emphasis).
“No matter what the English say today.” The sentiment always plays
well to a French audience, of course, however tactfully, subtly, and
sophisticatedly it is expressed. Across the channel, “on the other shore,” so to
speak, the opposite version would quite naturally play well also. “No matter
what the French say today, England would have invented these human
rights.” The histories of both countries, after all, provide ample platforms for
both statements to be plausible. Who, then, is to claim what Derrida earlier
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
called, very elegantly, “a privilege in responsibility?” Again the history of
Europe, of the European continent, of the Continental System, but also of the
European Community and of the European Union, shows how strangely
desirable this responsibility is, how Europe’s many pasts is in fact a history
of nationalisms. Whereupon it becomes axiomatic, to repeat something from
which we started, that European community is not achievable – not unless the
other loses some of its particularity to participate, instead, in some more
privileged heading. And Derrida, very effectively, quotes from a French
official document that, in an uncanny echo of Valéry, pronounces that “There
is no political ambition that is not preceded by a conquest of spirit(s): it is the
task of culture to impose the feeling of unity, of European solidarity”
(Derrida’s emphasis). This imposition of European solidarity, of European
community, is arrogated to France in further official documents: “French
culture,” Derrida quotes, acts by “teaching others to look to France as
creative country that is helping to build modernity.” Elsewhere: “[France,
French culture] is responsible for today, and this is what is expected of her”
(51). Derrida, to be fair, does not endorse such talk, but points rather to the
further “vigilance” which “must be ‘exercised not only in regard to state
discourses,’ but also to ‘new forms of cultural takeover’ that include, among
others, ‘newspaper or magazine consortiums,’ ‘a new university space,’ and
even ‘philosophical discourse’” (54).
Writing very much to the Europe of the time of The Other Heading,
before Europe had developed into what it is now – a Europe he would come
to mistrust in “Autoimmunity,” as indicated earlier – Derrida builds on the
idea of that vigilance to emphasise the importance of “a new culture,” one
born from “the necessity to resist with vigilance the neo-capitalist
exploitation of the breakdown of an anti-capitalist dogmatism in those states
that had incorporated it” (57). His approach builds, specifically, on the
manner in which “the semantic accumulation” concerning the word capital,
as detailed ongoingly throughout The Other Heading, “organizes a polysemy
around the central reserve, itself a capital reserve, of an idiom” (38) – in other
words, around notions having to do with language in relation to cultural
capital. For Derrida, what this culminates in is a central question, “What
philosophy of translation will dominate in Europe?” (58). Responding to that
question on the basis of a specific example into which he reads much that
might have a universalising dynamic, Derrida points to the title of a
newspaper launched the previous year, Liber, a “Latin title” that was
“accepted by the English as well as the Germans” (58-59), and which
The specific example Derrida has in mind here, though one that is left unexplored
and its citation unremarked, is that of “Frankfurt ‘transcendental pragmatics’” (55).
Ivan Callus
therefore “renews an alliance and reaffirms at the same time a Europeo-
Mediterranean idiom.”
Always, then, the question of (the) Latin, of the
Mediterranean, of (the) English, definitely, and occasionally even (the)
Germans as somehow not quite in the mainstream of a certain vision of
Europe. And that vision is traced back to Valéry, in The Freedom of Spirit,
which “appears in 1939, on the eve of the war” (62), a “text of imminence
whose stakes are indeed the destiny of European culture.”
We are, now, as Derrida goes to the heart of his reading of Valéry, also
at the heart of his own argument, and within the main thrust of the
implications of his work for notions concerning community. Those notions
will concern, even more specifically, European community as well as – and
this is not quite the same thing – “Europe,” as the name given economically
to the transformation of “the European Community” into “the European
Union.” As will be seen, this reading will reemphasise the relation between
the particular and the universal. In two pages that are truly crucial for the
theme of this paper, Derrida draws attention to Valéry’s “determining appeal
to the word capital, precisely in order to define culture – and the
Mediterranean.” The Mediterranean’s pre-eminence in this regard, the
centrality of its shores, is seen being prioritised further in Valéry:
[T]he Mediterranean has been a veritable machine for making civilization.
And in creating trade, it necessarily created freedom of the spirit. On the
shores of the Mediterranean, then, spirit, culture, and trade are found
together. (64; Derrida’s emphasis)
On the basis of that, Derrida asks: “What is the most interesting
moment in this semantic or rhetorical capitalization of the values of capital?”
(65). The answer impinges on the relation between the singular and the
general, the particular and the universal:
It is, it seems to me, when the regional or particular necessity of capital
produces or calls for the always threatened production of the universal.
European culture is in danger when this ideal universality, the very ideality of
the universal as the production of capital, finds itself threatened. (65)
“To be sure, [Liber] is a singular newspaper, one that tries to be the exception to the
rule, since it is, in an unusual way, inserted simultaneously into other European
newspapers (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, L’Indice, El Pais, Le Monde) and thus
at once into four different languages” (Derrida, 1992: 1). Singularity is therefore an
aspect of the very medium in which Derrida’s article, focused on the manner in which
the particular undoes generality and commonality, is carried.
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
Europe’s, then, is the particular at stake, but Europe is also universal in
principle. Its community, built on its capital, is the ideal community. By an
intriguing correspondence, it is therefore exemplary, and hence also the
example. This ideality, and this exemplarity, both have to do with Europe’s
unique responsibility, its particular heading:
Ideality stems from that which in capitalization de-limits itself, that which
exceeds the borders of sensible empiricity or particularity in general in order
to open onto the infinite and give rise to the universal. The maxim of
maximization, which… is nothing other than spirit itself, assigns to European
man his essence. (“All these maxima together are Europe”)
The problem is that, according to Valéry, and as stressed by Derrida, it
seems that this ideal and this community is not achievable. Indeed, it has
“fever” (67), because, if Valéry is right, its “cultural capital is in peril” (68).
Its claim on the maximal thereby becomes tenuous. That happens because of
a crisis of spirit, a crisis in the cultural capital of Europe. It is a malaise that
then becomes, necessarily, universal, a crisis in the human itself. “[W]hat
threatens European identity would not essentially threaten Europe but, in
Spirit, the universality for which Europe is responsible, of which it is the
reserve, le capital or la capitale” (69-70).
Analysing this, and subjecting it to deconstructive scrutiny, Derrida
focuses on the way in which the call to community, if it proceeds – as it tends
to – from a singularity that presents itself as exemplary, as headed towards
directions to which the other might be led rather than leading astray – is
always, in effect, violent to some degree. It is a violence which depends,
ironically, on the assumption (in all senses of this word) of responsibility.
Here, accordingly, is perhaps the key passage in Derrida’s The Other
Heading on the subject of the uneasy correspondences between the particular
and the universal – and implicitly on the unachievability of the promise to
The value of universality here capitalizes all the antinomies, for it must be
linked to the value of exemplarity that inscribes the universal in the proper
body of a singularity, of an idiom or a culture, whether this singularity be
individual, social, national, state, federal, confederal, or not. Whether it takes
a national form or not, a refined, hospitable or aggressively xenophobic form
or not, the self-affirmation of an identity always claims to be responding to the
call or assignation of the universal. There is no exception to this law. No
cultural identity presents itself as the opaque body of an untranslatable idiom,
but always, on the contrary, as the irreplaceable inscription of the universal in
the singular, the unique testimony to the human essence and to what is proper
Ivan Callus
to man. Each time, it has to do with the discourse of responsibility: I have, the
unique “I” has, the responsibility of testifying for universality. (72-73)
Community, it must therefore seem, is impossible. In a deconstructive
rendering of the clichéd intuition at the start of this essay, Derrida implies
that it only needs more than one singularity to present itself “responsibly” in
the way envisaged in the above quotation for the particular to obstruct the
heading of the other. Yet Europe is an impossible undertaking that is
desperately in need of realisation. Can Europe realise itself? For community,
and for communities everywhere, Europe’s example is paramount: if Europe
realises itself, then community, and communities generally, might by
extension be achievable.
The universal will not hold its breath – not before this very
idiosyncratic example that sets forth why, within Europe’s choices of how
and where to head itself, the communal might find exemplary achievement,
something to emulate, a heading to follow. Is it not after all axiomatic, is it
not even clichéd, that community is unachievable, that Europe cannot work?
And yet what if it does, impossibly? Could Europe realise its
responsibility, in spite of its own irresponsible understanding of what it takes
to be its responsibility?
After The Other Heading, the words in “Autoimmunity” suggest that
Derrida came to acknowledge that Europe’s realisation lies too far in the
realm of the impossible for anything but the realistic to suggest itself. In
testing out the achievability of community on the basis of the singular
example of Derrida’s discussion of Europe and “of the capital paradox of
universality” (71), it appears that the axiom that community is unachievable
is justifiable. Already, in The Other Heading, there was doubt about Europe’s
responsibility. It is a doubt read in terms of Valéry’s words on Gallocentrism,
of the ridiculousness of the “title” of France, with title understood as name
and privilege, but also in terms of “the value… of a head, a hat, a heading, a
capstone, or a capital” (73-74). To that purpose Derrida quotes from Valéry’s
essay French Thought and Art, where Valéry speaks of his impression that
the “special quality” of the French, “(sometimes [their] ridicule, but often
[their] finest claim or title) is to believe and to feel that [they] are universal—
… men of universality” [Derrida’s emphasis]. Valéry stresses the paradox
inherent in this, the paradox inherent to what it means “to specialize in the
sense of the universal,” to be the unique example, then, for what might yet
become common (74). This is not a feeling, Derrida stresses, “reserved for
the French,” or even for Europeans, though Husserl is also quoted as saying
that “insofar as the European philosopher is committed to universal reason,
he is also the ‘functionary of mankind’” (75).
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
Assuming that were true, there emerges a duty for European thought
and a dutifulness in Europe’s heading. It is here that another Europe is
invoked, a Europe mindful of the other shore and of other shores, and a
Europe that would be impossibly responsible. This other Europe would
involve heading towards not what it could very possibly be and indeed very
probably has become – constituted in the name of union rather than in the
name of community – but, rather, towards “the duty… to recall what has
been promised under the name Europe,” a “duty without common measure”
that would, however, render the promise of community (76). “This duty,”
Derrida stresses in a manner mindful always of the horizon of the other shore,
dictates opening Europe, from the heading that is divided because it is also a
shoreline: opening it onto that which is not, never was, and never will be
Europe (77).
For that Europe there was never hope, then. There was only the
exemplarity of its promise, the ultimate responsibility of its opening onto “the
other shore of another heading” (76; Derrida’s emphasis). Minimally, it is an
opening and a duty that “dictates welcoming foreigners” (77). It is a duty,
too, that, opens onto the “uniquely European… idea of democracy,” of the
“structure of a promise” that is of the order of “the memory of that which
carries the future, the to-come, here and now” (78). Clearly, the idea of this
Europe, of this arrivant, is not passé, not only because it has never come to
pass, but because it must continue to be worked for. It is in this that the
exemplarity of Europe ultimately lies, and the immensity of this exemplarity
can only be appreciated if it is understood, as Derrida enjoins, that
[w]e are speaking here with names (event, decision, responsibility, ethics,
politics – Europe!) of “things” that can only exceed (and must exceed) the
order of theoretical determination, of knowledge, certainty, judgement, and of
statements in the form of “this is that”… (81).
Nothing, then, of the order or the presumption that says “Europe is x,”
or “the identity of Europe is y.” Caputo is right to comment that “[t]oday,
when the value of ‘community’ has been shaken, we are driven to what
Derrida calls a logic of the ‘without’ (sans), of the ‘x without x’” (Caputo,
1999: 186). Hence “the old name of Europe” is to be taken “lightly, only in
quotation marks, as the best paleonym, in a certain situation, for what we
recall (to ourselves) or what we promise (ourselves)” – and the same should
be done, Derrida further enjoins, with “the words ‘identity’ and ‘culture’”
(82). And, in the final example in his essay, Derrida actually takes himself as
his own example. He speaks in his own person, of the example of his own
person, which of course comes from the other shore: the place in awareness
of which he has theorised Europe. Derrida comes from the other side of the
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Mediterranean heritage of Europe – and therefore in a sense from the heading
of the other – to say finally, towards the end of his essay, that he is
“European, …no doubt a European intellectual,” but that he does “not want
to be European through and through, European in every part.” There is
always, then, and always was, the other shore. It is on that shore that the
current bearing thoughts on the singularity of Europe, both as hope for the
dream of the universal but also as lesson for the (un)achievability of
community, must break.
Some consideration of some very particular shores would, therefore,
not be out of place.
A Second Heading: Malta and the European Promise
Few shores are as particular as Malta’s. There can be few countries, or
nations, which embody the vexed relation between the singular and the
general, the unique and the united, as Malta. A small archipelago of just over
with a population of 400,000, Malta is located in the centre of the
Mediterranean. It is therefore at the heart of the origins of European identity
but also on the southernmost margins of the European Union, which it joined
in the European enlargement of 1 May, 2004. Size, location, geography, and
history therefore determine the country in its singular relation of being,
paradoxically, both central and marginal in its relation to Europe.
History was cited above because Malta has immemorially found itself
microcosmically representing the changing fortunes of European history.
Until the country’s independence in 1964 and then the definitive withdrawal
of the British military base in 1979, every power which at any time enjoyed
any dominance in Europe had it under its control. Malta and Europe, then,
reflect each other, and in this unique relation of minimised and magnified
specularity and projection they cannot but help glance together at what
happens on the other shore: on the other side of the Mediterranean which
Derrida, for one, is necessarily always mindful of.
Yet for all the compulsiveness of that gaze it has been in their debate
over the nature of their mutual projection or rejection that Malta and Europe
were engrossed over the last ten years. Malta’s accession to Europe was long
and tortuous, and rendered more difficult by an internal debate over the
wisdom of that move, a debate whose intensity and ferocity is not easy for an
outsider to appreciate. Yet the grounds for that debate are not hard to grasp.
Does a country that has historically been a microcosm of European power
games seal what could seem like its destiny, and gladly “join Europe?” Or
does it live up to its marginality to “Europe,” taking it further by opting out?
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
Interestingly, an aspect of the campaigning pitch on both sides emphasised
considerations involving the relation between the one and the many. To
simplify, Malta is too small and too unique for “Europe” to properly take
account of its very particular circumstances, said the “no” vote. Precisely
because Malta is so small, responded the “yes” vote, participating in the
project of European union is essential, especially since that participation
would be guaranteed by “pooled sovereignty” and “negotiated identity.” In
the end, the Maltese referendum came down in favour of joining, but only by
54% to 46% and after long and bitter campaigning by both sides of the vote.
At the time of writing, when there is increasing consensus that
membership in the Union must eventually benefit the country, Malta watches
to see how the Union will react to the first test of its sensitivity to the
peculiarity of the island’s case. In Brussels and Strasbourg, Malta is currently
petitioning that its “Objective One” status be retained. That status envisages
Malta being eligible for structural funds and development aid, on the grounds
that its Gross Domestic Product per capita amounts to less than 75% of the
Union’s average. Ever a borderline case, however, Malta finds that its GDP
per capita now minimally exceeds the figure of 75%, and that as a result of
the 2004 enlargement having pushed the European average downwards.
Strictly speaking, Malta does not qualify for the funds; realistically speaking,
Malta needs them. Strictly speaking, Europe’s regulations forbid it to yield
the funds; politically speaking, for reasons having to do with how sensitively
it projects itself, Europe needs to release them.
The words of the President of the European Commission, José Manuel
Durao Barroso, on this issue are revealing about the relation between the
Union and the singular case of Malta, or, to put it differently, between the
many-become-one and the one.
We are a Union of 25 with defined criteria for all member states. We try to be
as objective as possible but it may happen that sometimes the strict application
of these rules might produce, in some specific cases, results that are not those
expected by the public opinions in our countries. …At the end, from a
technical point of view, we will find a solution that will be good for Malta.
Mr Barroso further stressed the Commission’s and the Union’s desire
for the Maltese people not to be “frustrated.” “That is why we try to
accommodate the different needs and aspirations of our peoples,” was his
reassuring conclusion.
Here then, is union answering to the expectations and
Mr Barroso’s reassurance, given at a joint press conference with the Prime Minister
of Malta, is here taken from a report carried in The Times of Malta (18 February 2005:
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wishes of the particular, in an example of how a spirit of European
community might be practically achievable. Doubtless that achievability is
subject to the old diplomatic game of “give and take,” and perhaps also to
“the aporetics of community, with its unavoidable necessity and undeniable
violence” Caputo, 1996: 25). Malta’s belief in Europe is however a pragmatic
one, based on the growing conviction that, while, the project for union and
community might not always work and might even occasionally prove
overwhelming, there are sufficient safeguards for the particular’s voice and
interests to be heeded (and interestingly, even those who had headed the “no”
vote were very particular in wishing the Maltese Prime Minister well in his
talks with Mr Barroso). That position lives in hope that the “sense of loose
relationality that keeps tripping over singularities” might be watchfully
mitigated during membership (Caputo, 1996: 27). Its hope, therefore, is not
in any undertaking of the impossible responsibility outlined by Derrida, but
in the rather more pragmatically if somewhat insipidly conceived challenges
outlined by Jürgen Habermas (2001) for Europe in his well-known
contributions to the discussion on a European constitution. Writing, myself,
from Malta’s shores – if not from “the other shore” – I find that there is
something deeply valuable in the Maltese hope that against all odds and
axioms and clichés, Europe, thus constituted, might just work and be
achievable. In its own way it amounts, in effect, to a singular affirmation of
After the above headings, what is one to conclude? Where, after the
headings, to end up? This essay set out to critique the axiom and the cliché
that community is not achievable, on the basis of two examples. The first is a
work of Derrida that provides a theoretical exploration of the relation of
particularity to the universal, the second an all too real example of a very
individual country’s pragmatic need to believe in the achievability of Europe.
What, further, might be added?
I should not like to add much, because the examples already speak for
themselves, and also because the space available would in any case not allow
it. Some final commentary is, however, required. The two instances chosen
for discussion in this essay – The Other Heading and Malta’s accession to the
Union – support Michael B. Naas’s view that “the question of the example is
not simply one political question among many, …but… ‘is’ the question of
politics” (in Derrida, 1992: xviii). It is a point carried by Malta’s experience
of negotiating its European accession on the basis of its particularity (its
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
diplomatic arm in Strasbourg and Brussels prides itself on having secured a
significant and workable number of derogations because of the country’s
‘special circumstances’), and also by Derrida’s focus on Europe in his
consideration of a politics of the example.
Cynics, however, might argue as follows. If Derrida’s philosophy
stresses, in different senses, only the ideality of Europe and the European
idea, then to witness Europe in its reality and in the practical working out of
the European idea is to find a model example, in this immense singularity
that is Europe’s exemplarity, of why community cannot work. It is to return,
after much brainstorming, to the intuition that the axiom and the cliché from
which we started was correct. Community, as the example of Europe
indicates, is unachievable. One might almost as well, then, not have read
Derrida and his talk on responsibility.
Yet Derrida’s attempt to theorise Europe in ways mindful of the
challenge of the other shore, and hence of the opening onto the ideal Europe
that Europe will never be, provides a theoretical structure and an idiom
through which to think other examples of the thought of Europe. Admittedly,
the focus on the philosophy of alterity might pale on those whose dealings
with Europe must be of the “bottom-line” kind. But ideas are plainly not
incongruous in this context of Europe, which, arguably, was an idea before it
was a politics. And what is at stake in The Other Heading is nothing less than
an example of another thinking of Europe’s stakes, another thinking of what
Europe has failed or managed to stake out now, as Europe presently
constitutes itself – at a moment where its constitution is very much in the
balance. It is therefore significant that Derrida, for all his deconstructive
vigilance in the name of another Europe, was not unhopeful of Europe’s
future realities. The following words, for instance, spell out a very practical
hope for the central role of even as “marginal” a singularity as Malta’s :
I am “against” all those who are “against” Europe. …I do not believe that one
ought to interrupt the process of European unification in the name of these
misgivings, one ought to fight, as in a democracy, in moving along, from the
inside, in order to inflect its course otherwise. (Derrida, 1998)
Indeed, the difficulty with Derrida’s later writings on Europe might
well be the unexpected one of excessive belief. A question of consistency
therefore looms. For whereas “Autoimmunity” signals a weariness with the
idea of Europe and a dimming of faith in the accessibility of “the other
shore,” other late texts by Derrida on the subject retain more than a degree of
hope and affirmation. Here, for instance, from yet another piece offered to a
newspaper, Le Monde diplomatique, is a reassertion of the dream:
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This Europe, as a proud descendant of the Enlightenment past and a harbinger
of the new Enlightenment to come, would show the world what it means to
base politics on something more than simplistic binary oppositions…
That is my dream. I am grateful to all those who help me to dream it ….
This dream is shared by billions of men and women all over the world. Some
day, though the work may be long and painful, a new world will be born.
(Derrida, 2004a)
The piece from which the above quotation is taken is curious because
it returns to the issue of the French vocation in Europe. Derrida refers to Le
Monde diplomatique’s first editorial in May 1954. That editorial, in accepting
the shared mission “to work for the peaceful development of international
relations,” went on to observe that “everything points to Paris as the natural
home of such a paper and to French as its natural language.” This, of course,
replays a theme from The Other Heading, and this time does so in a way that
is discernibly less problematising. Indeed, the piece contains some very
rounded support for the idea of Europe, and its tone is quite distant from the
more unremittingly deconstructive one in The Other Heading. Thus, for
instance: “Caught between US hegemony and the rising power of China and
Arab/Muslim theocracy, Europe has a unique responsibility… I do believe,
without the slightest sense of European nationalism or much confidence in
the European Union as we currently know it, that we must fight for what the
word Europe means today.”
Yet even these sentiments are not as hortatory as the collaboration
with Jürgen Habermas on a piece in 2003 which read, into European protests
against the United States invasion of Iraq, a quickening of a new Europe from
the heart of “core Europe:” from France and Germany (Habermas & Derrida,
2003). That collaboration was seen as markedly anti-American in many
quarters, though perhaps the most damning remark that was passed on it was
that Habermas and Derrida’s argument remained “simply academic”
(Kennedy, 2003; see also Levy, Pensky & Torpey, 2005). Superficially,
therefore, it might feel that Derrida’s thinking on Europe was never again as
deconstructively critical as it was in The Other Heading¸ which, as Matthew
R. Calarco (2000) points out, “undermines the position of both those who
prematurely congratulate or hastily criticise [Derrida’s] apparent
‘postmodern’ celebration of difference.” That there is some substance to this
impression is borne out by a late interview Derrida gave in which he
responded to a question about his apparently diminished reluctance to say
“we Europeans” (Derrida, 2004a). On this basis it does therefore seem that
Derrida’s thinking on Europe became less deconstructively alloyed in his
later years. How, it might be asked, does the thinker who is made uneasy by
any “exemplarism” argues for destinerrance (cf. Caputo, 1999: 184; 1996:
Derrida, Community and the Exemplarity of Europe
34) and who had written a critique of the rhetoric of Europe’s exemplarity,
end up indicating a heading for “core Europe?” That question would however
need to be modulated by a number of factors, not least awareness of a
background pointed out by Žižek: “The paradox is that… France, in its
republican universalism, is more and more perceived as a particular
phenomenon threatened by the process of globalization, while the United
States, with its multitude of groups demanding recognition of their particular,
specific identities, more and more emerges as the universal model (1998:
1007). There is an interesting replaying of the roles of the particular and the
universal here, one which would need to be brought into further and more
searching dialogue with all of Derrida’s late work, too copious to detail here,
on issues pertaining to friendship, cosmopolitanism, hospitality, and the
nature of spirit itself.
And in all of that there remains, of course, the question of
community’s achievability. This paper has tried to show how that question
might be approached through a review of the Derridean thinking, from the
other shore, of the other Europe: the most exemplary if also the most
impossible of communities à venir. Such a Europe, such a community, would
be so unthinkable that its unachievability carries only one consolation. The
unachievability of Europe saves it from witnessing its extreme alterity
earning it the appellation of a rogue state. And yet such a community, such a
Europe, might be one état voyou that philosophy, at least, can countenance
(cf. Derrida, 2003b; 2004c).
Works Cited
Agamben, Giorgio. 2003. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism. 2
ed. London: Verso.
Blanchot, Maurice. 1998. The Unavowable Community. Trans. Pierre Joris.
Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press.
Calarco, Matthew R. 2000. “Derrida on Identity and Difference: A Radical
Democratic Reading of The Other Heading.” Critical Horizons 1 (1): 51-69.
Caputo, John D. 1996. “A Community without Truth: Derrida and the Impossible
Community.” Research in Phenomenology 26: 25-37.
———. 1999. “Who Is Derrida’s Zarathustra? Of Fraternity, Friendship, and a
Democracy to Come.” Research in Phenomenology 29: 184-98.
Derrida, Jacques. 1992. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Trans.
Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas. Intro. Michael B. Naas.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
———. 1997. Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. London: Verso.
Ivan Callus
———. 1998. “Intellectual Courage: An Interview.” Interview with Thomas
Assheuer. Trans. Peter Krapp. Culture Machine. Http://culturemachine.
———. 2003a. “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides.” In Giovanna
Borradori. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jacques Derrida
and Jürgen Habermas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 83-136.
———. 2003b. Voyous. Paris: Galilée.
———. 2004a. “Enlightenment Past and to Come.” Trans. Gulliver Cragg. Le Monde
diplomatique. November. Http:// 06derrida.
———. 2004b. “Je suis en guerre contre moi-même.” Interview with Jean Birnbaum.
Le Monde. 18 August.
———. 2004c. “The Last of the Rogue States: The “Democracy to Come,” Opening
in Two Turns.” Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. South
Atlantic Quarterly 103: 323-41.
Habermas, Jürgen. 2001. “Why Europe Needs a Constitution.” New Left Review 11:
Habermas, Jürgen, and Jacques Derrida. 2003. “February 15, or What Binds
Europeans Together: A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in
the Core of Europe.” Constellations 10 (3): 291-97.
Kennedy, Paul. 2003. “Old Europe Cannot Be a Counterweight to the American
Imperium.” New Perspectives Quarterly 20. Http://
Le Goff, Jacques. 2005. The Birth of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell.
Levy, Daniel, Max Pensky, and John Torpey. Eds. Old Europe, New Europe, Core
Europe: Transatlantic Relations after the Iraq War. London: Verso.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor et al.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Žižek, Slavoj. 1998. “A Leftist Plea for ‘Eurocentrism.’” Critical Inquiry (Summer):
Recent discussions of community have often invoked a shared
narrative tradition – usually a shared religious tradition or subtradition
– as the defining feature. These calls for the revival of community
have frequently accompanied laments over social fragmentation and
atomization, particularly in Europe and North America. Alasdair
MacIntyre’s attempt to articulate a political vision grounded in an
Aristotelian account of shared goods and narratives constitutes one of
the most significant representatives of this current. After setting out
his position and its dire consequences for pluralistic societies, this
essay focuses on MacIntyre’s move from practices to tradition and
argues that shared practices – particularly shared political
commitments – may generate and unite groups that do not share a
common meta-narrative but nonetheless constitute a community with
shared discursive practices. The Peruvian liberation theologian
Gustavo Gutiérrez is particularly helpful in theorizing a notion of
community that allows for great differences in the comprehensive
narratives in terms of which participants define their lives. The result
is a conception of a deeply pluralistic, arguably fragmented society
composed of citizens belonging to multiple, intersecting, but not
concentric, communities.
Calls for community to combat the atomization of modern Western society
resound from many corners.
“Community” has becomes a rallying cry for
forces on the right and the left, as well as a prominent concern in a wide
range of academic disciplines. Much of its rhetorical power, however, derives
from the term’s ambiguity and imprecision. It easily conjures warm fuzzies
I would like to thank Matthew Bagger, Orit Bashkin, Scott Davis, John Kelsay, John
P. Reeder, Jr., Jeffrey Stout, James Wetzel and the participants in the Communities
Conference in Leeds, September 2003 for their responses to earlier versions of this
Thomas A. Lewis
without conveying anything in particular.
It brings to mind close, personal
connections with other people – whose absence many people today view as
symptomatic of a fragmenting modernity and/or postmodernity. For instance,
Robert Putnam’s best-seller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of
American Community, seeks to document a loss of “social capital” in the
United States in recent decades. He defines social capital as the “social
networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from
them” (2000: 19). He thereby focuses on the personal connections that the
term community often calls to mind.
Yet a striking feature of much of the discussion of community – at
least in North America – is that it often concerns translocal communities not
based on geography or personal social connections. That is, many of the most
politically and socially influential discussions are not about knowing people
but about having something crucial in common that binds us together even
with people we have not necessarily met. In the work of many
communitarian thinkers as well those such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley
Hauerwas, and others who reject the label but are frequently grouped together
with them, the decisive factor seems to be sharing a moral framework,
typically defined by a religious and/or intellectual tradition. One prominent
theme in these discussions is the role of community in both cultivating the
development of virtue in children and supporting its ongoing practice by
adults. Stanley Hauerwas exemplifies this thrust, though it is also prominent
in the work of Amitai Etzioni. A liberalism that seeks to avoid imposing
one’s own values on others is blamed for creating an “anything-goes” society
in which individuals lack the moral and/or religious guidance necessary to
develop virtues and structure a life in accord with acknowledged goods.
While these ethical issues are often most prominent in political
discussions, they are closely intertwined with epistemological claims about
the necessary prerequisites of reasoned argument. This “new traditionalism,”
to borrow Jeffrey Stout’s phrase, dismisses Enlightenment hopes to achieve
dialogue on ethical and political topics between people who do not share a
common tradition (Stout, 2000). It contends that reasoned argument is
possible only against the background of a shared tradition. Frequently, this
conception of tradition refers to a tradition of interpretation of a canon, such
as the New Testament. There is no “public” or shared reason substantial
enough to resolve or even frame disagreements about significant issues.
When grappling with difficult decisions, such as whether to allow abortions
or to provide legal recognition for same-sex marriages, we have no resources
At a political level, this makes calls to community particularly difficult to combat,
regardless of the particular agenda with which they are allied.
Heterogeneous Community
other than our own traditions, which are precisely what we do not share with
our opponents.
I take this line of argument to be grappling with some of the most
fundamental philosophical issues at stake in recent debates about community.
Moreover, it raises basic challenges to the possibility of a pluralistic society
that seeks to determine its political course on the basis of a collective process
of deliberation. Consequently, I focus my comments on that aspect of
“community” concerned with what it takes for people to be able to give
reasons that a particular audience should find persuasive. That is, I am here
concerned with community in the sense of a group of people who can argue
meaningfully with each other. To explore this issue, I interrogate the work of
Alasdair MacIntyre, whom I take to be one of the most sophisticated and
influential articulators of the new-traditionalist view that we require a
common, comprehensive tradition in order to engage in such debate. I set out
the roles of virtue, practices, and tradition in his account of community.
While I find much to agree with in MacIntyre’s work, I argue that Gustavo
Gutiérrez is particularly helpful in theorizing a notion of community that
allows for great differences in the comprehensive narratives in terms of
which participants define their lives. He suggests that shared practices –
particularly shared political commitments – may generate and unite groups
that do not share a common meta-narrative but nonetheless constitute a
community with shared discursive practices. Taking seriously communities
defined by shared practices suggests an approach to community that enables
us to appreciate new communities that are already emerging as well as to
allay concerns about exclusion of outsiders and repression of insiders that are
rightly associated with tradition-defined communities. Recognizing that we
may be bound to one group by virtue of our practices and another by virtue of
our narratives, the result is a conception of a deeply pluralistic, arguably
fragmented society composed of citizens belonging to multiple, intersecting,
but not concentric, communities.
MacIntyre, Virtue and Community
Alasdair MacIntyre has called for the rejection of modern Western liberalism
and the revival of virtue ethics as a basis for political life. Influential in
several disciplines, he has given voice to and channeled a frequent concern
that our political life is dominated by self-interest and power struggles rather
than moral or ethical ends. Though it draws upon earlier work and he has
modified aspects of his view since, MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in
Moral Theory remains the most powerful statement of the basic elements of
Thomas A. Lewis
his rejection of liberalism in favor of the tradition of virtue.
Painting with a
very broad brush, this work begins with a portrayal of contemporary ethical
discourse in total disarray. The attempt to provide rational justification for
moral claims that is independent of inherited traditions has failed, as any such
attempt must. As a result, we possess only fragments of moral concepts,
without the larger context necessary to make them coherent and compelling.
The only way out of this predicament, MacIntyre argues, is the revival of the
virtue tradition associated with Aristotle and carried through much of the
Christian tradition. Making this tradition viable today requires a strong
emphasis on narrative and the concept of tradition itself. While MacIntyre’s
account of the development of this tradition, and particularly the role of
Aquinas in this development, has transformed significantly in later works,
After Virtue provides his most explicit elaboration of what he takes to be the
conception of virtue at the core of this tradition, which is the conception that
he intends to revive.
In the complex account of virtue that he there provides, he assigns
important roles to our practices as well as to the narratives in terms of which
we understand ourselves and our actions. Probing the relationship between
these two central concepts, practices and narratives, reveals that MacIntyre’s
manner of relating them subordinates practices to comprehensive narratives
and that this subordination plays an essential role in MacIntyre’s dire
prognosis of the present moral and political situation. Prying apart the
concepts that MacIntyre has linked so tightly enables us to see and appreciate
more varied forms of community – those constituted by common practices as
well as those constituted by common comprehensive narratives – that
MacIntyre’s vision hides.
While the terms “practice” and “narrative” will require more extensive
definition below, their juxtaposing requires a preliminary justification. The
telling of a narrative is itself a practice, as is apparent in MacIntyre’s account
of the role of story telling in education (AV 216). The distinction is not meant
to deny this point. Rather, as we will see, MacIntyre’s juxtaposing of
practices and narratives functions to distinguish a particular practice from the
larger narrative context necessary to characterize or define that practice.
MacIntyre (1984; references to this work will be cited parenthetically as “AV”). For
the most significant developments in his view of tradition and of the virtue tradition in
particular, see his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988; cited as “WJWR”), and
Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition
Because so much of high quality has already been written about MacIntyre, I focus
specifically on these issues. See particularly Stout (1988 and 2004), Horton and
Mendus (1994) and Murphy (2003).
Heterogeneous Community
Such a distinction does not preclude examining the narrative context of a
practice of telling narratives. Thus, it does not preclude treating narratives as
practices, but it provides analytical tools for describing the relationship
between a particular practice and the context that makes it intelligible.
Aristotelian Friendship and Political Life
Central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s political project is the rejection of liberalism
in favor of a model of political life grounded in Aristotle’s conception of the
highest form of friendship. Such friendship, according to Aristotle, is based
not in utility or mere pleasure, but “the friendship of good people similar in
virtue,” who “wish goods in the same way to each other in so far as they are
good, and they are good in themselves” (Aristotle, 1985: 1156b). Concerned
with a world in which a variety of visions of the good are circulating,
MacIntyre shifts the emphasis from sharing in excellence to sharing a vision
of the good. He interprets this most complete form of friendship as that of
people who share a vision of the good, which – as we will see – is ultimately
expressed in terms of a comprehensive narrative. While MacIntyre does not
explore what might be at stake in this difference, the shift is integral to his
attempt to revise Aristotle in a manner that takes history seriously and
acknowledges that different groups have different visions of the good.
MacIntyre thus extends this Aristotelian conception of friendship – as he
interprets it – to provide a foundation for social and political life. He claims
that the ancient Greek polis – which for him, as for many German Romantics,
provides the paradigm of integrated political community – was constituted by
interconnecting networks of such friends (AV 156).
The modern Western world, however, has lost the understanding of
such relationships as a basis for political life. He faults a wide range of
influential eighteenth-century political thinkers with “tend[ing] to exclude
from view any conception of society as a community united in a shared
vision of the good for man (as prior to and independent of any summing of
individual interests) and a consequent shared practice of the virtues” (AV 236;
emphasis in original). Without a shared vision of the good, we are reduced to
what MacIntyre portrays as Nietzschean anarchy: at the personal and
interpersonal level, we can provide no justifications for moral commitments
In his political vision based on Aristotle’s conception of friendship, he attempts to
revive Aristotle for contemporary political life without directly addressing Aristotle’s
claims about the superiority of kingship to democracy. For criticism of MacIntyre’s
interpretation of Aristotle on political community, see Stout (1988: 239 and 325 n.
Thomas A. Lewis
that are satisfactory, to others or ourselves. As a result, emotivism, in which
moral claims are seen as nothing more than expressions of preferences, has
become the reigning moral paradigm. At the political level, we have no
underlying agreements significant enough to enable debate. Politics is
therefore reduced to power struggles among competing interests, so that
contemporary North Atlantic political life is best described as “civil war
carried on by other means” (AV 253). MacIntyre argues that such an outcome
is inevitable once we succumb to the Enlightenment’s demand for morality
that is founded in reason independent of tradition. Once we have accepted the
rejection of virtue theory that MacIntyre identifies with the rise of modernity,
we have started down the slippery slope that leads ineluctably to Nietzsche.
We must choose, then, as MacIntyre polemically puts it, between Aristotle
and Nietzsche.
Only a political life grounded in a shared conception of the good will
allow us to escape the current predicament and rescue moral and political
discourse from the standstill that results from having no common ground. If
we are to take seriously the dire prognosis of the final pages of After Virtue,
contemporary North Atlantic social and political life is already beyond the
point of no return. The greatest hope is for a new form of cloister to provide
shelter from and sustain moral life during the “the new dark ages” (AV 263).
Thus, even if Aristotle’s vision cannot be realized on a national basis, it
remains, for MacIntyre, the ideal for a new (or revived) form of political life.
In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre further develops this view
with the suggestion that the Platonic Academy represents an alternative
model of a community united and defined by a shared vision of the good,
thereby demonstrating Aristotle’s on-going relevance in a world without a
polis (1988: 99; see also MacIntyre, 1994: esp. 151).
MacIntyre’s Account of Virtue
MacIntyre’s understanding of the significance of a shared vision of the good
is thus essential to his political alternative to liberalism. While Aristotelian
friendship provides the model, however, it is the details of his account of
virtue that serve to justify the high threshold of agreement that he claims is
necessary to provide both the context for individual flourishing and the basis
for meaningful dialogue over ethical issues. MacIntyre offers his own
account of virtue, modifying Aristotle’s conception (to avoid elements of
Aristotle’s notion that MacIntyre finds indefensible) by assigning narrative
and tradition fundamental roles. In setting forth this account, he attempts to
articulate the “core concept” of virtue at the heart of a tradition that runs from
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Aristotle, through Augustine and Aquinas as well as many other less
prominent figures. This conception of virtue – which receives its most
extensive treatment in chapters fourteen and fifteen of After Virtue – is
articulated in relation to three elements: practices, whole-life narratives, and
traditions. MacIntyre understands all three to collectively define virtue and
binds them so tightly together that potential interlocutors have no purchase
for significant argument or debate unless they share all three. More pointedly,
it is precisely because these three elements are conceived of as inseparable
that moral and political debate can only take place in a community with a
shared vision of the good. One crucial point at which to challenge
MacIntyre’s political proposals, then, is in his conception of virtue in terms
of these three elements and their interrelationships.
MacIntyre begins his account of virtues by locating their function in
relation to practices. Particularly because of the prominent role that the term
“practice” has played in a wide range of recent discussions in the humanities
and social sciences, it is essential to appreciate the specificity of MacIntyre’s
conception of practice:
By a “practice” I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of
socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal
to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those
standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of,
that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence,
and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically
extended. (AV 187)
Three aspects of this definition merit particular attention. Intrinsic to
these practices are internal, not only external, goods. A good internal to a
practice is a good that cannot be achieved by any other means and to which,
therefore, the practice is not simply a means. Chess, to use one of
MacIntyre’s examples, can produce both internal and external goods. The
internal good is that of playing chess well (which could be broken down into
multiple components, such as defending well or attacking well). External
goods include prestige, status, and money. While the latter could potentially
also be attained through some entirely different activity – such as investment
banking – or, perhaps more importantly, by cheating at chess, the internal
goods can only be achieved through performing the activity well (AV 188).
MacIntyre goes to great length articulating the notion of internal goods,
Thomas A. Lewis
precisely because he thinks our society generally fails to appreciate practices
as more than means to external ends.
In part because internal goods can only be realized through engaging
in the practice, excellence in practices can only be judged by those with
relevant experience – that is, by experts.
The standards of excellence in a
practice are not known to the uninitiated. To enter into the practice, to begin
to develop any degree of excellence in it, one must submit oneself to an
authority with the necessary expertise. This does not entail, however, that the
standards are subjective; to the contrary, “[i]n the realm of practices the
authority of both goods and standards operates in such a way as to rule out all
subjectivist and emotivist analyses of judgment” (AV 190). At the same time,
these standards are not fixed. The most excellent practitioners transform the
standards themselves. The understanding of what it is to play chess well is
transformed by an innovative expert. In MacIntyre’s vision, such
developments do not come out of nowhere. They involve extensions of the
standards that are already definitive of the practice, not an abrogation of those
standards. These extensions distinguish practices from an activity whose
excellence can be exhaustively defined in a static rule book; practices are
“never just a set of technical skills” (AV 193).
Thirdly, the essential role of a community of experts entails an
intrinsically social dimension to practices. In embarking upon the practice of
a practice, we enter a community. In this context, MacIntyre equates
Aristotle’s conception of complete friendship as “shar[ing] in the pursuit of
certain goods” with “[i]n my own terms… shar[ing] a practice” (AV 191).
While this comment might provide the opening for MacIntyre to develop a
more complex notion of community than he ultimately does – such as by
discussing the significance of a community of chess players – he does not
take this opportunity. Rather, he stresses that the pursuit of goods internal to
a practice requires virtues such as justice, courage, and honesty. These and
other virtues constitute “necessary components of any practices with internal
goods and standards of excellence” (AV 191). A failure to deal honestly with
other practitioners, for instance, inevitably undermines this pursuit. Similarly,
pursuit of internal goods frequently requires courage to risk losing external
goods. Consequently, a virtue can be preliminarily defined as “an acquired
human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to
While this element of MacIntyre’s discussion of virtue has received a great deal of
attention, it is less relevant to the present purposes. See, for instance, Stout (1988:
266-292) and Frazer and Lacey (1994: 265-282).
Whereas MacIntyre claims that such expert judges must themselves excel at the
practice, Jeffrey Stout has suggested that in certain situations it is possible to have
expert judges who are not themselves expert practitioners (1988: 267).
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achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which
effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” (AV 191; emphasis in
This account of practices alone, however, is insufficient to specify
virtue. The next two levels of MacIntyre’s account of virtue provide the
necessary further specification by providing the basis for distinguishing
virtuous from vicious practices.
Each level provides a larger context for the
judgment of particular practices. Though MacIntyre allows for tragic
conflicts between goods, he is concerned with containing these conflicts so
that they do not proliferate to a degree that becomes incapacitating. The first
larger context is a whole human life. The horizon of a whole life, conceived
as a unity, enables us to make reasoned choices among competing goods.
Without the larger horizon of a conception of one’s life as a whole, we can be
easily overpowered by the competing goods associated with family life, the
internal goods of a profession, the goods of chess, bridge, etc. If that occurs,
one quickly falls into the modern predicament of criterionless choice among
incompatible alternatives.
To develop his conception of this horizon, MacIntyre invokes the
category of narrative. Narrative, he argues, is essential to characterizing
human action, to making sense of what people do. MacIntyre uses a basic
example of human activity: “To the question ‘What is he doing?’ the answers
may with equal truth and appropriateness be ‘Digging’, ‘Gardening’, ‘Taking
exercise’, ‘Preparing for winter’ or ‘Pleasing his wife’” (AV 206). An
adequate response will require determining the relationships among these
different partial answers, indicating which intention is primary, which are
secondary, etc.: “We cannot, that is to say, characterize behavior
independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions
independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible both to
agents themselves and to others” (AV 206). Intentions cannot be understood
separately from larger bodies of belief, “[f]or all intentions presuppose more
or less complex, more or less coherent, more or less explicit bodies of belief”
(AV 28). To characterize actions, we must identify the primary intentions and
place them within a historical narrative. In doing so, we are telling a story.
For MacIntyre, then, “[t]here is no such thing as ‘behavior’, to be identified
prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs and settings” (AV 208). The
notion of a mere action, divorced from a narrative context, cannot stand on its
MacIntyre is skeptical as to whether “evil” practices exist, but he allows for the
possibility (AV 200).
MacIntyre provides two additional reasons to justify this transition from practices to
the level of the whole human life, both of which concern the framework that is
necessary to articulate particular virtues (AV 202-203).
Thomas A. Lewis
own; it is imply an abstraction, “a moment in a possible or actual history of in
a number of such histories” (AV 214). An action is what it is only by virtue of
its situation within a narrative or narratives.
At this point, MacIntyre takes a crucial further step. He proceeds from
the claim that any characterization of an action must ascribe a narrative
context, and thus tell a story, to the claim that any characterization of an
action presupposes a narrative relating to the actor’s life as a whole. This
narrative gives unity to a life. Without such a narrative, a life degenerates into
incoherence, divided into unrelated spheres; without such a narrative, actions
lack intelligibility.
In the next stage of his account of virtue, he goes on to locate this
individual life within the larger context of a tradition. Though his treatment
of tradition in After Virtue is remarkably brief, Whose Justice? Which
Rationality? elaborates. A tradition provides an even more encompassing
narrative and horizon in which to locate individual lives. Ultimately, our
commitments cannot be adequately characterized simply in relation to our
own lives. Rather, “[t]o appeal to tradition is to insist that we cannot
adequately identify either our own commitments or those of others in the
argumentative conflicts of the present except by situating them within those
histories which made them what they have now become” (WJWR 13). To
invoke tradition in interpreting actions is thus to move from the claim that
action can only be adequately characterized in terms of some narrative to the
claim that action can only be adequately characterized when situated in
relation to the most comprehensive narratives possible. It is just such
comprehensive narratives that seem to constitute the visions of the good that
MacIntyre claims ought to be shared by a community as a whole. An
individual’s action in chess can only be adequately characterized by relating
that particular action not only to her history as a chess player, to the history
of the game, and so forth, but also to her vision of the good (which justifies
spending time playing chess), understood in the context of a tradition. While
there might be some relatively trivial actions that could be characterized
without reference to such comprehensive narratives, any ethically relevant
actions must be so construed (see AV 207-208). Not only narratives, but the
most comprehensive narratives possible, are fundamental to characterizing
particular actions.
At this stage in his analysis, MacIntyre does not distinguish between first- and
third-person accounts. These points about the unity necessary for intelligibility
presumably apply to both.
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Consequences for Community
In MacIntyre’s analysis, because particular actions and practices can only be
adequately characterized in relation to what I have referred to as a
comprehensive narrative, only a shared narrative – more specifically a shared
conception of the good – can define a community. It is not enough, for
instance, to agree that the man is working in the garden to avoid being around
his wife. In order to have a more than superficial discussion of the event, we
must also share a conception of marriage and its significance that is grounded
in a tradition of reflection.
Although MacIntyre begins with practices,
because he ultimately defines practices – and actions more generally – in
relation to comprehensive narratives, he makes the latter the exclusive basis
of community: “[G]oods, and with them the only grounds for the authority of
laws and virtues, can only be discovered by entering into those relationships
which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and
understanding of goods” (AV 258; see also 236, quoted above). Practices
“alone” are inadequate; more precisely, they cannot be characterized in
abstraction from the narratives that ascribe unity to a life and situate that life
within a tradition. Shared practices presuppose a shared narrative.
Consequently, MacIntyre’s alternative to liberalism depends upon an
understanding of community as only present when people share a
comprehensive vision of the good, not simply practices or smaller-scale
narratives. Without this type of community, we are driven to Nietzsche.
MacIntyre’s conception of tradition – at least at certain points – is broad
enough to encompass debates about the precise account of the good, but these
disagreements are only compatible with community insofar as they can be
located within the larger context of a tradition.
The implications of this vision are dire: a pluralistic society has no
possibility of mutually engaging discussion of fundamental social and
political questions. Disagreements between the various communities that
together make up the society can only be resolved through power, not reason
giving. It is thus a sectarian picture, suggesting grim prospects for the many
pluralistic societies around the world. Politics is reduced to power struggles
While this account of action appears already in After Virtue, I do not see him
substantially modifying it. To the contrary, I take the discussion of “Tradition and
Translation” at the end of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? to be articulating the
implications to which I am pointing: the impossibility of reasoned discussion in the
absence of a substantial shared tradition.
See AV 222. Drawing on the work of Susan Moller Okin, Jeffrey Stout argues that
MacIntyre equivocates between this more inclusive and a much more restrictive
conception of “tradition” (2003: 135-137).
Thomas A. Lewis
among competing interests, so that contemporary North Atlantic political life
is best described, according to MacIntyre, as “civil war carried on by other
means” (AV 253).
Questioning the Move from Practice to Tradition
MacIntyre’s quick steps from practice, to a narrative, to a comprehensive
tradition play an essential role in supporting his anti-liberal criticisms and
constructive political project. For this reason, the transition from describing
an action to a tradition of inquiry deserves careful scrutiny. In exploring
whether a shared tradition is necessary to provide a shared account of an
action, the Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez provides a
valuable alternative to MacIntyre. In relation to community, Gutiérrez points
to resources for reasoned debate that enable us to avoid the grim conclusions
to which MacIntyre’s view leads. Emerging in the late nineteen-sixties, Latin
American liberation theology has sought to connect Christian notions of
charity – and particularly the tradition of Catholic teachings on social justice
– with contemporary struggles against oppression and injustice in Latin
America. In certain cases, such as the revolutions in Nicaragua and El
Salvador, this led to significant collaboration between Christians influenced
by liberation theology and Marxist revolutionary movements. In trying to
articulate the theological significance of – and justification for – this
collaboration, Gutiérrez is concerned with the characterization of actions of
self-avowed Marxists involved in the same revolutionary struggles as
committed Christians. Take the example of a Marxist organizing a popular
movement to demand the redistribution of land. Drawing on the work on Karl
Rahner and the idea of “anonymous Christians,” Gutiérrez claims that in
certain cases – where the person’s action is motivated by what Gutiérrez calls
charity, or love, and seeks to bring about a more just world, rather than
simply to bring one’s own group into power, for instance – the action is most
adequately characterized as a response to grace (1988: 45). Gutiérrez would
characterize the action in relation to a number of narratives – including ones
about the development of the revolutionary movement in that particular
country, the drive to bring about a radically different political and economic
system, etc. Yet, for him, the ultimate significance of the action can be
characterized only in relation to a distinctly Christian story about God’s offer
of grace, the acceptance of grace, and the meaning of sin. By contrast, the
Marxist herself rejects precisely this narrative. She agrees with the narrative
that locates the particular action within the history of the development of a
particular revolutionary movement, but articulates its ultimate significance in
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terms of a Marxist narrative about historical development and the liberation
of the proletariat – a narrative that may include an account of the overcoming
of religious explanations as contributing to oppression. Here different people
provide incompatible narratives regarding what they see as the ultimate
meaning of the “same” action.
Gutiérrez suggests that despite their differences such groups can be
characterized as a community, even though they have incompatible accounts
of the “ultimate” end of their actions and locate themselves in rival traditions.
In sharing at least an outline of what would constitute a more just society,
they share substantial narratives. They thus share what I would refer to as
proximate ends. The distinction should not suggest that “ultimate” ends are
necessarily “deeper” or of greater metaphysical weight than the “proximate”
ends; it is meant simply to indicate the ways in which members of certain
traditions may order the ends in relation to each other. They share political
objectives, including both an account of a need to transform the status quo
and to bring a new government of a particular sort to power; and both view
this political project in terms of its ethical significance. They may operate
very effectively together on the basis of their agreement about goods that
both view as very important.
While this collaboration itself may have tremendous political impact,
what is most significant in relation to MacIntyre is that their agreement on
proximate ends can provide the basis for reasoned debate on a wide range of
ethical issues. We need not take MacIntyre’s step to the most comprehensive
levels of a tradition in order to be able to argue meaningfully together.
Gutiérrez illustrates this possibility in his treatment of the transformations in
their understandings of justice achieved by Christians and Marxists engaged
in a common practice and collective reflection on that practice. There may
well be issues on which their commonalities run out and they will no longer
be able to debate on the basis of their agreement about proximate goods, but
this is no reason not to appreciate the wide range of debate that is possible.
Because they constitute a group with a shared background sufficient to enable
discourse based on giving reasons, they can and should be recognized as a
type of community. Let me stress that a “community” in this sense is much
less all-encompassing than visions of community often are. It is certainly not
a utopia or the solution to all our problems. Yet it is much more than a mere
I have developed this interpretation of Gutiérrez at greater length in Lewis (2005
For one account of what such exchange might look like, see Charles Taylor’s
discussion of ad hominem argument in “Explanation and Practical Reason” (1993:
Thomas A. Lewis
cloakroom community in that it deals with people’s most fundamental
commitments – the ends in terms of which they orient their lives.
The converse of this recognition of communities based in shared
practices and proximate ends, however, is a greater recognition of divisions
within the groups MacIntyre would likely view as communities. Not only do
people engaged in apparently similar practices locate themselves in very
different narratives; many people with apparently similar narratives may
engage in very different practices with correspondingly divergent proximate
ends. MacIntyre would of course quickly agree that many people use
traditional moral languages with little idea what they entail. This is the point
of his gripping opening sketch in After Virtue, in which he compares moral
discourse in contemporary North Atlantic societies to the situation of the
natural sciences after a great catastrophe, as a result of which we are left with
fragments but no sense of how they fit together. But my point is the stronger
one that we may – and do – encounter articulate, reflective individuals who
self-consciously locate themselves within the same tradition – with
authoritative texts, interpreters, and histories of interpretation – and draw
upon this tradition to justify radically opposed actions. Divisions between
Latin American Catholics deeply influenced by liberation theology and those
who maintain a much more conservative political stance – and defend it in
terms of Catholic principles – are a powerful example. Despite their appeal to
common sources, the difference in their practices may be so great – pitting
them on opposite sides of armed political struggles, for instance – that they
cannot easily be considered a community. Gutiérrez, for instance, claims that
the division according to political options is more significant at the time and
place that he is writing than the division according to confessed faith or
atheism (1983: 70, 93 and 190). Taken together with MacIntyre’s concerns,
this point suggests that which commonalities and differences matter most in
defining community may depend significantly on the context.
Simultaneously, the point that shared narratives do not always result in
common practices should serve as a reminder that appealing to a common
tradition does not necessarily move political life beyond scarcely veiled
expressions of power. Once again, liberation theology provides an excellent
example. The nineteen-seventies and eighties witnessed extensive debates
throughout many sectors of the Catholic Church over the legitimacy of
liberation theology. Despite appeals to a common tradition, institutional
power played a central role for both sides, as when conservatives gained
control of the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in 1972 and
directed many of the organization’s resources toward limiting the influence
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of liberation theology.
While MacIntyre might contend that liberation
theology simply represents a deviation from or rejection of the tradition,
doing so involves using a deliberately narrow definition of tradition precisely
to escape the challenge. In general, only a very narrow definition could
possibly eliminate such power struggles from political life. While at points he
seems inclined to such a narrow definition of a tradition, at his best
MacIntyre stresses the need for tradition to encompass disagreement.
Toward Heterogeneous Community
Putting together these two conceptions of community suggests a more
complex conception than either MacIntyre or Gutiérrez alone provides. Once
we allow that shared practices may bind people into community even when
their most comprehensive visions of the good are expressed in incompatible
terms, we begin to see practices, not just comprehensive narratives, as a
possible source of community. This view does not entail that intentions are
irrelevant or that an action can be adequately characterized merely in relation
to the physical movements that it involves. To use the previous example,
such distinctions are necessary to distinguish the Marxist whom Gutiérrez
would characterize as accepting grace from another person involved in the
same movement primarily as a means to gain political power and spoils of
victory. Nonetheless, shared practices – insofar as they are understood by all
parties in relation to a common proximate end, such as a more just
distribution of resources or a more representative government – may
undergird a powerful form of community.
The resulting conception of community is one that focuses on the
prerequisites of argument based in giving reasons. Whereas MacIntyre
contends that only a shared tradition provides an adequate common horizon
to make such reasoning possible, Gutiérrez identifies the possibility of debate
based upon a less comprehensive shared horizon. In dialogue with others, we
may be able to provide compelling reasons based upon a common vision of a
just society, even when we have very different accounts of the ultimate
significance of that justice. Such ends or goods may provide traction in
arguments with others. Debates among those who do not share a tradition
need not always reduce to emotivism or a struggle for power. To maintain the
possibility of this kind of debate does not entail that proximate ends are
fundamentally independent of or unrelated to the conception of other goods
in the comprehensive view of any particular individual. As in Gutiérrez’s
Smith (1991) provides an excellent overview of many of these dynamics.
Thomas A. Lewis
case, he relates his conception of justice to his more comprehensive religious
views, yet this does not preclude his debating with others whose conception
of justice shares much with his but is not conceived in relation to Gutiérrez’s
religious views. We need not have such a comprehensive shared tradition as a
background to our debates in order for them to be based in giving reasons.
Shared practices are particularly important because they may enable
us to both recognize and further develop the commonalities in our
understanding of such proximate goods. Common practices play a
particularly important role here precisely because the languages we initially
bring to bear may be so divergent. The shared practices develop our ability to
perform a kind of translation between languages on certain of these issues,
even in cases where we do not know the other tradition as a whole. While we
may initially understand very little of a neighbor’s talk about justice, through
working together to realize visions of justice and seeing how that language is
used in concrete situations, we often come to recognize common proximate
ends that were initially invisible to both sides.
To champion this possibility of debate even in the absence of a shared
comprehensive tradition, however, is not to imply that such debate is always
possible. It still presupposes agreement on some proximate ends or smaller
scale narratives. And it by no means assumes that such agreement will be
universal. It thus does not appeal to the universalistic conception of reason
that constitutes MacIntyre’s principal target.
Attending to both practices and comprehensive narratives, we may
find ourselves belonging to one community by virtue of political
commitments and to another overlapping but by no means concentric
community by virtue of a larger tradition in terms of which we seek to define
our lives as a whole. The communities themselves are then recognized as
heterogeneous in that members belong not only to that one community but
also to other communities, whose memberships may overlap but are not
identical. Such a vision of intersecting, heterogeneous communities points
toward a conception that allows for more complex identities than many
traditional communities allow and therefore provides openings to avoid their
frequently repressive effects.
Within the larger society, intersecting
communities need not pit groups against each other. Community’s power to
exclude is significantly decreased when we are simultaneously bound to
different sets of individuals due to the multiple communities to which we
belong. Finally, such a conception much more accurately reflects and
An expressivist account of action such as Gutiérrez’s also does a great deal to fill
out the significance and impact of such action (see Lewis 2005 forthcoming).
This approach would also provide the basis for understanding such communities as
more than “lifestyle enclaves”; see Bellah et al. (1985: 72).
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accounts for the feeling that most members of complex modern societies have
of belonging to different groups – whether familial, religious, professional, or
political – by virtue of the multiple dimensions of our lives.
recognized in this manner, these multiple bonds may be able to knit a diverse
society tightly together, providing us with a variety of resources for debating
with our neighbors without the homogeneity that often makes community
both repressive and xenophobic. We may then view these bonds and the
diversity they reflect not merely as a challenge to multicultural societies but
as their greatest potential resource.
Works Cited
Aristotle. 1985. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, Ind.:
Bellah, R. N., R. Madsen, W. M. Sullivan, A. Swidler, and S. M. Tipton. 1985. Habits
of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Frazer, Elizabeth & Nicola Lacey. 1994. “MacIntyre, Feminism and the Concept of
Practice.” In After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of
Alasdair MacIntyre. Ed. J. Horton and S. Mendus. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre
Dame University Press.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1983. The Power of the Poor in History. Trans. Robert R. Barr.
Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
———. 1988. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Trans.
Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Rev. ed. Maryknoll. New York:
Orbis Books.
Horton, John & Susan Mendus. Eds. 1994. After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on
the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University
Lewis, Thomas A. 2005 (forthcoming). “Actions as the Ties That Bind: Love, Praxis,
and Community in the Thought of Gustavo Gutiérrez.” Journal of Religious
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2d. ed. Notre
Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
———. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, Ind.: University of
Notre Dame Press.
———. 1990. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy,
and Tradition. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
For an extremely useful sociological discussion of the complex new styles of
association characterizing contemporary life in the United States, see Wuthnow
Thomas A. Lewis
———. 1994. “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Interview by Giovanna Borradori.” In The
American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam,
Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, and Kuhn. Ed. Giovanna
Borradori. Trans. Rosanna Crocitto. Chicago and London: University of
Chicago Press.
Murphy, Mark C. Ed. 2003. Alasdair MacIntyre. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American
Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Stout, Jeffrey. 1988. Ethics after Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their
Discontents. Boston: Beacon Press.
———. 2004. Democracy and Tradition: Religion, Ethics, and Public Philosophy.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Taylor, Charles. 1993. “Explanation and Practical Reason.” In The Quality of Life. Ed.
M. C. Nussbaum & A. Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wuthnow, Robert. 1998. Loose Connections: Joining Together in America's
Fragmented Communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Multicultural advocates mostly agree that the right to unconditional
protection for under-represented communities exists in an uneasy relation
to a critical ability for “outsiders” to rightfully adjudicate another’s
community disputes. Stanley Fish approaches this vexed relationship by
stating that multicultural theory is incoherent: it wants to both declare a
universal humanity and a world essentially defined by incontrovertible
difference. However, due to a rigid pragmatic approach that renders
multiculturalism static, his argument falters. Jean Paul Sartre, on the
other hand, reassesses perception and the ego to reveal the underlying
coherence in a “universal” consciousness. These ideas (and others) allow
one to imply that the objective nature of the cogito legitimizes and
strengthens the authority of non-community members to “cross-over”
into other cultures for important pro-active political work. Sartre’s
“modernist” appreciation constructs a transhistorical formalism that can
be used to secure a vibrant and vital multiculturalism.
How can the discourse of multiculturalism include an assertive defense of
community autonomy, minority rights, and evaluative cultural work? I ask the
question because these three concerns while typically expressing conventional
notions of multiculturalism also reveal seemingly conflictual premises. Phrasing
the concerns in a slightly different register: how does the right for unconditional
protection of under-represented communities exist in relation to a critical ability
for others to rightfully adjudicate their community disputes?
My approach to
This conundrum gets spelled out in various ways throughout the literature of
multiculturalism but especially in the collection titled: Is Multiculturalism Bad For
Women? For those readers interested in how this clash of principles emerges in feminist
theory, consider the following articles in that book: “Liberalism’s Sacred Cow,” by Homi
K. Bhabha (79) and “Promises We Should All Keep in Common Cause,” by Abdullahi
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these vexed relationships will be partly an interrogation of current multicultual
theory (using some of Stanley Fish’s thoughts) and partly a reassessment of
perception and the ego (using Jean- Paul Sartre’s early writings). Fish believes
multicultural theory is incoherent because it wants to both declare a universal
humanity and a world essentially defined by incontrovertible difference.
However, due to a rigid pragmatic approach, his argument falters. Sartre, on the
other hand, helps one see coherence in diversity; his ideas imply that the
objective nature of the cogito can be used to legitimize and strengthen the
universal qualities of multicultural theory.
To unfold these two approaches, I
must first present some of the fundamental principles about minority
communities that undergird such complex topics. After discussing minority
rights, critical social advocacy, and theories regarding reason, I will compare
Fish and Sartre. My final claim is that Sartre’s modernist program helps one see
how a transhistorical formalism crosses cultures to make multiculturalism
vibrant and vital. But first some remarks on the rights of communities.
Most minority communities need critical advocates, both inside and
outside their groups to help do cultural work. Social theorists generally agree
that justice for under-represented ethnic peoples will not happen simply by
guaranteeing individual rights. Ethnic groups need to organize and advocate for
an ethos of inclusion and solidarity in order to have the power to demand that
“catch-up” policies like affirmative action and ethnic-membership rolls remain
legal and vibrant. That type of advocacy labor is the first reason why
multiculturalism is not just a descriptive term for a community composed of
multiple cultures. Stated in reverse, absent of proactive organizing, many
individuals might think that the word “multicultural” simply describes the
obvious: that we live in a world of various cultures. Hence, without the social-
work activism associated with focused political involvement, multiculturalism
could be viewed as just another version of pluralism, albeit, perhaps a bit more
liberal. Of course, multiculturalism does follow in the wake of liberalism in its
concerns for decreased discrimination, enhanced toleration, and increased
opportunities for the disenfranchised. And also similar to committed liberals,
An-Na’im (59). I will shortly present how this problem is handled by Stanley Fish and
resolved by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course, Sartre’s early work does not directly engage multicultural theory. Still, the
implications are there. And even though one might argue that Sartre’s major works have
not continued to have an influence in the twenty-first century, his early work remains
closely reasoned and a significant alternative to post-structural theories. He may privilege
consciousness rather than language, but it is just this approach that can reinvigorate
multicultural theory. For a sympathetic reading of Sartre’s “humanism” in some of these
matters, see Lentricchia (1980: 44-53), Wolin (1992: 125-146) and Bell (1989: 26-48).
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
most multiculturalists pride themselves, at least initially, on being “progressive
pluralists” in their desire to be non-judgmental, open-minded, welcoming,
curious, and eager to respect the rights of others, especially the rights of those
who have had historically less power and influence in the public imagination.
But we don’t need the word multicultural for that sort of behavior; liberal will
do quite well. We do need the word, however, to signal a change from pluralism
to this aggressive variant that includes much more visible political involvements
for small, often poorly recognized communities.
For multiculturalism to matter, then, it sets itself apart from a
conventional liberal pluralism through its advocacy work. That is its first
defining feature. The second feature that swings away from pluralism is in how
it defines reason. In contrast to past social movements, multiculturalism sees
reason itself as a more or less political activity. That is, many multicultural
advocates are politically involved while at the same time believing that the
rational and the true have little if any universal or global import. The “truth” one
discovers in cultural investigations is always discursively constructed and valid
only in very limited contexts. Multiculturalists will tell you that there are few
if any significant transcultural or transhistorical facts. What we call reason is,
at bottom, a system of signs that is always formed and deployed through
historical, local, and textual means. Every culture produces and receives its
signs of “truth” and “reason,” but they do so in their own very particular way.
And, in fact, these distinct understandings are exactly what give a culture its
own culturally-specific “otherness,” the deep comprehension of which rarely,
if ever, crosses its borders. Call this the postmodern or strong form of
multiculturalism. It desires political work while deeply qualifying the
adjudicating powers of its reason. This trust in politics and distrust in rationality
interests me. I’m intrigued by how multiculturalism can provide important, non-
culturally specific support for minority communities (an unconditional
guarantee) and still maintain equally crucial support for specific minority issues
(a conditional guarantee). Those two claims tend to clash. That is, the sweeping
assertion that all legitimate minority communities need to be protected viewed
against the secondary assertion that one needs to evaluate communities for
particular political purposes calls upon opposed principles. The first contends
that all legitimate communities share some universal preservation of “rights of
determination.” Such a right is not dependent on interpretation or evaluation.
That is, communities are unequivocally equal in one important way: no voice
of reason can arrive from the outside and claim to authentically understand their
issues, problems, and/or institutional structures. Indeed, it is precisely because
dominant outsiders cannot reasonably judge another group’s core values that the
lives and societies within minority cultures need to be protected. After all,
individual community members do need support so that they can decide for
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themselves what is true and what is not. But how can that support arrive if no
one “outside” the community “deeply” understands it? This is why most groups
reject those who seek to alter the “internal affairs” of others.
Conflicting with that well-intentioned post-independence “hands off
policy” is the multicultural goal of organizing, working together, and crossing
into other communities in order to do more than just secure autonomous rights;
multiculturalists also want to help minorities achieve better economic and social
conditions. In spite of the supposed inability of reason to cross cultural lines, we
still want to aid the communities that face oppression and intolerance. But can
an outsider’s reason, one that is only discursively and locally constructed,
clearly and deeply adjudicate problems for a separate culture that uses their own
version of “reason”? The deep distrust of reason’s objectivity and impartiality
necessarily disrupts the rational political work that makes multiculturalism what
it is. In other words, the comprehensive and uncritical multicultural advocacy
for the preservation of all legitimate minority communities carries weight
because it is not discriminatory, not hierarchical, not interculturally validated,
and not actually reasoned at all. It is a speech act similar to the declaration of a
marriage; that is, it creates a vow or pledge simply by its articulation. Plus, such
an acknowledgment is “inalienable,” something that cannot be ethically
So what role can reason play in this difficult and sensitive
At the same time, though, all of the above relies on reason. But whose
reason? Each time a strong form of evaluative reasoning, one that might claim
transcultural validity, is set aside in favor of an advocacy for sweeping
protection and diversity, problems arise as to the role “reason” should have.
Even though local, political, and contingent, the qualified model of reasoning
mentioned at various times in this article, reason can supposedly still generalize
inductively and “abstract from particular instances to the probability of broad
commonalities” (Goldberg, 1994: 18). Thus, the postmodern assault on reason’s
inability to be objective that I began with, the type of criticism that first
energized multiculturalism’s radical guarantee of rights, gets tempered by an
often unspoken deference to something like, in David Theo Goldberg’s words,
“a thin set of common rules of logic and basic inference” (1994: 17). Some
The challenge here arises when uncritical advocacy (“I may not know what it is like to
be you, but I will defend your right to that authenticity no matter what form it takes”)
clashes with critical adjudication (“Let me help you because we are all brothers and
sisters”). I will soon show how this opposition can be viewed as a productive dialectic.
In sum, multiculturalism denies a globalized notion of truth by relying on the qualities
of formalism. With an awareness of form, revolutionary social transformation are
possible for a radically inclusive group of historically under-represented communities.
And we need to hold on to this.
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
multiculturalists do claim that there is enough adjudicating force in this minimal
model of reasoning to determine whether a minority culture is oppressive or
objectionable. For advocates of multiculturalism, this capacity to “fashion
general judgments” (19) distinguishes itself from the transcendental-based
reasoning of liberalism because it begins with the particular and (supposedly)
carries no implied historical reference to transcultural foundations. It is a type
of rationality that falls somewhere between that worrisome Enlightenment
notion of universal reasoning and the equally worrisome postmodern belief that
truth is only a cover for self-interested power. For example, this in-between type
of cognition – call it common-sense reasoning – is invoked in the following
statement by Goldberg. He uses it here to persuade the reader that a strong
multiculturalist who lives in America and believes only in her own local truths,
this type of individual can still “cross over” and theoretically decry the racism
of apartheid in another part of the world:
Thus multiculturalists are able to condemn a specific form of racism, say,
apartheid, in terms of a general judgment that racist exclusions are unacceptable
because they are unwarranted in a specifiable scheme of social value to which we
do or should adhere for specifiable (and, perhaps, generalizable) reasons. But
there is no transcendental proof or grounds, no universal foundation, for this
scheme or any other. (Goldberg, 1994:19)
This common reasoning judges with a “general” rather than a “universal”
foundation. This means that if the multiculturalist could consciously shed the
transcendental heritage of reason and begin with the localized details of a
specific event, then she can make cross-cultural inductive assessments without
falling into a universalized reason with, perhaps, mostly Western assumptions.
Here is Goldberg once again on the same topic:
It follows that the relativism upon which a sophisticated form of critical [or
strong] multiculturalism rests is not restricted to value particularism.
Multicultural relativism is ready and able to fashion general judgements, that is,
revisable inductive generalizations as the specificity of (particular) circumstances
and relations warrant. (19)
The common reasoning portrayed here is supposedly much more
revisable, circumspect, and self-conscious than the universalism implied in the
Enlightenment model of rationality. Hence, because this common-sense
reasoning suggested by Goldberg does not rely on the liberal notion of a “human
condition” or a universal model of assumptions, it can better represent society’s
“oddities, strangeness, and distinction; in short, its otherness” (18).
Theoretically, then, this somewhat antifoundational form of reasoning should
permit one to cross boundaries and make qualified but specific valuations about
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other communities. After all, such an ability to reasonably transgress cultural
boundaries is what is needed in order to adjudicate the earlier mentioned
problems of oppressive and objectionable minority cultures. Although I believe
Goldberg is generally right about this type of reasoning, he does not give a full
account of its implications. So it is at this point that I want to explore in more
detail how this common-sense reasoning can perform from within this double
It may be that the line between fundamental acceptance of a minority
culture aided by a distrust of universal reasoning and possibly even the
exclusion of a minimal model of rationality begins to blur very quickly in actual
application. But that’s how it should be: uncertain, complex, difficult. I’m not
trying to make this conundrum easier as much as I’m trying to justify why it
needs to happen. I contend that Goldberg’s nuanced version of rationality quite
rightly maintains a pivotal position for subject-centered reasoning but actually
under-theorizes its implications. For many strong multiculturalists common
reasoning does not require a deep philosophical analysis since what it replaces
– the Enlightenment’s universal reasoning – has already been thoroughly
debunked in the past several decades precisely for its ahistorical quality. For
some critics, the best part of multiculturalism is that we have gotten rid of the
Enlightenment. Deep, tradition-inflected, philosophical reasoning is precisely
the “grand narrative” from which we want to distance ourselves. The central
problem associated with Enlightenment reasoning is more or less well-known:
it hasn’t been properly historicized. For example, Kant claims a transcendental
subject-position that produces a global “We,” a universal viewpoint or
foundation that then generates supposedly essential valuations that depreciate
and devalue local truths while propping up an abstract human condition, is the
basis for all reasoning. Although reductive and problematic in its own right, this
thumbnail sketch does give the flavor of why such reasoning has been more or
less jettisoned. It should not, however, stop here with Goldberg’s offer of a
wholesale substitution-ethos that might simply replace that “depth” model with
a postmodern “surface” model. Instead, if one continues to theorize these
positions, it is possible to see elements from each working together as a dialectic
to form a solid evaluative strategy that is still post-liberal, still multicultural, but
also a theoretical justification for that problem of combining unconditional
diversity with conditional political activism.
Commonalities between the Enlightenment and the postmodern model
of reasoning can give insights for transcultural communication. Each, after all,
carries a formal structure that connects it to others: the older variety is more
metaphysical, the newer more historical. But what links them is their attention
to form. In thinking more about how the formalism of both types of reasoning
crosses cultural lines, I claim that multiculturalism can promote its necessarily
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
radical inclusivity while still having the theoretical justification to strongly
evaluate others by combining the form of Enlightenment reason with a form of
postmodern skepticism. Indeed, it is the functional role of form, its ability to
suggest common structures between otherwise dissimilar groups, that brings the
hope of substantial communication to otherwise extremely disparate
communities. Even though Goldberg would disagree, it seems clear that
common-sense reasoning is often another way to say that our reliance on the
formal principles of thought – Goldberg’s minimal model of rationality – is
indeed inevitable but also crucially transcultural. And that means that the claim
of the postmodernist – that reason is always political, always formed, framed,
and employed through various historical and textual means – will always
emerge from the commonality of reason’s structure and form. Each local
variation of reason can be useful and true in its own way especially if the
emphasis is placed on form rather than content.
To show how this formalism gets put into practice, I first turn to Stanley
Fish’s article “Boutique Multiculturalism.” Here Fish will use a pragmatic type
of rationality that does not privilege its formal qualities. Instead, he wants to
show how a positive, concrete and “reasoned” interpretation of the above issues
will demonstrate their counterfeit status. To begin, Fish claims that all unifying
aspects of multiculturalism derive from some form of universal reason. His
“universal reason,” one might claim, is what I have outlined above as the
rationale that well-meaning workers call upon in order to cross borders and
“interfere” in the internal affairs of disparate cultures. Fish claims that appeals
to this kind of rationality often surface in multicultural discussions because “the
key word is ‘reason,’ which... is a standard that crosses cultural boundaries and
will be recognized by all parties… (1995: 86n 21). The form or structure of
reason, then, allows one to make sweeping egalitarian proposals: everyone is
entitled to equal respect, intolerance should be condemned, diversity should be
encouraged, etcetera. Given these ranging truisms, virtues tend to become
transcultural. To illustrate, consider the philosophical context of tolerance. All
people deserve to be equally considered with tolerance; however, all people are
unequally different. For Fish, the only way one can justify the application of this
transcultural tolerance to particular, “strong” differences is through some form
of universal reason. That is, to believe in the right of tolerance, one must believe
“all the way”; one must reasonably accept all differences. This is true even when
one considers differences that move towards the unethical. A fully functioning
community that institutionalizes unequal rights for women, for example, must
still be tolerated as a “legitimate” minority culture deserving protection for its
“autonomy.” This is the consequence of a “strong” form of tolerance and
difference. For if you believe in tolerance, you must be tolerant to the extreme;
hence tolerant of intolerance. Fish describes the dilemma as follows:
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At this point the strong multiculturalist faces a dilemma: either he stretches his
toleration so that it extends to the intolerance residing at the heart of a culture he
would honor, in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle, or he
condemns the core intolerance of the culture... in which case he is no longer
according it respect at the point where its distinctiveness is most obviously at
stake. (73)
Identifying such a problem is not wholly a new insight. Herbert Marcuse,
primarily in his lecture “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), wanted to be certain that
this type of all inclusive tolerance did not occur in an enlightened society. He
would most likely accept Fish’s reasoning and advocate for a nation-state that
has the right to be intolerant. Claiming that in order to have a revolutionary
society one cannot follow the liberal tradition that Fish describes, Marcuse
supports communities that tolerate intolerance. One should be intolerant of those
groups and individuals who do not promote progressive values.
Clearly, this
moves against the liberal thinking regarding tolerance, against the thinking
contained in John Milton’s Areopagitica, John Locke’s A Letter Concerning
Toleration, and John Mill’s On Liberty. These documents all argue that people
need to be released from unnecessary state restrictions; that is, the state must
tolerate difference not to the point of intolerance but in order to allow for a more
prosperous community. So in some ways, Fish is right to present this dilemma.
He notes that not tolerating intolerance makes one theoretically intolerant; thus,
one is caught on either side. Either a person supports tolerance and concedes to
the right of intolerance to exist or one must become intolerant of intolerance
and, consequently, can no longer be called a liberal multiculturalist. This is so
because no multiculturalist can claim to be intolerant.
In order for social theorists like Marcuse and Fish to make their
extremist claims, though, they must create a rigid contrary relationship, a kind
of debilitating and exclusive contradiction, between, for example, the concepts
of tolerance and difference. Fish argues here as a literalist, a fundamentalist, and
a nominalist: he wants an Aristotelian world where A is only A and can never
Marcuse resists the notions of a liberal or humanistic tolerance because, for him, reason
can achieve objective truth. Since truth, then, is knowable, intellectuals should practice
a liberating tolerance (1969: 109) rather than a humanistic one. “[U]niversal tolerance
is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the
education and training of people in military violence and destruction. As long as these
conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’” (84). For Marcuse, the
reality of an authoritative state apparatus (police, national guard, “swat” teams, state
troopers, etc.) that, when necessary, can crush any opposition that opposes the current
order means that forms of negative romantic toleration will be counter-productive of any
“real” liberation.
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
be B. Fish’s tolerance and intolerance represent an opposition that can never
work together as partners: A is A and B is B and they are always in opposition.
Tolerance and intolerance must remain separate, isolated, and allergenic. Even
though at times the terms appear to have a cause and effect relation (tolerance
leads to intolerance), Fish does not comment on that interdependence. What is
more pertinent is Fish’s desire to see definitions as rigid principles. As an
illustration, Fish cites the disagreement between abortion pro-lifers and pro-
choicers. Such opposites do not share “basic assumptions”: “Either you can have
‘fundamental’ or you can have ‘intellectual,’ but you can’t have both” (79). In
Fish’s world one cannot be both tolerant and intolerant; to do so would make
one a hypocrite and incoherent. Likewise, one cannot profess the benefits of
difference or diversity and, at the same level, also be in favor of commonality
and similarity. In other words, tolerating difference means one cannot disagree
with the difference that one tolerates: “But the trouble with stipulating
tolerance... is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it [because] the
distinctiveness that marks it as unique... will resist the appeal of [an]
incorporation into a larger whole” (73). That is, one must tolerate everything of
another culture or risk being a traitor to one’s values. A multiculturalist,
according to Fish, then, cannot be both tolerant and intolerant of difference
without betraying her values. His response to my conundrum of the
multiculturalist who tolerates both equal dignity and unequal difference is
simply to state that the desire is incoherent: “ one could possibly be a
multicultualist in any interesting and coherent way” (75). Respecting
fundamental differences, being tolerant of them, necessarily means
“disrespecting your own beliefs and commitments” (78; emphasis in original).
This line of reasoning believes that opposites are contraries, not
paradoxical forms of vital contradictions. Another way to state this is to say that
the pragmatist in Fish claims that commonality, that which makes tolerance
easy, and difference, that which makes it difficult, are exclusive opposites; they
can never work together productively, but must always clash as separate entities.
If they mix, they become “abstract” and “mind-numbing” (77), thus losing their
status as a “philosophical or theoretical problem” (76). His is the typical,
straitjacket reasoning of the true believer: either you’re for me or against me. As
Fish states, one does not tolerate evil but, instead, tries to “stamp it out” (82).
Fish believes opposites are powerful because they do not share any basic
assumptions. For multiculturalism to be philosophically sound, again according
to Fish, it cannot suggest a dialectic between opposite terms. “Fundamental”
disagreements cannot be “intellectual” (79); stated differently, principles or core
beliefs cannot accept their opposites; to do so would be to believe in that which
is logically impossible. Hence, Fish presents a world without a dialectic, without
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romantic contradictions, without the intellectual possibility of accepting
contrasting ideas simultaneously. He paints a world where there is no middle
ground between supposed opposed terms: between tolerance and intolerance,
between dignity and diversity, between difference and similarity.
How does this work for the problems I identify at the opening of this
essay? There I claim that the chief contradiction that fuels multiculturalism,
unconditional support for minority rights and conditional dispute adjudication,
can paradoxically invigorate a community. For Fish, of course, this
contradiction invalidates multiculturalism because it calls upon opposed
principles. And, as I have alluded, Fish is right to see that protecting and
guaranteeing differences must quarrel with “focusing on what is the same” when
we help others (72). Although this is modestly the case, it only becomes a
problem if the terms are taken at their pure extreme edges with the unbending
definitions that Fish outlines above. The problem softens if the terms intermix
in the form of a dialectic.
What appears to be a dilemma, on one level, turns
into a more general, inclusive event when opposed concepts are reconciled. This
approach operates on the assumption that oppositions always reveal larger,
related understandings. One must remember that since perfectly rigid definitions
exist in theory only, it is possible to be both tolerant and intolerant, both for
difference and for commonality. These “absolute” oppositions are, after all, only
illusions. Contrary to Aristotelian logic, we could call this dialectical method
“paradoxical logic.”
It does not replace ordinary logic but adds to it. As
contradictory positions combine, one often notices further surprising
combinations. This is why one can claim to be a Christian Jew, an existential
Marxist, or a wise fool. Dialectical thinking shows how contradiction and
contrariety generate new understandings. It is through such oppositional
movements regarding equal dignity and unequal particularity that
I’m thinking here of the romantic, Hegelian dialectic whereby two opposites resolve
their separation by conflicting into a higher unity. This procedure confronts the
divisiveness of Aristotelian logic that defines a word through only one definition. A
dialectician would claim that there always exists “a unity which is prior to logical
exclusion and which appears in the human capacity to entertain contradictory
propositions” (Feidelson 1953: 68).
There are, of course, many sources that discuss this type of paradoxical dialectic. For
a romantic slant, see Thorslev (1984). Fromm (1956) cites many Eastern examples. For
instance, “He who knows [the Tao] does not [care to] speak [about it]; he who is
[however ready to] speak about it does not know it” (70). In general, this approach asserts
that A can also be non-A. Opposites do not exclude but belong to each other. As
Heraclitus famously wrote, each time we enter a river, it is both the same and different.
In my use, the multiculturalist can be both tolerant and intolerant, both for absolute
sovereignty and against it, while not being a traitor to her beliefs.
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
multiculturalism remains vital.
But Fish is useful in showing how the sweeping acceptance of diversity
undermines global definitions for rationality. And such an emphasis on
difference and diversity is a good thing; it helps the multiculturalist look for
anti-Enlightenment sites of power rather than eternal truths supposedly
developed over the ages. Fish’s static account of multiculturalism denies that
possibility. Where a liberal might want to respond like Fish and bring the
straightforward truths of, say, the Middle Eastern poet Mahmoud Darwish into
the canon (a static appreciation), the multiculturalist reads his minority status as
a challenge to the canon (a vital one). This is a challenge that Fish (and many
critics) do not accept. As is often heard, the non-canonical are valuable not
because they show the power of truth but because they challenge the truth of
power. For liberals like Fish, rationality constructs society; for the
multiculturalist, it is the reverse. As David Goldberg asserts, strong advocates
of multiculturalism question “the grounds of the knowledge claims and truth
values being advanced...” (1994: 17). One does this because it is crucial to get
to the objective of “challenging [the] underlying structures of institutional and
ideological power...” (ibid.).
If Fish presents multiculturalism as static and incoherent, what
philosophical approach presents it as active and coherent? In response to Fish,
I will use theories regarding subject-centered reason, the cogito, to help organize
that response. To many, this is a regressive turn. After all, have not Derrida,
Foucault, and Lyotard, to name just a few, adequately disabled the emancipatory
qualities of rationality? These writers have supposedly often remind one that an
approach to reason that relies on transcendental operations belongs to a naive
age, one innocent of the problems associated with the structures of language.
The “subject,” they claim, needs to be decentered and revealed to be an affect,
not a stable entity. Our age wants to disregard any questions of a “metaphysical
logocentricism.” And yet most of these theorists also believe that forms of a
“presence” or a “center” always do seem to emerge. Such “centers” are often
discussed as wayward, disrupted, and capricious. But still, writers do need these
“strategic” “centers” if they are to discuss their opposites: “trace,”
For more on the explosive qualities of dialectical thinking, see perhaps the best
exemplar of this: Adorno. In discussing Adorno’s dialectics, Fredric Jameson is perhaps
the best critic (1971). Here is a typical comment from that work as to the power of
Adorno’s dialectics. Notice how the emphasis is on new “formulations” of a “formal”
understanding of reality: “I cannot imagine anyone with the slightest feeling for the
dialectical nature of reality remaining insensible to the purely formal pleasure of such
sentences, in which the shifting of the world’s gears and the unexpected contact between
apparently unrelated and distant categories and objects find sudden and dramatic
formulation” (xiii).
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“supplement,” “secrets,” or other essential but often marginalized
For my needs, Jean Paul Sartre’s discussion of how the cogito
is part of the form of consciousness becomes just one of these “strategic” centers
necessary for a discussion of multicultural theory. After all, one could say, along
with Simon Critchley, that a metaphysics of subjectivity will continue to surface
as a prime determinant within culture in spite of the efforts to put it behind us.
In order to demonstrate how Sartre’s thoughts can be employed to give
multiculturalism coherence and vitality, I will need to briefly review some of his
key terms. Sartre’s twin notions of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” could
be construed as transcultural constructions of consciousness. The former is the
all-encompassing “full positivity” of plentitude, a fullness that energizes the
world and yet exits apart from individuals. The “in-itself’s” productive absence
of self-hood occurs within the pre-cognitive, pre-reflective, unreachable energy
of beingness. It operates as a negative grounding even though it is full of
potential. The “being-for-itself,” on the other hand, continually desires such
security and wants to turn that negativity into its grounding. And since they are
opposed forces and blocked from each other, they still yearn for an
uncomfortable partnership. The form of this energetic force field called “being-
for-itself” upsurges and makes, what Sartre calls, “a hole of being at the heart
of being.” The “for-itself” cannot possess its essence (presumably related to the
“in-itself”) so it is often described as a “lack,” a “nothingness,” or a “hole.” So
since our “for-itself” has no inherent essence, we must create ourselves. Hence,
the importance of authenticity and existential angst.
Even with this brief rehearsal, one can sense the emphasis on pure formal
qualities like nothingness, lack, yearning, and negativity. This theoretical
approach moves from the practicality of reasoning (what Fish would advocate
for, concrete observations) to, again, the form or structure such reasoning takes
(the theory or movement of such reasoning). These formal recognitions, I will
soon claim, renew transcultural possibilities. But if Sartre is making
consciousness less pragmatic, he is also necessarily creating a more impersonal
Consider this from Derrida: “The idea that we might be able to get outside of
metaphysics has always struck me as naï v e” (in Kearney, 1984: 111). And again in one
of Derrida’s earliest essays he states that “[t]he subject is absolutely indispensable. I
don’t destroy the subject; I situate it” (Derrida 1978: 271).These nuanced and somewhat
paradoxical moments have led Derrida (along with Gayatri Spivak and others) to write
of the necessity for double or strategic writing: “[There is] not a single deconstructive
proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit
postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest” (Derrida, 1978: 280-281).
Critchley notes that Derrida, as an example, has never claimed to have destroyed the
subject, only to have caused a “displacement of the subject” (1996: 25).
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
consciousness. In doing so, he makes it more universally acceptable.
Thus, I
am proposing that modernist views like Sartre’s, can and should continue to vie
and work in conjunction with other views in a manner that might enrich
multicultural communities. Through the existentialism of Sartre, the
multiculturalist can find other examples of how his type of formalism links
cultures. In order to show that, I need to remind my reader of Sartre’s early
emphasis on the objective quality of consciousness.
In 1937, Sartre published The Transcendence of the Ego, his
reassessment of Husserl’s phenomenology. In it, he reminds the reader that
virtues and emotions such as tolerance, justice, compassion, dignity, etcetera,
are not natural, personal, and unique but, instead, created out of a variety of
conditions that move beyond the work or consciousness of a single individual.
The private ego, a single notion of selfhood, or any supposedly personal
response to the world are better understood as formal, relational events
constructed by a community of individuals and historical circumstances. For
example, the ego is not the center of consciousness; instead, it is an object of
consciousness. Selfhood is in the world, in every culture, and not in our personal
psychologies. Thus, subjectivity is not isolated, closed, and principally
individualized. The ego transcends any particular consciousness; hence, the title
of his book: The Transcendence of the Ego. The ego represents a concept of
selfhood that becomes an action, an activity. By not resorting to the uniqueness
of the individual ego, Sartre highlights the formal, universal qualities of it. All
communities are peopled by those who objectify their egos. It is one way to
speak of a humanity that projects commonality, a commonality that can
legitimize cross-cultural dialogue and behavior.
Moreover, the content of these emotions, actions, or created selves will
never be fully known; but what we do know of them is in their formal structure
and concrete force in the world. In other words, we can generalize about their
construction, but we cannot fully express their “being” or ontology. The effort
to care for others, for example, is a force of consciousness that, because it is
relational, cannot be the property of a single ego, a single culture. We cannot
ultimately define what “care” means. That is, the ego is not responsible for
creating a clearly demarcated, distinctive form of consciousness; it does not
construct a private consciousness at all. Indeed, the ego is on the other side of
consciousness (so to speak); it is an object of consciousness, not the reverse
The modernist preference for an impersonal consciousness (as distinguished from the
more personal model of Freud’s) can also be seen in Eliot’s call for “depersonalized”
poetry. See his “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “[Poetry] is not the expression of
personality but an excape from personality.” Also such a depersonalized approach lends
itself to Eliot’s desire for a “classical” or “ecumenical” appreciation for literary
Lou Caton
(Sartre 1957: 97). Hence, according to Sartre, the concept of selfhood is always
in the role of the other, and the notion of an “I” is only in a constructed subject
position. Neither the self nor the “I” has a privileged, individualized status.
Further, one particular construction of an “I” is no better, worse, or truer than
anyone else’s (104). All people have egos that arise from “in the world,” not
from in their unique psychologies. This leveling of the philosophical field
suggests that a sweeping, generalized structure of consciousness is what
connects all cultures, not our supposedly “natural” desires for morality, virtue,
or minority rights. In fact, one might go so far as to claim that the egos, selves,
and cultural identities that get created are the necessarily embodied varieties of
the formal quality of consciousness; however, the actual content of
consciousness – how one defines those egos, selves, and cultural identities, etc.
– will, of course, vary considerably. What will not vary, though, is the form,
structure, and position of these psychological states as objects or constructions
of consciousness. One can cross cultures theoretically because this kind of
subjectivity is a basic source of existence or consciousness that informs all
humanity. In other words, the authority of multiculturalism cannot be solely
explained by the temporal/spatial matrix of historical and ideological meaning.
We certainly need that type of localized truth, but we also need this modernist,
more comprehensive, and almost metaphysical version of existentialism. As
Sartre claims at the end of The Transcendence of the Ego: “This absolute
consciousness, when it is purified of the I, no longer has anything of the subject.
It is no longer a collection of representations. It is quite simply a first condition
and an absolute source of existence” (106). Sartre’s recognition that there is
something more pervasive than the representations of culture, “an absolute
source of existence” that all societies share, provides a solid justification for
doing vigorous, evaluative political work within the relativism of a strong
Underlining reason’s formal commonality, as modernist thinkers like
Sartre have continually shown, takes nothing away from each culture deciding
on their truths, deciding for their selves where the inside and outside of their
cultures exist. All communities use reason in this formal fashion: choosing
various sites of differentiation, points whereby the outside becomes the inside
and vise versa. This, then, is the situated quality of a formal rationality. Form,
then, becomes both a link to other cultures and a justification for their
evaluation. It is the formalistic acknowledgment of reason that makes it
theoretically possible to claim historical and political understandings of others.
The paradox of form, its reliance on both a socio-historical and universal
discourse, foregrounds the struggle for a common humanity that might
otherwise, if read only through an ideological lens, have been considered a
“false commonality,” a futile battle between incommensurable valuations. We
Stanley Fish meet Jean-Paul Sartre
are able to deny such hasty judgments because all is not based on difference: an
attention to form reminds us that we materially and idealistically share the
global environment of nature and human culture.
As Charles Taylor writes,
“all human cultures... have something to say to all human beings” (1994: 66).
Of course, the formalism that draws us into this dialectic is only “a starting
hypothesis.” From that point on, our judgments and opinions must “be
demonstrated concretely in the actual study of the culture” (67). It is, however,
that exact global commonality, its formal idealism, that propels us into such a
dialogue, a universal dialogue that quickly enters into the local conditions of our
dissimilarities. Hence, with a recognition of formal reason, cross-cultural
exchange gains a legitimacy that allows for significant communication between
“them” and “us.” And that is where most of us should want our theoretical
insights to lead.
Works Cited
Bell, Linda. 1989. Sartre’s Ethics of Authenticity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
Caton, Freitas Louis. 2002. “Afterword.” In Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age. Eds.
Elliott, Emory, Louis Freitas Caton, and Jeffrey Rhyne. Oxford: Oxford Press.
Critchley, Simon. 1996. “Prolegomena to Any Post-Deconstructive Subjectivity. In
Deconstructive Subjectivities. Eds. Critchley, Simon, and Peter Dews. Albany:
State University of New York Press. 13-47.
Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Feidelson, Charles Jr. 1953. Symbolism and American Literature. Chicago: Chicago
University Press.
Fish, Stanley. 1995. “Boutique Multiculturalism.” In Multiculturalism and American
Democracy. Eds. Melzer, Arthur M., Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard
Z inman. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. 69-88.
Fromm, Eric. 1956. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper and Row.
Goldberg, David Theo. 1994. Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
Jameson, Fredric. 1971. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of
Literature. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Kearney, Richard. Ed. 1984. “Interview with Jacques Derrida.” In Dialogues with
Contemporary Continental Thinkers. Manchester: Manchester University
Press. 107-26.
Lentricchia, Frank. 1980. After the New Criticism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
For more on how aesthetic form intersects with multiculturalism to animate and enliven
it, see Caton (2002).
Lou Caton
Marcuse, Herbert. 1969. “Repressive Tolerance.” In Wolff, Robert Paul, Barrington
Moore, Jr., Herbert Marcuse. A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Boston: Beacon
Press. 88-112.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1957. The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of
Consciousness. Trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York:
Noonday Press.
Taylor, Charles. 1994. “The Politics of Recognition.” Eds. Amy Gutmann.
Multiculturalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 25-73.
Thorslev, Petter L. Jr. 1984. Romantic Contraries. New Haven Ct: Yale University Press.
Wolin, Richard. 1992. The Terms of Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University
Communitarian approaches as exemplified in the works of Alasdair
MacIntyre (in political philosophy), Amitai Etzioni (in sociology),
Martin Kusch (in philosophy of science) and Lynn Hankinson Nelson
(in feminist studies) have gained increasing importance in recent
decades. This development is not without problems, however, as the
essay attempts to demonstrate in relation to current communitarian
approaches in science, where the works of Thomas Kuhn have been
influential. Kuhn argues that progress in science takes place against
the background of a community, sustained by strongly shared
practices, beliefs and standards. Whilst this explains the persistence
and continuity of communities, it cannot fully explain how change
within a community occurs or how differences between communities
are resolved. This contribution tries to overcome this problem in
Kuhn’s work by arguing in favour of an alternative conception which
recognises the heterogeneous character of scientific communities.
More specifically, the essay argues that the beliefs and standards that
the members of the community hold are an outcome of complex
negotiation processes which are constantly evaluated rather than in a
state of constant, static equilibrium as implied by Kuhn. Further, it
argues that a coherent and adequate understanding of diversity and
change within a community is essential for a satisfactory
representation of interaction across communities.
Communitarian approaches have gained increasing importance in the last few
decades especially through the works of Alasdair MacIntyre (in political
philosophy), Amitai Etzioni (in sociology), Martin Kusch (in philosophy of
science) and Lynn Hankinson Nelson (in feminist studies). Communitarian
epistemology constitutes the basis of these approaches. It argues that
communities and traditions, not individuals, are the creators, carriers,
legitimisers and changers of knowledge. It also puts great emphasis on the
Ipek Demir
idea that social practices sustain the overall unity, persistence and continuity
of communities and traditions. I find these contributions valuable, especially
in drawing our attention to the limits of earlier individualistic approaches.
However there remain crucial problems and difficulties for
communitarianism. Many of the problems communitarianism faces boil
down to an inadequate conceptualisation of community. In order to underline
this problem, I will focus on Thomas Kuhn’s construction of scientific
communities. Kuhn's work is particularly important as it develops a powerful
argument showing that science is a tradition-bound activity carried out within
a community. However, his argument has several features built into it which
give rise to many problems, especially when it comes to explaining how
change occurs. Such problems, as well as their solutions, constitute the main
focus of this chapter. I will initially be concerned with the explication of
Kuhn's views before moving on to a more in-depth evaluation and critique of
his works through engagement with other sources. My main argument will be
that any construction of the idea of community has to accommodate change
and disagreement as well as persistence and unity. First, however, I will
outline three problems which communitarian approaches in general need to
deal with before going on to discuss how they can be overcome in Kuhn's
overall scheme.
Three Problems Central to the Conceptualisation of Communities
The Problem of Disagreement
How does disagreement and criticism come about in a community and how is
it handled? If consensus is central to communities, and if this consensus is
sustained by an agreed set of practices, beliefs and standards, then we are
faced with the question of how disagreement can come about from within a
community. Also, there is the question of how a community responds to
criticism that comes from sources that are outside that community and its
belief system. Approaches that take a position which makes communities a
central frame of reference need to include an analysis of internal and external
criticism and disagreement in their overall framework. I argue that
communitarian approaches have had only limited success in this aspect. For
example, Etzioni underlines both the importance of commitment to “shared
values, norms, and meanings” (Etzioni, 1996:127) and disagreement within a
community. He does so by containing 'conflict within sustainable boundaries'
Obviously many other problems and criticisms can be put forward. However, I will
limit my discussion in this chapter to these three which I consider to be central.
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
(Etzioni, 2000: 188). But who draws these boundaries? Cannot these
boundaries themselves become matters of disagreement? Also, to what extent
are these core commitments, what Etzioni calls the “thick layer of mores,”
shared universally within a community (Etzioni, 2000: 191)? Cannot core
commitments mean different things to different members and even be
reinterpreted over time? Other communitarians, for example, Alasdair
MacIntyre, are reluctant to forego the idea that internal and external criticism
require different responses from the community in question. In summary, I
argue that there is a need to conceptualise disagreement more adequately
within a community.
The Problem of Change
This is closely related to the previous problem. If the commitments of a
community are strongly shared by the adherents of a community we might be
faced with two outcomes. First, the community may suppress criticism and
thus be highly antagonistic to change. Secondly, the community might simply
ignore the challenges. However, even in these situations we are still faced
with the question: how do communities and their values, beliefs and practices
ever change? How do disagreements come about and how does
transformation occur? Communitarian approaches need to be able to account
for changes that occur within communities. There seem to be certain
problems in this respect, even for those inquirers who give credence to the
idea that communities are dynamic and do go through changes. MacIntyre,
for example, whose works focus on moral traditions and communities,
addresses the issue of how change comes from within a community
(MacIntyre, 1988; 1990). However, his theorising fails to make adequate
room for changes that occur as a result of the interaction of communities.
There is therefore a need to rethink the idea of community in order to be able
to accommodate change (whether its source is internal or external) into our
conceptualisation of it.
The Problem of Incommensurability
If meaning and understanding are internal to a community, and to that
community alone, and that if a community and its ideals, values, beliefs and
practices are so tightly integrated that they form an inseparable whole,
isolated from other communities and traditions, do we then abandon any
notion of a meaningful interaction between different communities and their
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respective traditions? Do we see them as mutually exclusive and
incommensurable? Or, is there a need to rethink and re-conceptualise the
relationship between communities in a way which recognises that
communities have boundaries but yet accounts for the diffusion of ideas and
practices across these boundaries?
I argue that any approach which makes community central to its
thinking has to consider these three problems. By taking the views of Kuhn
on scientific communities and traditions as a central frame of reference, I aim
to assess the extent to which his construction of them provides sufficient
answers to the problems I have identified above. A study of scientific
communities is a good starting point because the community element and its
role in securing agreement are crucial to scientific activity. There is also
plenty of disagreement, criticism and change in science. In other words,
scientific communities in general, and an assessment of Kuhn’s
conceptualisation of them in particular, provide an excellent opportunity to
identify the problems in community-centred approaches.
An Exposition of Kuhn’s Approach to Science and Scientific Communities
Kuhn’s influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
was first
published in 1962. In it, Kuhn challenged the prevailing image of science as
linear, cumulative and as an activity that slowly progresses towards truth.
Illustrating his argument with examples from the history of science, Kuhn
concluded that the authority of science rested in the scientific community that
adopted and carried out puzzle-solving activities within a certain paradigm.
He argued that science proceeds through developments within paradigms and
the infrequent revolutions which result in the overthrow of an older paradigm
and its subsequent replacement by a newer one. According to Kuhn,
paradigms do not merely consist of methodological and conceptual
commitments but are ways of looking at the world. They provide the
scientific community with a “map’ and ‘directions essential for map-making”
as “nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random” (SSR: 109).
They dictate which theories are suitable for investigation, what to look for
and observe, what puzzles to solve and also what counts as a permissible
solution to those puzzles. What leads Kuhn to this conclusion about the
centrality of paradigms in scientific practice are his findings from the history
of science. According to Kuhn, if one takes these historical findings
seriously, one sees that science is a tradition-bound activity. Just like any
Hereafter SSR.
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
other tradition-bound activity, science requires the commitment of its
participants to the core principles of the community in question. Founding
assumptions and a firm commitment to them are required for sustaining the
continuation of the paradigm and the unity of the community.
Since the dominant paradigm is regarded for much of the time as
unalterable and immune from criticism, scientists do not spend time
constantly disputing and reiterating the fundamental assumptions of the
paradigm. Rather, they take these assumptions for granted. Normal science is
the period in which scientists engage in the collection of data and the
articulation of theories. Research is efficient and effective as disputes over
fundamental assumptions never (or very rarely) come up. The scientific
community has a firm consensus about which scientific results are to be
developed and which ones are to be abandoned and can therefore undertake
more detailed, precise types of work. This consensus eliminates the further
discussion of the fundamentals of the paradigm (including the ontology, the
cognitive values and methodological rules) and enables the scientific
community to devote its energy to puzzle solving.
This is possible since
scientists have “undergone similar educations and professional initiations,”
have “drawn many of the same lessons from” the scientific literature, have
been “responsible for the pursuit of a set of shared goals” and their
“professional judgment [is] relatively unanimous” (SSR: 177).
In the absence of competing paradigms, scientists strive to extend the
scope and precision of scientific knowledge, always staying within the limits
of the current paradigm and without aiming at novelties. In spite of this
conservatism, the firm ground on which normal science stands is nevertheless
shaken when the paradigm in question is challenged and the revolutionary
period starts. Anomalies, “the recognition that nature has somehow violated
the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science” become
persistent (SSR: 52, 53). The scientific community proves unable to solve the
puzzles within the framework the paradigm provides. Through this and many
other ways, the anomaly that the scientific community faces push the
scientific community, or at least some members of it,
to look for a new basis
for research which forces them to question the commitments of the paradigm
in crisis. As more and more scientists start seeing the resolution of the
According to Kuhn, the problems that the scientific community chooses to
investigate and find solutions to are ones that can be assumed to have solutions. Kuhn
uses the term “puzzle” to underline this assured existence of a solution. The scientific
community will only allow its practitioners to undertake puzzles of this sort, and
encourages them to ignore problems that cannot be answered within the paradigm.
According to Kuhn young and new members of the field are less deeply committed
to the paradigm and therefore give more attention to the crisis-provoking problem.
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anomaly as crucial for the future of their field, more attention is devoted to
overcoming the anomaly. The commitments of the paradigm are questioned
and new perspectives begin to appear.
Kuhn emphasises that not all crises result in revolutions and the
subsequent formation of a new paradigm. Sometimes, the resources of the
paradigm in crisis are able to overcome the anomaly or the problem is
ignored and put aside and the dominant paradigm is not challenged. At other
times, however, the crisis leads to the emergence of a new paradigm “with
the ensuing battle over its acceptance” (SSR: 84). This transition to a new
paradigm after a time of crisis is what Kuhn calls a “scientific revolution.”
Kuhn defines scientific revolutions as “the tradition-shattering complements
to the tradition-bound activity of normal science” (SSR: 6). What is striking
about scientific revolutions is that the new paradigm is not a mere addition, a
slight conceptual or theoretical change, but a “reconstruction of the field from
new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most
elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm
methods and applications. ...When the transition is complete, the profession
will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals” (SSR: 85).
The puzzles generated by the new paradigm as well as the accepted puzzle
solutions will be dramatically different from those of the older one. There
will never be a “complete overlap” of problems (SSR: 85).
In the above quotes from Kuhn, and many others like them in SSR,
one can see Kuhn’s challenge to the cumulative view of science. In direct
opposition to the cumulative view, Kuhn argues that science involves periods
where old paradigms are replaced by new, and more importantly,
incommensurable ones. Moreover, he makes one of the most controversial
claims in the philosophy of science, stating that the “transfer of allegiance
from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced”
(SSR: 151) and that “[l]ike the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once
(though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all” (SSR: 150).
It involves a
radical overthrow of the previous paradigm and the acceptance of a new and
incommensurable one.
He underlines the difference between the old and new
It’s worth noting that Kuhn stopped using the “gestalt switch” and “conversion
experience” metaphors in his later works. He argued that these two were insufficient:
“treating groups or communities as though they were individuals-writ-large
misrepresents the process of conceptual change” (Kuhn, 2000b: 88). N. Nersessian
also states that the use of the gestalt switch metaphor by Kuhn was 'a category mistake
since he had applied to a community a notion that rightly applied only to an
individual” (Nersessian, 2003: 185).
It is also worth underlining that Kuhn presented a newer and more modest picture of
incommensurability in his later works. I will return to this topic later on.
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
ways of looking at the world: “It is rather as if the professional community
had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are
seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well” (SSR:
Analysis of Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Community
Thus far, I have been uncritically describing Kuhn’s arguments as presented
in SSR. In this section, I will begin to discuss Kuhn’s construction of
scientific activity in greater detail, showing some of its shortcomings,
especially in the light of the first two problems I outlined at the beginning of
Section 1. I will first elaborate further what Kuhn means by a paradigm
before providing an analysis of his strong holist construction of paradigms
and the consequences of his adoption of this stance. In particular, two
problems will be underlined: Can it account for changes within a
community? Can it explain how agreement is secured after a period of radical
The Paradigm Concept
In an effort to elaborate what he meant by a paradigm and to rebuff his
critics, Kuhn in his “1969 Postscript” to SSR outlined two different
definitions of the term paradigm. The first one, called “Disciplinary Matrix,”
involves shared symbolic generalisations, metaphysical commitments,
cognitive values and exemplars.
The second definition of the term paradigm,
which, according to Kuhn, is deeper, points to shared examples.
However, in
my view, Kuhn’s second attempt proved unable to resolve the muddle about
the meaning of paradigm, as his resort to shared aspects of a “disciplinary
matrix” ended up requiring a strong consensus within a community. Hence,
as I will show below, he was unable to address adequately how disagreement
and change come about in a scientific community.
I argue that the Kuhnian concept of paradigm can be better understood
In a later article Kuhn further elaborates the term disciplinary matrix stating that it is
“‘disciplinary’ because it is the common possession of the practitioners of a
professional discipline and ‘matrix’ because it is composed of ordered elements of
various sorts, each requiring further specification” (Kuhn, 1977: 297).
As Musgrave points out, this second use turns out to be the fourth component, the
use of exemplars, that Kuhn uses when he defines Disciplinary Matrix (Musgrave,
1970: 44)
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if we see “exemplars,” that is model problems and their solutions, as the main
building blocks of a scientific paradigm. I will elaborate this further since my
reconstruction of Kuhn below depends on this. Kuhn likens scientific activity
to an apprenticeship whereby scientists learn the paradigm by practicing
“their trade” (SSR: 43), that is by learning to solve puzzles by modeling them
on previous solutions and by learning to identify similarity and dissimilarity
relationships. Kuhn’s central achievement, in my view, is his identification of
exemplars: the scientific community follows “concrete puzzle solutions” that
are “employed as models or examples” (SSR: 175). Knowledge is acquired
by employing shared examples rather than by learning theory, concepts and
rules in isolation.
Giving due credit to exemplars can not only clarify what Kuhn meant
by a paradigm but also can show why model-based reasoning, rather than
rule-based reasoning, is what Kuhn saw as being central to scientific
In summary, what a paradigm is and how agreement reigns in a
scientific community can be better understood in the context of exemplars,
that is by examining similar practices rather than by searching for uniform
beliefs within a community. However, this sympathetic reading of Kuhn still
does not resolve the problem inherent in his work. First of all, Kuhn never
entertained the thought that even though scientists within a field may make
use of certain exemplars, use similar methods, create and solve analogous
problems etc., they may nevertheless have reservations or disagreements
about the particular uses of them. Some of them, for example, might have
concerns about the appropriate use of an experiment, the usefulness of a
particular method or the existence of a particular entity which the paradigm
takes for granted. In other words, having similar practices (exemplars) does
not necessarily imply that all the members of that community agree in full
with what the exemplars dictate. Neither does it mean that they all agree on
the definitions of the concepts that they use. Practices may be shared but
viewpoints about those very practices, and how to take those practices
It is important to underline that Kuhn’s reception in the social sciences rarely gave
due credit to (and continues to ignore, even today) the centrality of exemplars and
puzzle-solving in science. There are exceptions to this (for example, Barnes, 1982).
Kuhn is at pains to show that it is exemplars and puzzle-solving activity which are
central to natural sciences (Kuhn, 1991). This is also the argument Kuhn uses in the
famous demarcation debates he had with Popper: “Though astronomy and astrology
were regularly practiced by the same people, including Ptolemy, Kepler, and Tycho
Brahe, there was never an astrological equivalent of the puzzle-solving astronomical
tradition. And without puzzles, able first to challenge and then to attest the ingenuity
of the individual practitioner, astrology could not have become a science even if the
stars had, in fact, controlled human destiny” (Kuhn, 1970: 9, 10).
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
forward, may not be. In summary, I argue that Kuhn’s argument that similar
practices produce similar beliefs and that these are uniformly shared within
the community and reinforce each other, an approach I call strong holism, is
mistaken. In the next sections I will show why a weak holist
conceptualisation of scientific communities, which allows for the kind of
differences I discussed above to exist within a scientific community and
which is consistent with the second meaning of paradigms (which makes
exemplars its main focus) provides a better account of change.
Problems with Strong Holism and Strongly Shared Consensus
Kuhn can account for persistence and continuity within a scientific
community. Commonly possessed and self-reinforcing commitments (in his
early works) and common language (in his later works) in a tradition enable
him to make the case for agreement within a community. According to Kuhn,
scientists working within a particular tradition
can articulate particular and
detailed studies, extending the tradition to new areas and types of
phenomenon without constantly disputing and reiterating the assumptions
and practices of the community to which they belong. This can, in return,
explain the persistence and resilience of the tradition and the practices that
come with it. Scientists have access to that particular tradition and its
language and mode of thinking. However, as a consequence of being 'locked
into' that tradition, they only have access to that tradition (its commitments,
language and its way of conceptualising the world), and to that one alone and
are thus resistant to other ways of thinking.
However, Kuhn’s conceptualisation faces a major problem when it
comes to explaining how agreement is reached after a period of
disagreement. A definition of scientific traditions and communities which
constructs them as rigid and inflexible and argues that members strongly
share the commitments is bound to face problems when it comes to
explaining how change, whether small or revolutionary, could ever occur.
The greater the fixity of commitments, the less room there will be for change.
The more the various components of a tradition are self-reinforcing, the less
likely for diversity of interpretations to emerge. The greater the sameness of a
scientific community's beliefs, the more likely for the participants to move in
unison. Strongly shared commitments and language may be successful at
explaining persistence and agreement, but they produce problems when it
Below, I will use the word tradition to refer to the paradigm within which a
particular community of scientists are working.
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comes to explaining change and particularly how agreement is secured again
after a crisis within Kuhn’s own scheme.
It might be said that Kuhn does tell us how anomalies arise, how
crises within a scientific tradition form and how revolutions come into being.
However, Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts does not solve the problem of
how scientific disagreements and crises are brought to a closure.
theory may tell us how disputes and dissensus may come to into existence
(though as I will argue below this is also questionable) but does not provide
an account of how scientists come to resolve the disagreement.
For all we
know, the revolutionary period may never come to an end. Kuhn’s chapter
“The Resolution of Revolutions” in SSR raises more questions than it
answers about how consensus is formed after a period of radical
disagreement. This chapter in Kuhn’s book merely restates the difficulty with
his notion of a paradigm: that of strong holism. It does not tell us how the
premises of the new scientific tradition are accepted. Neither do his later
works which underline the importance of linguistic structures in forming
unity and sameness.
Holism in language, according to Kuhn’s later works,
points to holism in scientific traditions and their communities. But we are not
told how a totally new language, with new taxonomical and lexical
structures, emerges, let alone becomes accepted. As Laudan rightly puts it:
“Once disagreement emerges in a scientific community, it is almost
As will become clear later on, I question whether closure, at least of the type Kuhn
describes, ever occurs. Here, I am developing an internal critique of Kuhn’s
arguments and showing that, if we follow his distinction between almost full
agreement (normal science) and major disagreements and crisis (revolutionary
science), then the third step, namely how the crisis period ends and how normal full
agreement is again secured, is left unanswered in his works.
As Nersessian suggests: “On the Kuhnian model, conceptual change arises from a
pattern that consists of an accumulation of anomalies, then a crisis, and then a new
conceptual structure that forms as part of a new paradigm. However, the processes
through which the new conceptual structure arises are left mysterious” (Nersessian,
2003: 195).
In Kuhn’s later works, the emphasis is placed on philosophical and linguistic
arguments rather than the practical and epistemological role exemplars play in
scientific activity. In particular, the linguistic emphasis in Kuhn’s later works, opened
the way for seeing and conceptualising a particular scientific tradition as a specific
language community, the adherents of which share uniform lexical and taxonomical
structures. Due to limits of space I will not be able to discuss Kuhn’s later works in
detail. I will only refer to them in passing. However, it is important to point out that
Kuhn, in his later works, still held on to the idea that paradigms are holistic in nature,
an idea that had dominated his earlier works. Hence my criticism is valid both for his
early and later works.
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
impossible to see how Kuhn can put the rabbit back into the box” (Laudan,
1984: 17).
Given Kuhn’s holistic construction, it is also questionable how a new
idea could ever become intelligible and persuasive to the possessors of a
particular tradition, never mind the members of another community. The
strongly shared inflexible commitments and language and the strongly held
consensus Kuhn argues for makes it harder for even small changes to come
about and be accepted within a tradition (during normal science) never mind
for major transformations to take place or for new rules, language, and
commitments (whether revolutionary or not) to be received. Kuhn’s
construction does not allow for the negotiations scientists are able to make
when adopting successive changes and transformations within a tradition.
Thus, a new construction of scientific traditions and their communities
is needed which can account for continuity and persistence and which can
also explain why change is possible. This will require the abandonment of
Kuhn’s strong holist position and his emphasis on strongly shared consensus
and the replacement of these with a weaker holist position, piecemeal change
and negotiation which I will elaborate in the sections below.
Piecemeal Change and Negotiation
It is not the idea of a tradition or community that makes negotiation
impossible, but rather Kuhn’s construction of them. The solution I offer is to
construct them in a less holistic way than Kuhn and to allow room for
differences of interpretation to exist amongst the members of a scientific
community. Laudan (1984; 1996) seems to be offering a way of doing this.
Change and persistence can both be accounted for through Laudan’s work,
particularly because Laudan makes negotiation
(not strongly shared
commitments) and piecemeal change (not holistic change) the central themes
of his conceptualisation of scientific traditions and communities.
Laudan aims to dissect Kuhn’s holist and hierarchical model of
scientific traditions and change and replaces it with a piecemeal and
nonlinear model. According to this model, a scientific tradition involves
various claims and commitments. Unlike Kuhn, Laudan argues that these are
not accepted or rejected in their entirety, in a holistic fashion, but that
scientists evaluate, discuss and choose to reject or to adapt these different
components of a scientific tradition in a piecemeal way. This is the type of
In order to differentiate between Kuhn’s strongly shared consensus and Laudan’s
model of dynamic consensus making, I call the latter process “negotiation.”
Ipek Demir
negotiation that Kuhn’s close-knit disciplinary matrix, the first definition of
the term paradigm which I discussed above, does not allow.
Laudan, supporting his case with plenty of historical examples, argues
that scientists did pick and choose different parts and claims of traditions and
that such choices were not always justified as a consequence of changes at a
higher level (Laudan, 1984: 80-86). Scientists, according to Laudan’s model,
are engaged in a negotiation process when they consider the relative
suitability of the different claims of a tradition. The central problems can
shift, basic hypotheses can change and so can the methodological rules but
not necessarily in a particular, vertical order. Thus, change occurs at a variety
of levels and not all levels change simultaneously. Laudan argues that most
“often change occurs on a single level only,” “sometimes on two levels
simultaneously” and that “rarely do we find an abrupt and wholesale shift of
doctrines at all three levels” (Laudan, 1984: 86). This is particularly because
the scientific tradition is not a package deal, to be accepted or rejected in a
wholesale fashion as Kuhn would have it. Commitments can come and go
and older views and premises are frequently displaced. Laudan states:
If a scientist’s methodology fails to justify his ontology; if his
methodology fails to promote his cognitive aims; if his cognitive aims prove
to be utopian – in all these cases – the scientist will have compelling reasons
for replacing one component or other of his world view with an element that
does the job better. Yet he need not modify everything else (Laudan, 1984:
Through his elaboration of the reticulation model and piecemeal
change, Laudan avoids inaccessibility and closure. Negotiation of the
different claims of the tradition, as opposed to strongly shared commitments
and consensus, carries with it the implication that traditions are an
assemblage of many commitments and theories most of which are not always
in a constant, static equilibrium. Instead, those commitments and theories that
make up the tradition are an outcome of complex negotiation processes,
which are constantly evaluated. Moreover, the negotiation process goes on
not only with respect to the commitments and theories etc. of the tradition in
question, but also with those of rival traditions, other neighbouring
If we follow this construction, together with the negotiation approach
discussed above, it can be seen that the beliefs and commitments within a
community, are much more heterogeneous than Kuhn’s theory allows. Not
every adherent within a community is stamped with the same commitments
and practices. Some may possess purposes or make certain other assumptions
which others do not. This becomes much more evident when seen in the light
of the fact that even though a particular scientific tradition produces an
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
overarching framework, it also produces a multiplicity of frameworks
(specific theories and subgroups) within that overall framework. There is
significant variation amongst these specific groups, not a strong and defined
state of agreement. Also, there will always be certain incompatible findings,
problems, standards or goals within a community. By opposing strong holism
and replacing it with weak holism, we can not only account for the existence
of these differences, but also explain why scientists within a community do
not always move in unison. Both Kuhn and his followers
focus on the
differences of standards, evaluation, etc. between traditions and their
communities at the expense of ignoring differences amongst scientists within
a community.
Besides Laudan, other philosophers and historians of science have
criticised Kuhn’s holism and have argued that changes in science are
piecemeal. I will briefly mention three studies of this kind. Dudley Shapere is
one of the proponents of the piecemeal change model. He argues that, in
science, there is a “self-corrective and evolving continuity of development
(even when old entities are abandoned), in which successive stages were
linked by chain-of-reasoning connections” (Shapere, 1989: 433).
also gives examples of such piecemeal change in science.
conceptualisation is also critical of the “kind of unity Kuhn’s paradigms are
supposed to posses” (Shapere, 1989: 431). In short, he provides support for
the argument I developed so far: Kuhn’s theorising neither accounts for the
diversity of positions and viewpoints within a tradition nor recognises their
Xiang Chen and Peter Barker also develop a model of change which
aims to show how “taxonomic changes or scientific revolutions can be
achieved in a piecemeal manner, through the natural development of new
conceptual structures out of predecessors” (Chen &Barker, 2000: 220). The
Gerald Doppelt, for example, argues: “Thus within specific practices of scientific
inquiry, standards function much more like categorical imperatives than hypothetical
imperatives. For scientific practitioners committed to a standard, it unconditionally
dictates what sort of relation to evidence, or what sorts of evidence, any genuinely
true scientific theory and knowledge must possess” (Doppelt, 2001: 174). Emphasis is
Many of the critics of the piecemeal change model associate it with cumulativity
and in attacking and (rightly) showing the shortcomings of cumulativity, they
incorrectly assume that they have shown piecemeal change to be wrong as well. It is
important to note that by defending piecemeal change Shapere is not defending
cumulativity. Neither am I.
For example, he discusses the changes the “electron tradition” went through. See
Shapere 1989 and 2001 for other examples.
Ipek Demir
argument they develop is important because it challenges Kuhn’s claim that
traditions incorporate such rigid linguistic structures that piecemeal change is
not possible. In other words, they reply to Kuhn’s later arguments which had
tried to account for holistic change by means of underlining holism in
scientific language. Chen and Barker trace the various taxonomic and
linguistic changes that occurred in astronomy in order to show how
continuous piecemeal change, rather than discontinuous replacement of one
linguistic framework with another, was the norm.
Peter Galison examines the field of physics and shows that in physics
there are various subgroups: the experimental, theoretical and instrumental
(Galison, 1997). He argues that these three have partial autonomy but yet
interact with one another in many different ways. Moreover, he suggests that
these three groups, due to their partial autonomy, have their own dynamics
and do not change simultaneously: “we do not need to assume that
experimental, theoretical, and instrumental practices all change of a piece.
...Breaks in, say, theoretical practice may occur during a time of continuity in
instrumental practice. Ruptures in experimental practice – such as the
introduction of the cloud chamber – need not coincide with changes in
theories of microphysics” (Galison, 1997: 14). His examples and analysis
challenge the monolithic and single overarching framework which traditions
in science are often said to incorporate. In other words, he supports the weak
holist position I defended above by providing various examples from physics
– though he does not refer to weak holism by name.
How Can Community and Change be Reconciled?
Recognising diversity within a community brings with it the problem of what
to look for when it comes to identifying a community. If mutually held
commitments do not exist at this deep level, then what, if anything, can
constitute a scientific community? Does questioning the extent to which
commitments are uniformly held by the members of a community undermine
the very idea of a community? Moreover, as I argued above, if the various
components of a tradition do not always reinforce one another, if they do not
always neatly fit, what sustains continuity and progress within a scientific
I argue that mutual consistency of activities is what we must see as a
whole and seek to explain and not the mutually held beliefs of scientists.
Mutual consistency of activities and practices within a community can derive
from different beliefs and understandings. The participants can produce
actions that are in common or convergent (e.g. use the same exemplars) but
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
may not necessarily base them on the same explicit or implicit set of
assumptions or beliefs. Scientists working within a tradition may have
differing judgments about the relative importance of certain problems over
others, some may have doubts over the metaphors used, some may have
reservations about the way experiments are set up, some may define a
particular concept in a radically different way.
Or, they may differ in their
perceptions of the boundaries of the tradition. Others may even disagree at
the ontological level.
But they may still continue to employ the exemplars,
the community’s shared practices.
Interestingly the neat isomorphism Kuhn assumes between beliefs, experiments,
concepts, method etc. on the one hand, and practices (exemplars) on the other may not
even exist during rigorous scientific education. Nancy Nersessian, for example, points
out that: “A substantial body of literature has established quite conclusively that even
after training in physics, large numbers of students, including those who have learned
to perform the requisite calculations, have not learned the scientific conceptual
structure of the domain. ...For example, students conceive of objects, such as stones,
rather than mathematical point masses; they think of force as a property of objects
rather than a relation between objects; and they view motion as a process rather than
as a state” (Nersessian, 2003: 189-190). The issue I hope to underline by using this
quote is not the relative effectiveness of scientific learning in general. The point I am
making is that shared exemplars do not, even in rigorous science education,
necessarily point to a strongly shared conceptual system within a community.
A good example of this is the ongoing debate among astronomers over the
existence of “dark matter.” Whilst most astronomers accept its existence, some deny it
and account for the observational data in a different way. However, both groups use
similar exemplars and problem-solving techniques.
Joseph Rouse in his revisionist reading of Kuhn also underlines the centrality of
practices and argues that “[t]hese elements of shared practice thus need not
presuppose any comparable unity in scientists’ beliefs about what they are doing
when they use them” (Rouse, 2003: 108). He also states: “There is room for
considerable disagreement within such a research field. Even within normal science,
scientists assess differently what is possible, plausible, or promising. …The
acceptance of a paradigm is thus not a matter of monolithic agreement within a
community, but rather of sufficient common ground to make disagreement both
intelligible and interesting” (Rouse, 2003: 109). Rouse’s article, however, also states
that it is a mistake to read Kuhn as saying that there is an underlying consensus within
a tradition. He provides a quote from Kuhn suggesting that he no longer sees
consensus within a tradition as central. What Rouse does not include in his analysis,
however, are Kuhn’s later works. There, it can be seen that Kuhn reverts to his old
argument. He justifies the existence of consensus and the sharedness of both
commitments and practices within a tradition by resorting to linguistic arguments. So,
in Kuhn’s later writings the commitments of a tradition are still seen as strongly
shared by the members of a particular community. However, in his later writings, the
Ipek Demir
Kuhn regards the existence of different assumptions or understandings
within a tradition as potentially disruptive. For him the commonality of the
commitments, assumptions and premises the participants hold is the key to
agreement and, thus, to the functioning of scientific activity. In his later
works, Kuhn does not give up this emphasis on uniformity but rather explains
and accounts for it by resorting to an argument about the rigidity of a
linguistic structure within scientific tradition. He takes for granted that the
possession of a linguistic structure imposes a shared uniform belief system.
I, on the other hand, do not define traditions on the basis of strongly held
commitments or shared language but rather on the mutual consistency of the
participants’ activities and practices. In order for a practice to be shared, it
does not necessarily call for similar feelings and beliefs amongst its
The argument I developed above may give the impression that all the
practices need to be strongly shared within a community or that there are no
beliefs which are held in common. This is not the case. I am arguing that the
practices that are shared can bond and coordinate the otherwise disparate
groups within a community. In other words, the groups who share certain
practices may diverge both in terms of the other practices they employ or in
what they understand from, and how they make use of, the practices which
they share with the others (for example they may sometimes attribute
different epistemic roles to these practices). The establishment of certain
converging and/or shared practices and the existence of some sort of a local
coordination mechanism between these groups are sufficient. Fully
overlapping practices and beliefs are not necessary.
I argue that this way of conceptualising scientific communities and
their traditions can both account for the highly convergent activities amongst
scientists within a community, but also allow disagreements and differences
of interpretation to coexist with convergent activities. At first, this might be
seen as a contradiction. But no contradiction exists if disagreement is not
equated with controversy. Disagreement and differences of opinion can be
tolerated within a scientific community if research can proceed, if actual
problem-solving is not blocked. Such differences of opinion on various
aspects of the tradition will not usually deter scientists within a community
from employing the same exemplars while they continue to solve its puzzles
and can more or less proceed (while anomalies remain unimportant). They
might, however, lead scientists to voice their objections more strongly when
underlying reason for why they are shared has changed: common understanding and
consensus are accounted for by the possession of a common linguistic structure.
I do not deny the impact discursive practices have on beliefs. I am, however,
challenging the isomorphism Kuhn seems to assume between the two.
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
they are unsure how to proceed or when anomalies start threatening the future
of the tradition.
It should be obvious by now why I regarded Kuhn’s major
achievement, his identification of exemplars, as the key to understanding
scientific activity. The interpretation I offered takes the second definition of
paradigms as central and attempts to show how common practices (exemplars
in this case) can coexist with disagreements or differences of opinion at other
levels. It also shows why a weak holist construction, which can cope with
this coexistence, is better at explaining the persistence of a scientific tradition
while admitting the possibility of change. A weak holist construction sees a
connection, a link between various components of a tradition. But it regards
neither the tradition’s commitments nor its practitioners as an homogeneous
mass. Further, it does not see the various agreements reached during the
lifetime of a tradition as static. Instead, it regards them as ad hoc. The bonds
between the various components of, or groups within, a community are seen
as much weaker, permitting adaptability, responsiveness and hence change.
Having discussed criticism, disagreement and change in scientific
communities, I will now address the issue of incommensurability. Kuhn’s
articulation and defence of incommensurability changed over the years.
Whilst he subscribed to a more radical version of incommensurability in
SSR, he presented a more modest version of it in his later works.
I see both versions of incommensurability as problematic.
Kuhn’s later works focused on presenting a new interpretation of
incommensurability. Nevertheless, Kuhn tried to do this without going back
and looking at the way in which he accounted for continuation and
persistence within a community. He hoped that a new conceptualisation of
incommensurability would allow comparison and communication between
different communities to take place while actually the core problem was the
Rouse argues a similar version of this in his article.
Three central themes dominate Kuhn’s later discussion of incommensurability.
First, Kuhn shifted his justification for incommensurability from a discussion of
incommensurable standards to a discussion of untranslatability. Secondly, Kuhn
argued that incommensurability implied neither incomparability nor
incommunicability. Rather, he argued, it implied that there was no common measure
between traditions. Thirdly, Kuhn introduced the concept of “local”
incommensurability, arguing that communication and translation problems between
different paradigms were restricted only to a small subgroup of concepts.
Ipek Demir
way he explained persistence and continuity. His turn towards the philosophy
of language resulted in his putting further emphasis on holism, the issue that
constituted a problem in the first place.
The model of weak holism and piecemeal change I presented above
not only accounts for the transformations that communities go through but
also accepts that there is a constant convergent process of mutual engagement
(not necessarily agreement and uniformity) between various scientific
communities. Changes in belief and practices are not wholly dependent upon
an interaction between the members of a scientific community, but also
depend upon an exchange and interaction with other scientific communities.
Communities in science are not isolated from the changes that occur in
others. Members of different communities also engage with others and
negotiate across boundaries and as a result bring about changes in their own
sphere of activity.
In doing so, they also shift the boundaries of their
tradition as well as the membership of their communities over time.
The concept of incommensurability as employed by Kuhn and
on the other hand, cannot account for the type of interaction and
exchange scientific communities engage in. Rather, even in its more modest
form, the incommensurability thesis is defended by focusing on the
impossibility of being able to define one scientific tradition on the basis of
another and the impossibility of being able to translate fully one scientific
language to another. For example, Kuhn dwells on the example of phlogiston
to show that this term is not “replaceable individually” by the vocabulary of
another tradition in chemistry (Kuhn, 2000a: 43). By focusing on
untranslatability, what Kuhn and others
fail to do is account for the ways in
which scientists from different communities communicate and interact in
spite of their differences. Instead they end up presenting us with the
Peter Galison provides a detailed examination of the ways in which different
communities in physics interact. He challenges the mutually exclusive construction of
scientific communities. He shows that pidgins, an 'intermediate set of linguistic and
procedural practices' across the community borders allow interaction between
different communities without necessarily collapsing one to the other (Galison, 1997:
805). He points to the existence of what he calls a “trading zone” in which different
groups interact, opening ways for permeation and diffusion of ideas and practices to
take place. His analysis underlines that different communities keep their distinctive
identities, cultures and practices but yet exchange ideas and practices in a manner
similar to “two cultures distinct but living near enough to trade” (Galison, 1997: 97,
Feyerabend is also one of the defenders of the incommensurability thesis in science.
MacIntyre, who writes about moral traditions, also defends incommensurability on
the basis of untranslatability (MacIntyre, 1988).
Thomas Kuhn’s Construction of Scientific Communities
translation problems inquirers face when they are trying to describe the
science of earlier periods or when, as inquirers, they try to define one
scientific tradition on the basis of another. In summary, they prioritise the
observer problems they face (translation) over actor behaviours (interaction).
I argue that a coherent and adequate understanding of diversity and
change within a community is essential for a satisfactory representation of
interaction across communities. Over time, within a community, certain
beliefs and practices are abandoned and others are accepted. Such
modifications may come as a result of trying to eliminate anomalies, to solve
new conceptual and empirical problems or even to render various
components of a tradition more consistent with each other.
Or, they may
materialise following the interaction processes through which scientists from
different communities come to learn about each other's sources and practices
and engage with them. Inasmuch as it is unnecessary and confusing to call
the earlier and later versions of a tradition incommensurable, it is confusing
to refer to communities whose members interact and exchange ideas and
practices as incommensurable.
By considering scientific communities, and Kuhn’s construction of them as
an example, I tried to show how the three problems community-centred
approaches can be resolved. These, I suggested, can be overcome by
incorporating difference and diversity in our construction of scientific
communities and by focusing on shared practices rather than commonly
According to Kuhn, however, any such change within a tradition can only be
cumulative. Since traditions, for him have an inflexible, holistic character, change and
dynamism in science occur only in revolutionary periods.
A question may be raised: What about using incommensurability to refer to very
specific cases where communication between different communities is hampered?
Communication, after all, is not immune from failures. It can involve complexities
and can be interrupted. The process is far from perfect. I argue that the temptation to
refer to these cases as “incommensurability” should be resisted. First, such problems
can occur even within a community. Secondly, referring to incommensurability to
underline communication problems between communities (in science or elsewhere)
gives the impression that it is “communication” which is a problem. I would like to
challenge this. It is only when one is “in” communication that problems,
disagreements and differences of priorities can emerge. To refer to these as
communication problems not only underestimates the differences, but also prevents us
from seeing the ways in which scientists continue to interact and negotiate in spite of
their differences.
Ipek Demir
shared assumptions or strong consensus. I argue that this weakening of the
'unity' and agreement in scientific communities is not only helpful for a better
understanding of scientific communities but it can also help us identify more
fruitful ways of thinking about the idea of a “community” in general.
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To obviate both myth and nihilism, Nancy suggests a concept of
community based on the ontology of event. At the same time, he
proceeds from the experience of addressing and exposing, which in
fact exceeds this ontology. Moreover, it implies different ethical
attitude – addressing/exposing and establishing ties with others instead
of maintaining flowing identity (openness toward the coming).
Therefore, Nancy’s approach – in spite of his own intention –
demonstrates the impossibility of reducing community to ontology.
Community calls for the deciding subject, the one who is not merely
an effect of différance but devotes her- or himself to the very project
of “being-together.”
In the postmodern condition, when values, norms, meanings grow uncertain
and lose their ground; when morality, politics, family, and many other social
institutions inherited from the so-called modernity cease to serve us one by
one, community itself becomes problematic. On what basis can it be erected?
God, humanity, nature – everything has become suspect. Perhaps only one
possibility remains at our disposal: to take the very lack of consistency as a
basis for community. Jean-Luc Nancy attempts this. He seeks a third path
between myth and nihilism, that is, between traditional unitary community
and the absence of community. This way is claimed to be found in the
community undoing itself, or, better, in the very undoing of community. The
absence of myth (as well as a community based on it) is thought, contrary to
nihilism, not as lack and nothing. The very rejection of myth is a work – if I
can use this word here – of community. The impossibility of immanence and
closed up identity is supposed to be a basis for an understanding of
community that obviates the abysses of both totalitarianism and nihilism. To
put it simply, the impossibility of the One, of the Absolute leads immediately
to multiplicity and thus to irreducible community.
Oleg Domanov
Therefore, instead of the alternative between eternal sense and non-
sense, this philosophy relies on the undoing of sense and seeks therein all
sense of community. Ontology comes to be crucial here, since Being – at
least from Heidegger on – is conceived as having a similar structure of
undoing: Being presents beings (exists them in the transitive sense of the
verb) but does so in such a way that lays no firm ground for their continuous
existence. Thus the very Being of community justifies its undoing. The sense
of community is sought, therefore, in the ontology or in the very fact that
“there is something,” that Being “is,” or existence “exists.” The structures of
there is and the undoing of community are strictly parallel.
This project has obvious ethical connotations. Undoing or interruption
are associated with anti-totalitarianism, multiplicity of voices or cultures,
recognition of the other, genuinely ethical attitude toward the other, and so
on. The whole project is a response to challenges of the XXcentury.
However, is undoing sufficient? Is such recognition of the other’s freedom
sufficient for community? This is the question of the present work. I shall
argue that there is never merely undoing but always undoing endowed with a
meaning. To put it another way, the interruption of sense does make sense by
itself but this sense may be different. There is never one sense of there is (and
any philosophy trying to find out this one sense tends to conceive of it as a
pure negativity, death), but different senses. I shall argue as well that the
latter have the structure of “for the sake of...” which means that not the
undoing itself is important for community but that for the sake of which it is
performed. This undermines Nancy’s project of basing community on
ontology and my aim will be to demonstrate how this happens in his two
books devoted entirely to the concepts of community and sense (which is
always common, according to Nancy), namely The Inoperative Community
(Nancy, 1991) and The Sense of the World (Nancy, 1997).
Community and Ontology in Nancy’s Writing
The most important characteristic of community, as seen by Jean-Luc Nancy,
is its interruption or suspension or undoing or unworking. He derives this
trait from what I shall call the ontology of event. This ontology is based on
Heidegger’s distinction between Being (Sein) and entity or being (Seiende),
with Being understood as the event that brings forth everything existing.
Nancy begins by rejecting the notion of community as a number of
individuals bound into community with external ties. He insists instead on the
notion of singularity. The latter does not precede community. Singularities
rather appear simultaneously and form a community in the very event of this
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
appearance. The individual as a closed up identity is impossible and roots of
community are seen in the impossibility of immanentisation, which is to say,
in the impossibility of the One. We can recognise here Heideggerian theme of
the irreducibility of Being to entity, and Nancy in fact explains his argument
adopting Heidegger’s distinction between ontological and ontical. Thus the
irreducible ontological relation proves to be the relation of the entity to its
own Being. “And so, being ‘itself’ comes to be defined as relational, as non-
absoluteness, and, if you will – in any case this is what I am trying to argue –
as community” (Nancy, 1991: 6; emphasis added). Therefore, what Nancy
calls community is this relational character of Being, Being-ecstatic of Being
itself. In fact, the preoccupation of the whole book is revealed here. Let us
follow, however, the actual picture of community that Nancy offers to
The key word for this picture is partage translated in The Inoperative
Community as sharing. Nancy defines it in spatial terms as distribution,
partition, or dis-location. The community of sharing is that of singularities
touching one another, but with these singularities constituted by sharing
itself. Community stands opposed to communion, which is a society of
immanence and “fuses the egos into an Ego or a higher We” (Nancy, 1991:
15). The very definition of community and sharing refers to the impossibility
of – or rather the resistance to – communion or fusion. What makes the
resistance possible is the non-static character of distribution. Sharing is
essentially the movement of coming into Being and fusion does not take
place due to singularities’ co-appearing or, as Nancy terms it, compearing.
This means for him that any singularity co-appears with other singularities
and can appear only together with them. Singularity exists only by and
through exposing to outside (1991: 29).
Another name for the impossibility of communion (opposed to the
sharing of community) is the interruption of community. Its exemplary figure
is the interruption of myth. Nancy grasps myth as a founding narrative whose
principal function lies in founding a community (1991: 50). Myth does not
refer to any reality beyond itself, be it natural or social. It rather creates this
reality, the reality of community. Myth shows the foundation, while at the
same time inventing it. Since myth originates from nothing, it might be
regarded as a fiction, but it is “a founding fiction, or a foundation by fiction”
(1991: 53). Speaking of myth, Nancy also refers to Kant’s schematism – a
condition of possibility for any human experience (54). And, which is most
important in our context, Nancy directly equates the founding functions of
myth and Being and speaks of “a mythic essence of Being” (54).
Now, this myth is interrupted. This does not mean that it is absent.
What is absent is rather its power to found a community. This is why the
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interruption of a myth is always accompanied by the interruption of a
community. The loss of community, however, may be a resource for the
community of another kind, “community of the absence of community,” so to
say. The latter is opposed to fusion. Nevertheless, for Nancy myth is not
merely communal, that is, belonging to communion. Its logic shows a
community that does not disappear even after myth’s interruption. Nancy
once again exploits the ontology of event. Myth, despite its tendency to
totalisation, is at bottom compearance because it gives Being-in-common.
Compearance thus lurks within myth in spite of its tendency to fusion.
Moreover, it resists fusion. Nancy describes this function of myth in a
manner of the ontology of event that brings forth everything that it contains
Hence, myth, like Being, is a distribution and dislocation. This is not
to say that compearance is mythic. Myth remains totalitarian for Nancy. But
he seems to argue that compearance takes a priority over myth and
undermines its pretension to totality (I would say that myth parasites on
compearance). Myth still founds a community but tends to make of it a
collective individual, which it is not. Accordingly, Nancy conceives of the
absence of myth not as the absence of the founding but as the movement of
“unfounding” or unworking (60). Borrowing the term from Bataille, he calls
this movement passion and explains: “the passion of and for community
propagates itself, unworked, appealing, demanding to pass beyond every
limit and every fulfilment enclosed in the form of an individual” (60). This is
a genuine communication because “this interruption once again exposes
singularity to its limit, which is to say, to other singularities” (60). It is in this
way that Nancy derives the multiplicity of singularities from interruption.
Indeed, passing beyond an individual leads apparently to the confronting of
other singularities, and hence the distributive character of myth,
compearance, and Being acquires the meaning of building a differentiated
social body. This step is principal for Nancy’s theory of community and one
of my major tasks in this work is to demonstrate its doubtfulness. This may
be done in different ways but here I shall concentrate on two his themes, that
of the politics of establishing communal ties and writing or literary
Citizen, Subject, and Establishing Communal Ties
However important the ontological understanding of community is, its
principal model for Nancy is political. It is above all political intuitions that
Nancy seeks to explicate in terms of Being, compearance, and so forth. This
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
is why the image given in the chapter Politics II of The Sense of the World
(Nancy, 1997: 103-117) rules, in fact, the whole book. Politics there is
distinguished from love or hate in that it does not presuppose any ties already
tied or given (1997: 103). This absence of ties is the cardinal feature of the
community Nancy speaks of. Furthermore, he separates the politics of
citizenship and subjecthood. The former points to a common field of
alienated identities, and is nothing else than their sharing (1997: 104). Unlike
this, the latter implies “the demand for a subjective appropriation of sense”
(105). Political subject appropriates the constitutive exteriority of the city and
has, therefore, no interiority different from the appropriated exteriority. This
means that citizen and subject share the same element – the form of the city,
which Nancy understands as a network of connected items. The difference
between citizenship and subjecthood lies then in the first being, in fact, the
contingent institution (appearing) of the network, whereas the second is its
interiorisation. More exactly, subjecthood begins with presupposing
(instituting, opening up) the sphere of interiority into which the exteriority of
the city can be projected. This common element leads, according to Nancy, to
the intrinsic defect in both politics (that of citizenship and subjecthood). They
take sense as something given or self-sufficient. Social ties in the case of
citizenship or the items that they tie in the case of subjecthood are considered
as self-sufficient (111), whereas the problem is precisely these ties
themselves. Nancy formulates the task of inventing a politics with “no longer
any subject, but no citizen either” (109). He finds this politics in the very
activity of establishing ties with tying establishing both (k)nots and the
network of their connections.
Thus, we can recognise in tying a further development of the concept
of compearance from The Inoperative Community. Community is again
understood within the distributive model of co-appearing singularities.
However, Nancy changes the language of his description as he elaborates this
theory. Instead of division and spacing he speaks of (k)nots and enchainment.
This transforms the networks of items which is the common element of
citizenship and subjecthood. To begin with, tying introduces temporality into
the analysis. Indeed, although the institution of the city and its further
appropriation seem to be temporal, this time has nothing to do with the time
of event. From the standpoint of diachrony (I am using here Levinas’ concept
of diachrony (Levinas, 1998) based on Husserl’s analysis of time-
consciousness, Zeitbewußtsein (Husserl, 1991)), institution and appropriation
both belong to the inner time of distribution. Moreover, the self-sufficiency
of citizenship and subjecthood denotes precisely this fact, although each in its
own way. Citizenship means the self-sufficiency of any instant, its
independence from all other instants. It is in this sense that city rests on
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nothing. Subjecthood means the independence of essence from temporality,
its lasting forever through the course of time. For both of these the external
time of event is simply redundant. Tying introduces this time first of all in the
form of undoing. The mistake of self-sufficiency then consists in viewing ties
as already established. Unlike this, the politics of ties takes them as having to
be tied.
Another transformation that Nancy makes on his way toward the
politics of tying is the conceptual shift from spacing to enchainment. This
entails a redefinition of ties. Whereas the city's ties bind by distributing, in
the politics of tying we deal with relationships directed from one unicity to
another. Nancy states this clearly when speaks of the “tying up of sense from
one to the one” (Nancy, 1997: 113). Moreover, tying becomes a gesture that
presupposes the intention to tie up and enchain. Although Nancy does not
speak explicitly about this intention, it is nevertheless present in his analysis
under the name of the seizure of speech (1997: 115).
With these two transformations, we arrive at the very centre of the
political model that Nancy proposes here. Community is supposed to be
constituted by the incessant reformulating or reworking of the sense in
common. The condition of its possibility is everyone’s access to this labour.
Everyone must have the right and resources allowing him or her to rise to
speak and thereby to contribute to the sense in common. In this case the sense
is never complete and always exposed to anyone’s rethinking and even
rejecting/demolishing. To name it shortly, this is the politics of the
recognition of any possible voice. To designate it Nancy also invokes the
term compearance from The Inoperative Community (1997: 113).
Enchainment and tying are supposed to grasp this sort of community. One of
their most important features is eventality. Ties exist properly only in the
event of tying. Otherwise they come undone by fusion (subjecthood) or
atomisation (citizenship) (111). But why should we consider ties as not
given? Nancy’s answer is: because Being, including the Being of community,
implies nothing pre-given at all. But why should we then be dissatisfied with
ties established by subjecthood or citizenship? Why not to repeat them?
Obviously, because the repetition concerns not only me but also others in
community. The question, however, is whether this recognition of others can
be adequately grasped with the evental character of tying alone; in other
words, whether the resources of the ontology of event and the distributive
model are sufficient for that. I believe that they are not, and this leads to the
uncertainty in Nancy’s presentation of the act of tying.
Indeed, let us summarise the main traits of Nancy’s distributive model
of community. The simplest scheme is that of attestation. According to it,
there is a movement that sets up or attests an existence. The latter needs no
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
further elaboration, as the scheme stresses its independence from any pre-
given essence. A more concrete scheme is that of punctuation and
enchainment according to which point-like items with neither temporal nor
spatial dimensions are enchained due to a movement of towardness directed
from one item to another. This is a general scheme of community’s resistance
to totality: the accent shifts from the unity to its establishing. The latter is
opposed to the veiling/unveiling of aletheia or appearing of phenomena,
insofar as they still reside “on the level of punctuation, not on the level of
enchainment” (Nancy, 1997: 175). Finally, Nancy links the distributive
model with the concept of signification. He proposes three formal structures
of sense: sense as given, sense as mediated, sense as surprise. “Or again, in
another register, sense as set of signs, sense as signification, sense as origin
of significance” (1997: 147).
As a result, dislocating becomes the birth of the signifying order
(which is divided in itself). The latter, in its turn, is associated with tying or
the birth of the communal order. Nancy, therefore, infers community from
the temporality of “coming-and-going.” However, the latter has two
dimensions: the internal time of temporal differences between elements of the
world and the external time of these differences’ coming into Being. It is the
latter that is the time of “coming-and-going.” We barely can draw the
multiplicity of things from it, but this is precisely what Nancy does when
speaks of “the instant as spacing out, and spacing out as the simul of the
several things that make up a world” (Nancy, 1997: 66-67). The multiplicity
of things is for Nancy that of instances. Hence, the temporal (interruption)
turns into the spatial (dislocation, dividing). This happens in two steps. The
first is the identification of the two times of diachrony. The second is the
interpretation of the temporal division of the internal time in terms of
dislocation and spacing as such (this logic is a Husserlian heritage and may
also be found in Derrida’s différance). The next step that Nancy makes after
his identification of the temporal and spatial is the interpretation of
multiplicity as social. The goal of these transformations is to suggest a new
type of social relation instead of substantial unity (myth) and contingent
union (nihilism). However, as we have just seen, his attempt to found this
relation on ontology is rather doubtful. Does this mean that the whole theory
of community also becomes so? No. As a matter of fact, Nancy proposes
another vision of these relations and thus another logic of the inoperative
community. It is rather implicit, unlike the distributive model. He relies on
the event that is in many respects similar to the event of Being. This is the
event of speaking toward the other. It brings about separation rather than
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Separation, Distribution and Dialogical Model of Community
Compearance “consists in the appearance of the between as such: you and I
(between us)—a formula in which the and does not imply juxtaposition, but
exposition” (Nancy, 1991: 29). This sentence suggests that compearance is
not merely a co-appearing of items or differences. It has to do with “you and
I,” that is, with very specific singularities. For Nancy the difference between
“you and I” and between any other singularities are of the same order: the
order of distribution. This permits him to pass from the ontological
distinction (Sein-Seiende) to the co-presence of the other (you co-appearing
with I), and then to the picture of singularities compearing in the event of
dislocating. However, this is not the only logic of community in Nancy.
Indeed, the totality of compearance is also that of a dialogue (1991: 76). This
dialogue, however, has a specific meaning:
I no longer (no longer essentially) hear in it [dialogue – OD] what the other
wants to say (to me), but I hear in it that the other, or some other (de l’autre)
speaks and that there is an essential articulation of the voice and of voices,
which constitute the being in common itself (Nancy, 1991: 76).
This is more than simple compearance of entities. The passage
accentuates the other’s saying in its distinction from the said. On the other
hand, community is based on the death of others, their “eternal and
unbearable absence” (61). Paradoxically, a proper communication is that with
the absent other. “To be in common” proves to mean “to be separated.” This
points to the face-to-face relationships with each particular other rather than
to the compearance of multiple singularities. This also clarifies the words I
have already quoted: “…the between as such: you and I (between us)…” At
the same time, communication in Nancy is linked with my death (and birth)
(60). The inaccessibility of death for our work marks the impossibility of
immanence, which is similar to what we have seen in the ontology of event.
Although, here we also deal with the relation between the two, these two are
rather the singularity and its otherness or alterity. Nancy identifies this
otherness with that of the other in dialogue. What is the logic of this
identification? Do they rather have different incommensurable structures?
In order to answer these questions let us put into play the concept of
saying. This allows us to distinguish between two types of subjectivity that I
shall call the subjectivity of involvement and engagement. The first points to
the mineness (Heideggerian Jemeinigkeit) of saying, its always belonging to
me. Yet the event of saying in no way amounts to a mere manipulation with
signs or repetition. It includes the letting-language-be (Agamben, 1991). It
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
dwells, in fact, between signs and meanings and is the very movement from
the first to the second. The movement happens to someone, who is always I.
And it is me who lets language be, even if “only” by my readiness to accept
its meanings. Unlike this, the subject of engagement implies something more,
namely that for the sake of which the saying is performed. In this way,
involvement denotes participation and acceptance, whereas engagement
implies desire and decision.
Let us now come back to tying. We can draw two models of it from
the text: that of distribution and enchainment. According to Nancy, tying and
enactment from the second model are ties from the first one but viewed “in
the process,” i.e. as act. However, these ties are structurally different, and
Nancy’s characteristic of the politics that he is seeking as that “of the tie as
such, rather than of its untying into a space or substance” (Nancy, 1997: 114)
is rather misleading. Indeed, at the same time enchainment is enacted as a
seizure of speech, that is, as a gesture that did not merely happen but was
performed by someone. What is this presupposed subjectivity?
To begin with, the seizure of speech presupposes the subjectivity of
involvement, since the seizure of speech points to mineness and the act of
taking responsibility for one’s speech. It is not yet the responsibility of
engagement but already of involvement and letting-be. But tying is more than
that. Enchainment also requires the recognition of others’ speech, that is,
others who are also involved in the “labour of sense.” In such a way the links
of the chain are not merely the results of an anonymous distribution. They
address me and await my response. This is not to say that the said should be
taken as meaningful, but rather as appeal aiming at communicating,
establishing ties no matter of what kind. The other does not say anything in
particular, she or he seeks a contact with me, a language community, where
language is not given but is to be created in the appeal itself. The other seeks
to be with me. The other’s saying does not simply amount to the coming of
meaning, which equally well may be anonymous. There is a difference
between the other’s appeal and a mere coming of the future. Both are enacted
as my hearing or understanding, but the first bears something more than the
unpredictability of the coming. It contains, as it were, the unpredictability of
the other’s judgement, which deprives me of the power to decide whether I
am satisfied with the coming or not. In its turn, my saying becomes
addressing others, offering them my vision of community (including the
vision of the chain). The sense of the world thus is not merely produced or
accepted but offered to the community.
To be more precise, subjectivity is constituted in the triple act of
(1) producing a narrative structure with places for speakers and objects,
(2) taking on a place in this structure, and (3) offering the narrative to others.
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The first of these acts can be described in Nancy’s manner as spacing and
distribution. The second is enacted as a seizure of speech. The third appears
when a narrative ceases to be only my business, when someone else acquires
the right to decide about the world I live in. Without this dimension tying
ceases to be a proper tying and serves for self-sustaining, even if this “self” is
a non-substantive self of flow, movement, or joy. All these three aspects
exclude the pre-givenness of communal ties. Nancy, in order to escape the
ties’ having been already established, focuses on the act of tying (which is, in
fact, the act of emergence of a communal myth or narrative). However,
Nancy’s basic intuition of community – that of language, writing, or writers
co-participating in the production of meaning – cannot be conceptually
grasped in terms of distributing or spacing. It is true that the temporal
character of saying is a primary source for the resistance to the totality of
immanence. But this resistance is not sufficient for community. The relation
to the other demands passing beyond not only the individual but also the
ontology of event as such. This relation implies a separation more radical
than that of meanings, horizons, or events. Nancy’s accent on dislocation and
singularity seeks, in fact, to grasp this separation. But due to his tendency to
the spatial quasi-geometrical interpretation he fails to do so. This happens as
well in the central concept of the theory of inoperative community – that of
literature or writing.
Writing and Literary Communism
Nancy gives his view of community the name of literary communism. This is
the heart of Nancy’s understanding of community in The Inoperative
Community. For him the main condition for Being literature is to interrupt
myth. It is by this interruption that literature enacts community. Literature is
Being-in-common itself, or even stronger: “it is being in common that is
literary (or scriptuary)” (Nancy, 1991: 64). To be in common thus is to write.
What is then the writing that interrupts myth? In a way, literature interrupts
itself, because myth is the invention of literature (72). But myth is rather a
possibility that literature prevents and is supposed to prevent ceaselessly.
This feature – to interrupt itself and to suspend its own myth – is the very
definition of literature (72).
What is prevented or interrupted is a completion or totality. This
happens in a “literary” work but for that “the work… must be offered up for
communication” (73). In general, the offered is capable of – and always tends
to – totalisation, which is to say that it is accessible to anyone and can be
shared by everyone. What prevents totalisation, according to Nancy, is the act
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
of sharing itself. Having been offered, myth ceases to be a myth (Nancy,
1991: 65). In the offering myth is disjoined or withdrawn from itself (61).
Myth holds in itself its own difference from itself. Nancy obviously thinks of
this difference ontologically, and we thus have to search for the meaning of
interruption not in the work itself but in the mode of its appearing. Myth
turns into a literary work when the mythic hero “tells the truth of the
interruption of his myth, the truth of the interruption of all founding
speeches” (79). Nancy discerns here the unstable ontological character of
myth, the temporality of the origin of significance, the “coming to the limit,
letting the limit appear as such” (68), and finally the limit as a “dividing line”
between me and the other (68). This all facilitates, as was the case before, the
interpretation of writing within the ontological or distributive framework.
Nevertheless, this time too Nancy’s own description transcends the
distributive model.
Indeed, in The Sense of the World writing is “the breaking of the path
[frayage] of significance through which it becomes possible not only for
significations to be signified but for them to make sense in being passed on
and shared among individuals” (Nancy, 1997: 118). In this fashion writing
possesses two dimensions. First, it is différance or the very act of
distribution, spacing out, and frayage. Second, it is the exposition of a writer,
her/his opening toward others and offering oneself. The sharing out of one’s
work (the core meaning of sharing in The Inoperative Community) has
something to do with communication and “the passage from one to another”
(Nancy, 1991: 65). It is this passage that, according to Nancy, interrupts myth
(64-5). On the other hand, to pass to another means to arrive at “the limit
where being itself, where being-in-common conceals us one from the other”
(66). We came across the same paradox again: to be in common is to be
separated, to touch the non-traversable limit concealing us one from another.
We encounter the notion of limit again but this time it is conceived as
separation rather than distribution.
Thus, writing is offering, simultaneous putting into social space and
creating the space itself. In this way “it is ‘literature’ that does the sharing”
(64). This gesture of offering is dual. On one hand, it follows the logic of
sedimentation: having been said, the myth becomes a form accessible for
everyone’s usage, a foundation capable of being taken over by anyone. On
the other hand, offering addresses others. It does not merely leave traces; it
offers a foundation and invites others to share it (this is what Nancy calls
exposition). Literature is a multiplicity of voices; each of them is a voice as
long as it shares itself, i.e. writes for others. However, we find again the same
ambiguity: some parts of Nancy’s description of the multiplicity of voices fit
into the distributive model but others go beyond it. This is visible more than
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anywhere in the understanding of the voice of the other which plays a
decisive role in the constitution of singularity. Although Nancy insists that
singularity is that of Being itself, the consideration of voice (1991: 76) shows
that he relies, in fact, on its specific experience. It is here that Nancy writes:
“I no longer… hear… what the other wants to say (to me), but I hear… that
the other… speaks.” This reasoning appears in the context of discussing
articulation (75-78), whose sociality is first of all opposed to that of fusion or
immanence. Nancy conceives of totality as the play of articulations, but for
this he has no need to go beyond the sphere of mineness. The multiplicity of
horizons – and accordingly of the voices each articulated in its own horizon –
is already such a totality and obeys the already familiar law of distribution.
By contrast, the acknowledging of the other’s voice demands a completely
different gesture irreducible to the ontological event. Therefore, on the one
hand, Nancy proceeds in accordance with the double internal articulation of
the voice which is, first, insufficient like any entity and thus implies some
sort of otherness and, second, may be inscribed into different
incommensurable horizons and is thus inevitably multiple. This double
principal non-oneness of the voice is for Nancy a sign of the presence of
other voices, i.e. of a community. But on the other hand, Nancy refers to a
more immediate experience of the other – that of addressing – although he
tries to reduce it to the ontological one. The incommensurability of the two
ways become especially visible when one realises that they correspond to two
functions of writing/literature – or, broader, language – the cognitive and
communicative (or even phatic) ones. It becomes immediately clear then that
community stemming from addressing and exposing has nothing in common
with that based on the fact of meaning or significance, even when the latter is
conceived as frayage or the origin of significance. Moreover, they correspond
to different ethical attitudes.
The Ethics of Literary Communism – Conclusions
To elaborate the theory of community based on its own interruption, Nancy
turns to Heidegger’s ontology and Derrida’s différance. However, neither of
them goes beyond the sphere of mineness, even though we include in it
unconsciousness and acquired social practices, which are in a certain way
external. It still has to do with the Other within oneself (and thus we can
speak of anonymity), whereas the case in point should be the other that is
more radically outside than unconsciousness (the other to whom the
unconsciousness speaks). Nancy turns to the experience of this other when he
speaks of writing/literature, offering a work, and exposing toward others. At
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
the same time, he reduces writing to Being and offering to presentation. The
very term that designates the movement of writing – partage – signifies
simultaneously dividing or distributing and offering (one’s part). However,
Nancy’s interpretation of writing is not reducible to the ontology of event. It
is more than the fact of Being. Writing, as Nancy conceives of it, is never
anonymous. Not in the sense that it has an author who “expresses his/her
thought in words,” but in the sense of someone’s responsibility for
giving/offering itself. In the ontology of event subjectivity, if it exists as
such, is grasped as a place of the “happening” of Being (for instance, Dasein
in Being and Time), in this sense irresponsible because it precedes any
possible act of taking over responsibility. But writing, inasmuch as it is the
offering for others, is itself praxis, which can be chosen, or not. More exactly
still, writing is rather a response to the event of Being, not this event itself.
Ontological difference (actually, différance) is not enough to comprehend
There are, therefore, different ethical attitudes associated with
distribution and separation. They correspond to two types of subjectivity. The
first one can be characterised as “for the sake of itself or self-sustaining”.
This is a subject of flow, incessant withdrawal of itself, radical
ungroundedness of any stage, and so forth. This is the courage of the
openness toward the future, heroic acceptance of the coming destiny and
opening this destiny with one’s own deeds (Is such a courage not the primary
meaning and a hidden ground of Heidegger’s explication of Dasein as
resoluteness (Entschlossenheit) in Being and Time? I believe so.).
Community, undoubtedly, demands such courage but it also demands
something more. This subjectivity is totalisable in the sense of reducing to
the sphere of mineness, whereas community requires rather that one exceeds
this sphere. The ethics of this subject is based on the acceptance of internal
plurality and the rejection of any attempts to unify oneself. It is indeed the
resistance to totality, but is not yet a community.
This subject uses a language for self-sustaining. Performing gestures,
it aims solely at the performance itself, or, better, at the prolongation of itself
as a performing instance. In this sense it opens toward nothing and is ready to
accept everything. It does resist the immanence of essence but at the same
time forms the immanence of mineness or that of a flow, the very movement
of Being revealing itself. This is radical scepticism depriving Being of any
essence. The best strategy for it is to follow the flow of the event (be worthy
of the event, as Deleuze puts it) because there is nothing beyond, above, or
beneath it.
Doubtless, this is not Nancy’s choice. He explicitly argues against this
standpoint and devotes the whole of The Sense of the World to the
Oleg Domanov
demonstration and elaboration of the irreducible sense of Being resisting any
sceptical denial. However, this irreducible sense amounts, in fact, to the
subjectivity of involvement or, more precisely, to the fact of involvement.
“The sense or world is there” means that the structure of “senseness” or
“worldness” is there. In terms of language this means that the structure of
significance is there, or language itself is there. The passage to community
thus appears as a passage from unconscious repetition to the active will to
language or will to bring forth the structure of significance, to be involved
into originating significance. But the subjectivity of self-sustaining fits into
this picture. Hence, if we want to go beyond it, we need to focus not merely
on the will to language but on that for the sake of which the language is
Thus, we arrive at the second type of subjectivity, which is “for the
sake of community.” In what sense? As far as I can see, there are two such
senses: 1) this subject uses language not for self-sustaining but for addressing
others or making oneself accessible to them and 2) this subject recognises the
other’s right to speak. In both cases the fundamental structure of saying
remains intact and this subjectivity wills language and world thereby securing
the structure of “senseness/worldness.” But unlike the subjectivity of self-
sustaining, this one implies some aims that surpass the event of sense (or the
fact of the origin of sense). This is that for the sake of what the event is
performed. Furthermore, the recognition of the other’s right to speak amounts
to the recognition of the other’s saying and allows one to escape the logic of
event with its tendency to reduce everything to me. Without it compearance
fails to ground a proper community. It does reveal the possibility of others by
opening up the place they might dwell in. But this place is empty until I
recognise the other’s right to speak. This recognition is truly groundless and
stems from neither the structure of the world nor its Being. Perhaps its only
ground is the ethical decision – to be with others, to keep building a common
world with them. No doubt, this is the underlying principle of Nancy’s theory
of community, although his “ontological reductionism” makes it obscure.
Therefore, we discovered the subjectivity of involvement, which can
be described in terms of distribution, spacing, or origin of significance. But
above this we found two subjectivities for which this terminology turned out
to be insufficient. They demand the invention of something for the sake of
which the spacing is performed. Nancy keeps to the concept of distribution
and this reveals, I believe, a weak point in the postmodern project in general.
The latter can be formulated as follows. The key theme of postmodern
philosophy is the impossibility of universality and its dependence on the play
of differences, which is the play of language. In this context, not only
universality but also subjectivity appears as a mere effect of the intersection
Nancy’s Attempt to Reduce Community to Ontology
and overlapping of heterogeneous forces. Différance or the incessant
originating of differential structures lies behind any individual or collective
universality and stability, thereby making them no more than simulacra. The
same goes for the subject becoming capable of appearing and sustaining only
in the context of anonymous discourse. This leads to radical relativism and
nihilism. Nancy’s concept of writing surpasses this approach (and in
particular Derrida’s concept of writing). He opposes to it the undeniable fact
of Being which after a closer consideration proves to be the fact of language
understood in the active sense of saying. However, in another sense he still
resides within the limits of the so understood postmodernism. For he still
relies on the movement of differentiation and seems to be convinced that the
“active” distributive model solves the problem of relativism. He aims to
demonstrate that the saying always opens a common world, and hence the
fact of language is equivalent to the fact of community. In so doing, however,
he argues from the multiplicity of saying, that is to say, again from the
movement of différance. And this is so in spite of his own description of
writing as a speaking of one to another. It is difficult to say why he does so,
but perhaps this is because of a typically postmodern presumption that
subjectivity can be nothing but an effect of différance. However, community
and ethics, by contrast, call for the deciding subject, the one who is not
merely involved in the anonymous movement of differentiation but devotes
her- or himself to this or that movement without ever being certain that “that
for the sake of which” is approachable at all. This subject of fidelity without
illusions does not perhaps precede the movement of saying and does not exist
otherwise than in a gesture of saying but once appeared cannot simply repeat
the gesture and is liable to take responsibility for it. Thus, postmodernism is
right in saying that I was brought into the world by external forces but, since
this happened and since I realise that this has happened, it becomes
impossible for me to avoid the responsibility for the world arisen well before
my birth and for the community in creation of which I am supposed to take
part from now on.
Works Cited
Agamben, Giorgio. 1991. Language and Death: The Place of Negativity.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. New York: Harper.
Husserl, Edmund. 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal
Time (1893-1917). Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1998. “Diachrony and Representation.” In Entre-Nous: On the
Thinking-of-the-Other. New York: Columbia University Press.
Oleg Domanov
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
———. 1997. The Sense of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
The lengthy and often heated debate on “on-line community” is, as
this essay argues, often an argument about either (a) the fate of
community today, or (b) the effects of technology on social relations.
While the arguments against virtual community tend to start from the
“bowling alone” position (accepting that community in its
“traditional” sense has disappeared, is disappearing, or is under the
threat of disappearance in contemporary society), there is a need to
move on from this in order to think more productively about the
contemporary constitution of community, especially in relation to new
communications technologies. To that end, this chapter has a number
of springboards. The first is Bauman’s dismissal of many
contemporary forms of something-like-community as “peg
communities” – as coat pegs on which we choose to temporarily hang
parts of our identities. The second is Miller’s formulation of “webs as
traps” – an investigation of the ways in which the aesthetics of the
web interface are used to capture the attention of passing surfers. The
third is Bakardjieva’s discussion of “immobile socialization” in
relation to how on-line community participants weave on-line and off-
line parts of their everyday lives (and everyday communities)
together. Finally, the essay returns to Bauman but then applies some
of Giddens’ ideas about intimacy, to suggest that “peg communities”
could be recast as “pure communities,” and through that discussion, to
move towards a call for a more useful, contextual, less polemical
debate about (virtual) community.
In this essay, I want to ask – and begin to answer – some fundamental
questions that are reverberating around discussions of the meaning and status
of community in the world today, especially in relation to the impacts of
media and communications technologies. The first is: What are we arguing
about when we’re arguing about virtual community? My initial response
would be to say that we are arguing about two things. First, we’re arguing
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about communities – what are they? Are they in decline? Why? Second, we
are also arguing about technology – what is it doing to social relations? To
communities? Is it good or bad?
As good a place as any to begin is with debates on virtual
communities, which all too often tend to start from the “bowling alone”
position (Putnam, 2001) – lamenting the death of old-style community bonds
– and then move to ask what role technology is having or can have as cause
or solution to that problem. While “community” is always the solution to the
“problem of community,” the jury’s still out on whether technology is part of
the problem or can be part of the answer-to-the-problem. Whichever, the
starting-point that “real-life” (RL) communities are in decline sets the terms
of the debate on a certain trajectory, in which the lost object of community is
too-often relatively uncontested; it’s taken for granted that communities used
to be certain things, and that they aren’t the same as they used to be (for a
useful sketch of the terms of the virtual community debate, see Bakardjieva,
2003). The question then turns to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
For some commentators, in this formulation virtual communities are
augmenting or standing-in for RL communities, even improving on them –
where RL membership was related to accidents of geography, virtual
membership is elective and selective, meaning we can each make our own
perfect community, a patchwork of our interests and affiliations. This is
perhaps most memorably sketched by Howard Rheingold:
In cyberspace we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform
acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans,
brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games
and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do
everything people do when they get together, but we do it with words on
computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. Millions of us have already built
communities where our identities commingle and interact electronically,
independent of local time or location. (1999: 414)
In this formulation, as in many other pronouncements by Rheingold and his
likeminds, virtual communities are seen as enhancing and in some cases
replacing “real life” communities perceived to have declined in the modern
world. This statement therefore typifies one strand of commentary on the
virtues of virtual community.
For other commentators, however, the patchiness and electiveness of
virtual communities means these are insubstantial non-communities, loose
and ephemeral interest groups, hobbyists’ clubs. Virtual communities lack
the durability and longevity, the density and intensity of RL communities,
this argument says – it’s almost like they’re too easy, they don’t require the
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work of getting on with your neighbours, since everyone and no-one’s your
neighbour. That argument, however, denies many things, including the very
real labour of building and sustaining virtual communities, itself part of the
bigger issue of the myth of “free labour” in cyberspace – critiqued by the
likes of Andrew Ross (1998) and Tiziana Terranova (2000). The other
problem with this line of criticism, as Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2003: 41)
write, is that it contains “a certain nostalgia for a way of life which has
bypassed the actual history of the past in order to critique the symptoms of
the present.” We certainly need to move beyond that kind of simplistic
formulation – while also being mindful of the popular circulation of a
particular repertoire of pro-community discourses, of which more below (and
see Raco, 2003; Taylor, 2000).
Of course, not everyone’s so naively romantic. As some other
commentators say, this mythic RL cosy community no longer exists (if it
ever did) for lots of us – our communities are already virtual, sustained by
phone calls, car trips, airmail, photo albums. Mobility makes a nonsense of
the image of slowly-built-up, densely interwoven communities: more and
more people are patching together something-like-community as they move
through space on the trajectories of their lifecourse – trajectories with
different rhythms and temporalities. As mobility comes to define the social
world in ever more intricate and complex ways, so we need to rethink what
community means for mobile selves and mobile societies (Urry, 2000).
In this regard, virtual communities might be thought of as more
durable and sustainable, since membership can be retained in spite of
movement, or even because of movement – witness, for example, the ways
that western round-the-world travellers use virtual formats such as weblogs to
connect to each other, and also to reconnect to “home” (Germann Molz,
2004), or the use of cyberspace among “diasporic” communities (see, for
example, Mitra, 2000). This means, I think, that we need to shift the ways in
which terms like durability and ephemerality are indexed in discussions of
community and of technology. Some critics, for instance, make a mockery of
ideas like “electronic intimacy,” arguing that it’s an impossibility, a con-trick
caused by the seduction of new technology as a way of filling the lack of RL
connection in our go-faster lives (see, for example, Sardar, 2000). But we are
happy with some forms of mediation – the love letter or the local newspaper,
say. Trying to think through the continued reluctance of some commentators
to acknowledge online or virtual communities as communities brings the
question back to technology, and to the issue of delegation.
An understanding of the broader roles of technology in social life can,
I think, aid us in finding a way through (or beyond) the simplistic
denunciations and celebrations of virtual community. As a starting point, let’s
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turn to Bruno Latour (1991), who famously wrote that technology is society
made durable – that human societies are held in place by all sorts of
nonhumans (things like tools or written words), to which we delegate tasks.
Human societies are held together, Latour argues, by virtue of our ability
(and willingness) to delegate some of the roles and responsibilities of “social
work” to artefacts. We don’t need everyone co-present to keep a community
alive, as much of this work can be carried out by objects of various sorts. So,
to put a spin on Latour, could we also ask whether technology likewise
makes community more durable? What types of delegation occur in building
and sustaining communities? In a way, virtual communities are much easier
to read from this perspective – the delegation to a website, or a blog, or a chat
room. As Smith and Kollock (1999) say, software is the infrastructure of the
virtual community. So, while individual membership and active participation
may be ephemeral and shifting – though at the same time intense and vibrant
– there is something there that’s more durable, a conduit through which the
ebb and flow of membership is funnelled, and an infrastructure that exists
alongside the human members of any online community. This infrastructure
includes both hardware and software, plus codes of conduct (both formal and
tacit), which taken together constitute the “delegates” tasked with
maintaining the community.
To look at the question from a different angle, then: what makes RL
communities durable? It seems to me, in many ways, that they are talked into
durability – they continue to exist because their members keep them going.
In that sense, the two types of community don’t seem that different. “RL”
communities may be sedimented in place, memorialized in houses and
streets, or institutionalized in community halls, but these are mere traces,
equally like conduits: as many of us will have experienced, a community hall
does not a community make. In this regard, James Slevin (2000: 94) talks
about how RL communities have been wrapped in a “cloak of permanence,”
almost willed into existence and continuity because the alternative – the
absence of community – is so threatening or unthinkable. But all
communities are flows, whatever their rhythms and temporalities; as Amin
and Thrift (2003: 47) put it, what we’re talking about here is “the community
of taking place, not the community of place;” or, to use their spin on bell
hooks’ (1991: 147) formulation, community “is no longer one place, it is
locations.” Yet something resists this rewriting of community, reinstating the
cloak of permanence in order to dismiss more footloose, mobile or virtual
collectivities as something-less-than-communities. In part this resistance
stems from what are constructed as incompatibilities between transformations
in contemporary social life and the enduring ideal-type model of community.
And this ideal-type continues to insist on the idea of propinquity – of
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physical proximity between (human) members; as Mike Raco (2003: 247)
notes, discussing contemporary UK policy, “area-based communities are still
the object of government.” There is a clear sense of what constitutes a
“proper” community, therefore – despite attempts at a more expansive
definition, for example in the increasing use of the term “community of
At the top of a lot of people’s agendas, in terms of arguing for the
negative effects of transformations in contemporary life-patterns on the ideal
of community, is individualization (see Bell, 2001). Zygmunt Bauman (2001)
writes that individualization means, among many (negative) things, that we
now seek biographical solutions to systemic problems – that we turn to
therapy instead of politics (see also Furedi, 2004). Communities based
around fears, problems and anxieties aren’t really communities, Bauman
argues, because they are too narrow and instrumental, as problems and fears
have themselves been individualized: “Troubles,” he writes “are singularly
unfit for cumulation into a community of interests which seeks collective
solutions to individual troubles” (86). But, we might suggest that virtual
communities – at least as they are sketched by some of their supporters – do
allow biographical connectivities that can collectively address systemic
problems; for example, in the case of what we might call “illness” or “patient
communities,” online self-help groups who share information and experience,
and sometimes get to intervene in health policy and practice (see, for
example, Orgad, 2004).
But the individualization thesis leads Bauman to critique many
contemporary forms of something-like-community as “peg communities:”
sites where people can hang their interests or obsessions, their enthusiasms or
worries, and around which they can – or might – try to build up something
collective, albeit instrumentally and ephemerally. The “peg” here is a coat
peg, a place to casually hang your coat or hat, for now. Part of the perceived
problem with peg communities, of course, is their very coat-pegginess, their
elective ephemerality, or what Bauman names their “superficial and
perfunctory, as well as transient… bonds” (71). These characteristics lead
Bauman to label the bonds between members of peg communities as “bonds
without consequences” (ibid.) – very little is invested in or expected from the
bonds between peg community members; moreover, the bonds “tend to
evaporate when human bonds truly matter” (ibid.).
Reading through Bauman’s gloomy prognosis on community, I was
struck by a number of things. Among the most prominent was this emphasis
on bonds, on consequences, on durability rather than ephemerality. Breaking
up identity into a set of hats or coats, and hanging them temporarily on a
succession of pegs (presumably without having to pay a cloakroom fee)
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means, for Bauman, that notions such as virtual community are nonsensical.
But I wanted to find a different take on peg communities, one that might
value the peggi-ness rather than dismiss it so easily. One direction my
pondering took me was to Danny Miller’s (2000) excellent discussion of
websites as traps. Based on his ethnographic work on Internet use in
Trinidad, Miller theorizes websites as “aesthetic traps,” exploring how
homepages are constructed in order to attract potential surfers in, through the
aesthetics of web design, usability, links and so on. While the main focus of
his work is very different from the line of argument I am trying to make here,
considering homepages as sites where particular kinds of (individual and
collective) identity work take place, seemed to suggest that webs are
particularly good pegs, good places to hang bits-of-identity onto (see also
Cheung, 2000). This depends, of course, on accepting that we are all made up
of bits-of-identity that need pegs – something which the emerging
cyberculture is persuasively argued to be facilitating (see for example
Castells, 1996; Turkle, 1997). So, what happens if we try to read webs as
pegs more productively? How might we begin to rethink (web) peg
communities away from Bauman’s peg-scepticism?
Another line of thinking that I want to begin to explore here arose as I
found myself disagreeing with Bauman’s formulation of peg communities as
representing “a togetherness of loners” (68), another dig at the effects of
individualization on the (im)possibility of community. Continuing his
forceful critique of peg communities, Bauman writes of the bonds that
connect people together in these forums:
The bonds are friable and short-lived. Since it is understood and has been
agreed beforehand that they can be shaken off on demand, such bonds also
cause little inconvenience and arouse little or no fear… they are, literally,
“bonds without consequences.” (Bauman, 2001: 69)
Now, this statement resonated in my mind with another grand social
theorist’s discussion of contemporary social relations: Anthony Giddens’
(1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. So, if we cross over to Giddens for a
moment, we can perhaps begin to get a different reading on matters.
Particularly relevant is Giddens’ discussion of the “pure relationship” – a
new form of sexual contract entered into by couples today, freed from the
traditional obligations of marriage and so on. The pure relationship is defined
by Giddens as:
a situation where a social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can
be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and
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which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver
enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it. (Giddens, 1992: 58)
Giddens ties the rise of the pure relationship to the “project of the self” – a
new mode of living which emphasises both individualization and
detraditionalization, and which involves continuous reflexivity and self-
scrutiny; we daily look at our own lives, our relationships, our place in the
world, and ask whether or not we are satisfied, even happy. This constant
monitoring prompts us to work on our selves, to attempt to find the “best”
lifestyle and life-path for each of us – aided along the way by the burgeoning
self-help industry. In entering into intimate relationships on the basis of this
heightened reflexivity, it is understood and has been agreed beforehand (to
echo Bauman) that the relationship can change, even dissolve, if either
partner decides it is no longer providing the life benefits they require. For
Giddens this is a radical and liberating transformation, making over the
couple form as an experimental, reflexive unit, better able to negotiate the
other forcefields of contemporary life.
So, might it be possible to rewrite peg communities as pure
communities, in the way Giddens does for relationships – as collectivities
entered into with eyes-wide-open, not stumbled into blinded by tradition and
obligation? If our closest intimate and interpersonal relationships have been
so radically transformed, should we expect other dimensions of individual
and collective life to be unaffected by the sea changes that reflexivity,
detraditionalization and so on bring about? What Manuel Castells (1996:
357) calls “the multipersonalization of CMC” seems to resonate with
Giddens’ reflexive self-identity, with working on bits of the self as an
ongoing project. Such identity work surely demands a rewiring of
community. This begs a further question: if reflexivity, detraditionalization,
and so on are cast as good for intimate relations, a la Giddens, then why are
they cast as bad for social relations?
One reason is highlighted by Slevin (2000: 99): that the electivity of
online communities – the opt-in and opt-out clauses, the smorgasbord of
choice offered by the endlessly proliferating virtual communities blooming in
cyberspace – may lead to the return of an “obsessive parochiality,” as
communities fracture into sub-communities and sub-sub-communities, and as
communities coalesce around anything and everything, as Sardar (2000: 743)
quipped about the “community of accountants” formed around a newsgroup
(to him, the epitome of a non-community or nonsense-community), adding
tartly that “a cyberspace community is self-selecting, exactly what a real
community is not; it is contingent and transitory, depending on a shared
interest of those with the attention span of a thirty-second soundbite” (744).
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Countering this, Slevin argues that reflexivity does make virtual communities
something-like-pure, in that:
When individuals use the internet to establish and sustain communal
relationships, they do so as intelligent agents. …they know a great deal about
the properties of the technical medium and about the constraints and
capabilities afforded by the institutional contexts in which they deploy it.
Nevertheless, such knowledgeability is always bounded. First, a good deal of
their knowledge is tacit and made out of experience. Second, they are neither
fully aware of the social and historical conditions of the production,
circulation and reception, nor ever fully aware of the consequences of their
actions. (Slevin, 2000: 109-110)
Even the boundedness and contingency of this formula seems preferable to
the accident-by-geography of RL communities, doesn't it? How much of
those “social and historical conditions,” or “consequences of their actions,”
are RL community members really aware of?
Now, one key point made by Slevin, and by others, is this question:
are we only in online communities when we are on line? Looking at threads
of chat, Slevin shows the in-and-outiness of individual members, but argues
this should not be seen as evidence of lack of involvement – just as members
of RL communities don’t need to be continually doing “community work” in
order to sustain their membership. Again, what this means is that we need a
new index of community participation. Being a member of any community
necessitates a sliding-scale of involvement, ebbs and flows of “community
work,” differential balancings of rights and obligations. It just seems too easy
to argue, today, that Gesellschaft is still such a negative thing, and too naïve
to retain the utopian dream of Gemeinschaft. Our communities are mobile,
multiple and often mediated – but this doesn’t make them weak or thin.
Further, we need to find a way to get beyond the unhelpful RL/virtual
dichotomy, including in the ways we think about community. If we take the
position that all our communities are more-or-less virtual or mediated, more-
or-less delegated to nonhumans – whether software or architecture or a
community strategy and a posse of community wardens – then we can better
see the ways people build and sustain communities out of all kinds of
interactions between human and nonhuman others. On this point, Amin and
Thrift (2003: 45) rightly point out that we need to think about how “non-
human objects now act with humans in ways which are not subordinate and
which challenge accepted notions of reciprocity and solidarity:” humans and
nonhumans intertwine in complex ways that make a nonsense of forcing a
RL/virtual separation. Once we accept that communities aren’t just about
people, then arguments about the weakness of communal bonds in virtual
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communities lose their power. While supporters of virtual communities have
had to argue long and loud that “communities rarely exist exclusively in
cyberspace… [and that] social groups in cyberspace spill out into the ‘real
world’ and vice versa” (Kollock &Smith, 1999: 19), it seems that proponents
of the importance of “real world” communities – especially those speaking in
a political and policy context – take it as read that people have differential
investments in their RL communities, and that all that needs encouraging is
the opportunity to put in and take out resources of all kinds, to “build
capacity” and to enhance the cohesiveness and sustainability of communities
(Taylor, 2000).
Maria Bakardjieva (2003) has written persuasively on the spilling over
between virtual and RL community involvement. She wants to situate virtual
community membership in the everyday lives of people who live on- and off-
line, and she coins the term immobile socialization – a reversal of Raymond
Williams’ (1974) mobile privatization, his discussion of the nuking of the
family by the suburb, the car and the telly – to capture what’s going on in
“virtual togetherness” (the term she uses to sidestep using “community” with
all its attendant baggage). Her interest is in types of involvement – and she
makes her own typology, based on her empirical findings, from the “passive”
infosumer, to the instrumental user, to the chatter(er), to the communitarian.
This typology spans the poles, as she says, from consumption to community
(though I think she might undervalue consumption somewhat, seeing it as too
straightforwardly passive – on a useful and more productive reading of online
shopping, see Zukin, 2004).
Crucially, however, her typology is also matched by a gradient of
intimacy, of publicness and privateness. Again, this suggests a pretty
Giddens-like emphasis on mutual disclosure and trust as making
communities “pure” – but here I’m reminded of Lynn Jamieson’s (1999)
insightful counter to Giddens, empirically finding the value of selective
silences in relationships. In this regard, Bakardjieva shows how her
respondents on-goingly negotiate elective and selective publicity and privacy,
as part of their reflexive engagement with all the communities they
participate in (and not always with positive consequences – trust and risk are
the twins at the heart of these arrangements, again echoing Giddens). What’s
important about Bakardjieva’s work is the way it locates community
participation in everyday life, online and off – in a way that attempts to
flatten that distinction, to resist the more polemic versions of communo-
technophilia or –phobia. Instead of seeing virtual community members as
bunkered in, she sees them as weaving segments of their lives together into
patchwork communities that are in part sustained by talk, part sustained by
delegation to a variety of nonhumans, and lived out. And in their discussion
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of communities in contemporary cities, Amin and Thrift (2003: 47) similarly
focus on everyday life itself as a kind-of-community, full of “all kinds of
untoward localizations and intricate mixtures.”
One central point about Bakardjieva’s essay is that she sidesteps what
she names the “not particularly productive ideological exchange” (294) that
makes up much of the debate on virtual community. Now, this seems very
sensible, and I’ve made similar arguments myself, testing out the usefulness
of the term Bund – borrowed from Kevin Hetherington’s (1998) work on new
social movements – to get us out of the virtual community impasse (see Bell,
2001). I also asked why we want to see communities in cyberspace; whether
we have a will-to-community that makes us want to corral enthusiasms,
market segments, subcultures into communities. I even suggested that the
widely-circulating death-of-community or bowling-alone discourse creates an
ambient fear, which prompts us all to panic into seeing communities all
around us, to reassure us. So, does this mean, to ask yet another question, that
we should stop talking about virtual communities?
On one level, to jettison “community” as a word to describe particular
social relations in the contemporary world makes so much sense, given the
impasse that Bakardjieva and others point to – we’re in a kind of theoretical
dead-end, being shouted out by virtual community enthusiasts in one ear, and
naysayers in the other. But we have to look, I think, at the continued currency
of the term community outside our worlds. This point was brought home to
me very vividly in a heated workplace debate about renaming our academic
faculty, when a new name was suggested with the word “community” in it.
My colleagues fussed and worried about the complexities of the word, about
its contested and endlessly deferred meanings. We’re so used to worrying
about meaning. (In the end, it was decided not to have community in the new
faculty name.) But the word is very much alive outside our meaning-anxious,
deconstructive mindsets. In popular discourse, and in policy discourse,
community is relatively uncontested, undeconstructed (for a discussion, see
Taylor, 2000). We have community strategies, community forums,
community facilitators, attempts to promote community cohesion – all
manner of human and nonhuman community delegates busily working on
building and sustaining communities. In cyberspace, too, there’s a lot of
community talk, a lot of which is powerfully utopian about the possibilities
for new forms of collectivity freed from the limitations of physical space
(see, for example, Rheingold, 1993).
Now, to return to academia’s uneasy relationship with this word, we
might say that it’s our job to worry about such things, and that there is much
to value in questioning the received meanings and commonsense uses of key
words like community. That’s all well and good – and many careers have
Webs as Pegs
been built on such foundations – but it can be equally disabling, if it means
we expend all our energies worrying and have no time left to get down to
business – and, of course, we are increasingly compelled to get down to
business, given the contemporary context of the “entrepreneurial university,”
keen to tap streams of community funding for its “third stream” income
(Lazzeroni &Piccaluga, 2003). If community is such a ubiquitous word
outside our ivory towers, we have to find ways to work with it, to engage
with communities, given the very high priority given to “community” on
agendas both inside and outside the academy (Chatterton, 2000).
Looking at some of the empirical case studies provided in Kollock and
Smith’s (1999) excellent collection Communities in Cyberspace, or reading
Doug Schuler’s (1996) account of community cyberspaces in Seattle, makes
me more inclined to say: Stop worrying! Get over it! It’s good work, to be
sure, to point out how difficult and slippery the term community is – to slow
down the will-to-community, to ask what’s at stake in trying to find
communities or build communities everywhere. And I’m certainly not sure
we have to agree that something’s a community just because some people say
it is – we need better benchmarks than that. But, at the same time, who are
we to say that what someone names a community isn’t what we think a
community should look like? That’s what worries me about some of the
naysayers, like Kevin Robins (1999, 2000) or Zia Sardar (2000), who I have
engaged with before (see Bell, 2001). At the end of the day – and I know this
makes me sound like a “cultural technician” in Tony Bennett’s (1992) sense
– we need our deliberations on community to be useful, not just clever. And
in that spirit, I fully concur with Amin and Thrift’s statement, which seems a
fitting place to conclude my discussion:
Though we are still the heirs of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, we are
moving towards a different, more restless and more dispersed, vocabulary
through a constant struggle over the three Rs of [urban] life: new social
Relationships, new means of Representation, and new means of Resistance.
Together, the experiments with these three Rs may add up to new, more
“distanciated” modes of belonging, which we can now at least glimpse. (Amin
&Thrift, 2003: 48)
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Bakardjieva, M. 2003. “Virtual Togetherness: An Everyday-Life Perspective.” Media,
Culture & Society 25: 291-313
David Bell
Bauman, Z . 2001. Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge:
Polity Press.
Bell, D. 2001. An Introduction to Cybercultures. London: Routledge.
Bennett, T. 1992. “Putting Policy into Cultural Studies.” In Grossberg, L., Nelson, C.
and Treichler, P. Eds. Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. 23-37.
Castells, M. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Chatterton, P. 2000. “The Cultural Role of Universities in the Community: Revisiting
the University-Community Debate.” Environment and Planning A 32: 165-
Cheung, C. 2000. “Identity Construction and Self-Presentation on Personal
Homepages: Emancipatory Potentials and Reality Constraints.” In
Gauntlett, D. and Horsley, R. Eds. Web.Studies. Second Edition. London:
Arnold. 53-68.
Furedi, F. 2004. Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age.
London: Routledge.
Germann Molz, J. 2004. “Playing Online and Between the Lines: Round-the-World
Websites as Virtual Places to Play.” In Sheller, M. and Urry, J. Eds.
Tourism Mobilities: Places to Play, Places in Play. London: Routledge.
Giddens, A. 1992. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in
Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity.
Hetherington, K. 1998. Expressions of Identity: Space, Performance, Politics.
London: Sage.
hooks, b. 1991. Breaking Bread. Boston: South End Press.
Jamieson, L. 1999. “Intimacy Transformed? A Critical Look at the ‘Pure
Relationship.’” Sociology 33: 477-94.
Kollock, P. and Smith, M. 1999. “Communities in Cyberspace.” In Smith, M. and
Kollock, P. Eds. Communities in Cyberspace. London: Routledge. 3-28.
Latour, B. 1991. “Technology Is Society Made Durable.” In Law, J. Ed. A Sociology
of Monsters. London: Routledge.
Lazzeroni, M. and Piccaluga, A. 2003. “Towards the Entrepreneurial University.”
Local Economy 18: 38-48.
Miller, D. 2000. “The Fame of Trinis: Websites as Traps.” Journal of Material
Culture 5: 5-24.
Mitra, A. 2000. “Virtual Commonality: Looking for India on the Internet.” In Bell, D.
and Kennedy, B. Eds. The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge. 676-
Orgad, S. .2004. “Help Yourself: The World Wide Web as a Self-Help Agora.” In
Gauntlett, D. and Horsley, R. Eds. Web.Studise. Second Edition. London:
Arnold. 146-57.
Putnam, R. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
New York: Simon and Schuster.
Raco, M. 2003. “New Labour, Community and the Future of Britain’s Urban
Renaissance.” In Imrie, R., and Raco, M. Eds. Urban Renaissance? New
Labour, Community and Urban Policy. Bristol, Policy Press. 235-250.
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Rheingold, H. 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic
Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Rheingold, H. 1999. “A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community.” In Ludlow, P. Ed.
High Noon in the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Robins, K. 1999. “Against Virtual Community: For a Politics of Distance.” Angelaki
4: 163-70.
——— . 2000. “Cyberspace and the World We Live in.” In Bell, D. and Kennedy, B.
Eds. The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge. 77-95.
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Sardar, Z . 2000. “alt.civilizations.faq: Cybersp ace as the Darker Side of the West.” In
Bell, D. and Kennedy, B. Eds. The Cybercultures Reader. London:
Routledge. 732-52.
Schuller, D. 1996. New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Reading, MA:
Slevin, J. 2000. The Internet and Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Smith, M. and Kollock, P. Eds. 1999. Communities in Cyberspace. London:
Taylor, M. 2000. “Communities in the Lead: Power, Organisational Capacity and
Social Capital.” Urban Studies 37: 1019-35.
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Through a critique of the privileging of homo-lingualism in
community theory from Aristotle and Tocqueville to Stanley Fish and
Benedict Anderson, this chapter deconstructs the monolingual bias
and ideal found in their politics of inclusivity, which turn a blind eye
to difference, and through case studies of how hetero-lingualism
works online, puts forth a challenging alternative for the humanities
and social sciences, namely, “collectivity,” which has the differential
principle of multilingualism as the condition of its existence,
development and sustenance.
Interpretive, Imagined and Legal Communities
By reading even the first sentence of this essay, you (the reader) and I (the
writer) are always already, and most likely without realizing it at conscious
level, participating in what has been and – as I will argue, unfortunately and
unnecessarily – continues to be one of the defining traits of almost
actual or theory of community: an a priori homo-lingualism, in our case that
of the English language. In the wake of nearly half a century of serious
deconstructions and/or re-affirmations of the line between “Self” and
“Other,” whether in racial, national, post-colonial or cultural terms, this
statement of the obvious is indeed so obvious that it exists for the most part
unperceived, and has for that very reason passed relatively unquestioned in
critical, theoretical and scholarly circles other than, say, socio-linguistic di-
glossia and literary macaronics, sub-disciplines which could not avoid
An obvious exception to this rule, amongst others, is the Marxist view of social
classes, which as we will see, exist para-linguistically.
Antony Adolf
questioning it even if they would have wanted to, let alone in the minds and
hearts of the majority of human beings on our beautiful planet today.
Examples of the assumption that homo-lingualism is the sine qua non
of community can be found in two well-known notions, Stanley Fish’s
“interpretive communities” and Benedict Anderson’s “imagined
communities.” These models of community were both put forth in the early
1980s, at a time when the whole world seemed destined to join one of two
collectives, capitalist or communist. Insofar as they are relevant to our
discussion here, these two collectives – as opposed to communities – have, in
themselves, almost nothing to do with what language an individual or group
uses; conversely, the two model communities in question wholly and
imperatively do. In interpretive communities, not only are their so-called
primary texts implicitly in a single language, but their interpretive, secondary
texts that surround and give it its identity, as well as the individuals who
produce those interpretive texts, are and seemingly must be homo-lingual to
them as well (see Fish, 1980). Similarly, in imagined communities, spheres
of, and only of, homo-lingual discourses, what Anderson himself calls “print-
language” in the singular, give rise to individual and communal identities that
could not have otherwise come into existence (Anderson, 1991: 6). It is as
though, subliminally sensing the denigration of monolingualism as the major
if not sole means to connect persons at a macro-level due to the progress of
both capitalism and communism – a statement which is tantamount to my
inquiry of and argument against monolingualism here – both Fish and
Anderson sought to gain more ground for the primacy of homo-lingualism as
the basis of all human connection at a micro-level (that of the nation and that
of institutions of interpretation respectively), an argument for a biased, idea-
lized, restrictive and repressive monolingualism that, as we will see, is at
least as old as Aristotle and at the same time as young as Tocqueville. In
other words, what concerns us here is a hidden multilingual social dynamics,
a dynamics that, I hope to prove, inevitably necessitates an already existing
hetero-lingualism – not to be confused with the Bakhtinian concept of
– at an individual and/or societal level.
Taking a wider perspective, the same ground-gaining for
monolingualism can be said of most legal communities since the rise of
constitutional monarchies. On the one hand, under the supra-lingual yoke of
draconian monarchs (such as those of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian
empires), it matters little what languages subjects speak, as long as they pay
To put it briefly, hetero-lingualism signifies a multiplicity of languages within one
or more discourses, whereas heteroglossia refers to one or more discourses within one
and only one language (see Adolf, 2003).
Multilingualism and its Discontents
their due: multilingualism at either an individual or social level is for reasons
of the material economy even beneficial to divinely supported social systems,
just as I will show it is to global democratic techno-capitalism (in its
American form). On the other hand, within modern legal structures and the
mercantilist, imperialist and nationalist economies from which they stem and
which they support (most notably that of the Roman, English and French
empires), new interpretations and amendments to a given law must take place
wholly homo-lingually, i.e. in the same language in which the law in question
is written, reifying language lines and the persons they separate at the
convenience of those with the reasons and powers to enforce homo-
lingualism and completely ignoring the politico-legal will of hetero-lingual
persons. Moreover, this state of legal affairs is not alleviated by but rather
reinforced through the more recent parallel multilingual legal communities
such as those of the Anglophones and Francophones in Canada, as well as in
the adoption of a new constitution in the European Union: laws, and
especially (as we will see) laws that seek to control languages, their
interpretation and their interpreters must be wholly homo-lingual for
constitutional legal systems, as they exist today, to function as they do, a fact
reinforced by the ever-increasing presence of translators in the courtroom,
meaning that, despite the emergence of so-called “post-national” systems,
national language barriers are as present as always, if not more so.
In all three cases (interpretive, imagined and legal communities),
homo-lingualism between the individual parties that form a given community
is, to repeat the point, the vital condition without which community cannot
come into being; it is precisely this homo-lingual a priori which is at stake
here. Even when there could hypothetically be hetero-lingual action in each
of these actual and conceptual spaces, the effect would in theory not increase
the size of the community in question, but rather form as many communities
as there are languages at play. The marked lack of challenges to this
assumption has, as I see it, more to do with the idea of community itself
rather than any crucial feature of monolingualism. In essence, comm-unity,
like comm-unication and comm-unism, has to do with what is and can only
be comm-on to individuals in a group; this politics of inclusivity has as its
modus operandi not the affirmation but the erasure of differences between
individual parties in a group, above all linguistic: without the word us, in
English that is, there can hardly be recognized self-identification with such a
group. It is no wonder, then, that the recent and overwhelming preoccupation
with identity, i.e. that which make you and me a common us, has taken center
stage in theoretical discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and increasingly
across the Pacific as well: nothing else could result from the push towards
homogenizing theories of community since the early 1980s, if not since the
Antony Adolf
emergence of modern times insofar as the progress of legal liberty is
concerned. But the pervasiveness of monolingualism and the homo-lingual
hegemony it supports is a pervasiveness that, due to the global economy both
between and beyond national and/or socio-linguistic borders, is showing
more signs of retreating than moving forward. Through a closer examination
of these movements, I seek to replace the common us with a differential we;
thus, my argument here is that in order to remain viable in the 21
and beyond, fields that shape the way we live our lives, as well as those that
shape the way we think, ought to take the various manifestations of
multilingualism into consideration, or at least take into consideration the
differential principle of multilingualism within a monolingual framework. In
order to make this “ought to” into a “will do,” the deeply-rooted notion of a
“monolingual community,” with its politics of inclusivity qua identity that
imperatively erase difference in order to survive must be wholly rejected, and
replaced with what we might call “multilingual collectives,” in which the
lines between languages are affirmed but also released through the
encompassing circles of para-linguistic phenomena that unite us, despite and
perhaps even because of the languages – in the plural – the ultimate we uses.
Towards a Theory of Barbarism
In Greek antiquity, a figure emerged whose shadow has clouded most of
more than two thousand years of Western thinking: the barbarian. Far from
being cruel and uncivilized, as the adjective “barbarian” connotes today, the
Ancient Greek word barbaros, later barbarus, was the term used by Greeks
to describe any foreign persons whose speech they could not understand and
which sounded to them like “ba-ba.” But while the word has indeed changed
meanings over time, the shadow of the monolingual bias the figure of the
ancient barbarian promotes looms so large that it has even gone from being a
stepping stone for subjugating people to an idea-l (that is, simultaneously a
deconstructible “idea” and a factitious “ideal”) that should, so the argument
goes, be upheld at almost any cost.
The barbarian as the pivot point for living and thinking in a certain
way is perhaps nowhere as prevalent, in antiquity, than in the works of
Aristotle. His Rhetorics, Poetics, Politics and Ethics can be taken as one long
thesis whose antithesis is the ultimate ba-ba other; put differently, taking the
barbarian, that is the hetero-lingual, as the line which separates that which
concerns Aristotle in these works from that which does not, perhaps the most
potent and longest lasting form of the monolingual bias in the Western
tradition becomes overwhelmingly clear (Aristotle, 1995). The Rhetorics, for
Multilingualism and its Discontents
instance, is nothing more than a lengthy description of the where and the how
of Greek monolingualism. Like Fish after him, Aristotle is wholly concerned
with the institutions and governing structures (for instance, the courthouse
and its legal proceedings) of speech between homo-lingual individuals. The
barbarian is in this case the one whose institutions and procedures, precisely
because they do not meet the criteria of being in the Greek language, are
forever doomed to be incompatible with those of the Greeks: the barbarian
cannot legally defend himself in a monolingual community to which he or
she is not homo-lingual. Similarly, in the Poetics, what concerns Aristotle is
the what of a wholly monolingual literary tradition: unlike, say, T.S. Eliot
and Ezra Pound in their major modern multilingual works The Wastelands
and The Cantos, Aristotle is here concerned solely with the features of poetry
in one and only one language; instead of attempting to enrich Greek poetry
with the poetics of the ba-ba other, as Chaucer and Milton would later do
with Latin and Italian for English, Aristotle’s concern with poetry ends
precisely where his language does, forever closing the door to the ba-ba
other. Not only is the barbarian’s poetry deemed not worthy of serious
critical consideration, it is excluded altogether before even being given the
chance to make itself heard for the very reason that, insofar as Aristotle is
concerned, the barbarian’s language is not a language at all. Again, in the
Politics, which is concerned with the who of monolingualism, not only do the
borders of the all-important polis end either due to spatial separations of
cities or – this being directly relevant – where the hegemony of Greek
monolingualism ends, but moreover and more importantly to our inquiry,
what for the most part differentiates the subservient majority from the ruling
minority is their dis-ability in the predominant homo-lingualism: insofar as
having a political will as Aristotle sees it, to be a heteroglot
is equivalent to
not being part of the polis because one belongs to a different homo-lingual
community, homo-lingualism being in this constrictive framework the limits
of political action; as we will soon see, the same holds true for modern
“democracies” such as that of the Americans. Finally, the Ethics can be
understood as the why of only individuals in the homo-lingual Greek-
speaking community; what makes a good man a good man in the eye of
Aristotle is, before whether he does or does not do, feels or does not feel,
thinks or does not think this or that way is that he belongs to the same homo-
lingual community as Aristotle himself; the barbarian is by definition amoral
at best and immoral at worst because his way of being remains incompatible
N.B. As the words are used herein, “heteroglot” is a relativistic term that signifies
the relationship between a homo-lingual community and an individual who does not
share the same language, and “polyglot” is a more absolute term referring to a person
who can engage in more than one language.
Antony Adolf
with the Greek logos and eudemonia. If the multilingual ever slips into
Aristotle’s writing, it is because, like the image of the despot we encountered
above, all non-Greek-speakers form one large multilingual collective body
that is, from the outside, homogeneous inasmuch as it makes no difference
what language lines separate them between themselves, as long as they are
different from the Greek us: “it is all (not) Greek to me.”
The historical paradox is, of course, that without the translation of
Aristotle’s works in “barbarian” tongues such as Arabic, they would have
probably been lost to the very Western tradition of the monolingual bias he
helped inaugurate. And if the limitations of Aristotle’s project seem strangely
familiar, it is undoubtedly because traces of the monolingual bias still abound
in almost all of academia today; for brevity’s sake, let us consider just a few.
The history of language theory (as opposed to translation theory and
philology), as well as the history of recent literary criticism (as opposed to
comparative literature) has concerned itself almost wholly with monolingual
utterances and monolingual texts and canons. This state of literary affairs has
only been made worse by the encroachment of national lines over and beyond
linguistic ones: as long as the barbarian’s language and language arts remain
unintelligible to the common us, they cease to exist as fields of inquiry
unless. Bastardized into translations which serve only to reify the line
between languages, they seep into “our” literary consciousness, giving us a
false impression of intermingling completely with them. However, what has
in reality happened is that the barbarian’s literature has been appropriated by
our language and theirs has been once again denied. To put the matter
bluntly: philosophy may or may not be a footnote to Plato, but literary
criticism is without a doubt a footnote to Aristotle’s monolingual bias.
If multilingualism is to earn for itself a distinct status in the academic
study of language and literature, it must follow the path blazed by translation
studies, philology and comparative literature, as each of these disciplines has
at its being’s center the existence of hetero-lingualism. Equally biased, from
Durkheim to Bourdieu, is most of theoretical sociology (as opposed to socio-
linguistics), which has overwhelmingly been concerned with the ways
monolingual groups do and do not work within themselves and the ways in
which to study them and them alone. Certainly Durkheim, for instance,
studied groups who did not share his native tongue, but his very approach
precluded any true sociological connection between homo-linguistic
communities: groups of barbarians (a.k.a. “savages” or “primitives”) exist
only as objectified others that can read be through our common gaze.
This is most obvious in his discussion of totemism in Elementary Forms of the
Religious Life (1995).
Multilingualism and its Discontents
linguistic di-glossia has been the trail blazer in this area, continually probing
into the workings of multilingual groups, while at the same time being
pushed to the margins of sociological studies for doing just that; to put it
differently, what Foucault would later call “regimes of truth” are, in the first
place, regimes of monolingualism Ferguson, 1996). In the end, what these
disciplines share is a commitment to the very same monolingual bias that
formed the contours of Aristotle’s sphere of inquiry: instead of deepening
their pools of possibilities by embracing the multilingual, they limit the
extent of their conclusions by most often tacitly accepting de facto the
monolingual bias. One notable exception to these broad generalizations on
theoretical sociology,
hinted at above, are Marxist schools, which inquire
into the distinction between base- and super-structures: language falls into the
latter category and is thus inescapably shaped by the former; but the relation
is not reciprocal, i.e. social class in essence exists regardless of the language
used (but not vice versa) and is thus open to be interpreted outside the
monolingual bias and within the parameters of multilingualism (see e.g.
Eagleton, 2002). Of course, in advocating the hetero-lingual benefits of a
Marxist approach, I mean that it should take on a wholly post-communist
stance – that is, forgoing the naïve idealism in its means-to-an-end
prelapsarian state – and turn its critical methodology upon more and more
aspects of the prevalent global capitalist democracy as ends in themselves.
Yet, in drawing attention to the origins and traces of the monolingual
bias, our partial critique of monolingualism is only half complete. Another,
equally if not more daunting monolingual pose is epitomized in Alexis de
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which he gives expression to a
monolingual idea-l that, according to the author, was embodied in the
communities of early America, but lost by the time he set about writing his
book in the mid-19
century. Early on in the book, Tocqueville states that the
“bond of language is perhaps the strongest and most lasting that can unite
men” (2000: 29). This idea-l is precisely what I am arguing against here, but
for the moment, let us give Tocqueville the benefit of the doubt and see
where this idea-l takes him. As he sees it, the first colonizers who came to
America had a singular advantage: namely, they “all spoke the same tongue”
(132). If indeed homo-lingualism is simultaneously the ideal bond between
individuals and an idea that is to survive, the early colonizers were much
better off using the same language, since they then had one less problem to
worry about, that of fighting amongst themselves on grounds of language,
One could find support for multilingualism in the works of Habermas and Giddens,
amongst others. The point is that multilingualism, other than in socio-linguistic
circles, has rarely been a sustained focal point of theoretical sociological study.
Antony Adolf
and could take on the task of subjugating the Natives full throttle. But along
this line of thinking, Tocqueville – and here he, as with most linguists of his
generation, is blatantly wrong – assumes that all Native languages are formed
“on the same model and are subject to the same grammatical rules,” whereas
the prevalent tradition of research today indicates, rightly, that the opposite is
true (ibid. 687). What this false assumption, based upon the monolingual
idea-l, does is create an illusion of heteroglossia where there is in reality a
hetero-lingualism. Here we begin to see the kind of historical world
Tocqueville, based on the monolingual idea-l, is constructing for the early
colonizers and the colonized: two homo-lingual communities fighting it out
with one another till the death, rather than one large multilingual collective
having an internal conflict, as a purely geographical interpretation of the
events would lead one to conclude. Thus, monolingualism and colonization
work hand in hand, as the colonized are conveniently made into Aristotelian
barbarians. This skewed worldview, and as we will see, ones like it that exist
today, can only come about if one has a firm and unshakeable belief in the
monolingual idea-l, a belief that makes an imperative out of turning a blind
eye and deaf ear to the hetero-linguistic differences within a group, as
Tocqueville did with the Natives. It also prescribes a conclusion that puts a
nail in the coffin of multilingualism: a pejorative view of the influence
democracy has on language, or as Tocqueville puts it, “the origin of words,
like that of men, has been lost [in American democracy], and confusion has
been produced in language as in society” (456). What Tocqueville means by
“the origin of words” is the derivative multiplicity of languages from which
they, having been fused into a kind of multi-lingua franca, are drawn; the
blurring of these origins is precisely what we are calling multilingualism, and
its concomitant “confusion” will, in the following section, be cast in a
positive light. Tocqueville understands language as “the first instrument of
thought”, noting that a “little change of the forms of language suffices to
indicate that a great [in this case, democratic] revolution has been worked
into the constitution of society” (ibid. 462 and 619). These changes, which
were supposedly beneficially absent during the first years of colonization,
have, by the time Tocqueville is writing, already taken place in America, due
to the great influx of multilingual immigrants to the North American
continent. So the equation of the monolingual idea-l in relation to democracy,
put crudely, becomes something like this:
1. Homo-lingualism is the idea-l,
2. Democracy encourages hetero-lingualism, therefore
3. Democracy in its tacit support of multilingualism is a threat to
the reign of the monolingual idea-l.
Multilingualism and its Discontents
The traces of the monolingual idea-l are much more radical than the
traces of the monolingual bias we encountered above, in the sense that their
consequence have a greater influence on how we live and think on a day to
day basis: more so than that of the monolingual bias. We have already seen
how, in at least two important cases, this monolingual disease has infected
community theory; a respite that we are here developing can be found in the
theory of collectivity, which has made its appearance in a diverse array of
disciplines with diverse meanings, though they all have one thing in
common: instead of supporting a politics of inclusivity qua the erasure of
differences, they counter-impose it with a politics of variability, in which one
trait, in our case that of language, can as easily be substituted for another as
two grains of sand in the ocean..
To put it differently: barbarians as a group
by definition cannot belong to a community, but they can belong to a
collective. Still, such monolingual infections in the realm of community
discourses are minute compared to the awesome monolingual epidemic that
has spread under the banner of “national” or “official” languages. In the
United States, for instance, English is the official language, even though
Spanish is used more frequently in some southern States, and is expected to
outgrow English within a few decades. While most large corporations have
begun to interpret this (un) silent minority as a major market segment,
targeting it through Spanish-language advertisement (as anyone who has
stepped into a Greyhound bus station in the U.S. would immediately
perceive), and even some governmental offices have begun to offer services
in Spanish, the specter of the monolingual idea-l in the political sphere is still
upheld as the tie that binds Americans of all walks of life as, to become an
American citizen, one must give proof that one is proficient in the English
The fact that the bureau of Citizenship and Naturalization Services
is a now a division of the Department of Homeland Security could even lead
one to believe that not speaking English, or being a barbarian, somehow
poses a security risk in the eyes of government officials. So, not only does the
monolingual idea-l push barbarians to the margins of its worldview, it pushes
it off its map completely: a barbarian has no nation. The media has picked up
on this demonization of the barbarian: one article recently released by the
Associated Press regarding the lack of polyglots in the U.S.’s S.S. (Secret
Service, pun intended) uses the term “languages associated with terrorism” as
a wholesale attack on the hetero-lingual within the supposedly homo-lingual
See for example Spahr (2001), Burnham (1995: 89); Carroll (1969: 148).
The U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services requires all prospective citizens to
have “an ability to read, write, and speak English.”
Antony Adolf
borders and beyond.
One would think that countries, such as Canada, which
have embraced an official bilingualism, have somehow circumvented this
pitfall; but the facts of the matter speak otherwise (again, pun intended):
Canada is no more solely bilingual than America is solely monolingual: in
Vancouver, for example, where I had the pleasure of living for almost three
years, the Chinese-language constituency is a visible majority, yet ignored by
this monolingual idea-l times two, called official bilingualism. Official
bilingualism, rather than befriending the barbarian, denies him twice;
trilingualism would do it thrice, etc. The results of this bi-monolingual idea-l
can easily be made out in the infamous Law 101 of Quebec (to which I was
personally subject) that, among other things, forces children of immigrants to
attend French and only French schools, effectively putting in place a
linguistic genocide, or logocide, of the English and other non-French
languages in the province, which has had a devastating effect on the economy
of the province, as restaurants such as Taco Bell refuse to do business there
since they would have to, by law, change their name, rather ridiculously, to
“Taco Cloche.”
Still, perhaps the most wide-reaching form of the
monolingual idea-l is to be found in specious arguments for English as global
mono-lingua franca, or as it is commonly put, “English as a world language”
(Bailey &Görlach, 1982): as if a sort of neo-Babel of some sort could be
constructed, allowing the monolingual idea-l to reign supreme. What the
argument overlooks is that, as Guadalupe Valdes of Stanford University has
put it:
Contrary to what is often believed, most of the world’s population is bilingual
or multilingual. Monolingualism is characteristic only of a minority of the
world's peoples. According to figures cited in Stavenhagen (1990) for
example, five to eight thousand different ethnic groups reside in
approximately 160 nation states. Moreover, scholars estimate that there are
over 5000 distinct languages spoken in that same small number of nation
states. What is evident from these figures is that few nations are either
monolingual or mono-ethnic. Each of the world's nations has groups of
individuals living within its borders who use other languages in addition to the
national language to function in their everyday lives. (Valdes)
In other words, while the cross between statements on ethnicity and
that of language (as is done is so-called “ethnic literary studies”) seems very
odd to me, not only is English not a world language, but no language can, in
“Justice Department Audit Finds Huge FBI Translation Backlog,” Associated Press,
September 27, 2004.
A brief but insightful history of language laws in Q uebec by Claude Bélanger, can
be found at
Multilingualism and its Discontents
the foreseeable future, even hope to become one, killing any delusion of the
few that there will be a tyranny of the monolingual idea-l; at best, it may be
considered as a common second (and second place) language.
Those who have argued for English as a world language, those who
use national or official languages as a crutch, and those who deny hetero-
lingualism in the name of community have only re-stated Tocqueville’s
monolingual idea-l and all its dangerously false logic in the discourse of a
globalizing world, dangerous because it polarizes language users, that is
human beings, into two dichotomous camps: those who speak our language,
and those who do not, the barbarians.
MK Meets DMM Online: Reversing the Tide
In Arenas of Language Use, Herbert Clark puts forth a theory of
communication that has as its basis what he calls “mutual knowledge” (MK;
Clark, 1993)). To put it simply, MK as Clark explains it is the common
epistemological ground that allows two or more interlocutors to
communicate. For example, if Jack asks Jill “Did you get the tickets?” Jack
always already knows that Jill knows that Jack knows that Jill knows, ad
infinitum, what tickets are, and which ones in particular they are talking
about. MK is, for Clark, the basis of what we have been calling community;
or more precisely, from a linguistic pragmatics point of view, in speaking to
each other, individuals exhibit what MK communities they belong to, and
cannot help doing so.
From this starting point, Clark goes on to construct a comprehensive
and coherent theoretical framework in which interpersonal communications
in a community take place. At the heart of MK theory is what Clark describes
as “journals” and “encyclopedias.” One the one hand, journals are the set of
epistemological propositions that we carry around in our heads as
individuals, such as Jack and Jill knowing what particular “tickets” (an
example of what Clark calls an “entry”) the word refers to; on the other hand,
encyclopedias are the more general set of epistemological propositions that
we carry around in our heads as members of a community, i.e. that entries
such as “tickets” are used to enter a given show, that they must be procured
in advance, that they usually cost money etc. What gives an individual his or
her identity according to Clark is precisely the set of journalized
epistemological propositions that allow them to communicate with
individuals at close proximity to them (such as a family member or
colleague), and what gives a community its identity is its own set of
encyclopedic epistemological propositions that allow two persons unknown
Antony Adolf
to each other to talk together. But neither journals nor encyclopedias, the MK
that allows them to work, nor the identities they support are static entities
and, what is more, they cannot be: they all can and do change day by day,
week by week and year by year as an individual person changes their
situation in life, and, while a bit more stable, their communities also change
though at a slower pace, such as when a new president is elected, we change
our understanding of who “the president” refers to, or when a political system
changes from, say, a democracy to a totalitarian regime, what “government”
means changes for the community. Moreover, their dynamism is not and
cannot be mutually exclusive: what was once in the journal of an individual,
such as the theory of relativity in Einstein, can become part of our
encyclopedias and vice versa. While Clark’s MK theory has been most
notably attacked for its dependence on an infinite, and thus endless and
impossible, “I know that you know that I know that you know...” by Sperber
and Wilson (1986), what critics have failed to pick up on is the fact that,
before any MK, or common epistemological ground, can take effect, two
interlocutors must first and foremost be homo-lingual with each other. In
plain terms, Jack and Jill can both know what “tickets” are in either a
journalized or encyclopedic sense, but if they do not share the English word
that refers to them, that is, if Jack speaks English and Jill Chinese, there is
little hope that they can talk to each other about the object and can therefore,
according to Clark, not belong to the same community. For this reason, Clark
is guilty of perpetuating both the monolingual bias and the monolingual ideal.
At first thought, this might lead us to assume that, since they cannot
communicate, there is no kind of linking between Jack and Jill whatsoever:
however, by reconfiguring MK, journals and encyclopedias with the
differential principle of multilingualism in mind, if not the opposite then at
least an alternative picture comes into sight. As Valdes pointed out, most
persons in our world are born into and live through multilingualism. And as
these linguistic factions must somehow work together to produce what is the
global economy (one phenomenon of multilingualism amongst many), as
well as a multilingual individual, some kind of multilingual journals and
encyclopedias must exist; our question here thus turns from proving their
existence to inquiring as to how they work. To answer this question in one
way, we can begin by proposing that when a person has a multilingual
journal, they also participate in two or more language-delimited
encyclopedias. However, this answer presupposes that each entry into a
journal or encyclopedia must be entered individually in each of the languages
that exist within a journal and/or encyclopedia, which means that MK does
not exist between the languages in one person’s head but rather exists in as
many forms as languages are used by the individual. Within the parameters
Multilingualism and its Discontents
of this first answer, the monolingual bias and idea-l are being perpetuated
because journals and encyclopedias divided along language lines and are for
this reasons static entities between themselves (thus a linguistically based
schizophrenia can be said to exist). But, as we have already seen, journals
and encyclopedias are not and cannot be static entities in any way, this
answer can be said not to hold water.
Another, un-biased, un-idea-lized and more plausible answer, based in
what Herdina and Jessner have called a “dynamic model of multilingualism”
(DMM) in psycholinguistic terms (Herdina &Jessner, 2002), is that MK
exists as a dynamic epistemological reality independent of the languages at
play (e.g. an idea of “tickets” exists independently of the word), and that
entries in journals and encyclopedias are dynamically introduced into those
languages as the idiosyncratic intercommunication situation demands,
eliminating the need to make recourse to a linguistic schizophrenia as well as
to the monolingual bias and idea-l. What this answer entails is that MK
between languages exists in one person’s head in a unitive multilingual form
while at the same time uniting two or more persons in the same way, not as a
monolingual community would with its a priori of homo-lingualism, but
rather in the way that would a real or possible multilingual collective with its
a priori hetero-lingualism. That is, the fact that Jack speaks English and Jill
speaks Chinese, which precludes them from belonging to the same homo-
lingual MK community, does not in its turn preclude that they are united by
MK in a hetero-lingual collective which simultaneously allows the language
lines between them to remain intact and crossed: when MK meets DMM a
world of new possibilities spring up, not only in terms of the relationship
between communication and cognition at an individual level, but also in
terms of how unity can exists despite or even because of difference. Jack and
Jill, while using different languages, can be said to be joined together by their
epistemological similarities that transcends monolingualism and brings into
existence a different, but equally uniting, multilingual collective rather than a
monolingual community.
To illustrate the point metaphorically, we can turn to two internet
utilities popular amongst many web users today. The first, Google, which just
recently made such a stir with the Initial Public Offering of the company
stocks, is a search engine that allows users to search for key words in over
four billion websites.
If one enters the English word “law,” and asks the
program to search for it, some one hundred and eleven million sites are
10 N.B. I make the unwarranted assumption that my reader
has or can have access to these site to experience what I am writing about first hand,
and thus foregoing the lengthy descriptions that would otherwise be too cumbersome
to include herein.
Antony Adolf
offered for selection by the users, the top few sites being those who pay the
company the most money (called cost-per-click, or CPC, pricing).
Moreover, Google now offers searches in languages other than English, from
Lithuanian to Turkish, but forces the user to search either in one language at a
time or all languages at a time, and even offers to translate the page using
rather primitive automatic translation programs that render pages almost
illegible. The way Google works runs parallel to how journals and
encyclopedias work in unison with monolingualism: one enters the word
“tickets” as an English-language encyclopedia entry (that is, what unites all
of these sites in terms of MK) and is directed to individual websites that act
as English-language journals with the entry in it. If someone enters a French
word for tickets, “billets,” in the same encyclopedic sense, one is directed to
French-language journal/sites. Thus, the lines separating languages and the
homo-lingual communities that use them in terms of MK, journals and
encyclopedia remain intact and uncrossed, just as with Clark’s original
conception of MK theory: while someone who writes “ticket” and someone
who writes “billet” might well be interested in the same thing and united in
that interest in terms of a multilingual collective, they are, within this
framework of monolingual communities, denied the right to unity with their
others because they are using different languages, and are thus doomed to
face the very same homo-lingualism that has been the object of our critique
A multilingual alternative to the way Google works is E-trade, a site
that allows users to trade stocks online and which can for this reason be taken
as an instance of American capitalism in one of its purest form.
At first
glance, reading the site only as it first appears in a web browser (in English),
one might assume that this second site is limited in the same way as the first
one in that it constricts users to a monolingual community due to the fact that
it works on a homo-lingual basis. However, when one looks at the bottom
right corner of the screen, one finds that the site and its capabilities are
offered in languages other than English, including Swedish, German and
Google describes its ad program thus: “With Google AdWords you create your own
ads, choose keywords to help us match your ads to your audience and pay only when
someone clicks on them” ( Login
&sourceid= AWO&subid= US-ET-ADS&hl=en_ US). This system is described
elsewhere on the site as “Cost-per-click (CPC) pricing, so you pay only for the clicks
you've received at a price you've set (chose a maximum CPC from 5 cents USD to
US$ 100)” (
U.S. English homepage:,
Multilingualism and its Discontents
Chinese, amongst others.
More strikingly, not only does the company offer
its services in different languages, but it offers them in different ways: a user
from, say, the U.S. has the option of viewing in English, German and
Chinese, just as a South Korean user can view the webpage for their purposes
in Korean and English. In this second case, the encyclopedia that unites users
is the stock markets in which traders trade stocks and the interfaces which
allow them to do so online (just as the words “tickets” and “billets” did in the
previous example), and the journals that give each individual user his or her
identity is their personal account from which they trade in the language of
their choice; the important point to keep in mind is that two traders can buy
and sell the same stocks (that is, use the same encyclopedia) despite their
differences in languages, and that an individual polyglot user in the U.S., for
example, can have a journal in English, German or Chinese or all at the same
time, thus affirming his or her multilingualism as well as that of the
collective, rather than denying them. The major difference between Google
and E-trade insofar as multilingualism is concerned is that, in the former, two
groups of hetero-lingual individuals searching for the same thing in their
respective monolingualisms form two homo-lingual communities, whereas in
the latter two hetero-linguistic users trading the same stocks form two groups
within one multilingual collective, due – and this is key – to the para-
linguistic user functions of the site, i.e. the technological arm of late
capitalism. Market economies in our time can thus be said to beneficially
privilege multilingualism where its Aristotelian predecessors denied it. In
Tocqueville’s words, there is a kind of multilingual “confusion” here, though
it is not detrimental to the group, but rather it helps it to function in a broader
and more in-depth way. What fails to unite two individuals and the language-
groups they represent in Google actually manages to do so in E-trade. Where
Google is limited to MK theory in its original form, E-trade benefits from the
unison of MK and DMM on a theoretical and technological level. What this
means is that the workings of monolingual communities that, as we have
seen, are dominated by static hegemony, mutual exclusivity and erasure of
differences have as their dialectical alternative the workings of multilingual
collectives, with their basis in dynamism, unitive plurality and emphasis on
difference: an “us/them” economy has been superceded by a barbaric
Swedish homepage:, German Deutsche homepage:, Hong Kong Chinese
homepage: zh.h tml. It is perhaps worthwhile noting
that E-trade, like Tocqueville with the Native Indians, does not openly recognize that
their are major differences in the languages Chinese nationals use, as the word
“Chinese” is therein a used as blanket term for a plethora of Asiatic languages.
Antony Adolf
economy in which everyone is, together and simultaneously, Other and
What remains to be shown is how the differential and dynamic
principle of multilingual collectivity would meaningfully change the fields
discussed above. Language theory would be deepened in its inquiry not by
what linguists call “code-switching,” in which the lines between languages
are once again reified by the very fact that they have, in this view, to be
“switched” from one to another, but by truly multilingual utterances, which
would, as I have argued elsewhere (Adolf, 2003), force the discipline to
change its fundamental precepts. Literary criticism would be made broader in
scope, and thus more like comparative literature, by inquiring into the
singular and general differences between texts and canons in different
languages. Theoretical sociology would give up its concern solely with
homo-lingual groups and incorporate more thinking as to how groups with
different languages interact with one another and how they should be studied,
leaning in the direction of socio-linguistic di-glossia. The humanities in
general would lean more towards a post-communist Marxist approach,
meaning one that inquires into the workings of contemporary global capitalist
democracies such as Jameson and Deleuze have done so eloquently, which
takes the para-linguistic material economy as the basis of its study rather than
its products, allowing its topics to be considered inter-lingually rather than
only intra-lingually. Community theory as it has been advanced since the
1980s and its concomitant politics of inclusivity that erases differences would
be replaced with collectivity theory, which takes differences as its foundation
and builds a unity from them. National or official languages would become
obsolete, giving way to the multilingualism a late capitalist, market-based
economy necessitates. There would be no more laws regulating language use
and, finally, effort towards or interests in English as a world language would
wane, allowing for the emergence of a plural unity of language-users where
none is privileged for biased or idea-lized reasons.
Community, as we have encountered it in its relation to the
monolingual bias and idea-l, would thus be considered as a factitious, though
not irreversible, paradigm in which the links between persons and the
languages they use are constructed so as to benefit some while
disenfranchising others and in time would, for these reasons, be discarded.
The reversing of the monolingual tide I have been arguing for can only be
accomplished by a concerted effort on the part of a very large number of
individuals working in a broad array of fields, a daunting task indeed, but one
that ought to be done for the sake of a better understanding of how our
increasingly globalized world works now and can work better in the future.
Multilingualism and its Discontents
Works Cited
Adolf, Antony. 2003. “Multilingualism and the (In)Stability of Meaning: A Neo-
Heideggerian Perspective.” Entertext, 3 (2).
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.
Aristotle. 1995. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. J. Barnes. Princeton: Princeton
University Press.
Bailey, Richard W. and Manfred Görlach. Eds. 1982. English as a World Language.
Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Bélanger, Claude. N.d.
Burnham, Clint. 1995. The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist
Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Carroll, Peter N. 1969. Puritanism and the Wilderness: The Intellectual Significance
of the New England Frontier, 1629-1700. New York: Columbia University
Clark, Herbert H. 1993. Arenas of Language Use. Chicago: University of Chicago
Durckheim, Emile. 1995. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. K.E. New
York: Fields. Free Press.
Eagleton, Terry. 2002. Marxist Literary Criticism. London: Routledge.
Ferguson. Charles A. 1996. Sociolinguistic Perspectives: Papers on Language in
Society, 1959-1994. Ed. Thom Huebner. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is there a text in this class? The Authority of Interpretive
Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Herdina, Philip and Ulrike Jessner. 2002. A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism:
Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics. Clevedon: Multilingual
Hoeber O’Brien, Mary. Ed. 1989. Reproducing the World: Essays in Feminist Theory.
Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Justice Department. 2004. “Justice Department Audit Finds Huge FBI Translation
Backlog.” Associated Press. September 27.
Spahr, Juliana. 2001. Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective
Identity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford:
Tocqueville, Alexis de. 2000. Democracy in America. Trans. Harvey Mansfield and
Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Valdes Guadalupe. N.d. “Multilingualism.” Linguistic Society of America. fields/index.php?aaa= multiling.htm.
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This essay engages in the political debate about the relationship
between material culture and collective identity. Cultural possessions
are seen as intrinsically linked to a nation or indigenous group’s
identity. In 1976, a UNESCO panel formulated the principle that
“cultural property is a basic element of a people’s identity.” In 1982,
the then chairperson of UNESCO’s Inter-governmental Committee for
the Return or Restitution of Cultural Property described the loss of
cultural property in terms of the “loss of being.” However, the creative
mixing or creolisation of culture and the active invention of traditions
has produced a move by anthropologists away from the concept of a
cultural group. Consequently, some anthropologists have taken claims
by indigenous people and national groups that the possession of
material culture is essential to their identity as rhetorical “sound bites”
made in a contest of postcolonial power relations. This essay
considers the strength of Richard Handler’s argument that social
groups and cultural property are the product of current interpretations
and not objective things that have identity over time. He takes claims
by indigenous and national groups about the relationship between
cultural property and identity to be literally false. If this is true, the
claims fail to generate a moral argument. The essay therefore shows
that the argument is unsound.
Political Context
Following the Second World War, European powers negotiated a number of
treaties in which they agreed to refrain from the destruction of objects of
aesthetic or religious value during war, and to repatriate them to their country
of origin. These treaties became the basis for the 1954 Hague Convention for
the Protection of Cultural Property (Pask, 1993: 63). Cultural property was
defined as “movable or immovable property of great importance to the
heritage of every people,” and this definition was supplemented by an
Elizabeth Coleman
exhaustive list of examples (Graham, 1987: 771). Each state was to
determine on its own terms those items covered by the convention. At the
1970 United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the
Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, newly
de-colonised states were instrumental in the expansion of the concept of
cultural property to encompass a broad range of objects deemed to be of
cultural value and the list of examples of what might be included as cultural
property was expanded. (Graham, 1987; Pask, 1993). The examples of
cultural property include rare collections and specimens; products relating to
history; products of archaeological excavations or discoveries; antiquities
more than one hundred years old; property of artistic interest; rare
manuscripts and incunabula; postage, revenue or stamps; archives; furniture;
and ethnological materials (Moustakas, 1989: 1180, n.4).
These cultural possessions are seen as intrinsically linked to a nation
or group’s identity. One way of spelling out the link between culture and
identity is through the philosophical tradition in which art and culture
expresses “the being” of a group. In 1976, a UNESCO panel formulated the
principle that “cultural property is a basic element of a people’s identity” (in
Handler, 1991: 67). In 1982, the then chairperson of UNESCO’s Inter-
governmental Committee for the Return or Restitution of Cultural Property
described the loss of cultural property in terms of the loss of being (Stetie,
cited in Handler, 1991: 68). This association between the existence of a group
and cultural property is played out in claims for the restitution of cultural
artifacts. For instance, a former Greek Minister for Culture, Melina Mercouri,
has argued that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece because,
“[t]he Marbles are part of a monument to Greek identity, part of our deepest
consciousness of the Greek People: our roots, our continuity, our soul” (in
McBryde, 1885: 4).
Significantly, the items on the convention’s list all refer to tangible
property. Indigenous peoples are now arguing that the term “cultural
property” should include intellectual property, including intellectual creations
which have not previously been considered “property,” such as folk lore and
traditional knowledge.
Indigenous peoples and minority groups internationally have been
asserting that they have special rights in cultural property for over three
decades. Their arguments follow the same association between property and
identity. Just as former Greek Minister for Culture, Melina Mercouri claimed
that, “[t]he [Parthenon] Marbles are part of a monument to Greek identity,
part of our deepest consciousness of the Greek People: our roots, our
continuity, our soul,” Amiri Baraka considers the blues to be the national
Cultural Property and Collective Identity
voice of African-American people. In both Canada and Australia, indigenous
peoples consider cultural appropriation coextensive with land theft and the
confiscation of ceremonial objects and human remains.
The United Nations Commission of Human Rights supports these
broader claims, asserting that “each indigenous community must retain
permanent control over all elements of its own heritage” (Daes, 1993, cited in
Brown, 1998: 197). “Heritage” is defined as “all expressions of the
relationship between the people, their land and the other living beings and
spirits which share the land, and is the basis for maintaining social, economic
and diplomatic relations —through sh aring —with other peoples” (Daes; in
Janke, 1997: 24).
In summary, the international political context is supporting ever-
broader claims concerning rights over cultural property on the basis that the
existence and identity of collective entities depends on these property rights.
These claimed rights, moreover, extend beyond tangible property and
recognized intellectual property to folklore, ideas, and knowledge (Davis,
1996-1997: 3-4).
However, as the anthropologist Michael Brown points out, indigenous
activists often speak about culture “as if it were a fixed and corporeal thing,”
and with “few exceptions cosmopolitan scholars find such reified views of
culture problematic” (Brown, 1998: 197). Worse than this, as Brown points
out, much of the rhetoric of cultural property arguments echo disturbing
aspects of ethnic nationalism. Anthropologists tell us that there are no pure
cultures. According to Rosemary Coombe, the claims that culture is related to
group identity, for instance the claim that “the appropriation of voice” will
destroy indigenous culture, are a form of essentialism in the sense that the
voice which is appropriated is understood as unified and singular, and a form
of Orientalism in the sense that the group is conceived of as homogenous,
timeless, and defined by unchanging traditions. The creative mixing or
creolisation of culture and the active invention of traditions has produced a
move by anthropologists away from the concept of culture. Consequently,
some anthropologists have taken claims by indigenous people that their art
and culture is essential to their identity as rhetorical “sound bites” made in a
contest of postcolonial power relations (Brown, 1998: 195; Strathern, 1998:
216-217). That is, the claims are taken to be literally false, and politically
If there is no relationship between cultural objects and the existence of
collectives, then there is no reason to believe that claims based on this
argument from identity are of any moral significance. In this chapter I will
contest the strength of this position, using an article by Richard Handler,
“Who Owns the Past?” as the focus. What I intend to show is that Handler’s
Elizabeth Coleman
argument against cultural property is unsound. The structure of the chapter
will be as follows. I will briefly summarise Handler’s argument, and attempt
to analyse it into its propositional content and logical form. I will show how
it rests on two premises that oversimplify what it might mean to say that a
group exists or has continuity over time. I will then provide a counter
example to the argument, to show that some kinds of property are necessary
for the continuation or existence of certain groups. This counter-example
shows that objects may be necessary for the maintenance of a social structure.
Who Owns the Past?
In “Who Owns the Past?” Richard Handler describes the idea of modern
nations and ethnic groups as collective individuals with authentic cultures
and contrasts this with the approach taken by anthropology:
The nation is said to “have” or “possess” a culture, just as its human constituents
are described as “bearers” of the national culture. From the nationalist
perspective, the relationship between nation and culture should be characterised
by originality and authenticity. Cultural traits that come from the outside are at
best “borrowed” and at worst polluting; by contrast, those aspects... that come
from within the nation, that are original to it, are “authentic” (Handler, 1991: 66,
One way of spelling out the link between culture and identity is
through the philosophical tradition in which art and culture expresses ‘the
being’ of a group. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) might be considered
particularly important in regard to the articulation of this idea. This idea, that
each of us is original, and contains our own measure, suggests that there is a
way of being human that is “my way”. A person is called to live a life
without imitation, by being true to themselves. Herder applied this notion not
only to the individual but to the nation itself, just like an individual, a culture-
bearing people must be true to itself, that is, its own culture. Herder argued
that Germans’ shouldn’t try to be derivative or second rate Frenchmen; they
had to find their own path, an authentic Volk tradition.
The anthropological objection to this idea hinges on the notion that
cultures are ever composed of “original,” cultural traits. According to
[I]t is more fruitful to think of cultures and groups as being continually
reconstructed, realigned, and re-imagined, as various actors negotiate their social
lives...[C]ultures are not things exhibiting oneness over time. (Handler, 1991:
Cultural Property and Collective Identity
Handler argues that because cultures are not “things exhibiting
oneness over time,” collective entities and groups cannot claim that cultures
constitute their identity. Furthermore, Handler points out that to speak of the
countries of origin is an anachronism, “since those treasures did not in most
cases ‘originate’ in the present day sociopolitical entities we call countries”
(ibid.). For example, present day Greece cannot claim its people created the
Parthenon, as the current socio-political entity is not identical with Athenian
There are a number of steps in Handler’s argument. First, he defines
the term identity as “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a
thing,” a definition he obtains from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
(64). The identity of an individual, he suggests, is also defined by this
sameness, “ an individual one is completely and uniquely oneself,
through and through, only oneself, nothing but oneself, and, note well,
objectively oneself.” He argues that nations and ethnic groups are imagined
as collective individuals, with the implication that each nation or group is
“bounded and apart, and internally homogenous.”
The next step involves
showing that the group’s existence as a unique individual rests on its
possession of culture, as embodied in material artefacts such as buildings and
works of art (ibid.: 66-67). The fourth step involves the assertion that
anthropological evidence shows that cultures “are not bounded, continuous
over time, or internally homogenous” (68). Finally, Handler argues that the
present day collective entities claiming cultural property are not identical
with the sociopolitical entities that existed when the objects claimed as
cultural property were created. Therefore, both social groups and cultures are
the product of current interpretations and not objective things that have
identity over time. From this, Handler argues that cultural property is not
necessary to the existence of the group:
Indeed, the ethnic groups now proclaiming their existence, their boundedness,
and their historic continuity are in most, if not all, cases the creations of rather
Ibid. (65). Evidence that this is how we think of group identity is provided by the
image of a map, “which uses dark, unbroken lines to portray the boundaries between
nations, and which fills the interior of each bounded unit with a different colour. These
cartographic conventions suggest, first, that each nation is unambiguously separated
from its neighbours; second, that each nation, coloured differently from its neighbours,
possesses a unique identity and culture; and third, that each nation, of one and only one
colour, is internally homogenous.” An example of a particular map would have been
useful. I don’t know of any map like this. Maps are designed for particular purposes, to
show nation-states, altitude and rainfall, political affiliations. What map uses a different
colour for every nation? Handler’s example appears to be of an imaginary map.
Elizabeth Coleman
recent events. This holds true for an apparently prototypical nation-state like
France as well as for groups with less well-validated pedigrees. And the
culture that present-day groups claim as belonging to them from time
immemorial, embodied in particular pieces of cultural property, is likewise the
product of a current interpretation and not an objective thing that has
possessed a continuous meaning and identity over time. Thus, to constitute
“representative collections” is to invent a static culture that never existed in
the past...though the notion of representativeness implies a truthful portrayal of
what is already there (the “what” in this case being a historically existent
culture). (Ibid.: 69)
The argument that cultures are invented and therefore cannot
constitute group identity directs itself squarely at the moral claim that culture
constitutes identity, and that if culture is lost, collectives will lose their
identity. It attempts to show that the claim that culture constitutes identity is
false, and that there is no moral claim to answer.
I doubt Handler ever thought of setting it out as a valid argument, but
if he had, I think it would look something like this:
1. Identity is defined by sameness in all respects.
2. If something doesn’t have ‘sameness in all respects’ then it does not have
objective reality.
3. If cultures change over time, and cultures are not bounded or internally
homogenous, then cultures are not objectively real.
4. Cultures change over time, are not bounded, or internally homogenous.
C1. Therefore, cultures are not objectively real.
5. If collective entities are defined by the culture that they possess, then
collective entities change over time, are not bounded or internally
6. Collective entities are defined by the culture they possess.
C2. Therefore, collective entities change over time, are not bounded or
internally homogenous.
7. If collective entities change over time, are not bounded or internally
homogenous then collective entities are not objectively real.
C3. Therefore, collective entities are not objectively real.
Intuitively there seems to be something wrong with this argument. The
proposition that there are collective entities does not follow from the fact that
there are no clearly bounded, static, internally homogenous collective
entities, any more than the fact that there are no people called Elizabeth
Burns Coleman with green hair can lead one to the conclusion that there are
no people. I will draw out this point in the next section.
Cultural Property and Collective Identity
Identity and Reality
The foundation of the argument is the definition of identity, which is
expressed in the first two premises. These premises are vital to Handler’s
argument as without them the entire edifice falls apart.
Premises 1 and 2 are false. Handler, or rather, his dictionary, seems to
have conflated two separate issues here. Handler’s dictionary suggests
identity “constitutes the objective reality of a thing.” The law of identity
simply states that everything is what it is: A= A. In this sense identity is
related to sameness in all respects. But this is true regardless of whether or
not what is under discussion exists. One can say that Pegasus is identical to
itself, without committing oneself to its existence or “objective reality.” The
identity of Pegasus is therefore unrelated to Pegasus’s existence.
Furthermore, change over time does not necessarily constitute a
change in identity. If this were true, I would not be the same person as the
child called Elizabeth who lost all her teeth. But, for the sake of simplicity,
let us consider a physical object, such as the problem of the identity of the
Ship of Theseus. Theseus’s ship constantly sails the seas and is in constant
need of repair. Whenever needed, planks are removed and replaced. Over a
number of years, the repairs have been so extensive that none of the original
planks remain. Despite these changes we are inclined to say that even though
the ship isn’t exactly the same as it was, that it remains the same ship.
Similarly, change, renegotiation and re-imagination of the significance of
cultural objects and the practices in which they gain this significance do not
provide any evidence for the idea that cultural artefacts or cultures do not
have identities. I will go further than this; not only does a change of meaning,
say in relation to a tradition, not signify a change in identity, but that this
change is necessary to the maintenance of a tradition or culture. The process
of the transmission of practices involves translation and affirmation, and
must therefore involve modifications so that a practice can continue (Lange,
in Gadamer, 1996: xxvi; see also Dworkin, 1983: 249). Change, therefore,
does not constitute a lack of “identity.” Accordingly, premise 5 is false also.
But there seems more going on here than an assertion that everything
that really exists and has objective reality is eternal and unchanging. Part of
what Handler wants to say, it seems, is that because history, cultures,
practices and traditions are socially constructed, they are not real. But should
we concede this step from socially constructed to not real? I think not. Money
is “made up,” and yet very real. All social practices are made up, and yet real.
This idea of “objective reality” seems oversimplified. To say that
something (for example) a rock, is ontologically objective means that it exists
regardless of whether or not humans exist. In contrast, to say that something
Elizabeth Coleman
is ontologically subjective, is to say that its existence is not independent of
the existence of humans.
One might say that nation-states exist because
humans exist: they are socially constructed. Therefore, nation-states are not
ontologically objective but ontologically subjective. But to say that
something is ontologically subjective does not mean that it does not really
exist. One might argue that cultural artefacts, and even the more nebulous
notion of “practices,” are ontologically subjective rather than ontologically
objective, but all one would be pointing out here is that they exist because
humans have certain attitudes and thoughts about them. The fact that cultural
artefacts and (human) collective entities only exist because humans exist and
have certain attitudes does not necessarily make their existence any less real.
The argument that cultures are invented and therefore cannot
constitute group identity directs itself squarely at the moral claim that cultural
property constitutes identity, and that if property is lost, collectives will lose
their identity. It attempts to show that the claim that culture constitutes
identity is false, and that there is no moral claim to answer. However, I have
shown that the argument is too strong. It is too strong because, if Handler’s
definitions of identity and reality were true, things that exist, and intuitively
have identity over time, such as people, would not have objective reality.
Moreover, his definition of what is real denies the existence of a social
Handler’s argument borrows some of its strength from his use of
“representative collections” as the paradigm case of cultural property. Even if
the nation-state Greece had not been changing and evolving, the loss of those
objects may not have made a jot of difference. Certainly, it seems to have
survived quite well without them. But there are some kinds of objects that are
necessary for the maintenance of a group’s identity.
A Counter-Argument: Essential Properties
In the argument against the essential theory of cultural authenticity, it is
assumed that the term essence must refer to the intrinsic or true nature of the
group as Herder conceived of it. The crux of the objection was that
indigenous people are wrong when they claim that there is a defining essence
to their cultural identity; an authentic or “pure” culture that could be
contaminated by “outsiders.” If there is no pure culture to be contaminated,
indeed, if a culture cannot be “contaminated,” then there can be no moral
John Searle makes this distinction between ontological objectivity and subjectivity in
Searle (1995: 7-9).
Cultural Property and Collective Identity
wrong in the loss of that property because that loss does not destroy or harm
anything. Another sense of “essential” is the idea of a “necessary condition.”
For example, we might say that the presence of oxygen is essential for fire,
because it is necessary for the existence of fire. I will argue here that some
forms of cultural property are indeed necessary for the maintenance of
cultural groups. If we were to apply this sense to a cultural group, we would
think that there is some cultural property that belongs to it necessarily; it is
not possible that the cultural group could be that group without certain
One example that springs immediately to mind is land for Australian
Aboriginal peoples. Outback Aboriginal groups have been able to maintain
their distinct social identities as groups, because they have been able to
maintain rights and obligations in relation to land, and the system of rights
and obligations supports the social structure – in fact you might say the rights
and obligations constitute the social structure. However, a counter-example
to this may be that we are not here discussing material artefacts, so although
sites of significance may legally be counted as cultural property, I will refine
my argument to meet Handler on his own terms.
Imagine all Australian law disappeared. By this I mean, not only did
the legislation disappear, but also all the records of decisions from which we
draw on common law, our constitution and so forth. These records, in variety
of written forms, maintain a certain kind of legal practice. They enable us to
regulate and structure society in a certain kind of way, with a degree of
consistency because they contain the content of the law. But they also play a
second role: Judges refer to them to legitimate their decisions, according to
what HLA Hart would describe as a rule of recognition (Hart, 1961: 92-93).
That is, it is by reference to these texts that we recognise a judge’s decision
as authoritative. Without these records, we could not function the way we do.
We could not prove our identity as a nation state. We could not
“authoritatively” prove our territories; we could not “authoritatively” settle
disputes over property. In short, without these authoritative records – which
are authoritatively interpreted by people in specific roles (judges) it is not
clear that we could maintain “law” as the practice that it is. The way in which
we practice law, however, does seem fundamental to the structure of our
While it may seem unlikely that Australia will somehow lose its
law, it is quite possible for an oral society to lose objects that play a similar
functional role. Consider, for example, what it would mean for a culture
based on oral traditions to lose its mnemonic devices. Mnemonic devices do
not record information in the way that written language does, but provides a
code or symbol that serves to remind the user of important historical and
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legal information. In an article on memory in oral culture, Jack Goody
discusses the role of several such devices in African societies (Goody, in Fara
&Petterson, 1998). One of his examples is the stool or throne of the Asante
king, which would be referred to by a spokesman to present a case about
aspects of the ownership of land or the extent of jurisdiction (ibid: 78).
Another example is the lukasa, a hand-held wooden object stuck with pins
and beads used in Luba society. Goody says, “during Luba rituals to induct
rulers into office, a lukasa is used to teach the sacred lore about culture,
heroes, clan migration and the introduction of sacred rules; it also suggests
the spatial positioning of activities and offices within the kingdom or in a
royal compound” (ibid: 80). Moreover, as in our system, in which the role of
judges is to authoritatively interpret the law, in Ashante and Luba societies, a
“spokesman” or “man of memory” authoritatively interprets the devices. The
loss of such devices would be as great a loss as the loss of a nation’s
constitution or statutes. Yet, such objects are precisely the kinds of objects
that turn up in exhibitions of African “art.” Their appropriation by collectors
and museums may be considered part of the process through which
colonisation (or “modernisation”), the replacement of one legal system with
another, occurs.
If we accept that social organisations are maintained through this kind
of relationship with objects, and think those social organisations are in any
way important, we will think that their possession of those objects is
important. The difference between this argument, that some objects are
necessary for the maintenance of collective identity, and the argument that
some objects embody the identity or character of a group, is the role that the
objects play. Some artefacts, such as the lukasa, play a role in maintaining an
institutional structure; others, such as the Parthenon Marbles, play a role in
the story we tell about the social characteristics and history of that structure.
I have argued that Richard Handler’s argument concerning the importance of
cultural property is unsound. Firstly, Handler uses a concept of identity that is
overly strong, confusing identity with existence, and with lack of change. His
definition of reality will not allow us to articulate any kind of social reality
that exists. Secondly, there do appear to be cultural objects, such as statues
and some mnemonic devices that we might think are a necessary condition
for the maintenance of a social system or collective. We do not need to think
that all arguments for cultural property are based on cultural essentialism. It’s
important to point out here that these points do not constitute a moral
Cultural Property and Collective Identity
argument for cultural property. I have not attempted to justify international
cultural property legislation or the rights of communities and societies to
exist. What I have attempted to show is that it is possible that some kinds of
cultural objects are a necessary condition for the continuing existence of a
group. Accordingly, the creolisation of culture does not provide grounds for
believing that social groups do not exist, and that those groups cannot have a
moral right to cultural property.
Works Cited
Brown, Michael F. 1998. “Can Culture Be Copyrighted.” Current Anthropology 39 (2).
Daes, Erica-Irene. 1993. Study on the Protection of the Cultural and Intellectual
Property of Indigenous Peoples. New York: United Nations Economic and
Social Council, Commission on Human Rights. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/28.
Davis, Michael. 1996-1997. Indigenous Peoples and Intellectual Property Right.
Commonwealth of Australia Department of the Parliamentary Library. Research
Paper 20.
Fara, Patricia and Karalyn Petterson. Eds. 1998. Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Gadamer, H.G. 1976. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California
Graham, G. M. 1987. “Protection and Reversion of Cultural Property: Issues of
Definition and Justification.” International Law. 21.
Handler, Richard. 1991. “Who Owns the Past? History, Cultural Property, and the Logic
of Possessive Individualism.” In Bret Williams. Ed. The Politics of Culture.
Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
Hart, H.L.A. 1961. The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1784. Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind.
Janke, T. 1997. Our Culture, Our Future: Proposals for the Recognition and Protection
of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. Australian Institute of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Canberra.
McBryde, Isabel. Ed. 1985. Who Owns the Past? Papers from the Annual Symposium of
the Australian Academy of Humanities. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Mitchell. W.J.T. Ed. 1983. The Politics of Interpretation. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Moustakas, John. 1989. “Group Rights in Cultural Property: Justifying Strict
Inalienability.” Cornell Law Review 74.
Pask, Amanda. 1993. “Cultural Appropriation and the Law: An Analysis of the Legal
Regimes Concerning Culture.” Intellectual Property Journal 8 (December).
Searle, John. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Strathern, Marilyn. 1998. “Comment on Brown’s ‘Can Culture be Copyrighted?.’”
Current Anthropology 39 (2).
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The protection of traditional and Indigenous cultural production and
resources is of critical concern not only to the groups involved but
also to the international trading community for which these resources
are of increasing economic importance. Departing from the current
international emphasis on intellectual property systems to resolve
protection for traditional knowledge, this chapter examines the basis
for “community” approaches for Indigenous and traditional
knowledge protection. Arguing that intellectual property law is an
inadequate framework to address the fundamental objects of
protection for the communities themselves – the management of
traditional use, as well as the biological and cultural sustainability of
this use – this chapter examines legitimacy of local customary laws
and the autonomy of communities themselves, by developing the
concept of “community resources” in the context of international
protection for traditional knowledge.
The international awareness of the traditional knowledge of Indigenous and
traditional groups has become so significant, in the context of global trade,
that its recognition and protection is the subject of intergovernmental
committee discussions, currently taking place in the United Nations
specialised agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
The WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic
Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), was established in the 26
Extraordinary Session) of the WIPO General Assembly, held in Geneva, 25
September to 3 October 2000 to consider and advise on appropriate actions
concerning the economic and cultural significance of tradition-based creations, and
the issues of conservation, management, sustainable use, and sharing of the benefits
Johanna Gibson
However, as well as commercial potential, not only for those holding the
knowledge as well as those seeking access, traditional knowledge embodies
particular cultural and social value that is specific to local communities. The
protection of traditional knowledge is, therefore, not only a commercial
question but also a question of belonging, cohesion, and identity. The need
for holistic protection of the culture, traditional knowledge, and resources of
Indigenous and traditional peoples is drawn from the recognition of the
relationship between community and its resources,
and the need to recognise
the authority of community and of customary law, for the fundamental
welfare and autonomy of Indigenous and traditional peoples.
addressing this need in the context of current international decisions
concerning the recognition, protection, and indeed commercialisation of
traditional knowledge, the present discussion will develop the concept of
what will be called “community resources.”
Fundamentally, the concept of
“community resources” indicates the relationships between traditional and
Indigenous groups and resources, beyond the objectification and limitation of
models of the “traditional” and “Indigenous” knowledge products.
from the use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, as well as the
enforcement of rights to traditional knowledge and folklore.
See the editorial, introducing the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Report,
by Marta Santos Pais, Director of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, where Pais
maintains that: “Families, elders and community leaders have an important role to
play in helping indigenous children to understand that they have special resources
upon which to draw – spirituality, cultural identity and values; a strong bond with the
land; collective memory; kinship and community. Indigenous children carry with
them a reserve of knowledge that is their special inheritance, and from which we can
all benefit.” Furthermore, rather than identifying the management and protection of
culture as an obstacle to international trade, the United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report 2004, Cultural Liberty in Today’s
Diverse World, identifies explicitly the need for promotion and protection of cultural
diversity and pluralism in order to achieve the effective flow of cultural goods: UNDP
(2004: 11-12; 96-99).
The UNICEF Report maintains the inextricable nature of the link between survival
of Indigenous children, self-recognition and cultural integrity, and rights to land and
resources. The Report asserts that the survival of culture, through knowledge and
resources, is integral to the survival of communities and the well-being, confidence,
and welfare of young members: UNICEF (2003).
This concept of “community resources” is developed in greater detail in the author’s
forthcoming work, Community Resources: Intellectual Property, International Trade,
and Protection of Traditional Knowledge (2005).
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
Community Resources, an Indication in Terms
Protection based on “community resources” is motivated by the assertion that
a sense of “place”
and belonging comes through the practice of community,
and not through simplistic geographical indications of groups. Thus, despite
the dispersal or displacement of groups, the locale of community cannot be
denied through physical separation. While physical place may be an element
of community, it must not preclude protection of traditional knowledge
through an inability to “recognise” the displaced community for the purposes
of claims to land, sovereignty over natural and genetic resources, and indeed
“ownership” of traditional knowledge and folklore.
It is important to conceptualise the subject matter of protection beyond
the potentially limiting perspective of intellectual property law when applied
to traditional knowledge as commodifiable objects of trade. The concept of
“community resources” indicates the fundamental “object” of protection, not
as “traditional knowledge” as economic value, as such, but as the symbiotic
relationship between community and its resources. The objective is the
integrity of the community; that is, the capacity of the community to maintain
and practice its custom, culture, and knowledges, and to cohere, as distinct
from the subject matter of intellectual property regimes, which
characteristically (and indeed necessarily for their efficacy and legitimacy)
identify and register knowledge as comprised of objects of information,
properties to be alienated and traded. In other words, in a holistic and
possibly more relevant system, the subject matter of protection is community
resources in the most critical sense.
Understood as the means and responsibility of community, resources
(as distinct from cultural property, or even “traditional knowledge”) suggest
some sort of custodianship on the part of the community and in favour of the
community in question, countering assumptions of knowledge as separate
from community, as public and open to appropriation and exploitation, or
assumptions that the priority for protection is the “property” in the resources
themselves. This custodianship may be understood not only in terms of
responsibility under customary law, but also as an entitlement to those
resources and their management. In conceiving of the subject matter of
protection as resources inextricably linked to community (community
Here, place is understood not in the physical, rivalrous, competitive sense of western
concepts of property in land, but in the marking of territory through the collective
subjectivity of community and cultural practice.
Johanna Gibson
resources), commercialisation of traditional knowledge should nevertheless
be available to the community and to outsiders with appropriate consent from
that community.
The interests at stake are not perfectly reconcilable with an intellectual
property model; rather they include, but are not limited to, expressions and
performance, practices and beliefs, resources and medicine, food and
agriculture, biological diversity, and the cultural and human rights of
Indigenous and traditional peoples. Constraining the debate within the
language and forum of intellectual property may compromise any resultant
proposal, and indeed the concept of community resources is explicit in its
departure from intellectual property discussions. While an emphasis on
community may be subject to criticism as ahistorical, the importance of
shifting the debate from one of property in resources to that of community
integrity through its resources is crucial.
What is necessary, therefore, is a community-based system of
protection and resource management according to the diverse customary laws
of individual communities in the particular case, the “shared values” by
which the expression of tradition and narration of community integrity will
be “traditional” (the fundamental legitimacy of the concept). Customary laws
may be understood as the cohering organisation of community integrity,
identity, and recognition, making the efficacy of the customary law of a
community within an international framework for community resources of
critical significance.
The Community in Resources
A community-based system of management, custom, and protection of
resources is optimal in order to identify and facilitate agency in distinctive
communities, which cannot be divested to individual members:
The nature of these collective rights corresponds closely to the
indigenous world-view in that they reflect and promote the indivisibility of
the community. This perspective is a particular strength and a special
resource of indigenous peoples, and one that is increasingly acknowledged.
The draft declaration elaborates collective rights to a degree unprecedented in
international human rights law (UNICEF, 2003: 6).
Rather than attempting to approach viable protection and
acknowledgment asymptotically, as it were, it is important to examine the
potential for protection whereby customary laws of communities are given
real public, political, and economic effect (not just merely reserved and
partitioned effect) as necessary means by which to preserve intellectual
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
interests through cultural and biological diversity, and through immutable
international (customary) obligations.
In devising traditional knowledge protection based upon community,
the diverse range of communities must be kept in mind, and the imperative
against generalising communities in order to achieve legal clarity for this
concept. Indeed, looking for the certainty of the concept (for the purposes of
legal regimes) within the particular community itself maintains an awkward
preoccupation with classifying groups rather than facilitating development,
and undermines the dynamic and organic process that is to be approximated
through a version of community resources. In other words, while a certain
level of abstraction is necessary in order to establish community resources as
a legal principle upon which international obligations can be motivated, this
abstraction proceeds not from the definition of “community” but from the
commonalities shared between communities towards achieving relevant and
appropriate rights of self-governance and traditional development.
Rather than presuming externally to define and identify particular
communities as objects of protection and cultural information, effective
protection will facilitate the customary laws of Indigenous and traditional
communities, by which those communities assert self-recognition, dignity,
and integrity. This is a justification for a generalised approach, but not a
determination of “community” as such. Community in any one instance will
be established on a “case by case” basis (Lyotard &Thébaud, 1985: 27). In
other words, towards achieving a system for traditional knowledge, it is
important not to “imitate” community, as it were. To presuppose knowledge
of the particular “community” or even appropriate criteria would be
fundamentally unjust. The community, as such, is unpresentable by the law,
which cannot presume to name community.
It is important not to use an international system of protection for
community resources to define and regulate externally the particularities of
an individual community; but rather, its application is to understand and
realise the relationship between communities, nation-states, and international
obligations. Indeed, it would be entirely inappropriate and inconceivable for
international law to monitor, define, and regulate the internal self-governance
of a traditional or Indigenous community. This move towards legal and
customary recognition of the concept of “community” (otherwise outside the
The concept of unpresentability is set out in Jean-Franç ois Lyotard’s essay,
“Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable.” Using the example of modern
photography, Lyotard describes how grand narratives attempt to describe perfectly
their subject matter, but in doing so necessarily leave out details in order to appear
like perfect presentations of the real: Lyotard (1991: 119-128).
Johanna Gibson
model for full international legal capacity), represents an important
mechanism for the protection of traditional knowledge and indeed of
communities in and through their resources.
Features of “Community”
To achieve authority and capacity as a legal actor, the community will
necessarily have access to economic and legal systems through the
international recognition of sui generis rights in community resources, rather
than be generalised and moralised beyond a dialogue with the state.
communities are forced to contract with various state departments, the
imbalance in bargaining power will effectively constrain communities within
market economies and national government agenda.
Thus, the protection of
traditional knowledge through the recognition of sui generis rights is
necessarily an issue for an international system. In this way diverse
Indigenous and traditional communities would be able to express themselves
in relation to their cultural resources and products, where rights to resources
may be most effectively realised in the context of international obligations to
community identity and cultural diversity. That is, the right to manage and
use community resources in a particular way is something defined and
enlivened by the customary law of a community as the fundamental and
integral expression of that identity and diversity. International obligations to
cultural diversity should precede and preclude all possible statute-based
attenuation of mere “property” rights in cultural resources and products.
Some form of protection anchored upon the concept of community is
endorsed by calls to reform systems of protection for Indigenous and
Moral authoritarian communitarianism is often associated with the principle of the
state as an enemy of community: Hughes (1996: 17). See also the more extensive
consideration of the relationship between the state and community in Little (2002:
particularly 177-199).
Statements of several developing countries in the Seventh Session of the IGC,
conducted in November 2004, expressed serious reservations regarding the capacity
of contractual agreements to realise and protect the interests of Indigenous
communities with respect to genetic resources, and suggested that such systems could
never account for international uniformity with respect to the treatment of those
resources. See the forthcoming Report of the Seventh Session. For concerns regarding
the principle of national sovereignty in models of access and benefit-sharing, in the
context of biodiversity, see Gibson (2004).
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
traditional knowledge,
yet it remains a highly problematic feature of
contemporary political discourse, compromised by the often insubstantial and
vague application of the term in modern policy rhetoric.
Much of this
ambiguity comes from attempts to categorise communities and to
differentiate between community qualities and actual, physical, geo-historical
groups. However, any attempt to categorise according to physical and/or
“aspirational” qualities may be a problematic over-simplification and
injustice in this context. However, what are the key features or
commonalities and concerns, within the context of the international trading
and intellectual property system, decipherable with respect to community and
its recognition within that system? It may be suggested that critically these
include ownership (and attending aspects of agency and quality), resources,
place, tradition and history, and recognition.
1. Ownership
Communal inclusion, private exclusion
The clan is like a cluster of trees which, when seen from afar, appear huddled
together, but which would be seen to stand individually when closely
approached. (Akan proverb; in Gyekye, 1995: 158)
Conventional western discourses of identity almost invariably invoke notions
of self-expression and individual control or “ownership” of that expression
and the resources necessary to display it: “Late twentieth-century cultural
politics makes it impossible to separate issues of identity from claims to the
Discussions of the special requirements of Indigenous and traditional intellectual
production have included the call for separate legislation to protect Indigenous and
traditional knowledge, recognising the very different value to Indigenous and
traditional producers of that intellectual interest as well as the inadequacy of
conventional legislative protection of intellectual property. From Australia, see the
ATSIC report, Our Culture Our Future (1997), produced by Terri Janke. This Report
recommends a sui generis legislative framework that draws upon customary laws and
communal systems of ownership and management to include and protect all forms of
Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, including ecological and agricultural
knowledge (Ch 18).
Little (2002: 24). For a comprehensive and insightful examination of the
progression in the use of the concept of community, from the polis to the present, see
Delanty (2003). For further analysis of the historical development and use of
community see also Little (2002).
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ownership of resources.”
This conceptualisation reaches its logical climax
in the form of privacy as a property, sometimes suggested as a mechanism for
the protection of traditional and Indigenous relationships to resources
(Brown, 2003: 38). However, the value of “privacy” to understand
community resources is limited, merely perpetuating the problematic model
of “ownership” in the context of traditional resources: “a tidy separation of
property and privacy is impossible within a market system that turns identity
into a commodity” (Brown: 2003: 38). Similarly and more usually, the
concerns of Indigenous and traditional groups are framed as battles of self-
determination (a group self or identity, as it were) constructed upon the issue
of dominion over resources (see e.g. Simpson T, 1997; and IPCB, 2004).
While the community’s relationship to its resources is critical to the present
discussion, this relationship is more complex than such a possessory
construction might suggest.
Aside from the irrelevance to traditional and Indigenous use of
resources and constructions of identity, one of the major problems with this
conceptualisation of identity through possession is that justifications for
restrictions to access and to freedoms (of speech and self-expression),
become particularly difficult to sustain if the “identity” of community is also
premised upon this possessory relationship to resources.
That is, the basis
for the possessive identity of community, if understood in this way, becomes
the very means by which the integral relationship between community and
resources may be elided and interrupted.
Broadly speaking, diverse Indigenous and traditional communalisms
share a suggestion of property, if it may be understood as such, achieved
through familial, kinship, and initiatory ties, and not necessarily through
commercial exchange and commodification within and outside the
that varies immensely between diverse communities. The
emphasis on “ownership” in proprietary constructions of knowledge
displaces the identity of the community within western discourse through
adherence to the individual production of subjectivity and the construction of
“traditional” resources as natural, without authors, without creators, and
therefore, without owners.
Strathern (1999: 134). Note that the strenuous critique of possessive notions of
“identity” in post-structuralist and postmodern feminist critical theory and identity
politics. See in particular, Butler (1990); Cornell (2000).
For a discussion of the problems with adherence to this link in the context of
Australian native title rights see Povinelli (2002: 41-42).
Leach (2004: 42-56); Barron (2002: 64-65). See generally the discussion of kinship
throughout Povinelli (2002: 41-42). See also the critique of property models in
Coombe (1998).
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
Intellectual property laws are not only implicated in the creation of the
problem of the misappropriation of knowledge, but also, as indicated by the
current discussions within WIPO, drawn upon as the dominant mechanism by
which to achieve a solution. Indeed, traditional knowledge and the problem
of its protection are repeatedly defined in the literature by reference to
proprietary models and to intellectual property law.
The possessive
relationship between individual and information that justifies and sustains
intellectual property law exists in a reciprocal legitimation with the
individualistic sense of self that dominates western legal paradigms
(Underkuffler, 2003: 1-2; 65-70), and simplifies the questions of protection
within this possessory dynamic. This conundrum within conventional legal
frameworks operates between the normative individual’s possessive
relationship to property and the generation (through the very exercise of that
individual production and possession) of the individual legal subjectivity that
is necessary to access such rights. This raises the significant obstacle of how
to conceive of community “selfhood” outside such models of possession, but
nevertheless ensure any one particular community’s entitlement to observe its
customary law in respect of its resources, and to access protective
mechanisms within international legal models.
While the seemingly ubiquitous presumption that ownership in
traditional communities is communal is sometimes appropriate, more often it
is a problematic over-simplification of community and customary governance
and knowledge practices.
The rendering of the Indigenous or traditional
community as “individual” absorbs the diversity in communities (Guattari:
1995a: 3). This process facilitates the misinterpretation of community, and
therefore of community resources, as a restriction upon the expression of the
individual (e.g. Bauman 2001a), and therefore unjustifiable within the
rhetoric of the natural justice of intellectual property rights. Nancy suggests
that this individualising of community is “how one loses sight of community
as such, and of the political as the place of its exposition.” He explains
Such a thinking constitutes closure because it assigns to community a common
being, whereas community is a matter of something quite different, namely, of
existence inasmuch as it is in common, but without letting itself be absorbed
The construction of traditional knowledge as a problem of intellectual property law
is explicit in the framing of its international protection within the WIPO IGC.
See the critique of “communal rights” in the context of Papua New Guinean
communities in Strathern (2004: 3). In relation to African community structures,
Kwame Gyekye notes that the African social order is characterised by features of both
communality and of individuality: Gyekye (1995: 154).
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into a common substance… The community that becomes a single thing
(body, mind, fatherland, Leader…) necessarily loses the in of being-in-
In traditional and Indigenous philosophies of communalism, individual
subjectivity is premised upon community and indeed the being of personhood
is impossible without community and a prior collective subjectivity – the
If one is by nature a social being, and not merely an atomized entity, then the
development of one’s full personality and identity can best be achieved only
within the framework of social relationships that are realizable within a
communal social system. That is to say, the conception and development of an
individual’s full personality and identity cannot be separated from his or her
role in the group.
In the traditional and communal production of knowledge, the
“ambition” of personhood, as it were, is realised not through the competitive
possession of expression, but through the communal process itself. As the
Mexican community-based project, el despacho,
It would be unreasonable to suggest that the authorship of individual
collaborators is canceled out by the dynamics of a collective work process,
that individual authorship is altogether abandoned for the benefit of the
Nancy (1991: xxxviii-xxxix). See also the discussion in Douzinas (2000: 138)
“Both universal morality and cultural identity express different aspects of human
Gyekye (1995: 161). Compare Bauman’s criticism of community as simply an
antidote to instability and insecurity (Bauman, 2004: 61-62). Elsewhere Bauman
describes community as “missing freedom” (Bauman, 2001a: 4). He describes the
“tribe-managed mechanisms aimed at depriving the individual of that freedom of
choice and that responsibility” (Bauman, 1997: 33). However, this interpretation of
“tribe” or community, compared to the use of the term in the present work, betrays a
conflation of “collective” and “community,” thus reading community as a unity, and
society or tribe as interchangeable. Elsewhere, similar readings of communitarian
authority are contrary to the concept of community that is sought in the present work:
for instance, see the communitarian philosophies of Etzioni (1999; 2001; and 2004;
see also the discussion in Abbey (1996-1997). This construction of community is
refuted in the present discussion; however Bauman’s work remains relevant for his
critique of nostalgic notions of community towards developing a theory of
evolutionary contemporary community for the purposes of “community resources.”
El despacho is a Mexican, community-based art project, established in 1998 by
Diego Gutiérrez.
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
collective… [I]f this process generates a situation in which individual
authorship becomes confused and overlapping; one in which collaborators
can, at some point, no longer recall in whose head a certain idea originated,
then something is gained: the capacity to recognize oneself as a merely
significant, simply specific, part of the mechanics of something greater.
(Quoted in RAIN, 2004: 23)
These comments by el despacho are particularly useful in illustrating
that communal custodianship cannot simply be understood as an
undiscriminating collective. Indeed custodianship of particular knowledge
may be entirely communal or even individual. A body of traditional
knowledge is not necessarily held by all members within a particular
community, nor accessible by all members of a particular community.
Rather, knowledge is held and accessed according to the differentiation
within that community, according to the customary laws of that particular
Although individual creativity is not stressed in individual communities, it
would be wrong to jump to the extreme and suppose that designs are subject
to a generalised communal right. Communities are internally differentiated to
quite a high degree, and their members should not be seen as interchangeable
units. On any matter, some people are likely to have rights of a certain kind,
others rights of another kind, and yet others no rights at all.
In other words, the relationship to knowledge is quite different from
that of a merely “collective” ownership, which arguably describes a
simplistic subject/object distinction in identifying “authorship.” In contrast,
the expression of “authorship” within communal contexts is perhaps more
adequately understood as “a way of validating his/her belonging to the group
than as a demand for personalized recognition.”
Knowledge is not
Maddock (1998: 9). Fleur Johns cites Eric Michaels as arguing that the simple
binary relationship of individual versus collective represents “some phony appeal to
the primitive, or to a recently manufactured tradition” (Johns, 1994: 178).
Q uoted in RAIN (2004: 24). Trama is a network of Argentinian artists, created in
2000, and based in Buenos Aires. Trama facilitates the access of those artists to the
international political sphere through expression of community, thus sustaining and
strengthening the individual’s bond with community and locality. The philosophies of
this programme are of particular interest to the way in which the present work seeks to
demonstrate the production of community locality or territory through expression and
practice of custom, knowledge, and tradition, without sentimentalising community
through physical restriction to place.
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necessarily separable and commodifiable in the ways imagined by
conventional “authorship” or “ownership” in intellectual property law.
The responsibility is therefore to the stability of tradition and the
stewardship of the Land or Territory,
as distinct from a dominion exercised
merely over the objects or products of knowledge. Understanding community
in this way facilitates not only access to rights in Indigenous and traditional
resources, but also an ecological citizenship, as it were. In other words,
biological diversity is not co-incident merely with the geo-physical area, but
rather with the topological development of different and overlapping social
and cultural spaces. Thus, communities and their social and cultural
development are essential to approximating a complete picture of global
biodiversity because that biodiversity is a social and political knowledge.
Providing effective legal and political opportunity for Indigenous and
traditional communities to pursue cultural and customary laws and
expression in a contemporary socio-political context is essential, therefore,
not only for community integrity but also for fulfilling responsibilities and
obligations to cultural and biological diversity.
Furthermore, communalism does not equate with ideologies of open
access on behalf of the “global” community. Community is as much about
concealment (that is, according to the internal differentiation of community)
as it is about sharing knowledge.
It is wholly inaccurate to suggest that
“community” or “tradition” creates communal, shared, and public knowledge
as a global resource to which there is unfettered access.
Thus, alternatives
The concept of territory necessarily develops the notion of land beyond western
concepts of real property and towards a cultural production of community space.
The importance of “concealment” is characterised by Marilyn Strathern with
respect to the ubiquitous use of the word “culture,” and thus its transformation
through discursive commodification (Strathern, 1999: 58):
Think of the recent fate of “culture,” a concept that embodies an intellectual
capacity to comprehend the world in certain ways. Over the last decade the
concept of “culture” has become a ubiquitous coin – it shoots through all sorts of
context, able to turn virtually anything into exemplifications of itself. This may
be to the irritation of the anthropologist who was once wont to produce “culture”
as a hidden illumination of his or her materials. Although the concept was
embracing (anthropological descriptions proceeded against the background of
culture), it would be foregrounded only at certain explanatory moments, as an
explicit reminder of the nature of the phenomena under study. Such revelations
are no longer possible.
See the discussion in Odek (1994); Brush (2003); and Barron (2002). See also
Dutfield (2004: 95-96). Of particular interest on this point, is the archived on-line
discussion of participants in the Free Software Foundation Online Discussion Forum:
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
within conventional intellectual property protection sought through open
source/open access models and the creative commons/free culture
movements are nevertheless inadequate models for traditional knowledge
protection. Indeed, to emphasise such alternatives in the context of traditional
knowledge protect misappropriates the interests of the debate in ways that
marginalise the genuine concerns of the communities themselves. The
protection of traditional knowledge is notably about restricting access and
regulating the exchange of cultural material according to customary law. An
application of these models betrays several assumptions regarding the
protection of traditional knowledge: that customary law is relinquished and
obsolete, fossilised and inapplicable; that the motivation for the production of
traditional knowledge is the benefit of all humankind (Dutfield, 2004: 95);
that such knowledge exists as “objects” or products for the purposes of their
location within the public domain; and the abandonment of traditional
knowledge as common objects.
This line of “global resources” reasoning fails to understand that
customary or communal use generates custodial alignments with respect to
knowledge resources, although these relationships are not necessarily
captured by conventional notions of possessive relationships to knowledge.
The significance of an emphasis upon resources, as distinct from intellectual
properties, must be understood in the context of a shift from possessory
models of identity to a recognition of the diversity of community approaches
to responsibilities to tradition and resources.
2. Resources
In identifying the intrinsic relationship between a community and its
resources, it is useful to consider the development of the term, “resources,”
within environmental studies.
An understanding of community resources is
by no means limited to this sense which, in particular, proceeds from the
perspective of use-value to society at large. Nevertheless, following its
application in environmental studies, the term “resources” introduces the idea
of exhaustibility or non-renewability.
This concept of exhaustion is
See for example the use of the term in Cutter et al (1991) and Rees (1990).
See the challenges to the notion of resources as unproblematically renewable in
Callicott (1997: 21); and Mathew (1994). This ethical, subjective approach to
resources is also part of the concept of “ecosophy” (Naess, 1990). The classification
of resources as renewable and non-renewable is problematised in environmental
philosophy and in ecocentric approaches in particular. For instance, see Myers &
Simon (1994). See also writings in “deep ecology” (Devall &Sessions, 1985). The
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particularly important when addressing the justification for restricting access
to community resources founded in tradition, dignity, and integrity,
particularly on the basis of exhaustion through inappropriate use due to
translation of meaning and transformation of the “value” in the knowledge to
the group. Therefore, rendered as “information,” knowledge becomes
paradoxically finite and exhaustible, not merely through the scarcity imposed
by intellectual property rules, but through the intrusion upon meaning and
integrity. In this way, the means by which communities access self-
expression may be compromised.
The notion of resources also draws upon senses of responsibility and
attending stewardship in environmental philosophy, towards an ethic of
environmental or ecological citizenship in relation to those resources,
well as a mutually constitutive relationship between the
individual/community and the environment.
Resources, as understood in the
current discussion, operate as the collective means and responsibility of a
particular community or group. Thus, resources are more dynamic, adaptable,
and viable than fixed and identified property interests; that is, community
resources will resist the kind of fixation that occurs with terms such as
“products” or “goods,” particularly when applied to knowledge.
Furthermore, resources materialise prior to any authorial or regulatory
intervention that is implied in a “product.” This is critical not only to the
appropriate understanding of the relationship between individual,
community, and production of objects of knowledge, but also to the
achievement of protection of cultural knowledge that inheres in the land. It is
concerns over “renewability” reflect the approach towards nature as inherently
valuable, “and not a mere resource upon which we project our interests” (Vogel
(1996: 167).
The conflicts between the economic models of “information” and cultural models
of “knowledge” are significant with respect to concerns with “freedom.” Importantly,
“resources” can indicate “knowledge” in the specific way it is used in the present
discussion, as distinct from “information” as the way in which traditional knowledge
is transformed (and the way in which the term is used) by intellectual property
systems and other international instruments.
See the papers from the conference, “Connecting Environmental Ethics, Ecological
Integrity, and Health in the New Millennium,” collected in Miller &Westra (2002).
See also Dobson (1995); Matthews (1994). See also the consideration of ecological
humanism in Hayward (1995: 53-86).
See for instance the ecological philosophy of Félix Guattari, where he develops
throughout the principle of collective subjectivity (Guattari, 2000; Guattari, 1995a;
Guattari, 1995b). See also his work with Gilles Deleuze, particularly Deleuze &
Guattari (1994). See also the discussion of similar philosophies of connectedness and
wholeness in ecofeminism in Mies &Shiva (1993).
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
the latter which leads to particular controversies, in that such resources may
embody significant and immediate commercial value (such as mineral
resources, fishing rights, and so on). Resources therefore indicate a kind of
“wealth” and citizenry or legitimacy on the part of the group. This principle
is perhaps most adequately explained in Jo Vellacott’s concept of
“resourcelessness” and the violent disenfranchisement of communities that
accompanies the loss of resources.
Resources, in this way, are recognised as
integral to the development of populations and the governance and
maintenance of community and land.
Thus, while an emphasis on resources may indirectly lead to a
potentially limiting emphasis on the land and the environment, it declares at
the same time a much broader responsibility to and by the community.
Importantly, various categories of “knowledge,” as it were, divided according
to western conceptions of ownership, taxonomy, and regulation, will instead
be grouped together as resources and managed according to the principles of
local customary laws. The actual objects or materials to be protected will be
according to the community and its integral relationship to knowledge
resources, rather than according to a process of externally defining and
regulating as information those knowledge resources deemed to be
“traditional”. In other words, then, an understanding of resources will
acknowledge the mutual and non-linear relationship of the “authorisation” of
the community through its cultural reserves, as in the origin of the meaning
and value found in those resources, and in turn the ongoing circulation, use,
and knowledge of those resources according to customary law and practice.
The object of protection, based upon the recognition of community
resources, is not necessarily the resource as an end in and of itself, but the
ability of the community to continue to function and observe internal
differentiation and communal integrity through its management and
deployment of resources. Therefore, as will be discussed, the “evolution” of
the culture beyond the physical, localised, geographical place
should not
preclude or supersede the protection imagined within a sui generis system of
obligations to the practice of community itself – whether that evolution is
understood as a cultural modernisation or physical displacement. In other
Vellacott (1982: 32). See also the discussion of the concept in Warren (1994: 179).
In the project, Indigenous Peoples and Governance Structures, Garth Nettheim,
Gary Meyers, and Donna Craig recognise the relationship between culturally
appropriate and relevant Indigenous governance structures and the management of
resources, as significant to conventional development policy through presenting
culture as bound within tangible intellectual and environmental means (Nettheim et al,
This is considered further in the discussion of “place” below.
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words, a sui generis system of community resources resists the fixing of the
“identity” of the object itself (whether that fixing occurs through the
identifiable author in traditional art, the invention in a medicinal method, the
required unbroken connection to place in Australian native title, or
Thus, a workable and relevant concept of community resources must
include the community’s ability to evolve and develop upon its resources,
rather than fixing traditional knowledge to a particular moment of authorship
or creatorship in that community’s history, or fixed to a particular identity of
owner. In this way, “additions” to the culture are also eligible for protection
as cultural and traditional knowledge – as resources – and not limited by
notions of cultural heritage and historical artifacts. Indigenous peoples and
traditional communities would therefore “be regarded as the primary
guardians and interpreters of their cultures and arts, whether created in the
past, or developed by them in the future” (WIPO/GRTKF/IC/4/3, 2002: 14).
If the use of traditional knowledge and method to render contemporary
expressions occurs as a re-affirmation of the individual’s communal
recognition and self-identification as part of that community, it may
nevertheless be traditional and will contribute to the “resources” of that
community. Therefore, contemporary “non-traditional” work may be part of
the resources (the tradition and custom of a particular community) if that
work builds upon those resources traditionally; that is, the work innovates
upon community resources according to the shared values of the community,
in a way compatible with the integrity of community and its custom. A
community-based system of protection and custodianship will accommodate
contemporary production as traditional use of knowledge, where that use is
constitutive of and contributing to the community through ongoing
communal mutual exchange and recognition. Thus, contemporary expression
will be traditional and, potentially, the community may govern the utilisation
of traditional law and custom in those works. While this will not preclude the
creation of individual intellectual property rights in that work, the exercise of
those rights may be subject to customary law and to the individual’s ongoing
recognition by the community.
The environmental resonances of community resources are critical to
the relationship between tradition, place, and culture, where resources and
community exist in a mutually constitutive relationship. It is through this
symbiotic process that political, cultural, and legal territory is restored,
despite the fracturing effects of physical dispersal and alienation from land
and from tangible resources:
The field of politics for ecological ethnicities is the community, and not
necessarily the civil society or the nation-state as one would usually suppose
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
…[T]he seeds of regeneration need the firm soil of community and culture,
vernacular technology and agriculture, collectivities and memories. (Parajuli,
2001: 574)
It is to the “firm soil of community,” and the priority of the experience
of community for the regeneration of “place,” that the discussion now turns.
3. Place
The Geography of Community
Indigenous communities and their individual members draw their identity
and form their world-view from specific historical and cultural context that
include their own beliefs, social organization, language, customs and
knowledge. As children, indigenous people develop a profound bond with
their territory of origin, whether or not they and their communities still
occupy this space (UNICEF, 2003: 2).
The assumption that community can be created by geographic
isolation is invalid. Real social groups cut across geographical barriers, and
the principal aid to social cohesion is looseness of grouping and ease of
communication rather than the rigid isolation of arbitrary sections of the total
community with impossibly difficult communications.
Broadly speaking, the value of resources and their necessary
protection is derived from systemic community practices and the preservation
of connections not simply with place but with habit and the past (the space
[de Certeau, 1988] of community). The essential problem for the organised
protection of community resources is to reconcile these principles with the
risk and individualisation attached to modern notions of development and
trade efficiency,
and the attempt to counter the risk of uncertain futures in
global resources.
The “nostalgic” construction of Indigenous and traditional interests as
vested in the continuity of connection to place and geographic community
betrays a self-conscious construction of cultural resources within the context
of the institution of western legal paradigms and the legitimated justice of
individual property interests. The requirement for connection to place is at
once already circumscribed within a discourse that “traditionalises” the
Indigene and is a requirement itself defeated by the process of modernity.
Art project of Alison and Peter Smithson, and Nigel Henderson, “Grid Prepared for
CIAM 9” (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, 1953).
See Lyotard’s discussion of the concept of development (1991).
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Furthermore, within the economics of this attachment to place, the tradition
of those not identifying with place is discredited.
This attachment to place
must be problematised as a strategy of categorisation which continues to
archive and historicise the traditional and Indigenous community,
accounting for its capacity for evolution in a contemporary context.
In departing from conceptualisations based upon place, community, as
understood here, resists determination and placement. Instead, community
experiences “locality” through the practice and interaction of culture.
Appadurai describes the construction of “locality” as distinct from political
deprivation suggested by the geographical “neighbourhood:”
“Neighbourhoods, in this usage, are situated communities characterized by
their actuality, whether spatial or virtual, and their potential for social
reproduction” (Appadurai, 1996: 179). Appadurai’s conception of locality is
particularly useful in the present context, in that it conceives of the dynamic
environment of the inter-relationships between members and their capacity as
community, rather than understanding community as the merely geographical
locus of the neighbourhood. Neighbourhood is one indexical instance of
community, but is not representative or essential for community; an example,
but not exemplary:
[Locality is] primarily relational and contextual, a phenomenological aspect of
social life, categorical rather than either scalar or spatial. Neighbourhood, on
the other hand, he defines as actually existing social forms in which locality is
realized. (Amit, 2002: 2-3)
The agency of community (as locality) is therefore not limited by
detachment from place, where place is part of a taxonomical imperative with
In the discussion of the terms “Indigenous” and “Traditional” in the Introduction,
this concern was introduced in the example of the Roma who, despite not self-
identifying as Indigenous and not being recognised as Indigenous by the United
Nations, are included as Indigenous according to other civil society organisations,
because of the unifying principle of a commitment to cultural diversity. See the CWIS
and the Indigenous Studies Virtual Library
The anxiety over the “credit” of place can be recognised in virtual and on-line
communities. Metaphors of place, space, and land remain intrinsic to the organisation
of cyberspace and virtual communities. For instance, “site,” “address,” “rooms,”
“home,” “forum,” and “visit” all clearly indicate the creation of community through
attachment to place and the production of locality within a virtual, non-terrestrial
space. See also Castells’ consideration of the geography of virtual space, in Castells
(2002), and the re-invigoration of the public sphere described in Robins (1995: 135-
The relevance of time and history is considered with respect to tradition below.
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
regard to community as form, fixed as an anthropological and cultural
artefact. Thus, despite physical displacement, place continues to figure as an
organising metaphor for the connection within communities in the experience
of “locality.” Community, rather, is a quality or sociality, and not simply a
geo-historical object. Importantly for the purposes of the present discussion,
Appadurai recognises the significance of locality as “a phenomenological
aspect of social life,” thus rejecting the “displaced” community as purely
virtual or ideological.
Furthermore, in the context of community resources, it is important to
facilitate community not as “an actualized social form” (Amit, 2002: 3), but
in terms of the commonalities that pertain to the relationships to resources,
and the urbanising of traditional groups. As distinct from place, the space (or
site of contestation) of traditional resources, is that of culture. A reduction to
place alone leads to a misappropriation and objectification of traditional
knowledge that is inevitably disenfranchising and displacing to Indigenous
and traditional groups.
Access to self-governance of traditional knowledge
according to customary law, therefore, is necessary for cultural autonomy and
thus gives place to the disenfranchised (by the law) and displaced (from
Culture is the battlefield of a new colonialism; it is the colonized of the
twentieth century. Contemporary technocracies install whole empires on it, in
the same way that European nations occupied disarmed continents in the
nineteenth century. Corporate trusts rationalize and turn the manufacture of
signifiers into a profitable enterprise. They fill the immense, disarmed, and
almost somnolent space of culture with their commodities… This economic
system… [replaces] the act of democratic representation with the reception of
standardized signifiers that destine workers to become consumers, and that
turn people into a public mass… [C]ulture appears as the field of a multiform
battle between the forces of the soft and the hard. It is the outrageous,
cancerous symptom of a society divided between the technocratization of
economic progress and the folklorization of civic expression. (De Certeau,
1994: 134)
Bauman writes, “Space, to put it in a nutshell, mattered. But now it
matters less” (Bauman, 2001b: 37). The autonomy of community must be
It is important to assert that this is not to deny the importance of physical land, but
to reject the simplification of Indigenous cultural origins to western conceptions of
real property and competition for resources. Thus, it opens up the space of
community, rather than confines it to place.
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located in the interactions.
Thus, community is organic, rather than deferred
by the physical property posited by regulatory discursive models as necessary
for its realisation, or displaced by the location in which to find its
recognition. As explained by Bauman and May:
The times have changed because information can now move apart from
physical bodies. Given this, the speed of communications is no longer held
down by the limits that are placed upon it by people and material objects. For
all practical purposes, communication is now instantaneous and so distances
do not matter because any corner of the globe can be reached at the same time.
As far as the access and the spread of information are concerned, “being
close” and “being remote” no longer have the importance they once
commanded. Internet groups do not feel geographical distance to be an
impediment to the selection of partners in a conversation. (Bauman &May,
2001: 111)
Bauman and May go on to argue that this changes the conventional
understanding of community as “a territorial or ‘local’ creation because it is
confined in a space that possesses boundaries drawn by the human capacity
to move” (Mauman &May, 2001: 111-112). What is asserted in
contemporary analyses of community is communication,
which may not
necessarily be constrained by actual territorial identities. Nevertheless, it is
necessary to reject consensus as a prerequisite for that communication.
This has some resonances with the work of psychoanalyst and philosopher Félix
Guattari on social and mental ecology (using the example of institutional
psychotherapy at the La Borde clinic; Guattari, 1995a). Guattari suggests that in an
atmosphere of shared activity, effective communication brings with it an assumption
of responsibility. He suggests that the patient’s subjectivity is not to be recalled, in a
kind of recovery, but is produced sui generis in what he describes as a process of
subjectivation and an opportunity for “recomposing their existential corporeality” (7).
Guattari writes: “We are not confronted with a subjectivity given as in-itself, but with
processes of the realisation of autonomy, or of autopoiesis” (7). See in particular
Guattari (1995a: 6-7).
For instance, see the concerns of Jü rgen Habermas, where community is constituted
by communication (Habermas, 1984; Habermas, 1987). See also Delanty (2003: 167-
185). In the current discussion, departing slightly from Habermas, community is a
prerequisite for communication, but indeed is enlivened and sustained by that
Lyotard (1984: xxv) writes, “Is legitimacy to be found in consensus obtained
through discussion as Jürgen Habermas thinks? Such consensus does violence to the
heterogeneity of language games. And invention is always born of dissension.” See
also Douzinas (2000: 138; considering similar objections in Nancy, to construction of
community on notions of consensus). This troubling of the notion of consensus has
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
considered earlier, the individual personhood achieved through the genuine
collective subjectivity of the community cannot be summarised by
assimilative consensus.
While the concept of community set forth here is based upon social
and political organisation, according to customary law, clearly this
organisation is not necessarily bound by locality (in space or in time), but is
experienced through the interactions of its members (and in particular, the
principle of recognition considered below). The community is bound by
shared customary laws and values according to which the integrity of that
community may be perceived and recognised beyond physical, intimate
space. Community creates a sense of place and shared identity through the
practice, expression, and mutual recognition of culture, and therefore culture
(and the resources for protection) will be understood both in terms of local
identity and as constitutive of that locale.
Indeed, culture and identity were treated as inseparable because people
think of culture in terms of their local identities… Community was not
simply locale… it had become the nexus of an inextricable convergence
between culture, place, intricate social relations and collective identity.
Community was thus converted into a form of “peoplehood” that was now
very deliberately and self-consciously inserted into complex societies. This
was not an isolated and self-contained form of peoplehood, but a
fundamentally relational one.
Benedict Anderson’s explanation of the departure from immediate
interaction between intimate individuals to the modern community of
communication (print, media, cyberspace) in his notion of the “imagined
is immediately relevant to the present discussion. However,
this concept of community resources invigorates the socio-political and
cultural realities of actual Indigenous and traditional groups. Thus, unlike
criticisms of the imagined community,
the notion of community resources
useful resonances with the consideration of freedom, and of freedom of expression in
particular. The notion of “freedom” may itself be problematised as an artificial
“consensus” that must presume that everyone is free in order for “freedom” to apply
without question.
Amit (2002: 5). Here Amit is referring to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined
community” (Anderson, 1983).
Anderson (1983). See in particular Anderson’s introductory definition of the
concept (5-7).
Amit (2002: 6): “This affective charge of nationality, the capacity of people to
identify with and sometimes even be willing to fight or die on behalf of strangers
crucially drew on a conception rather than actualization of solidarity. Thus,
Anderson’s work deliberately decoupled the idea of community from an actual base
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does not compromise the socio-political dimension of the groups involved,
but in fact coheres because of their participation in the public sphere, with
responsibility to the stability of ancient tradition. In considering the
anthropological movement of the study of community from one of social
organisation to one of cultural identity, Vered Amit is concerned with the
loss of key elements in what is described as an “attenuation” of community:
Community had thereby become much more than locality, for now it could be
extended to virtually any form of collective cultural consciousness. By the
same token it had also become much less, since it was no longer necessarily
an effect of the social relations and institutions. (Amit, 2002: 6)
For the concept of “community resources,” however, the legal,
political, and cultural nexus between community and its (traditional)
knowledge provides the necessary re-affirmation of the social and recovers a
sense of “place” through the cultural specificity of knowledge. This “place”
of community is otherwise “dis-placed” by intellectual property models that
attenuate community through its assimilation within the economic models of
intellectual objects: “The (mis)appropriation and exploitation of ideas,
knowledge, spiritual and healing practices, etc. is part of a continuous process
that displaces peoples and history” (Blood, 2001: 1). Community resources,
therefore, actualise the necessary process of belonging that may be fractured
through ongoing colonisation by western legal models and “impersonation”
through the appropriation and re-presentation of traditional knowledge.
This “creation” of locality or space through the practice of culture, as
it were, occurs furthermore as a kind of countering of the effects of
globalisation. The homogenisation of culture through colonising effects, to an
extent, is countered by the participation of community in the political,
economic, social, and cultural public sphere; that is, globalisation provokes a
response and indeed a responsibility to respond, as it were.
appropriation of traditional knowledge and expressions of culture is in itself a
of interaction, or to use Appadurai’s terms, posited a fundamental disjuncture between
locality and neighborhood and pushed this process backward to a historical crossroad
predating current globalization trends by several centuries.” Herzfeld argues: “He
does not ground his account in the details of everyday life – symbolism,
commensality, family and friendship – that would make it convincing for each
specific case or that might call for the recognition of the cultural specificity of each
nationalism” (1997: 6).
Arguably, this relationship is at least implied in the “balancing” rhetoric associated
with intellectual property development and indeed in the status of WIPO as a UN
specialised agency.
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
threat to that participation in that it is an effective loss of voice, a loss of the
capacity “to express their world conception through systems of values and
ethical standards” (Istanbul Declaration, 2002: para 2). Mis-use of those
systems compromises their meaning, exhausts their value, and transforms
them into meaningless commodities. Thus, mis-appropriation is an
appropriation of voice, thereby denying access to the political sphere, and
ultimately denying the freedom of Indigenous and traditional groups.
Indigenous and traditional communities, for these important reasons, must be
enabled to continue self-governance of resources according to customary law
in order to participate in an international environment, without being
assimilated or simplified within existing legal systems.
Clearly, in the same way that the community’s agency cannot be
identified through location in a particular place, it similarly cannot be situated
and archived through its definition by a moment in history, its location in
time. Community must be recognised for its responsibility to tradition, to
which the discussion now turns.
4. Tradition and History
Tradition is never simply passed on across time… [I]t is integral to the
broader process of developing a historical understanding, which is embraced
by changing temporal horizons and moves with them. That is why, when
tradition acts as the bridge between memory and imagination, meaning and
value, theory and practice, it is a bridge that is always being built. It can
never be completed for all time because time is always moving beyond that
which it seeks to bridge (Negus &Pickering, 2004: 104).
The Potential Community
Related to the concerns against “locating” community or fixing it within a
geographical locus, are the problems raised where the concept persists as a
distant, exotic past, and where protection is understood as a safeguarding,
moralising sanctuary of the “traditional” community. As Bauman explains, in
the common sense of the term: “‘Community’ is these days the last relic of
the old-time utopias of the good society; it stands for whatever has been left
of the dreams of a better life shared with better neighbours all following
better rules of cohabitation” (Bauman, 2000: 92).
In other words, “community” in this way stands for something
physical and historical but is denied effective legal and social autonomy in its
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own right. If used in this sense with respect to traditional groups, the term
“community” would merely sustain sentimental pre-conceptions and would
merely represent the geo-historical fixation of a “collective.” It could never
realise the potential of communal custodianship nor recognise the community
in a contemporary context of ongoing cultural and intellectual expression. In
effect, the “personality” and experience of the community is contained in the
relations between individuals, the recognition of tradition and of community
through the practices, custom, and values of its members, rather than the
place or historical pre-modern stability of the group. As considered below,
the “recognition” by and between members, and by and between
communities (including nations and the “international community”) is critical
to understanding the potential for community (and customary law) to act
within an international framework for protection.
This expression of self-recognition is critically and intrinsically
embodied in the responsibility to tradition, in the practices of culture and
customary law that make community literally coherent. Thus, the legitimacy
of the community inheres in its responsibility to tradition, but the expression
and narration of that tradition is evolutionary – “traditionally” speaking. This
relationship between tradition and community refuses to dismiss ancient and
traditional knowledge as apart from the narrative of progress, recognising
instead the significance of traditional development of knowledge and
Conventional notions of history, as informed by the dominant mode of
seemingly legitimate the ongoing treatment of traditional
knowledge as cultural artefact rather than integral to ongoing community
identity and development. The “history” of the community, however, comes
not from its external documentation and legitimation as an object or artefact
of history, but from the persistent and continuing narration of its tradition and
identity through its cultural production. Therefore, a community is historical
or “traditional” where the communal narration, sharing, and perpetuation of
history occur through the living community. Edward Said identifies the
significant link between access to voice and narration in the coherence of
identity, recognising the relationship between narration, identity, and the
assertion of rights over place:
Frow (1997: 8) rejects the self-conscious modernist dislocation and demotion of
ancient pre-modern knowledge in what he describes as a refusal of “the narrative of
teleology that relegates real history and the time of lived experience to a time before
representation and the mass-mediated spectacle.”
See the work of Althusser &Balibar (1970) and, in particular, Althusser (1970: 91-
118). In this essay Althusser draws connections between conventional notions of
history and the dominant mode of production.
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
[S]tories… become the method colonized people use to assert their own
identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle in imperialism
is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the
right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who
now plans its future – these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a
time decided in narrative… The power to narrate, or to block other narratives
from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and
constitutes one of the main connections between them.
Thus, it is not geography alone, nor conventional history, but
community narration that performs and generates the coherence, integrity,
and dignity of community as a living and continuing event. The legitimacy of
a community’s claim to its resources comes partly from the stability of
tradition, of story, and the importance of the relationship between community
and resources in continuing that tradition and protecting the story of the land,
of nature, and of the community. Such story is without “owners,” unable to
be personalised and privatised, but is necessarily the process by which
community is recognised. But this is not to suggest that tradition is an
obstacle to creativity, individual or otherwise, or that it is contrary to
Narration establishes the community’s locality, its “cultural
boundaries” that can be “acknowledged as ‘containing’ thresholds of
meaning that must be crossed, erased, and translated in the process of cultural
In this way, community can be recognised.
5. Recognition
[T]he success and meaning of the individual’s life depend on identifying
oneself with the group. This identification is the basis of the reciprocal
relationship between the individual and the group. It is also the ground of the
overriding emphasis on the individual’s obligation to the members of the
Said (1994: xiii). Referring primarily to ecological knowledge, Darrell Posey
describes the relationship between narration, oral literature, and the transmission of
knowledge and identity (Posey, 2004: 18, 30-31).
Note the discussion cautioning against this common misconception in Negus &
Pickering (2004: 91-114).
Bhabha (1990: 4). See also the critique of the colonising process of (historical)
narration of Indigenous and traditional stories and tradition, and the way in which the
histories and traditions of those communities are sentimentally fixed within the past,
rendering the communities without history, in Guha (2002).
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group; it enjoins upon him or her the obligation to think and act in terms of
the survival of the group as a whole. In fact one’s personal sense of
responsibility is measured in terms of responsiveness and sensitivity to the
needs and demands of the group. Since this sense of responsibility is enjoined
equally upon each member of the group – for all the members are expected to
enhance the welfare of the group as a whole – communalism maximizes the
interests of all the individual members of the society (Gyekye, 1995: 156).
Recognition by Community
A community-based system of protection and custodianship that operates
upon a “definition” of community according not to the constitution of the
group but to the values and principles of the relations as asserted from within
the community itself is therefore necessary (Little, 2002: 65). Fundamentally,
obligations are exchanged between and towards all, not conferred by the state
upon the individual in need of protection. Obligations are constitutive of
community, rather than reflexive and artificial constructions of the process of
modernisation: “A single being is a contradiction in terms. Such a being,
which would be its own foundation, origin, and intimacy, would be incapable
of Being, in every sense that the expression can have here” (Nancy, 2000:
12). Thus, being or personhood is a process understood through community,
and through mutual recognition, motivating obligations to cultural diversity
within an international “community,” as it were (Taylor, 1994: 66-74; cited
in Bhabha, 2003: 165).
Recognition of Community
Community is rendered identifiable through social and political construction
of the “traditional” and of its authenticity. Through the construction of
identity through the relationship to property, and the commodification of
traditional knowledge as information capable of being traded, the dominant
legal discourse demands markers of authenticity upon which to identify the
community. Thus, communities not co-incident with the geo-historical
portrait of tradition are at risk of being excluded, notwithstanding legitimate
claims to community resources:
[W]hen the material stakes increase, particular indigenous persons and groups
are called on to provide precise accounts of local social structures and cultural
beliefs that necessarily have a “more or less” relationship to the ideal referent
of “traditional customs and laws” and to anything actually occurring in their
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
day-to-day lives. At some “to be announced” boundary, the “less” becomes
“too little” and the special rights granted to indigenous persons give way to
the equal rights granted to all groups in the multicultural nation. (Povinelli,
2002: 57)
The legitimacy or “authenticity” of the community is staged by this process
of conventional identification, and constrained, as has been seen, by
attachments to constructions of place, history, and authenticity in order to be
recognisable within the dominant regulatory system. This process must be
problematised in order to give effect to the attainment of recognition as a
performance by a community, rather than the result of an “ideal” and
historical community to be regulated and legitimated externally. It is
necessary, therefore, to consider the way in which authenticity is “produced,”
in the context of intellectual property law and other discursive constructions
of the “authentic” Indigene.
The Obligation of Community, the Right of Identity: the Refrain of
Rather than looking for a stupefying and infantalizing consensus, it will be a
question in the future of cultivating a dissensus and the singular production of
existence. A capitalistic subjectivity is engendered through operators of all
types and sizes, and is manufactured to protect existence from any intrusion
of events that might disturb or disrupt public opinion… Capitalistic
subjectivity seeks to gain power by controlling and neutralizing the
maximum number of existential refrains (Guattari, 2000: 50).
Recalling the conventional perception of community as a nostalgic
embodiment of safety, as discussed above, it is possible to identify how the
concept has been deprived in favour of the international and individual
“identity” that is indeed the normative principle organising the rights to
intellectual property:
“Identity” owes the attention it attracts and the passions it begets to
being a surrogate of community: of that allegedly “natural home” which is no
longer available in the rapidly privatized and individualized, fast globalizing
world, and which for that reason can be safely imagined as a cosy shelter of
security and confidence, and as such hotly desired… Identity sprouts on the
graveyard of communities, but flourishes thanks to its promise to resurrect
the dead (Bauman, 2001b: 151).
Intellectual property discourse distills information from the knowledge
of community, in order that information may be commodified and exchanged
in a regular and predictable way. In translating knowledge as “information,”
Johanna Gibson
and in determining information as the “civilising” principle of a global
the forces of economic and cultural globalisation necessarily dictate
principles of disclosure and revelation (of exchange). In turn, intellectual
property laws dictate terms to developing countries and traditional groups
from outside, laws that are not necessarily relevant or meaningful to
traditional community values.
In order to access effective sui generis rights
to protect, manage, and limit its traditional knowledge within an international
system, community must be a source of identity, identifiable, recognisable. In
other words, if community is to be given legal effect then it must become the
subject of rights rather than a mere projection of historical and geographical
identity (Bauman, 2001b: 151). Community must be recognised.
“Imagining” Community Resources
Throughout this discussion, it has been considered that cultural interactions
produce “locality” and space through local interactions that give effect to the
autonomy of the particular community to which all individuals must refer.
Therefore, the international legal system in which communities are to have
capacity and authority must be a global order potentially beyond international
or interstate market contingencies to command the bargaining process, and
beyond the evasion of such order through multilateral or bilateral trade
agreements: “An effective response to globalization can only be global. And
the fate of such a global response depends on the emergence and rooting in of
a global (as distinct from “international,” or more correctly inter-state)
political arena” (Bauman, 2002: 85). An effective international (legal)
response would be one which recognises obligations to community
customary laws, rather than necessarily imposing a particular legal system
upon diverse communities of creativity and culture, and indeed laws.
Arguably, the translation of traditional knowledge (of community, and
of resources) within intellectual property frameworks decimates the
relationship between community and resources that is necessarily indicative
of “cultural knowledge,” as distinct from commercial information to be
traded by virtue of intellectual property “physicalisation” of that information.
If traditional knowledge is translated into information commodities for
consumption, then cultural obligations become assimilated within a
See the lauding of the information revolution in Rosenau (1998: 28-57).
Dutfield (2003: 195-205; see also Drahos &Braithwaite, 2002). Recall also the
earlier discussion of the application of alternative models (such as open access
models) to the protection of traditional knowledge.
Community in Resources, Tradition in Knowledge
relationship of consumption, with communities transformed into consumers.
Indeed, resistance to the recognition of customary law and to sui generis
protection for traditional knowledge relies upon its “folklorization,” upon an
artificial polarisation of information/knowledge, high culture/tradition,
art/folklore, invention/imitation, legal certainty/custom, and so on. This is
continued not only in the rendition of traditional knowledge as open, shared,
and for the benefit of all, but also in the charges of hypocrisy laid against
Indigenous and traditional groups wishing to commercialise or to license
their traditional knowledge where appropriate.
Unless Indigenous and traditional communities are given the
opportunity to assert difference as a community, rather than upon the often
simplistic basis of individual rights, the unique claim of Indigenous and
traditional communities with respect to resources cannot be realised.
Rather, such claims are assimilated from the starting-point of individual
ownership of rights, including economic rights, cultural rights, and property
rights, and national and international obligations to that community to
exercise customary management are unlikely to be resolved:
The most effective initiatives include full and meaningful participation
in decision-making processes at all levels and succeed in promoting respect
for cultural diversity and protection from discrimination. They also recognize
the close interaction among key elements in the indigenous world-view: the
physical, mental and economic well-being of indigenous peoples, their
freedom from exploitation, and their survival and development are intimately
linked to the unhindered pursuit of their culture, beliefs and spirituality, as
well as to access to their land and its resources (UNICEF, 2003: 3).
Intellectual property and other individualistic rights-based discourse,
when applied to traditional knowledge, “disguise” the output and practices of
traditional groups as uniform, discrete, pure, and as commodities. In other
words, “collective” models are models of the corporatisation of traditional
knowledge, without true realisations of community agency and the
significance of customary law. Just as knowledge is not pure, neither is the
category of community uniform, but the principles of interaction between
customary law and international obligations to cultural diversity, as suggested
by this assertion of “community resources,” may provide the coherence,
See Howard (1994) on knowledge development; Sommer et al (2004) on the
treatment of traditional knowledge as “unscientific.”
Marta Santos Pais, Director of Innocenti Research Centre, UNICEF, maintains that
solutions for various and diverse issues for Indigenous children, including access to
health, education, and so on, must take account of community as the fundamental
reference for those children, and that failing to do so will arrive at unacceptable and
potentially irrelevant solutions (see Logan, 2004).
Johanna Gibson
determinacy, and unequivocal framework necessary for the legitimacy of
effective and relevant protection for the significant knowledge and creativity
of traditional and Indigenous peoples.
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British railway towns such as Crewe and Swindon are usually seen as
very static, even insular communities where generation-upon-
generation loyally served the railway and its passengers’ needs. In
reality, both historical and oral research suggest that those who
worked on the railway often enjoyed a very high degree of
geographical mobility, the information networks afforded them by
membership of various trade union and professional organisations
allowing them to find work at home and overseas. British railway
workers of every type were members of not just national, but of
international job markets with “British” navvies constructing key
railways across the World, and engineers and locomotive drivers from
“insular” Crewe serving as far away as on the Madras Railway from
the 1860s. As a result British railway workers of every stratum were
members of “virtual global communities,” where identification with
the railway and its technologies prompted a familiarity and common
interest with fellow railway workers wherever they were. The essay
will explore the development of this international community of
railway workers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries using
contemporary records and oral interviews. It draws on published work
on the railway town of Crewe, as well as on current investigations of
British railway engineers’ involvement in constructing and equipping
overseas railways.
Today the technological and communication revolution of the internet is also
seen to have produced a revolution in contemporary society as “virtual
communities” are created across the World (Moore, undated). The
technology of the modern internet supplies the means for those with a
common (or a “community”) of interests to communicate and share –
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instantaneously. Theoretically a “global village” has been created with
geographical and time differences no longer being any barrier to
communication and, as a result creating a series of different “communities of
interest” (The Guardian, 10
October 1999). Indeed, this “community” can
be seen to be “global” in its form, globalization being defined as where:
the spatial organisation of social relations and transactions, especially in the
economic sphere, showed an increased, world-wide interaction (Held &
McGrew, 1999).
However, as the numerous cases of individuals using false identities on-line,
for all manner of reasons, prove, that this world-wide linkage via the internet
represents a real community, where “interests” were shared without rivalry
and contention, can be seriously questioned (The Guardian, 11
2000). “Communities” formed through the modern internet are rife with
rivalry and strife as “players” compete commercially, professionally and
personally. The World Wide Web provides a means by which international
personal rivalries can be conducted without the embarrassment of personal,
face-to-face contact or even hearing the voice of one’s protagonist.
The apparent unities and rivalries of such “virtual communities” on
the modern internet are not however entirely new. Similar global “social
aggregations,” where people carried on public discussions, formed personal
and professional relationships and established a network of information
around business and various labour markets were a very key feature of
nineteenth century life, especially amongst the members of the railway
engineering industry. As in the case of the internet, it was commerce and
making money that fuelled these often technologically-based international
links. Entrepreneurs, investors, and as examined here, the “railway
engineers” of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, were very active in
establishing these nineteenth century “global communities.” British “railway
engineers,” a category that included the ever-widening institutional groups of
non-professional manually skilled workers and professionally educated
engineers, gradually formed information networks that circled the globe
throughout the nineteenth century. These craft and professional information
networks formed throughout Britain, her Empire and her “informal” empire,
were fundamentally based upon the various “market” needs and interests of
the different groups of “railway engineers” but new technologies of
communication were key to establishing and supporting these international
links (Standage, 1998; Atterbury, in McKenzie, 2001:160-161; Buchanan,
This essay will explore the development of the international
communities between these two distinctive and separate groups amongst
Britain’s Railway Engineers
Britain’s railway engineers, considering how far these communities were
“virtual” by questioning their level of reliance on new communication
technologies. Another question to be explored here is how far these
communities were true “communities” or whether rivalry rather than
cooperation characterised their true nature.
Defining a “Virtual Community:” The Development of Communication
Technologies in the Nineteenth Century
Today there is no shortage of discussion, debate and definition of what
constitutes “a virtual community,” mostly forwarded by those who
themselves form part of a given virtual community and who present their
thoughts on the Web. According to Howard Rheingold, a keen advocate and
user of the Web, “Virtual Communities” are:
social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on
[…] public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form
webs of personal relationships in cyberspace (Rheingold, 1993 and 2000: 3).
Another aspect of such communities for Rheingold is that although they are
not located specifically in geographical terms (being relationships conducted
across the World), it remains that they are “grounded in [the individual’s]
everyday physical world” and that they generate a new shared culture, even a
“common group mind” (Rheingold, 1993 and 2000: introduction). In this, the
“virtual community” is very similar in form to the early sociologist Tönnies’
idea of “community,” where “community” represents a sharing of interests,
rather than a form of geographical settlement. Here community was:
a strong feeling of belonging and mutual commitment based on a
homogeneous culture, shared experiences and close interdependency [my
emphasis] (Johnson, 2000: 53).
Rheingold’s first definition would appear to immediately rule out the idea
that any “virtual community” could exist before the invention of the “net,”
Rheingold arguing that the social aggregation actually emerged from the Net.
However, others have argued that such global community relationships could
be produced by earlier or other forms of technology. For instance, both the
advantages and the problems of conducting a relationship without any face-
to-face contact through the instant communication is evident in the telephone,
a late nineteenth century technology (The Guardian, 11 March 2000). The
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same can be said of the earlier communication technology, the telegraph.
Thus, Standage, in his The Victorian Internet, argues that:
In the nineteenth century there were no televisions, aeroplanes, computers or
spacecraft; …There was, however, an internet [My emphasis]. During Queen
Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that
allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in
effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. (Standage,
1998: 1)
For Standage, that new form of communication technology was the telegraph
– invented in 1820, further developed and first used extensively with the
advent of Britain’s railways in 1837. Most of Britain’s new railway lines had
telegraph lines that ran besides the track, a telegraph system linking signal
boxes on railway lines and being key to the safe operation of trains. A similar
system was established in the USA in 1851 with Western Union establishing
itself as a telegraph/telegram communication firm the same year, while the
gradual emergence of a railway system on the European continent effected
international telegraph communication for the first time. The introduction of
Morse code (first used in 1840), facilitated the fast conveyance of complex
worded messages with skilled Morse operators being able to send and read
between 40 and 50 words per minute. Speed of communication of complex
messages was further aided in 1867 with the introduction of “Stock Tickers.”
These impressed Morse code on to continuous tickertape that could be read
off later.
The internationality of telegraph communication was further improved
in 1858 when the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, although no
cable was durable enough to provide a permanent link until 1866. Links
between Britain and the European Continent were in place by the 1850s, the
telegraph proving essential in the conduct of the Crimean War. Britain,
Europe, the USA and all points of her formal and informal Empire were
linked by telegraph during the 1870s. Indeed, there were three telegraph lines
to India alone. While the number of telegraph lines abroad was limited, the
few there were nonetheless provided an instantaneous means of international
communication. The development of speedy, instant communication was
further enhanced by the invention and introduction of the telephone. First
produced in 1877, the telephone would not become the key means of
business and personal communication until the early to mid-twentieth century
(Standage, 1998).
However there were a number of other forms of communication
technologies developed during the nineteenth century that were central to the
development of various international “virtual communities,” most especially
Britain’s Railway Engineers
those created by the “railway engineers.” Both the railway, especially the
development of the transcontinental lines in Europe and USA during the
1870s, and the steamship, the first transatlantic crossing being made in 1838,
were key to this. Such forms of communication not only permitted the fast
transportation of people, including the “railway engineers” themselves, but
also provided another type of communication that was important to the
creation of the international network between the “railway engineers,” that is
mass produced printed publications. How the “railway engineers” used these
various forms of communication technologies to generate their international
networks, or “virtual global communities” during the nineteenth century will
be explored in the following section.
Victorian Britain’s Railway Engineers: The Forming of a Global Virtual
In trying to determine whether the railway engineers of Victorian Britain
managed to form and sustain a global virtual community or not therefore the
idea of such a community can be seen to consist of a global or world-wide
community or social aggregation which shares a common group culture or
”group mind” that is facilitated by the constant circulation of information
necessary for that community’s continuance. This is made possible by
technological and bureaucratic means that afford rapid communication.
It is important at this point to note that “engineers,” and especially
“railway engineers” were a group that had only emerged during the late
nineteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The early industrialisation of
Britain had brought a huge degree of expansion to engineering. This rapid
and notable expansion of the British engineering industry, including railway
engineering, was undoubtedly a product of Britain’s place in the World.
Until the 1850s (the Great Exhibition of 1851 demonstrated some of the
advanced nature of United States and to a lesser extent German and French
industry), Britain was considered to be “the Workshop of the World.” Even
after, much of this industrial predominance continues in Britain’s formal
empire, her “informal” empire and elsewhere; all places in which British
capital investment was always sure to secure orders for the products of
British industry (even if less so in the USA and in Western Europe). This
process of British investment and direct imperial control, bringing an ever
increasing demand for British engineering products, including those for the
railway, continued apace throughout the nineteenth and into the early
twentieth century, although in the case of the railway engineering industry,
this was somewhat abated by 1914, as American and German and French
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engineering and engineers took up the challenge as their own formal and
informal empires overseas emerged. However, it should not be forgotten that
by the late nineteenth century the British Empire covered as much as a fourth
of the World’s surface, with much of that being ‘conquered’ through British
investment, and the building of railways by Britain’s engineers (Ferguson,
2003: 3).
These British “engineers” actually consisted of two quite different
groups, the skilled-craft workers who were employed in the day-to-day
manufacture of railway equipment and rolling stock, and the professional
“engineers” who acted as consultants, surveyors and planners of key railway
building projects, or who designed and were responsible for organising the
manufacture of railway items. Each developed “virtual global communities,”
for rather different reasons and in different ways.
In the first instance the “large and incoherent body of men who
regarded themselves as ‘engineers’ in the sense of being craftsmen skilled as
millwrights, stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths and other assorted trades”
began to develop as the increased mechanisation of engineering as a
production process emerged (Buchanan, 1989: 11). For instance, the number
of men engaged in craft engineering saw great increase during the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with spectacular growth leading up
to the 1850s and beyond. This expansion took place in a huge range of
sectors from shipbuilding and the construction of machine-tools and other
specialist manufacturing equipment such as textile machinery. But during the
1830s and especially the 1840s this was most marked in the railway industry.
Within the railway industry, engineering consisted of a number of different
sectors; namely those involved in the construction of steam locomotives;
carriages and wagons; track and trackside equipment including rails and
point, signalling and superstructures (such as bridges etc).
The various skilled-craft trades in railway engineering had emerged
from the earliest days of railway construction in Britain during the period
from the late 1820s to the beginning of the railway industry’s maturity during
the 1850s. While trades such as millwrights and turners had been in existence
since at least the seventeenth century, the industrialisation of the late
eighteenth and the early nineteenth century saw the emergence of a number
of other skilled crafts such as fitters, and in the steam-engine making sector,
fitter-erectors. These were the men who often served apprenticeships and
worked in the railway engineering workshops.
These various engineering trades began to receive wider recognition
from the 1780s onwards, as these different skills formed themselves into the
“craft” unions that were to characterise such men’s position in society, their
organisation and, to a great degree, their politics. Table 1 provides a list of
Britain’s Railway Engineers
the dates that these craft unions were formed throughout the engineering
industry as a whole, but the ones to take particular note of are those situated
in the railway engineering industry itself, namely the Steam-Engine Makers’
Society which was established in Manchester in 1824, and the Amalgamated
Society of Engineers (a shorter version of its full title, the Amalgamated
Society of Engineers, Machinists, Smiths, Millwrights and Patternmakers)
which came into being in 1851.
Table 1 Formation of Craft Unions in the British Engineering Industry, 1780s-
Trade Union Date Formed Location
Friendly Society of Mechanics 1780s Lancashire
Steam-Engine Makers’ Society 1824 Manchester
Friendly Society of Engineers 1833 ?
Amalgamated Society of Engineers,
Machinists, Smiths, Millwrights and
Patternmakers (A.S.E.)
1851 London
Source: Buchanan, 1989: chapter 3.
It was these craft unions, and particularly their efforts to regulate the labour
market in order to safeguard the incomes of their members, that provided the
means of generating a “virtual global community” for these skilled craft
engineers. These early trade unions had three methods of controlling the
various labour markets that determined their ability to maintain the
employment of the largest numbers of their members for the best price. Each
of these methods gradually became more and more dependent on
communication technologies that were new to the nineteenth century,
creating, in the process, a form of international virtual community for the
craft unions’ members.
First of all, these unions provided constant information on where
employment of various types was available. This was given in the form of
monthly and quarterly reports that the unions published. While it is uncertain
as to how this information was collected from across Britain and, later, the
World, the telegraph system or at least a postal system must have played
some role, especially in the case of the monthly generated reports. Another
new form of communication technology, the printed publication, was also
key. These regular reports were produced from the 1840s onwards. By the
1860s they included listings of employment opportunities overseas, with
branches of these craft unions being formed in new colonial cities such as
Sydney, as well as in the USA (New York) (Steam Engine Makers’ Union
Annual and Quarterly Reports). Such published information allowed trade
union members who found their wages depressed due to an over supply of
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skilled-craft engineers in one area to seek work in others where their abilities
were in demand. This would reduce the labour supply and therefore increase
wage levels in the location they had left.
Information published enabled members of the unions to act on further
provisions that the organisations made. During the earliest years of these craft
unions’ existence “bread, ale and board” were provided for members who
were “on tramp,” walking from one union branch to another seeking the
employment described in the unions’ periodic publications (Leeson, 1980).
By the late 1840s the unions replaced this support for members “on tramp”
with a paid subsidy of money for train fares and board and lodging
(Drummond, 1995: 21 and 121-122; and Southall, 1997). The use of railway
transportation clearly offered yet another key example of nineteenth century
communication technology to this generation of a “virtual” national and then
later a global community of craft workers.
Another form of new communication technology was also important
to them. Skilled craft engineers found it comparatively easy to travel
overseas, especially by steam ship. Many were trained as “general [craft]
engineers” and were therefore able to find passage on steam ships as marine
engineers to cities across the World. For instance, one fitter who later became
a draughtsman at the London and North Western Railway Company’s Crewe
railway workshops, Peter Taylor, was travelling from unemployment in
Glasgow to the port of Liverpool in order to join a ship’s complement
crossing the Atlantic when he was informed that work was to be found at the
World famous engineering plant in Crewe. He successfully found
employment at Crewe; exchanging a life of plenty for the long years of
unemployment he had previously experienced (Gardner, 1903).
This network of information shared between skilled craftsmen within
railway engineering was not only produced by the craft unions and their
publications. Although it is far more difficult to prove, World-wide
information networks set up by the craft unions were most probably
supplemented by further links such as those established by various British
railway companies with other overseas railways (the London and North
Western had an unwritten agreement to supply skilled railway engineers and
locomotive drivers and firemen to some of the early Indian railways for
example (Kerr, 1995)). The fact that this occurred is also indicated in the
Crewe Works Registers of the L.N.W.R. company, for example (Drummond,
1995: 123-126; National Archives, RAIL410/1972 Crewe Works Registers).
Analysis of these registers that cover the period 1875-1922 details men who
had served as apprentices at the Works returning there after gaining years of
experience at other engineering facilities. These included locations in nearby
Manchester, Lancashire, Staffordshire, the Black Country and Birmingham,
Britain’s Railway Engineers
and further a field in London and the Thames region. Men returned far less
frequently from overseas locations such as India and the USA and Canada,
but this did occur. Continuing familial links between those who had remained
at home and those who had sought their fortune abroad can also illustrate
how craft railway engineering workers formed and continued to form “virtual
global communities” during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many
skilled engineers and their families moved out of Crewe Works during the
“hungry 1930s” to find work in Canada or Australia, including my own
stepmother’s family, who moved from the Works to find work overseas
remaining in contact with their relatives in Crewe until their recent deaths.
All this obviously produced a level of “virtual global community” for these
craft engineers.
The second means that these craft unions used to control their labour
markets was to restrict the number of workers entering their particular trades
by limiting the apprenticeships available, and of training those on
apprenticeships in the customs and methods of their craft union. This was
enhanced by the final means that craftsmen used to improve their trades’
labour markets, that of codifying and enforcing strict union rules concerning
conduct and craftsmanship. Taught to apprentices as they “served their time”
these rules produced a shared culture between craftsmen that was
communicated throughout the World wherever these skilled men went. Craft
apprenticeship inculcated a “group mind” in these men, particularly during a
long harsh apprenticeship when they were young and impressionable
(apprenticeships were usually commenced when a boy was 14 years of age
and were completed seven years later when he was 21). This common and
homogeneous culture was further enhanced as generation upon generation of
men entered the engineering industry, boys often “following in father’s
footsteps” and taking up the same craft.
Similar means of generating a “global virtual community” was also
employed by the second group of “railway engineers,” the various
engineering professions. Prior to the “industrial revolution” engineers did
exist, but in effect only as military and canal engineers (Buchanan, 1989: 31).
The general engineering profession had developed from these two areas of
engineering during the latter part of the eighteenth century. As both the
engineering industry and railway engineering grew the engineering
profession took on more specialisms. “Engineering” now included the
production of manufacturing equipment, machine-tools, and in the case of
railway engineering, the production of railway rolling stock, locomotives and
equipment. As a result the emerging professions of the engineer became more
diverse, a process that continued throughout the nineteenth and into the
twentieth century (Buchanan, 1989: 11). Thus by 1911 there were some
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seven professional bodies representing different areas of “railway
engineering.” These included three professional institutions within “railway
engineering:” the Civil Engineers (Institute of Civil Engineers formed in
1818); Mechanical Engineers (1847) and the Locomotive Engineers (1911)
(Buchanan, 1989: chapter 3).
Table 2 Foundation of Professional Bodies for Engineers, Britain, 1818-1911
Institution Date of Foundation Place
Civil Engineers 1818 London
Mechanical Engineers 1847 London
Locomotive Engineers 1911 London
(Buchanan, 1989: chapter 3).
This proliferation of professional institutional bodies within “engineering”
had other causes. These were the contention between the different areas of
engineering regarding the definition of “professional practice” (Buchanan,
1989: chapter four), and the need to develop an international information
network that relayed details of contracts and employment opportunities
within each of these different areas of professional engineering. While also
defining these various railway engineering professions it also provided the
reason for them becoming “virtual global communities.”
As was observed in my commentary on the skilled-craft engineers,
these professional engineers found their services in demand overseas from
the earliest days of railway construction. Britain was arguably the instigator
of the railway and continued to have a huge influence throughout the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was assured not only by
Britain’s initial technological lead in this area (one that was being questioned
by the 1860s and 1870s), but by the fact that Britain had such a massive
“formal” Empire (where British Imperial rule was fully acknowledged), and
“informal” Empire (where the level of British investment rather than official
rule marked the nature of her power). Thus, by 1900 the British Empire
covered a quarter of the earth’s surface, and British investment in everything
was colossal, including in railways (as seen in Table 3 below).
Britain’s Railway Engineers
Table 3 Annual Interest paid on British Investment on Railways overseas,
Country/Area Income on Investment,
1905-6 in £s
- Dominion
Canada 7.6m
India 4.8m
Informal Empire
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico 13.0m
USA 27.0m
Other Areas 30.3m
Total (Paish’s estimate) 82.7m
Total (estimate from Commissioners of Britain’s
Inland Revenue)
Source: (Paish, 1909: 471).
As a result, British professional consulting civil engineers together
with those members of the professional institutions who designed and built
locomotives and other equipment led the way in taking up overseas’ railway
contracts. Their various professional institutions were also central in
developing international information networks that used new communication
technologies that were key to generating a nineteenth and early twentieth
century virtual global community for the railway engineers (Drummond,
Each of these professional bodies, almost from their foundation,
printed and published transactions, minutes and other matters. These not only
provided an arena in which different engineering methods and approaches
might be debated, as for instance in the Minutes of Proceedings of the
Institution of Civil Engineers (published from 1837); Minutes and
Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1847 onwards), but
also details of employment abroad as seen in the Transactions and Journals
of Institution of Locomotive Engineers from that society’s formation in 1911.
Some of these, either directly or indirectly, recorded where British railway
engineers of various types were at work, or, often, had been at work. In
addition to this, various commercial engineering journals such as
Engineering or The Engineer included commentary on the current state of the
labour market for each of the different branches of the profession throughout
the World.
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For instance, consideration of the Institution of Civil Engineers’
database of overseas railway contracts constructed from the organisation’s
monthly Proceedings that were published throughout the Victorian period,
not only show the existence of an international “global virtual community”
between their members, but also demonstrate the fact that these professional
engineers often maintained a close, even personal relationships as they took
up these world-wide contracts. Thus while there might well be serious
professional rivalry between certain British engineers (as seen between
Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke) not only because of the competition to
“get the job” but also because of their different engineering techniques and
approaches, other consultant engineers forwarded their pupils or “former
pupils” for overseas contracts that they themselves were too busy to
complete. Rival contracting engineers, as well as engineers and their former
pupils, often exchanged letters across continents and met at meetings of their
various Institutions when they were not abroad. This fostered a friendliness
between them even when this was based on many years of rivalry.
The generation of a “world-wide global community” between British
engineers of specific specialisms can also be seen in the pages of the journals
The Engineer and Engineering. These publications not only detailed where
work for various types of railway engineer was available (often while
asserting that the engineers produced in various overseas’ nations are not to
the calibre of those trained in Britain), but also commented when there was a
lack of employment, particularly for those young men entering the profession
(Engineering, 17
January 1890, p.150 and series of letters published
Engineering, 21
September 1900). A global community was also very
rapidly generated amongst the members of the Locomotive Engineering
Institution after its formation in 1911, its Transactions for that year through
to 1914 giving exact details of where men trained in this work might find
employment across the World. However again the Transactions lamented
that Britain’s colonies, especially India, Australia and Canada, were now
educating and training their own locomotive engineers, while an increase in
the reliance on American produced locomotives, and indeed, American
engineering in general, was perceived throughout Britain’s colonies
(Transactions of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, 1911-1914). By
this time, the same opinion was held by the two journals Engineering and The
Britain’s Railway Engineers
Obstacles to the Virtual Communities of Britain’s Railway Engineers
While there is evidence to suggest that such international “virtual”
communities were built up by both the craft and the professional engineers of
Victorian Britain, there were other factors that began to militate against this
idea. The first is that what can be seen here is a series of different often
discrete “virtual world-wide communities” with each area of the engineering
profession establishing its own international network. As already seen, these
“communities” were exceedingly delicate, being constantly broken and made
in a new form as the perception of the engineering industry and the economic
and labour market needs of its members changed and developed. This can be
seen most clearly in the case of the various professional institutions, it being
far less evident amongst the skilled craft engineering workers. As engineering
expanded and proliferated, more and more professional bodies were formed
within the industry (see table 1). In addition to this, while each professional
institution, through publications such as The Minutes of Proceedings of the
Institution of Civil Engineers, and The Minutes of Proceedings of the
Institution of Mechanical Engineers, disseminated where contracts and work
were available across the world, the same articles, with their reports of
railway construction contracts completed or orders for locomotives fulfilled,
also effectively “kept the score” of contracts lost to rival British contractors
and locomotive building firms. These Proceedings, along with articles
detailing the opening of new rail lines abroad published in Engineering and
The Engineer, proved to be constant reminders of the stark differences of
interest between British engineers, as well as their common interests in
engaging in discussing their various professions. Those same publications
also fomented debate, sometimes quite heated, regarding personal approaches
to engineering and locomotive and railway equipment production.
During this period, while Britain’s professional engineers maintained
their dominance of the international industry, especially in Britain’s Empire
(British engineers’ efforts being a firm adjunct of British Imperialism), their
sway over firstly the USA, then mainland Europe, and later elsewhere in the
World, was being seriously undermined. A number of factors led to the USA
and various European nations developing their own engineering professions,
unions and means of training craft workers. Thus by the 1840s in the case of
America, and the 1860s in Europe, most nations were “freed” from the
dominance of the British engineer. For instance, the American Society of
Civil Engineers was formed in 1852, and professional societies in mainland
Europe, notably in Germany, were formed at a similar time. As professional
societies emerged, professional training, either in firms or increasingly in the
universities of Europe and the USA, ensured that Britain no longer led the
Di Drummond
way in the training and education of future engineers. Indeed, by the late
1890s Britain was lagging behind in providing university training for its
engineers (Buchanan, 1989: 204-5).
There were a number of reasons why this happened. First of many
nations in Europe were concerned for the defence of their nation – remaining
reliant on British expertise and products was not a wise strategy when each
nation’s railway represented a key area of defence (Mitchell, 2000). The USA
(and later Canada and Australia), also argued that British railway technology
was unsuitable for their nation’s terrain and climate. This argument was made
not simply because British work was often poorly adapted to colonial
conditions, but more particularly because it was costly, requiring the huge
level of capital investment that characterised railway building in Britain
(Drummond, 2002). Another factor that was important in restricting, but
clearly by no means preventing, British craft workers going abroad was the
form of the labour market in each of these overseas nations. For instance,
engineering firms in the USA mechanised far earlier than their counterparts
in the UK. This had been prompted by America’s lack of skilled craft
engineers from its foundation, and certainly by the time that the USA began
to build her railroads (Habbakkuk, 1962). As a result, skilled craftsmen who
transferred from Britain to the USA often found themselves working in a
very different environment, and using different technology and lesser skill
levels to those to which they were accustomed in Britain.
In conclusion therefore, both the skilled-craft workers and the professional
consulting engineers of Britain can be seen to have formed themselves into
“virtual global communities” during the Victorian period. Rapid
communications supported a high-level of unionisation and
professionalisation that produced information networks that criss-crossed the
world. However, these networks were ever-changing and often quite fragile,
especially for Britain’s professional engineers. The main reason for the
construction of these early forms of “global virtual community” was, as in
the case of many such communities on the internet today, the economic
advantage that an international network of information might provide. Such
information, when it provides details of where future contracts or work might
be found to individuals and firms seeking contracts and work, naturally sets
up a rivalry between these groups and individuals; indeed, economic
competition was the very reason why these trade and professional networks
were established.
Britain’s Railway Engineers
Works Cited
Atterbury, Anthony. 2000. “Steam and Speed: Industry, Transport and
Communications.” In John M. MacKenzie. Ed. The Victorian Vision:
Inventing new Britain. London: V&A Publications.
Buchanan, R .A. 1989. The Engineers: A History of the Engineering Profession in
Britain, 1750-1914. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Drummond, Diane K. 1995. Crewe: Railway Town, Company and People, 1840-1914.
Aldershot: Scholar Press.
——— . 2002. “British Railway Engineers, 1830-1900 and the Development of
Internationality in Railway Engineering: Changing Patterns of British
Influence Overseas.” Paper presented at the International conference on the
Internationality of Railways, Luzern, Switzerland,
Ferguson, Niall. 2003. Empire: the Rise and Demise of the British World Order.
London: Allen Lane.
Gardner, A. 1903. The Autobiography of Peter Taylor. Paisley.
The Guardian. 1999. “A Billion click around the clock.” 10 October.
——— . 2000. “Can a sense of community flourish in cyberspace?” 11 March.
———. 2001. “Step-by-step create a fake ID on-line.” 12 October.
Habbakuk, J. 1962. American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century: The
Search for Labour-Saving Inventions. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Held, David and Anthony McGrew. 1999. The Oxford Companion to Politics. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Allan G. 2001. The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology: A User’s Guide to
Sociological Language. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kerr, Ian. 1995. Building the Railways of the Raj. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leeson, R. A. 1980. Travelling Brothers. London: Granada.
Mitchell, Allan. 2000. The Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German
Rivalry. Oxford: Bergahn Books.
The Monthly Reports of the Steam Engine Makers’ Society. Housed at the Bishopgate
Institute, London.
Moore, Dinty W. Undated. “The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth About
Internet Culture.”
National Archives. RAIL410/1972. Crewe Works Registers.
Paish, Sir George. 1909. “Great Britain’s Capital Investment in Other Lands.” Journal
of Royal Statistical Society. September.
Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The Virtual Community. 2
edition. Cambridge: MIT
Southall, H. R. 1997. “Personal Hardship and Labour Market Responses amongst
English Artisans, 1835-1874.” Economic and Social Council End of
Research Award Report. R000221151.
Standage, Tom. 1998. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph
and the Nineteenth Century’s Online Pioneers. London: Phoenix.
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This essay is based on a reception study I have made of four Swedish
men who all but one have World War II/Nazi Germany as their
greatest interest. Using Fiske’s concept of “shadow cultural economy”
I examine what turned out to be a form of fan community around
WWII. Two of these men are into WWII role-play and strategy games,
meeting with other “Nazi-fans” sharing the same interests and
hobbies. This means that they have been forced to consider the ethical
aspects of their hobby for being able to legitimate it both to others but
perhaps even more to themselves.
World War II is the subject not only of numerous and various kinds of films,
books etc., fact as well as fiction; it is also what you might call a hobby for
many people, and some of these are even on such a level of involvement that
one might be tempted to label them “fans.” Here I do not only refer to those
not so few (we might all know one or two if we think about it) who read all
they can find and see all kinds of films on TV, video and cinema about the
war and Nazi Germany, but to those of them who extend their interest to
cultural productivity. This is important, as most people with this “hobby”
would probably not take it further, which is the case with the persons in this
study. But who are they, and how can one describe the community that might
be found among them? To talk about a category such as “Nazi fans” seems
quite problematic, although in this case it would mean “fanatically interested
in Nazi Germany” rather than “fans of National Socialism.” There are also
other aspects that make “fans” a not very suitable label, but nevertheless I do
suggest that the metaphor of fandom can actually be useful in an analysis of
this particular group of people. A “fan” is generally considered to be
someone whose interest in a certain object (of worship, one might almost
add) is characterised both of intensity and admiration. How then, one might
ask oneself, would it be possible for anyone to be a “Nazi fan” without
Eva Kingsepp
sharing the ideological beliefs of the Neo-Nazis? In this article – which is
connected to my present work with my PhD thesis on the Nazi German Third
Reich in contemporary popular culture – I will give some possible clues, and
also try to work things out around the analytic concepts concerning this
rather puzzling community. The empirical part is partly based on my present
ethnographic work with people showing an extraordinary level of
engagement with the topic of WWII/Nazi Germany, and partly on what I
refer to as my pilot study, a previous reception analysis of four Swedish men
more or less within the same category (Kingsepp, 2001).
As one might feel quite uncomfortable with the connotations of the
word “fan” within this context (as you notice, I prefer to put it in brackets),
another term that comes to mind is subculture. What is somewhat confusing
is that if considering the characteristics of fan cultures and subcultures
respectively, as presented in academic literature, the WWII/Nazi “fans”
obviously seem to share more features with the former than the latter. The
discrepancies between them and the characteristics of subcultures are also
more obvious than in the former case. Using Fiske’s (1992) concept of
“shadow cultural economy” I examine the cultural community around WWII
as I have come to know it. There are several important questions to be asked,
first and foremost: is it possible to talk about a fan culture, or a subculture, or
something else, in this context? If so, what are the characteristics of it, and
how does it express itself? The first thing to be considered is the concept of
fan culture itself. I then go on to a brief examination of the present-day
concept of WWII/Nazi Germany in Western society, arguing that there is a
commodified form of this within popular culture and suggest that it might be
considered a popular formula. The rest of the chapter is concerned with
relating the empirical material to the theoretical concepts while in the final
discussion I suggest some guidelines that seem to be appropriate.
What is a Fan Culture?
John Fiske (1992) describes fan culture as a common feature of popular
culture in industrial societies, and continues:
It selects from the repertoire of mass-produced and mass-distributed
entertainment certain performers, narratives or genres and takes them into
the culture of a self-selected fraction of the people. They are then reworked
into an intensely pleasurable, intensely signifying popular culture that is
both similar to, yet significantly different from, the culture of more
“normal” popular audiences. Fandom is typically associated with cultural
forms that the dominant value system denigrates – pop music, romance
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
novels, comics, Hollywood mass-appeal stars (sport, probably of its appeal
to masculinity, is an exception). It is thus associated with the cultural tastes
of subordinated formations of the people, particularly with those
disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race. (30)
According to Fiske, fans often turn the usually varying degree of
semiotic productivity within popular audiences into some form of textual
production that can circulate among the fan community. This is both a way
for the fans to express their engagement and their production of meaning in
connection to the object of adoration, as well as a means to define the
community, and not least an important part of the construction of what Fiske
calls a cultural shadow economy. This is situated outside that of the cultural
industries, but still it shares more features with them than less intensive forms
of popular culture. It is possible to use this concept in the same way as
Bourdieu’s metaphor of describing culture as an economy in which capital is
invested and accumulated, thus giving its owners social advantages of
different kinds and at the same time placing them on a cultural map,
according to the amount and quality of capital in possession. It is important,
though, to remember that this position is not static but subject to change: you
yourself can move around according to how you handle the different kinds of
capital. The most desirable position is (to put it simply) where there is a lot
both of economic and cultural capital, the latter being what can be labeled
“cultural knowledge” or “cultural education”. In Bourdieu’s scheme this is
characteristic of education as well as knowledge and appreciation (and, if
there is a sufficient amount of economic capital also possession) of high arts,
literature etc., in other words a classical bourgeois ideal. The shadow cultural
economy of fandom works similarly: your current position on the map is
determined by your knowledge about the object (star, genre, film etc.) as well
as possession of related objects – albeit here it is not quality that counts, as
within the official scheme with original works of art, first print editions etc.
Although there is a higher status to authentic objects such as previous
possessions of the star, in fan culture the quantity is also important. Mass
produced objects are valuable as tokens of fandom, and often continue their
circulation, often increasing their economic value within the community.
Fiske distributes the main characteristics of fandom under three
headings: Discrimination and Distinction, Productivity and Participation, and
Capital Accumulation (1992: 34ff). These differ among themselves in
emphasis as different fans and fan communities do not exhibit all of them
equally, and one might comment that this makes it easy to label almost
whatever one wants a fan culture, as long as it is compatible with some of it. I
do, however, think that in my case it is a quite reasonable idea.
Eva Kingsepp
Discrimination and Distinction: According to Fiske, fans discriminate
fiercely, drawing sharply the boundaries between what falls within their
fandom and what does not. This also applies to the boundaries between the
community of the fans and the rest of the world (34). There are similarities to
the aesthetic discrimination of official culture, as fan culture also has its
canon and ranking into a hierarchy. The criteria seem to be essentially ones
of authenticity, validating the production of an artistic individual, and using
official cultural criteria such as complexity and subtlety. But there are also
fan culturally specific vocabularies and criteria that might seem alien to an
outsider but are used in the same way, as has been shown for example by
Bolin (1998) in his study of collectors of violent films.
Productivity and Participation: Fiske defines popular culture as produced by
the people out of the products of the cultural industries, and argues that it
therefore must be understood not in terms of reception but of productivity
(Fiske 1992:37). I do not agree entirely on this point, as I believe that the
definition is too narrow – of course, one first has to define what is meant by
the cultural industries. Also, I believe it is not entirely appropriate to those
kinds of popular cultural products that are not from the beginning
commercial on a large scale, like for example role-playing games and
strategic board games, as well as some kinds of musically based subcultures.
However, for my present topic, Fiske’s definition is suitable, as it is to a large
extent connected to the commodification of our cultural memory of WWII
and Nazi Germany.
As Fiske argues, fans are particularly productive. He divides this
productivity into three categories: semiotic (which is characteristic of popular
culture on the whole), enunciative and textual (1992: 37ff). The semiotic, of
course, consists of the production of meanings from the semiotic resources of
the cultural commodity. The enunciative can be seen as the articulation of the
semiotic: it is when the meanings made take a public form as spoken and
shared within a face-to-face or oral culture (ibid.). Fan talk is an important
basis of the fan community, both as communication, distribution and
acknowledgement of collective meanings and for creating the feeling of
belonging and togetherness. But, Fiske notices, enunciation can occur only
within immediate social relationships and exists only for its moment of
speaking. Nevertheless, within the very localized economy where it is
circulated, “the pay-offs from the investment are continuous and immediate”
(39). The third category of productivity is the textual. Fans produce and
circulate within the community texts which, as Fiske says, “are often crafted
with production values as high as any in the official culture” (ibid.). He finds
the key differences in the economic: fan texts are not made for money; rather,
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
the fans often lose money on their production. Also, these texts are not mass-
marketed as they are not intended to have a circulation outside the fan
community. An example of fan texts that has become quite well-known is fan
fiction, where the fans write their own sequences or stories out of the basic
material provided by for example popular TV series like Star Trek or the
adoration of pop or film stars. Another type of textual productivity is that
when fans participate in for example cult films in a communal and public
way – singing along, dressed up like the actors in Sound of Music or shouting
and in other ways partaking in the showing of The Rocky Horror Picture
Show. As Fiske concludes, fan texts “have to be open, to contain gaps,
irresolutions, contradictions, which both allow and invite fan productivity,” a
quality for which he uses the term “producerly” (1992: 42), and continues:
They are insufficient texts that are inadequate to their cultural function of
circulating meanings and pleasure until they are worked upon and activated by
the fans, who by such activity produce their own popular cultural capital.
Capital Accumulation in fan culture shares many features of official culture.
Accordingly, the accumulation of knowledge is fundamental to the
accumulation of cultural capital. Fan knowledge is a tool of social distinction
as it helps to distinguish those who possess it from those who do not, those
who belong to the community from those who are outside. Those who have
accumulated the most knowledge, the experts, are highest in prestige within
the community and act as opinion leaders (Fiske, 1992: 43). Also, within
both spheres this accumulation is signaled materially by collections of
objects, although fan culture – as mentioned – has emphasis on quantity.
Quality is, as in official culture, nevertheless highly valued. Fiske is in my
view inaccurate in his view that the accumulation of unique and authentic
objects within fan culture is restricted to fans with high economic capital.
Although of course money is a reliable means for collecting prestigious
objects, there are other factors that may just as well lie behind the possession
of such treasures, such as greater age (fans are not only teenagers),
acquaintance with ex-fans (for whom the relics have lost their value) and/or
personal connections to the production sphere or to the object of fandom
One important difference between fan culture and official culture is
found in the relation to the text, as fan cultural knowledge is often used “to
enhance the fan’s power over, and participation in, the original, industrial
text” (ibid.). This is one of the mechanisms behind the production of fan
texts. While in official culture information about the artist is used to enrich
the connoisseur’s appreciation of the work, this is in fan culture a source of
Eva Kingsepp
knowledge of production processes normally hidden behind the text, which
diminishes the distance between the text and everyday life, or between star
and fan. The fan “knows why” certain things in the text happen the way they
do, or how certain things in the star’s personal life may have influence on
him/her performance. In Fiske’s view, “the popular habitus makes such
knowledge functional and potentially empowering in the everyday life of the
fan” (ibid.).
WWII/Nazi Germany in Contemporary Culture
First of all, there is one thing that has to be made clear, and that is the status
of the presumed object of fandom. What is the status of WWII/Nazi Germany
in the context of contemporary Western culture? This is not easy, the
object(s) in question consisting of a mixture of academic and public history
(cf. Jordanova 2000), of fact and fiction, collective memory and myth. Of
course (and this is very important to bear in mind), there is not one answer
but many, depending on cultural context. For my present purpose it seems
fruitful to select the following notions:
• A historical, well-known narrative with obvious mythical qualities
(Good vs. Evil, apocalyptic settings etc.).
• The existence of a popular cultural market in which this narrative is
turned into a variety of mass-produced and mass-distributed
• A number of highly interested consumers, among which a group can
be found with a pattern of consumption being very similar to that of
Needless to say, these quite obvious qualities are co-existing with
contradictory other. But still, they are prominent enough to suggest the
existence of a specific popular culture type of WWII/Nazi Germany
conception, side by side with other cultural types. So, in this respect it may
be placed within the field of popular culture. But as what? A suggestion is
that it might be seen as a popular formula. Cawelti (1976: 6-7) defines
formula as “a combination or synthesis of a number of specific cultural
conventions with a more universal story or archetype” and finds the concept
of a formula “useful primarily as a means of making historical and cultural
inferences about the collective fantasies shared by large groups of people and
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
of identifying differences in these fantasies from one culture to another.”
Cawelti elaborates further on the difference between formula and genre; I
will however not go into that here, as it seems like his concept of formula
might be suitable in my case. The story about Nazi Germany and WWII as
shown for example in TV documentaries share many structural features with
popular fiction, including a formulaic character (Kingsepp, 2001). Of course,
this can be said also of popular fiction on the same topic. But this popular
formula, if it can be considered such, is indeed very wide and very
heterogeneous, containing both fact and fiction as well as taking form in
different media: film, literature, comic books, art work, theatre, advertising,
games... Accordingly, it is the content, not the form that distinguishes this
presumed popular formula called WWII/Nazi Germany.
A Nazi “Fan” Culture or Subculture ?
It seems to me that quite often those who are excessively interested in WWII
are also to the same extent interested in Nazi Germany, and that there are
people whose interest in the latter is primary to their interest in the former –
the reason why I in this article have chosen the temporary concept “Nazi
fans” instead of “WWII fans”. But is it possible to put WWII/Nazi Germany,
even if considered a popular formula (or maybe a genre), in the same position
as, for example, a film or a rock star? Bolin (1998) is reluctant to label the
people in his study of violent video film collectors as fans, opposing Fiske by
arguing that it is not possible to be a fan of a genre. The process-like
character of a genre, Bolin says, makes it too imprecise to function as an
analytic tool (1992: 31). He also sees important differences between for
example Star Trek fans and his film aficionados, such as of gender (most
“trekkies” are female) and gender-relative focus of interest – male “trekkies”
tend to be more interested in technical aspects while the female are into
contents and meaning (ibid., referring to Jenkins). Also, there are important
differences in organisation: traditional fans like the “trekkies” are often
organised in associations and other types of networks, while the collectors of
violent video films are not – their network is much looser and less formal,
although sharing a clear hierarchy ranging from one could call the “fan”
(connoting a more mainstream aspect) to the “connoisseur” (ibid.). Bolin’s
opinion is of great importance for my own material, as there are many
similarities between the objects of his study and mine: an excessive interest
in violent video films or in WWII/Nazi Germany can supposedly be
considered equally alien by many people. Also, there are obvious
consistencies in aspects of gender, focus of interest and mode of organisation.
Eva Kingsepp
However, Bolin does not suggest another concept to replace that of fans; he
instead uses the contextually limited “film swoppers.” Despite these very
relevant objections I still believe that the concept of fandom can be useful in
investigating the characteristics of the culture of WWII/Nazi Germany
commodities consumption. I would say that the similarities as well as the
differences do suggest something fan-like, and that the concept of fandom
therefore can be useful as a starting point.
So why talk about a WWII/Nazi fan culture, then? The term
subculture might seem more appropriate, especially considering that one of
the few things that seems to be shared by everyone, regardless of political
sympathies, within this otherwise quite disparate community is a
predominant notion of opposition – in this case, to what is conceived as
society’s dominant values concerning WWII/Nazi Germany. Nevertheless,
although there are – as I soon will show – traits that are considered to be
typical for subcultures (cf. Hebdige, 1979; Muggleton, 2000) I still hesitate to
use that concept, as it is traditionally connected to more closely defined and
homogenous communities and especially to overtly signifying practices
connected to style – features that are absent within the culture under study. I
will now briefly discuss the subcultural main features, community, style and
opposition, in relation to the “Nazi fans,” showing why I find the concept
subculture defective.
The very concept of such a thing as a “Nazi fan community” might be
challenged. However, I propose that there is one, referring to the following
• A high level of a shared interest which to a large extent leads to
similar patterns of media consumption.
• The identification with “those who think critically” about WWII/Nazi
Germany (as well as other topics), arrive at a standpoint that is
contrary to what is considered to be the officially sanctioned.
• What seems to be a joint experience of varying degrees of
stigmatisation because of their interest and/or their view on history.
Nevertheless, there does not seem to be anything like an imagined
community in Benedict Anderson’s (1991) often cited terms. It is true that
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
most of these people will never meet or hear about each other, and equally
true that there is a strong identification with “thinking people like myself,”
which following Anderson’s definition are circumstances that create a mutual
feeling of fellowship. But except for some more specific sub-areas such as
gamers and militaria collectors focusing on WWII (and of course the Neo-
Nazi groupings) it seems like the “fandom” in this case is dependent on
individual interest and fascination, and stays on that level rather than
expanding further into belonging to a certain social context. Thus, we are
faced with the paradox of a community without a wish for communion.
A “Nazi fan” does not show his (it is often a he, although I have met a couple
of females as well) interest publicly through style; rather, if it is exposed at
all, this is done at home. One of my interviewees used the expression
“unofficial bookshelves” for where he and his friends keep their literature on
WWII/Nazi Germany. A woman I met at a party once who turned out to be a
“Nazi fan” told me that she and her husband keep all their WWII books and
video films up in an attic room, as people who visit them otherwise might
believe that they were Nazis. The closest I have come to signifiers of style
among the Nazi enthusiasts I have encountered is jewelry. A Maltese Cross
pendant might be worn as addressing an Iron Cross,
and a SS Totenkopf
skull with crossbones might signify that its bearer has a deep interest in the
symbol’s original context – or they may also be subcultural adornments of an
entirely different kind, namely musical styles that enjoy being associated to
rebellion like heavy metal, punk (or the less well-known neo folk).
Subcultural bricolage with symbols connoting Nazi Germany has been
described by Hebdige within the context of punk rock (1979: 116-117) but is
also interesting in a wider context considering the different arenas in which
this kind of symbols occur and the fluidity of the meanings; this is however a
topic that I have to leave out for now.
There is, as I have mentioned, an element of opposition (or at least a
negotiated reading, to use Hall’s [1993] terminology) articulated against
Although this is of course not originally a Nazi medal it has to a large extent
received such connotations.
Eva Kingsepp
society and the media system, which are felt to be expressing a dominant
opinion (“the official truth”) and not tolerating any challenge to this.
Especially media are scorned for delivering stereotyped and simplified views
on this topic, and (it is said) “ordinary” people who don’t reflect on what they
are told believe that this is the historical truth. Here is an important
distinction between “us” and “them:” “we” are those who think, reflect and
are interested in such things as truth, while “they” are all the others who are
content with simple solutions implemented from above. But “we” are in this
case in a subordinated position, as “our” view does not fit into the rest of
society. This is often expressed in a wider context of anti-commercialism and
discontent with today’s society and global politics. But, to use Zygmunt
Bauman’s (1997: 72-79) terminology, it is important to remember that most
of the people in my study would not consider themselves pariahs in relation
to society but rather a sort of parvenus, “someone already in, but not quite of,
the place /…/ Someone reminding the older tenants of the past which they
want to forget and the future they would rather wish away” (72). And it is
perhaps even more important that that which gives them the quality of
parvenus is the faculty of critical reason, which inexorably separates them
not only from the mass of unreflecting “ordinary people” but also from the
equally unreflecting Neo-Nazis, who are considered to have bought a “simple
truth” but of another kind. This points at the important function of
discrimination and distinction within the community: who is “one of us” and
who is not, or who is even “one of them” (that is, the Neo-Nazis), has to be
defined, the result determining the level of communication. This is often, I
would suggest, done by checking the level of the relevant cultural capital. If
you have the right knowledge and know the cultural codes, you are “in.”
Neo-Nazis are, I would say, not welcome, as they seem to be considered
stupid and violent – qualities that are not in high esteem within the
community. What about the intelligent Neo-Nazis then, one may ask? It
seems to me like Nazi enthusiasts would be interested in discussing their
favorite subject also with people who are ideologically into National
Socialism, as long as it is done seriously. But as believing in “simple truths”
is, as we have seen, something that for Nazi enthusiasts connotes stupidity,
even an intelligent Neo-Nazi would (according my impressions) be
considered stupid when it comes to ideology.
So, the element of opposition that is also considered to be
characteristic for subcultures (Fornäs et. al., 1984; Hebdige, 1979; cf.
Muggleton, 2000) does suggest at least a degree of similar ideological
awareness among its participants. This might in this case be considered a bit
disturbing due to the rather obvious parallels to rhetoric used among Neo-
Nazis and other similar movements, as shown by Swedish researcher Hélène
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
Lööw (who accordingly uses the term subculture, but also the concept
underground culture, although without defining any of them closer) (Lööw,
1995; 1998). However, I believe it is important to stress the differences
between the culture studied by Lööw and that of my own enthusiasts. To
believe that everyone who expresses critical thoughts about the media
representation of WWII is therefore sympathetic towards National Socialism
would be both very misleading and, I must say, rather absurd, as a study of a
sample of such representations does give some support for their opinion (cf.
for example Kingsepp, 2001).
Differentiation Within the Culture
The “Nazi fan culture” is quite heterogenous and also contains different
degrees of engagement. Not all are as interested in questions of history and
truth as some of the people I have met. It seems that most of them – if not the
main proportion – have begun to develop their interest at a rather young age
when playing WWII with toy soldiers (and today, I would suggest, with
computer and video games). There is a commonly expressed notion of the
view as a child of the German soldiers as being something special, both from
an aesthetic point of view (cool uniforms with eagles and stuff) and from a
notion of horrific attraction: they are the bad guys. But from this not so
improbable starting point there are different ways of continuing. One
important division seems to be that of focus of interest, for example spatial
location (global, national, Germany and/or own country etc.) and temporal
(the whole war, [a] certain part[s] of it, the post-war period as well). You
might prefer the military aspects, or the political, ideological, philosophical,
aesthetic; you might be interested in everyday life (of the leaders and other
prominent persons, the soldiers, the civilians) or in the more spectacular
aspects such as Nazi occultism and/or conspiracy theories. And, of course,
there is also the Holocaust. The list of possible topics could go on; I would
guess that this wide field is one of the reasons why the concept of Nazi
Germany has become so easily exploited on the commercial market.
As Fiske mentions, fan culture is not a homogenous label but can
contain different degrees of fandom and fan practices. The intense interest in
WWII/Nazi Germany showed by my interviewees (and also other Nazi
enthusiasts that I have met) shares significant basic features with fandom,
while there are important features within subcultures that are not present (see
above). Like fandom, it contains intense pleasure and signification as well as
elements of social distinction. It is situated outside officially sanctioned
culture, showing several of the characteristics of a “shadow cultural
Eva Kingsepp
economy.” The structure of this is the same as in the Bourdieu-based
metaphor used by Fiske as well as Bolin, where the amount of cultural capital
in the form of knowledge and material objects defines your position within
the hierarchy. Knowledge is of course knowledge about WWII and Nazi
Germany. One would say that it surely is possible to share the same interest
as the Nazi enthusiasts but inside official culture, since the topic constitutes a
field of academic studies that has the characteristics of an official cultural
field (see for example Bourdieu, 1979). This is a point which makes the
“Nazi fan” culture quite problematic in relation to Bourdieu’s theories. There
are of course in this case realistic possibilities of exchanging your shadow
cultural capital into official cultural capital if pursuing an academic career.
This is something normally not possible, as the capital of fan culture is
generally worthless within official culture (except, for example, if one would
write a PhD thesis on for example Star Trek fan culture). But the nature and
thus the value of the knowledge differs between the two economies. Within
“Nazi fan” culture any knowledge seems to be valuable, from academic to
revisionist writings, memories of former SS officers as well as memories of
old personal relatives. There is, though, an ongoing process of distinction
where new knowledge is measured against former and the sources evaluated.
Thus, there is a hierarchy of knowledge within the culture, where the
academic has the highest value, followed by personal recollections from what
are considered to be unbiased sources. Authenticity is important, as is
objectivity: for example, the memories of an SS officer as well as writings by
controversial historian David Irving are, I suggest, normally read with some
suspicion, possibly being prone to bias. But also official works that seem to
be biased in the other direction are dismissed. What is considered as
propaganda fills an important function, not at least socially, as a source and
target of irony and jokes. Watching propagandistic films (either authentic
Nazi or Allied propaganda or “official” post-war documentaries) with friends
seems to be something especially amusing, like watching b-movies: “Look at
that – it’s soo baaad!!” And “bad” can signify either factual errors or overtly
propagandistic means as well as the use of well-known stereotypes etc.
Interest in Nazi Germany seems to have a counterpart in interest in the
Stalinist Soviet Union, from which follows that knowledge about this is also
in high esteem. And as knowledge does not only concern factual history but
also items within popular fiction such as films, novels etc., there are plenty of
associations to be made in all directions within the WWII/Nazi formula.
Material objects are in this case everything that has to do with
WWII/Nazi Germany and, it seems, partly also the Soviet Union. It seems as
though Germany and the Soviet Union are more interesting in this respect
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
than other countries, but that is outside the remit of my material.
(It might be
supported, though, by considering what is found in the popular WWII
market: most films, books and games are about these two countries, while for
example Japan and even the Western Allied are less well represented. Of
course, I am now speaking from a Swedish perspective.) “Nazi fans” are
collectors: they have books, films, military objects and other items that are
either authentic or replicas, like medals and other insignia. Depending on the
“fan’s” direction of interest, there might also be items of clothing, money,
stamps and other memorabilia. All these things are usually bought either
from ordinary stores, specialised militaria dealers, flea markets in Eastern
Europe or through the Internet. Films can also be recorded from TV or copied
from friends. At Lund University Library in Sweden there is a recently
gathered “Nazi collection” originating from a deceased Swedish police
officer, which I have had the opportunity to look through. According to one
of the researchers that had been choosing items for this collection, the man
did not only fill his home with Nazi related items but also anything connected
to Stalin, Pol Pot and the like. I would suggest that the contents of that
collection is in many ways similar to that of the average “Nazi fan,” perhaps
even less provocative with regard to the literature.
“Nazi Fan” Productivity
Finally, I will briefly go into Fiske’s three concepts of fan productivity: the
semiotic, the enunciative and the textual. The semiotic is of course about the
production of meaning, something that quite obviously is an important part of
any activity that means something to you – I will leave it, as it is not very
important for this article and I have been working extensively on it elsewhere
(see for example Kingsepp, 2001; 2003). The enunciative is the level of fan
talk, of face-to-face communication within the culture. I have already
mentioned the importance of this in defining who is and who is not “one of
us.” In my pilot study there are some examples of this: the youngest of the
four interviewees tells me a funny story about how he and his friends in class
had burst out in laughter when they discovered a part in the text book on
German language featuring a refugee living in a barrack in Nuremberg. It
would not have been as funny, he said, if it had been in any other book – but
the combination of German lesson, refugee, barrack and Nuremberg made a
I have not mentioned this expansion to the east under the rubric Knowledge, since
knowledge about the Soviet Union does not seem as full as that about Germany –
which of course may have its natural reasons, as there has not been the same amount
of sources.
Eva Kingsepp
“comic” synthesis for those who understood. “Bad Nazi jokes” is something
that seems common within Nazi fan culture, regardless of level. This is a
feature that is not confined only to this context, but that may possibly flourish
more there than in ordinary surroundings. I also noticed a kind of humoristic
familiarity, close to mockery, especially with some of the German leaders.
Accordingly, Hitler is frequently called “Adolf,” and for example in
commenting on the documentaries we watched together exclamations like
“now Adolf is flying,” “look how bizarre Adolf looks here!” were common.
Also, laughing occurred for example when Himmler in one scene wore an
ugly cap and when Goebbels was especially pretentious in his homage to
Hitler (Kingsepp, 2001). This kind of familiarity also offers the possibilities
of a secluded way of communication that can be used also when other people
are present without them catching the point. For example, mentioning hen
and chicken may serve as a hint about Himmler (who used to be a poultry
breeder), as well as an “aviator hero” leads the thoughts to Göring, a
decorated WWI pilot. The signification of this semiotic activity lies, I would
suggest, in accentuating and verifying the common “secret” interest, and in
the same time it might also be an act of opposition (and thereby presumably
getting a laugh) by the “invisible” insertion of officially rejected persons into
a seemingly ordinary conversation.
The Textual Production – Two Examples
Texts made by Nazi enthusiasts are circulated within the community,
although they take different forms. Here, the Internet is a major resource, not
the least as it to a large extent offers the authors anonymity. WWII gaming is
an interest that seems to give rich opportunities of playing with both words
and images. One of my interviewees in the pilot study is a member of a small
circle into role-playing Germans during WWII, an activity that had been
ongoing for some 15 years with different persons as members, although today
there is a core of veterans. They themselves write the scenarios that they role-
play, which has lead to some serious reflections among the members about
ethics and what is possible to role-play and what is not. For example, it is not
considered suitable to role-play a SS Strafgruppe or a KZKommandant (even
though this has been explored in the earlier years). This interviewee told me
that this engagement has led him to seriously reflect on what he is doing,
which has resulted in him being less ashamed of his interest than he was
before – he has, so to say, taken a stand against what he finds negative within
Nazi Germany and separated this from that which he finds fascinating, which
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
is mainly the historical narrative.
Having German relatives “who are no
monsters,” he (as many others, even without personal connections) is highly
interested in how things could happen, the rise of National Socialism, the
Fuehrer cult and so on. I would suggest that through his role-playing
activities he makes practical use of the knowledge accumulated in some kind
of ongoing personal development project. There have been people close to
the Nazi skinhead subculture who have at times been affiliated to the group,
but they have disappeared as they learned that the activities were not of their
own preferences.
Some of my interviewees, in the pilot study as well as in the present
project, are into WWII strategy games played on table top board or on
computer. For these persons authenticity is extremely important, which in
their definition is the same as historical accuracy. Their knowledge about
military equipment and military operations during WWII is very impressive
to an outsider like me, especially considering one of them having no higher
education than comprehensive school. Discussing, or even better watching
documentaries (or fiction films) on WWII with these people is a somewhat
overwhelming experience, as they can – and do – correct mistakes in for
example the combination of commentary and footage when the pictures show
a type of weapon that was not in use in the part of the front in question, or did
not come into production until a month later. They also correct faults in the
commentary, comment on weak points and can give background information
that is not provided in the films, etc. One of them is not only a gamer but is
also involved in constructing commercially sold campaigns for one of the
most well-reputed strategy board games. Doing so he is performing careful
amateur research, as it is important for him (and a source of great pride) to
get all the historical and military details accurate.
Concluding Discussion
In this essay I have presented some of the characteristics of the cultural
community around a number of what I for analytic reasons have called “Nazi
fans.” These have been discussed in relation to the concepts of fandom
Interestingly enough, the fourth interviewee in the pilot study has seemingly gone
through similar reflections on his own, although arriving at the conclusion that Hitler
actually had good intentions but was manipulated by evil people in his surroundings,
such as Himmler and Goebbels. Therefore he has no problems in adoring Hitler and at
the same time condemning the persecution of the Jews, gypsies and others (cf. Eberan,
2002 on different post-war German strategies of dealing with the Nazi past).
Eva Kingsepp
(based on Fiske) and subculture (based on Fornäs et al., Hebdige, and
Muggleton), showing that is seems more accurate to analyse these “more than
ordinarily enthusiastic” Nazi enthusiasts as a fan culture than as a subculture,
the primary characteristics of the latter being almost completely absent in this
I have also briefly outlined the internal structure based on Fiske’s
(based on Bourdieu) concept of a shadow cultural community, as well as
some of the possible attitudes to adapt within the quite heterogeneous Nazi
enthusiast culture. As I hope has been quite clear, the two most important
features within the subcategory that show likenesses to fan cultures are
distinction and capital accumulation, where distinction is most important and
takes place both towards the outside and within the community itself.
Defining what is acceptable and what is not seems to be a significant issue. It
is for example not considered acceptable to role-play the SS or indulge in
KZ-scenarios – as long as it is not done in the context of joking, which seems
to be an area where you can do almost anything. Also, it is not considered
favorable to be intellectually prone to “simple solutions,” which in the view
of the “Nazi fans” is what makes both dominant society as well as Neo-Nazi
values unacceptable. This two-front opposition leaves themselves in the
secluded space of “people who think critically and reflect,” which seems to
form an important part in their identity. But there is also an element of
interpretation that seems to be in common, almost regardless to whom you
speak within the broader scope of Nazi enthusiasts, namely a negotiated or
even oppositional reading of most mainstream media texts on WWII/Nazi
Germany. Thus, a suggestion might be to consider this as an interpretive
I hope I have shown that there are qualities within certain parts of the
Nazi enthusiast context that are parallel to those in Fiske’s characteristics of
fan culture, and that these similarities would make it possible to use the
concept of a “Nazi fan culture,” although a better sounding term is needed. I
also suggest it possible to integrate Bolin’s critical ideas into the model of a
fan culture, considering the different levels in fandom which may be said to
start in the fan and end in the connoisseur. Finally, considering those of the
“Nazi fans” in my study who are involved in gaming activities I would
suggest that the threat of Neo-Nazism is in fact avoided by their putting their
interest and knowledge into practice within a non-political frame, where
instead history and the element of play are central. This is similar to for
example the notion that watching films with criminal and/or violent action
permits the viewer to participate in the non-acceptable behaviour in a safe
I am most grateful to Prof. Johan Fornä s for making this suggestion.
The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics”
way (cf. Cawelti, 1976: 14ff). Gaming activities on WWII seem to provide an
important liminal space where it is possible to explore otherwise condemned
but still partly attractive aspects of human life.
Works Cited
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Den föreställda gemenskapen. Reflexioner kring
nationalismens ursprung och spridning (Imagined Communities. Reflections
on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised and extended 2nd ed.).
Göteborg: Daidalos.
Bauman, Z ygmunt. 1997. “Parvenu and Pariah: the Heroes and Victims of
Modernity.” In Postmodernity and its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bolin, Göran. 1998. Filmbytare. Om videovåld och unga män. Smedjebacken: Boréa.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. “Distinktionen. En social kritik av omdömet.” In D. Broady
and M. Palme. Eds. 1993. Kultursociologiska texter. Stockholm/Stehag:
Cawelti, John G. 1997. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Formula Stories as Art
and Popular Culture. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago
Eberan, Barbro. 2002. Vi är inte färdiga med Hitler på länge än. Stockholm/Stehag:
Fiske, John. 1992. “The Cultural Economy of Fandom.” In Lisa A Lewis. Ed. Adoring
Audiences: Fan Culture and Popular Media. London &New York:
Fornäs, Johan, Ulf Lindberg and Ove Sernhede. 1984. “Normlös, offer, narcissistisk?
Ungdomsbilder.” In Fornä s, Lindberg, Sernhede. Eds. Ungdomskultur:
Identitet och motstånd. Stockholm: Akademilitteratur.
Hall, Stuart. 1993. “Encoding, Decoding.” In Simon During. Ed. 2001. The Cultural
Studies Reader. 2nd edn. London and New York: Routledge.
Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture. The Meaning of Style. London &New York:
Kingsepp, Eva. 2001. “Man sitter ju inte där och frossar i Nazism.” MA Thesis.
JMK/Stockholm University.
——— . 2003. “On German-ness in World War II Digital Games: From Bad Guys to
Brothers-In-Arms.” Paper presented at Den okände grannen.
Tysklandsrelaterad forskning i Sverige. 20-22 November. Centrum för
Tysklandsstudier, Södertörns Högskola.
Lööw, Hélène. 1995. “Wir sind wieder da!” Ungdomar i den rasistiska
undergroundrörelsen.” In M. Chaib. Ed. Strömmar i tiden. Ungdomars
livsvillkor i en föränderlig värld. Göteborg: Daidalos.
Eva Kingsepp
———. 1998. Nazismen i Sverige 1980-1997. Den rasistiska undergroundrörelsen:
musiken, myterna, riterna. Stockholm: Ordfront.
Muggleton. David. 2000. Inside Subculture. The Postmodern Meaning of Style.
Oxford and New York: Berg.
Due to our contemporary commitment to the humanist notion of the
subject, when we say community what we mean is characterized by
Alphonso Lingis’ notion of the rational community in The Community
of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. This notion overlaps with
the idea of a social contract, summed up by Linnell Secomb as the
model of community where “we understand ourselves to be rational,
coherent, autonomous subjects who freely come together to pursue
common interests including pursuing legal and civil recognition, [and]
constructing a common culture.” I wish to examine the validity of this
notion of community by looking at the difference between cults and
Raphael Aron, author of Cults: Too Good to be True clearly
believes in our ability to make independent, rational, coherent and
informed choices to join communities. According to Aron, cults are
types of communities which “are destructive because of the level of
control they wield over their following. Whereas most social systems
and families involve various degrees of control and subservience to
authority, cults cross a critical line, creating an unnatural community
which ultimately involves the loss of members’ freedom and
independence.” This essay shows that while we expect cults to be self-
transparent, unambiguous and knowable, we do not necessarily
presume the same when we discuss society more generally. The
implications of blurring of the line between “bad” communities and
“good” communities for the humanist idea of community are far-
reaching, and point to the need for a new understanding of
community, cults, and the relation between them.
The planet is seeded with groups of people who are trying to live according to
the rules of their own making, who are using the bits of civilization that
appeal to them and inventing the rest. Such people usually come to the
Jackie McMillan
attention of the world only when they self-destruct in some way – like at
Jonestown or Waco. (Bird, 1998: 9)
Whilst literature on cults does not explicitly deal with the crisis of
community, it none the less can give us some insights into contemporary
notions of subjectivity, identity and being-together. It should be pointed out
from the start that this essay does not seek to hold up cults as an ideal form of
community, or even a form of community not in crisis (that is, as a type of
being-together that works). Perhaps, though, my hesitation at raising the
status of cults hinges more upon the issue that, if they do work, it is because
they are better at effacing difference than other types of communities, rather
than any notion of cults being inherently “bad” types of communities. In
other words, I find it difficult to accept the view that cults are “bad” precisely
because the criterion by which we judge them show us to be relying upon an
understanding of subjectivity and sociality that postmodernism has
However if one examines cults with respect to the insights about
community elucidated by theorists like Alphonso Lingis, Iris Marion Young
and Linnell Secomb, they exhibit many of the same types of problems as
other, less controversial, communities. Problems that seem so inherent to the
notion of community that they prompted Michael Strysick (2002) to remark
that: “Overwhelmingly, current critical discourse on community has preferred
to look with indignation on the topic. The reason is clear: our failed attempts
at community are abundant in our individual, national, and collectively
human endeavors” (vii).
This essay is divided into three sections. In the first section I will talk
about post-structuralism and community, drawing upon the work of Linnell
Secomb and Alphonso Lingis. I will also outline my own notion, that what is
interesting about cults is their disruptive potential to the ideal of community –
that is, the way that cults represent Lingis’ concept of noise as that which is
internal to, yet disrupts, rational discourse (the foundation of rational
community). In the second section I will talk about cults and difference
utilizing the work of Iris Marion Young. In particular, I will look at the way
in which both cults and “good” communities efface difference and eliminate
noise, and how this intersects with the notion of cults as interrupting the ideal
of community. The final section emphasizes the collapse of the distinction
between “good” and “bad” ways of being-together.
Putting the Cult Back into Community
Post-structuralism and Community
Post-structuralism has critiqued the humanist subject, saying that the notion
of a subject who is rational, coherent and able to know itself is nothing more
than a fantasy. Logically, this critique of the subject would also affect the
relations between subjects, which the humanist tradition purports to be
“characterized by equality, liberty and fraternity” (Secomb, 1997: 11).
However whilst the insights of post-structuralism have rendered the subject
“disunified, split and incoherent” (10), the ideal of community itself has
actually been left relatively unscathed.
In accordance with Secomb, I propose that it would be logical to
extend our criticism of the subject to criticizing our notion of community.
Further to this, I suggest that when one examines our contemporary treatment
of cults, as I do later in this chapter, it clearly demonstrates our continued
reliance upon a rational, humanist subject as the basic unit of communities.
This makes our understanding of cults problematic, and undermines the
“good” community / “bad” community distinction that the literature on cults
upholds. By collapsing this distinction, I want to suggest that cults are abject
to us precisely because they hold up a mirror to our ideal of community, an
ideal in crisis.
Our current model of community is understood in terms of a social
contract model. This is where “we understand ourselves to be rational,
coherent, autonomous subjects who freely come together to pursue common
interests including pursuing legal and civil recognition, [and] constructing a
common culture” (Secomb, 1997: 14), amongst other things. Alphonso
Lingis also discusses this humanist model of community, though he refers to
it as the rational community. He concurs with Secomb in that he sees the
rational community as something “usually conceived as constituted by a
number of individuals having something in common – a common language, a
common conceptual framework – and building something in common: a
nation, a polis, an institution” (Lingis, 1994: ix).
To explain the rational community, Lingis refers to Edmund Husserl’s
notion of “the will to give a reason” (2). He sees this as the inspiration for
scientific and philosophical explanatory discourses that in turn produce a
“rational form of knowledge… a common discourse that is integrally one”
(1). This idea shows the rational community to be something we make or
structure in universal terms. By embarking upon rational endeavors each one
“speaks as a representative of the common discourse” (4), which in turn
“invokes a human community in principle unlimited” (ibid.). As rationalists,
we “perceive the reality of being members of a community in the reality of
the works undertaken and realized; we perceive the community itself as a
Jackie McMillan
work” (5). So community is, to the rationalist, something we make, that does
not pre-exist us… summed up by Lingis when he says: “The community
which produces, and is produced by, reasons produces the means of its
subsistence and the material of its knowledge” (8).
Lingis believes we also make who we are in rational discourse. In his
words, the rational community “makes nature a communal work and makes
our own nature our own work” (9). The post-structuralist critique of the
humanist or rational subject should have the effect of making any idea of
community founded upon knowing ourselves, or as being produced by the
self-transparent subject, problematic. Further, this critique throws into doubt
the very notion that we are able to make independent, informed and rational
decisions to join our constructed communities.
Lingis runs a critique of rationality in order to dispel the notion of the
humanist subject. He discusses communication, with a view to bringing back
noise – the material, and in particular the affective – which has been banished
to the margins in the rational model of communication. What I seek to do in
this essay is to transpose his discussion of communication onto the idea of
community, suggesting that the humanist community is one that requires us,
impossibly, to “abstract from the noise of the world” (Lingis, 1994: 80). In
other words our idealized notion of community requires us to abstract
knowledge, truth, certainty or consistent meanings from the noise of the
world. This parallels the notion of rational communication that Lingis is
disputing – namely Michel Serres’ notion of language as idealized
signification involving abstracting abstract meanings and ignoring
idiosyncrasies to get an abstract message. Rational communication is pushing
“into the background, as noise, the particular timber, pitch, volume, and tonal
length of the words being uttered, the particular color, penmanship, and
typeface, of the visible patterns” (Lingis, 1994: 77). Hence the reason I am
speaking about cults and noise together is that they both represent that which
is pushed to the margins and “othered.” Cults, like noise, characterize all of
the things that rational community and rational conversation explicitly deny
being. So what Lingis refers to as noise, I will replace with cults – the “other”
of community – looking not at the content of cultic belief but at the way they
can disrupt, undo or queer community.
For Lingis, it is because the humanist subject “finds that his own
thought is representative of the whole system of rational thought, he will find
his fellow-man but the reflection of his own rational nature” (10). This type
of idea is reflected in our ideal of the humanist community, which is founded
upon notions of “consensus and commonality” (Secomb, 2000: 133) but in a
practical sense, as I pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, illuminated
by a history of failure. Postmodern social theorists like Lisa Kahaleole Chang
Putting the Cult Back into Community
Hall reinforce that these failures are about our notion of subjectivity, saying,
“there’s no possibility of solidarity, when people assume that identities are
singular and fixed, self-evident and mutually exclusive” (1993: 221). As a
result, for Hall, “identity becomes a fortress under siege that’s protected by
denying connections with others and oversimplifying connections with ‘their
own’” (ibid.).
When Lingis talks about the other community, he is talking about a
type of community that is formed “not by affirming oneself and one's forces
but by exposing oneself to expenditure at a loss, to sacrifice” (Lingis, 1994:
12). This type of notion is more akin to our lived experience of (and
disillusionment with) humanist community. Hall compares the experience of
community to the definitions of home and coalition. She argues that home “is
where you want to feel safe with others like you; [whilst] coalition is a deeply
painful and difficult process during which you come to terms with others who
are different in pursuit of a finite common goal” (1993: 224). The lived
experience of community is about recognizing that the claims of the other are
different to my own, and irreducible. It is about recognizing the other's
When Lingis talks about noise, and the murmur of the world, he can
be thought of as referring to much the same thing as the other community.
By describing the way that noise cannot be eliminated from rational
communication, he is evoking a sense of how the other community is what
the humanist or rational community has, unsuccessfully, eliminated. I say
unsuccessfully because what Lingis is trying to get at is the way in which any
formation of humanist community is always a double formation with the
other community. In a sense, all community formations provide the seeds of
their own undoing by producing an “other” that disrupts it, yet the two are
dependant upon each other for meaning as I will go on to show later in this
Like the notion of rational community, rational communication for
Lingis “finds and establishes something in common beneath all contention”
(1994: 71). In other words, communication, like rational community, is about
the myth of common being. Communication works to extract “the message
from its background noise and from the noise that is internal to the message.
Communication is a struggle against interference and confusion” (70).
Joining a community is also about struggle against interference and
confusion, about eliminating the “noise.” It is about holding tight to a
conception of subjectivity as “fixed and inherent” (Hall, 1993: 227). In the
words of Hall it is about picking “a singular identity and then fit[ting] in: a
lesbian identity that ignores cultural, racial and class differences, a racial
identity that represses sexual differences and multiracial histories, a gender
Jackie McMillan
identity that conflates it all. But our lives are infinitely more complex than
the way we present them” (222).
Both noise and the other community form “not in a work, but in the
interruption of work and enterprises” (Lingis, 1994: 10). In communication, it
is the ways in which we are inefficient that convey our peculiarity or
difference. Or in the words of Lingis:
As efficient causes of expression that convey information, we are
interchangeable. Our singularity and our indefinite discernibility is found in,
and is heard in, our outcries and our murmurs, our laughter and our tears: the
noise of life. (92)
It is this notion that prompted me to look at that which the humanist ideal of
community explicitly sets up as “something weird, something other than
normal, something that is not us” (Singer, 1995: xix) – cults – in order to
attempt to bring back the noise to the notion of community. By reinserting
the noise into community, I hope to turn to a conception of subjectivity that
takes as its starting point postmodern understandings of the subject as split,
disunified and incoherent. Utilizing this view of the subject would necessarily
create a new understanding of community – one that takes into account the
multitude of ways in which we are different from one another. Thus when I
examine cults, what’s interesting about them for me, is not so much the
content of cultic beliefs, but their role as other to “good” communities.
Cults and Difference
As I stated in the introduction, cults are incredibly good at effacing
difference. In this section, I am going to explain a few methods cults use to
eradicate difference. I will also demonstrate firstly, that these methods of
eliminating alterity are common to many sorts of less controversial
communities, and secondly, that in both cases (that is, in cults and “good”
communities) these actions are about the elimination of noise. Cults attempt
to be like Lingis’ “ideal city of communication… maximally purged of
noise” (Lingis, 1994: 12). In other words what makes cults work as
communities is their effectiveness in obliterating the uniqueness of their
members. What makes cults fail, often to the point of self-destruction, is
another paper entirely.
Lingis critiques Michel Serres’ position that the “maximal elimination
of noise would produce successful communication among interlocutors
themselves maximally interchangeable” (1994: 78). Cults work hard to make
Putting the Cult Back into Community
members interchangeable, often taking their appearance as a starting point.
Take this passage from Carmel Bird’s Red Shoes for example:
You get cults that wear flowing robes of only a certain color – black or red or
orange or white or silver – cults that shave their heads; cults that never cut
their hair; cults that always cover their heads; cults that wear feather cloaks;
cults that dress like flowers or animals. And these are only the uniforms, the
clothes that set the cults aside from other people, mark them as special and
different and blessed and superior; followers of great and holy leaders by
whose word the cult members live or die. (Bird, 1998: 8)
However cults are not the only type of group that attempts to eradicate
difference and eliminate the noise produced by the other by proscribing how
group members should look. Take this quote from Carol Queen’s text, Real
Live Nude Girl, as an example of the way a particular lesbian community
deals with appearance:
The uniform, actually, was Butch Lite. Jeans or chinos, flannel shirts or tees,
sensible shoes – either boots, athletic shoes or Birkenstocks (it turns out the
latter were incredibly subversive if you wore them with scarlet toenail polish,
but that's another story). Almost the whole dyke community dressed this way:
If a woman didn’t, her politics and her sexual orientation were automatically
open to debate. (Queen, 1997: 155)
Another way that cults achieve the humanist ideal of community is by
explicitly silencing dissent. This silencing is achieved in a number of ways.
Firstly, cults represent any sort of challenge to their belief system by
members as a failing of the member, rather than a failing of the belief system.
According to Margaret Singer, the “group accomplishes this diversion by
telling these individuals that they should do more, that they’re not meditating
correctly, and that their complaints are a sign of their ‘badness’” (1995: 148).
In other words their disagreement demonstrates a lack of faith, a sign that the
member is not enlightened.
I must add though, that cults are not the only type of community to do
this – how many times has disagreeing with the gay and lesbian community
been made equivalent to homophobia (internalized if you happen to be gay or
lesbian objector)? Pat Califia is drawing upon this idea when she remarks that
various gay and lesbian communities “insist on a kind of purity that has little
to do with affection, lust, or even political commitment. Gayness becomes a
state of sexual grace, like virginity. A fanatical insistence on one hundred
percent exclusive, same-sex behavior often sounds to me like superstitious
Jackie McMillan
fear of contamination or pollution” (Califa, 1983: 187).
Here she is talking
about the way in which gay men and lesbians often engage in sexual acts
with members of the opposite sex, including each other, and the way in which
these acts are denied or silenced by the system of power/knowledge these
communities have made. These members are silenced in a number of ways
including accusations of their real nature as bisexuals. Califia is critical of
this aspect of gay and lesbian communities, saying: “Gay people have
responded to persecution and homophobia by creating our own mythology
about homosexuality. Whenever desire and behavior conflict with rhetoric,
it’s time to reexamine the rhetoric” (187). Ideal communities, like cults, resist
examining the rhetoric, or the fabric of their belief system. They resist
listening to the noise internal to their beliefs – the ways in which their
members demonstrate their uniqueness and irreducible difference.
Cults silence secondly through their use of jargon. They induct
members into a new and foreign language that they do not understand, yet are
expected to use not only to speak to the leader, but also to structure their
interaction with others, and to mediate their own thoughts. The logic of this
new cultic language is often circular, defying attempts at fixing meaning.
I have bathed in the Book of Revelation, and in the end I have found it to be
ultimately mysterious, and I have come to suspect that the mystery, or the
mysteriousness, is the essence of the thing. There are words in Revelation that
suggest to me that they have me on the brink of the explanation of everything,
but those words will not unlock their meaning, not to me, not, perhaps, to
anyone. They are the words of the mystery, and the mystery is the point. If
people or angels such as myself could in fact unlock the mystery, perhaps the
whole tension that keeps things spinning would drop away, and a booming,
blasting lethargy like nothing ever before seen or imagined would burgeon its
blooming, bleeding vastness across all time and space. (Bird, 1998: 70)
In the case of cults, the mystery is precisely the thing, and from Petra’s
examination of The Book of Revelations, cults are not the only type of
community to use this sort of tool either. In actuality, this is what all groups
do – we all talk in a legitimized way – as any kind of specialized language or
set of conventions acts as to patrol the borders between inside and outside.
Even here, in this chapter, the conventions and specialized language I am
obliged to use limit the ways in which I can speak.

My usage of the radical theorists Carol Q ueen and Pat Califia in this chapter is not to
suggest that these theorists are telling the “truth,” free from humanist ways of
thinking. Their work could also be seen as humanist in one sense or another.
Putting the Cult Back into Community
The aforementioned examples represent several of the conventions
used to police sameness and difference in both cults and ideal communities.
They represent very effective ways of making people unaware of their
alterity, their irreduciblity to one another, and as such they help build
communities based on commonality and consensus that appear to work. Iris
Marion Young theorizes that the ideal of community engages in “a
metaphysics that denies difference” (1986: 1). It would seem that cults
participate in the same metaphysics.
Young describes the way in which any “definition or category creates
an inside/outside distinction, and the logic of identity seeks to keep those
borders firmly drawn” (3). This notion of patrolling borders refers directly to
the way in which we construct identities upon which we base community
membership. Or as Young succinctly puts it: “any move to define an identity,
a closed totality, always depends upon excluding some elements, separating
the pure from the impure” (ibid.). I propose that this notion explains the way
in which “good” communities draw a clear line between themselves and
cults. A line that is evidenced, indeed referenced explicitly in the following
quote from Raphael Aron:
We should also draw a line between the so-called mind control techniques
which are used by numerous destructive cults and the conditioning process
which we are all exposed to as part of growing up in our own environment.
By their very nature, the environment we live in, the people around us and our
own families influence and shape our thinking, attitudes and values. It is a
natural process, which creates change as we develop and mature – not a
contrived or controlling process the beneficiary of which is an outsider or an
organization. (1999: 28)
Aron is declaring that even though it might look like communities and cults
act in the same types of ways, they do not. It is this distinction that provides
each opposing term in the opposition with meaning. These types of policing
works in reverse too, as the two terms in the apparent distinction are mutually
constitutive. In other words, cults patrol the borders too, albeit they would see
themselves in the role of the “good” community, and wider society in the role
of the other. (As Singer puts it: “Almost all cults make the claim that their
members are ‘chosen,’ ‘select,’ or ‘special,’ while non-members are
considered lesser beings” [1995: 9].)
This idea of border patrol throws new light upon some of the actions
of cults, which writers like Margaret Singer and Raphael Aron look upon as
signs of a sinister agenda by a manipulative leader only acting for their own
benefit. Re-interpreting some cultic behavior in the light of Young’s insights
about community and border patrol, one can glean somewhat tamer
Jackie McMillan
explanations. For example Singer writes about cult leaders sacrificing “a few
disaffected or ‘independent’ members in order to teach a lesson to others that
he can discard them, too, if they don’t behave” (1995: 276), which could be
read as border patrol where these members, by virtue of elucidating their
difference, trouble the community founded on sameness which has no space
for difference.
These actions are replicated in other, “slightly” less controversial,
communities. Take for example the work of sexologist Carol Queen who
writes about the rejection of Madonna by various gay and lesbian
communities. Queen is writing about the reaction of gay and lesbian
communities to Madonna’s production of a book called Sex; a book that
Queen asserts requires “a grasp of queer aesthetics (sexual and not, campy
and not)” (Queen, 1997: 113), to interpret (or find sexy). Sex represents “art
produced through a nonheterosexual lens” (ibid.). It is full of erotic images
depicting lesbian pairings, gay male iconography including group scenes in
bathhouses, cross-dressing and more! What Queen goes on to say is that
despite all this, there are still very mixed feelings about Madonna from within
gay and lesbian communities, in fact many would like to deny that she
represents these communities at all.
It is clear from an examination of Sex that “Madonna’s queer
community ties are not superficial, but neither are they simple. Rather, they
represent a complicated web of reference, affiliation and appropriation”
(Queen, 1997: 113). Hence Q ueen concludes that these “communities would
prefer to claim her only on their own terms; in the realm of identity politics,
her identity is much too fluid for the gay community to view her as entirely
trustworthy” (ibid.), which makes this a very clear example of the way in
which various gay and lesbian communities also patrol their borders, policing
them against people who refuse to be neatly categorized on one side of the
border or the other. Madonna, and other border-dwellers like her, represent
the noise integral to the notion of community in the way that they interrupt it,
challenge its rhetoric and belief systems, deny its attempts at common-being.
The way that cults and communities treat difference is the same,
precisely because they rely upon the same conception of subjectivity. To
address the reasons why community is a history of failure, both cults and
“good” communities would need to be made problematic, collapsing the
distinction between them. Instead of looking upon cults with abject horror at
the way in which they, “by their very structure and nature are not democratic,
do not promote freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and are the
antithesis of structures in which full human growth can develop” (Singer,
1995: xxiv), we should instead turn our focus to the way they open up
possibilities. In other words, instead of demonizing cults, projecting onto
Putting the Cult Back into Community
them all the characteristics that we want to disavow in ourselves, in our own
“being-with,” we need to look them in the face – listen to the noise – and see
what that might tell us about our own forms of sociality.
Like Lingis, I dispute Michel Serres’ notion that “for dialogue to be
possible, one must close one’s eyes and cover one’s ears to the song and the
beauty of the sirens” (Lingis, 1994: 83). I propose instead we turn and face
the other – look at the Sirens in all their glory, listen to their haunting song –
and if our ideal of community crashes into a million pieces on the rocks, then
it’s clearly time to examine our own rhetoric. By looking at what we’ve
called “other” and excluded, we will see that like cults, our ideal of
community is also a misrepresentation of being in the world. Our ideal of
community requires “subjects who are present to themselves and presumes
subjects can understand one another as they understand themselves. It thus
denies the difference between subjects” (Young, 1986: 1).
At the outset of this essay I said that cults do not represent a form of
community that resolves the problems with humanist communities posed by
theorists like Alphonso Lingis, Linnell Secomb and Iris Marion Young. This
is largely because they rely upon the same conception of subjectivity as the
ideal of community, though they are presented as being other to good
communities. When people like Raphael Aron say we have the ability to
make independent, rational, coherent and informed choices to join good
communities, and that cults “are destructive because of the level of control
they wield over their following. Whereas most social systems and families
involve various degrees of control and subservience to authority, cults cross a
critical line, creating an unnatural community which ultimately involves the
loss of members’ freedom and independence” (Aron, 1999: 3): they are
buying into a model of the rational subject.
The insights of postmodernism have shown the rational subject to be
an inherently flawed figure. Post-structuralism’s attack on the subject should
rightly be applied to our ideal of community. In effect, cults, as the explicit
other of community, hold up a mirror to rational communities. In their role of
other, they are like the murmur of, or noise integral to, our notion of
community in that they are what community explicitly denies being – a
denial that I have shown falls down upon closer examination. It is here their
disruptive potential lies in the way that, like Lingis’ notion of noise, they
have the potential to interrupt our understanding of the ideal of community.
Jackie McMillan
Our abject reaction to cults is illuminated by the way we create them
into the polar opposites of “good” communities, and patrol the borders
between them and community very carefully. It is illustrated by the way we
cannot acknowledge without loss, that one “person’s cult, of course, is
another’s religion – or, for that matter, political or commercial organization”
(Singer, 1995: xii). Our sense of horror about cults is explained, then, by the
way that they make us recognize the problems inherent to our ideal of
community – they function as a mirror through which we must look at the
crisis of community.
Cults, like Lingis’ murmur of the world, help to demonstrate that the
humanist conception of community, a concept that would like to block out
the murmur of the world, is indeed in crisis. We have to make cults the
“other,” for this type of community to even appear to work. But if we agree
with Strysick that community is a history of failures, maybe the way to break
this line of failure is to show that cults are not the other, indeed they are
integral to the notion of the “good” community. In fact cults illustrate in very
explicit ways the problems of community. In order for community to see
itself as good, it separates all the bad characteristics onto something else – in
this case, cults.
Thus what’s interesting about cults is what they enable us to ask or see
about the ideal of community, and the way in which it effaces difference,
relying upon a conception of subjectivity and sociality that postmodernism
denies can exist. I’ll leave you pondering the distinction between good and
bad ways of being together, that turns out to be no distinction at all, with a
final quote from Carmel Bird’s Red Shoes:
Goodness makes no sense, you see, unless there’s evil. A pity, but that’s the
way it is. Light is not light without darkness. And often the thing that people
like about the light is the way it shows up what’s going on in the dark. (1998:
Works Cited
Aron, Raphael. 1999. Cults: Too Good to be True. Sydney: Harper Collins.
Bird, Carmel. 1998. Red Shoes. Sydney: Vintage.
Califia, Pat. 1983. “Gay Men, Lesbians, and Sex: Doing It Together.” In Public Sex:
The Culture of Radical Sex. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press. 183-189.
Hall, Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall. 1993. “Bitches in Solitude: Identity Politics and
Lesbian Community.” In Arlene Stein. Ed. Sisters, Sexperts, Queers:
Beyond the Lesbian Nation. New York: Plume. 218-229.
Putting the Cult Back into Community
Lingis, Alphonso. 1994. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Q ueen, Carol. 1997. Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of a Sex-Positive Culture.
Pittsburgh: Cleis Press.
Secomb, Linnell. 1997. “Q ueering Community.” Queerzone 4. Nepean: UWS Women
Research Centre: 9-16.
———. 2000. “Fractured Community.” Hypatia 15: 133-150.
Singer, Margaret Thaler with Janja Lalich. 1995. Cults in Our Midst. San Francisco:
Strysick, Michael. Ed. 2001. The Politics of Community. Colorado: Davies Group.
Young, Iris. 1986. “The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference.” Social
Theory and Practice 12 (1): 1-26.
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In Britain at the start of the twenty-first century, public service
institutions in the cultural domain are inviting members of the public
to tell (and exhibit) personal stories, that is, to represent themselves
across a range of media platforms and through the use of a variety of
audio and visual technologies. I suggest that two notions, “ordinary
people” and “community,” are key constructs in the processes of
mediation that shape the invitation to members of the public, the
public’s take up of the invitation, and the resultant self-
representations. Drawing on Rose, Couldry, Williams, Mayo and
others the key question explored in this paper is how far the notions of
“ordinary people” and “community” operate to control and order
people’s representations of themselves, and how far these terms are
positive and empowering for those so ascribed. This question is
explored with reference to early findings from two case studies, BBC
Wales’ Capture Wales and the Museum of London’s London’s Voices.
In Britain at the start of the twenty-first century public service institutions in
the cultural domain are inviting members of the public to tell (and exhibit)
personal stories, that is, to represent themselves across a range of media
platforms and through the use of a variety of audio and visual technologies.
In this way, the public is being involved in the creation of content for public
consumption. When the remit of a public organisation or institution includes
the objective to inform about or represent society, there appears to be a move
to invite the members of that society to participate in creating and delivering
that representation. This is in no way to argue that this activity has taken over
from other ways of reflecting the society and its populations, but simply to
note the persistent presence of this invitation to self-representation.
Nancy Thumim
So in a 2003 statement of “ambitions for the arts” the Arts Council of
England puts emphasis on access, participation and contribution; they state:
We believe that access to the arts goes hand in hand with artistic excellence.
Participation, contribution and engagement in the arts are the bridge between
access and excellence. (Arts Council of England, 2003)
Also in 2003, the BBC’s producer guidelines state:
Priorities for commissions going forward include:
Community and user-generated content to augment our own content offering.
(BBC, 2003)
And a recent governmental grant to museums is described on the
website for the Department of Media, Culture and Sport:
Museums around the country are to share a £2.5 million cash boost in
partnership with the big national collections – to help fund projects engaging
young people and community groups. (DCMS, 2003)
The kinds of projects funded often showcase convergence of different
media. They might involve some outreach work in finding the individuals
who would like to take part. They might involve some training in skills and
technologies. They might involve workshops to elicit stories. Finally and
crucially they (usually) involve public display: on television, on the internet,
in exhibition or performance.
The context in which these self-representations are taking place is one
of continued debate, both within, and about, public service institutions in the
cultural domain, as to the role of publicly funded culture (Fenton, 2004;
Jowell, 2004; Ofcom, 2004). The debate turns on what weight is given to
different aspects of public service: should public funding for arts and culture
primarily focus on education and delivery, of “excellence” (as the secretary
of state for culture, Jowell, puts it) to the public, or should it focus on
encouraging representation of that public, through participation (Jowell,
2004)? While the argument has long been that public funding should fulfil
both of these aims, and others besides, nonetheless, the relative weight given
to representation of, and participation by, members of the public is contested,
and currently there is an emphasis on encouraging access and participation.
The debate about the role of public service broadcasting has long been
put in similar terms: should public service broadcasters provide top down
education of, and delivery of expertise to, the public, or should it engender
representation of that public, through participation? In this debate the
audience is seen as citizens: either citizens who should be educated, or
Mediated Self-Representations
citizens who should be provided with space to represent themselves. The
recent review of the role of public service broadcasting by the new regulator,
Ofcom, effectively recasts this debate so that the question as to what is the
role of public service broadcasting no longer turns on whether it should
emphasise education and information, or representation, but rather, whether
the audience should be addressed primarily as consumers or citizens:
But we believe there are two simple aims behind the historic regulation of
terrestrial broadcasters:
· Helping the broadcasting market work more effectively to deliver what
consumers want to watch or want to have an option to watch.
· Providing the programming that as citizens we want to be as widely
available for as many people as possible to watch. Such programming
secures the wider social objectives of UK citizens by making available
TV which has broad support across the UK, but which would be
underprovided or not provided at all by an unregulated market. (Ofcom,
2004: 8)
Further, the needs of the citizens will only be addressed if there is “broad
support” which implies a large audience. And the requirements of citizens
will only be considered important if it is deemed that the market will not
fulfil that particular need. Here then, the market shapes what public service
broadcasting will provide. This recasting by Ofcom of the terms of
longstanding debates about the role of public service institutions in the
cultural domain will surely provoke critique.
However this privileging of the
consumer and the logic of the market is part of a wider move in neoliberal
policy internationally (Gandy Jr, 2002, Mayo, 2005).
The notion of providing a representational forum is not found in
Ofcom’s basic redefinition of the public service broadcasting remit.
However, the notion of representation does still feature. Under “Citizen
rationale” the review includes, among other objectives, an argument for
public service broadcasting to provide representation:
· To support a tolerant and inclusive society
Through the availability of programmes which reflect the lives of
different people and communities within the UK, encourage a better
understanding of different cultures and perspectives and, on occasion,
bring the nation together for shared experiences. (Ofcom, 2004: 9)
Gandy argues that the distinction between citizens and consumers is the “real digital
divide” and that this distinction is widening in the new media environment, the very
environment in which Ofcom’s recent review has taken place (Gandy, O.H. Jr (2002).
Nancy Thumim
For the purposes of this discussion the overriding question is, what is
the role of publicly funded arts and culture? It is in the context of this
question that invitations from public service institutions to members of the
public to represent themselves must be viewed.
The following discussion begins from a normative premise, that is,
that public service institutions in the cultural domain have a central role to
play in democracy and that this role centres on representation. This role is
explored by looking at the detailed production practices and texts of projects
that explicitly claim to fulfil this democratic function of representation. I
suggest that two notions, “ordinary people” and “community,” are key
constructs in the processes of mediation that shape the invitation to members
of the public, the public’s take up of the invitation, and the resultant self-
representations. The key question explored in this paper is how far the
notions of “ordinary people” and “community” operate to control and order
people’s representations of themselves, and how far these terms are positive
and empowering for those so ascribed. This question will be explored with
reference to the literature and illustrated with early findings from two case
studies, BBC Wales’ Capture Wales and the Museum of London’s London’s
Capture Wales and London’s Voices
Capture Wales is a BBC Wales New Media and University of Cardiff digital
storytelling project, initially funded for three years. Members of the public
bring photos and memorabilia to workshops during which they have
storytelling sessions and are taught to use Adobe PhotoShop and video
editing packages in order to make digital stories for the Capture Wales
website. A selection of these digital stories is aired on the Welsh Television
Channel T2 most evenings; in addition some stories are shown on the
flagship BBC Wales News programme, Wales Today.
London’s Voices was a three-year oral history project at the Museum
of London, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It consisted of eighteen
different projects that were carried out with a range of groups across London.
London’s Voices involves collecting new material for the museum’s oral
history archive, and experimenting with different strategies for involving the
audience in telling the story of twentieth century and contemporary London.
The following excerpts are from the websites of the two projects,
London’s Voices, and Capture Wales and I will go on to show how they
invoke “community” and “ordinary.”
Mediated Self-Representations
London’s Voices
London’s Voices explores, reflects and celebrates London’s great diversity
through the voices, memories and opinions of Londoners. A three-year
programme of exhibitions, activities and events, it opens up the Museum of
London’s rich oral history collection.
Capture Wales
Everyone has a story to tell and new technology means that anyone can
create a story that can show on a website like the ones you see here. The idea
is to show the richness of life in Wales through stories made by the people of
“London’s diversity” and “the richness of life in Wales,” both seem to
reference and assume a community of ordinary people. It seems to me, firstly,
that the “Londoner,” and the “everyone,” might be described as an “ordinary
person.” Secondly, this “ordinary person” is located as a community
member, of the locality, London; of the nation, Wales. The absence of the
terms “ordinary person” and “community” in the publicity for the projects
suggests that these terms are slippery, and that their meaning is contentious.
Yet they are there, I think, in the background as unspoken terms connecting
the projects to the wider political landscape. Indeed the careful avoidance of
a term, whose meaning is assumed to be common knowledge, is as
significant as its use.
The term mediation has been used widely in recent work in the field of media
and communications. We can say that broadly mediation is being used both
to emphasise that meaning is mediated in a multitude of ways, and to indicate
a focus on the interactions between the sites at which media meaning is
made. The use of the term mediation emphasises the ongoing nature of
meaning construction, and the term has also been used to indicate a focus on
social contexts within which media meanings are made (Couldry, 1999). In
this paper the focus is tightly on the interaction between production, text and
audience (where audience has become producer). These interactions and the
resultant self-representations are mediated. The sense in which mediation is
Nancy Thumim
used here follows Silverstone and others in seeing mediations of media
meanings as a set of processes (Silverstone, 1999). While acknowledging that
these processes are ultimately endless, the focus here is on three levels of
mediation: institutional or organisational mediation, technological mediation,
and cultural mediation.
Firstly, how are the self-representations of the people who participate
mediated by the institutional invitation to tell their story, that is, what
processes take place when institutions and their personnel invite, train and
help shape people’s representations of themselves? Thus, what might be
actual observable changes that occur in the course of the process in which the
self-representations are constructed? For example, in Capture Wales people
are encouraged to tell “personal stories,” because the purpose of the project is
to gather and exhibit personal stories from around Wales; therefore if
participants come to a workshop saying they want to make a story about
something or someone else, then they are strongly encouraged, during the
storytelling circle, to tell a story from a more personal perspective. This sort
of change is an example of an institutional mediation.
Secondly, how are the self-representations mediated by the technology
and the form used, that is to say, what are the opportunities and constraints
that arise from the use of different technologies? For example, in the
London’s Voices 16-19 project, one of the groups did a photography project
about their local area; in this instance the museum projects officer intended
them to use disposable cameras but the photographer working with the
teenagers wanted to train them to use a professional standard camera. The
resultant stills may not have been possible to achieve with a disposable
camera, on the other hand the mobility and instant impressions that might be
caught with a disposable camera, might be lost in the careful learning of how
to use a professional camera, and this sort of shaping is an example of
technological mediation.
Thirdly, how are the self-representations of the members of the public
who participate shaped by their own cultural formations? For, example, how
does a person’s view of the BBC shape what they expect to happen in the
Capture Wales workshop, and consequently shape what actually does
happen? In practice these levels of mediation are not separate; for instance in
the second example, technological mediation, the individuals advocating
different cameras shape the material as much as the technology does.
Nonetheless it is conceptually useful to breakdown the levels of mediation in
this way.
The object of study here, that is the production of self-representation
by members of the public at the invitation of public cultural institutions, is an
instance where we can build on existing theorisation of the notion of
Mediated Self-Representations
mediation. The question here is, what happens to the notion of a process of
mediation when the audience becomes involved in production? When
members of the public represent themselves, and representatives of the
cultural institutions involved invite and help shape those representations, then
are we forced to think differently about the notion of a process of mediation?
In these projects, sites that are usually separated, namely, producer and
audience, are collapsed together, to some extent, and the text emerges from
the collapsing of these usually separate categories. In Capture Wales and
London’s Voices, projects where members of the public represent themselves,
some of the component parts of the process of mediation are identifiable in
ways that are not possible when audience, text and producer are separated in
The term self-representation links to work on the representation of different
individuals and groups in media and arts (Perkins, 2000). A web search of the
term reveals that it is widely used by individuals describing presentations of
self and autobiography on the internet and to describe autobiographical
writing and fine art practice. The prefix “self” indicates the subject matter,
the self (which can also stand in for a group) and also the claim that the
individual or group in question is representing themselves, in contrast to
being represented by someone else. This research is concerned with the
production of self-representation, whereby people are consciously
constructing a thing with which to represent themselves, for example a text,
an image, or a film. The consciousness and the boundedness of the
representation are particular to the notion of self-representation.
Self-representation is different from the notion of “performance of
self” since, as work on performance of self suggests, we are all “performing
self” all of the time and this is not necessarily a conscious process
(Abercrombie &Longhurst, 1998; Butler, 1990). This would suggest that
self-representation and the concept of representation in itself does not replace
performance but is something different. Performance of self and self-
representation could, and therefore probably do, coexist. Individuals engaged
in self-representation are choosing which aspect of self to represent.
The self-representations focused on here are those that are initiated by
public service institutions in the cultural domain. However it has been argued
that the telling of personal stories of the self has become ubiquitous. For
example, Plummer describes current society as an “auto/biographical
society” (Plummer, 2001) and Dovey suggests that we currently inhabit what
Nancy Thumim
he calls a “self speaking society” (Dovey, 2000). Thus it has been argued that
the self-representations with which this paper is concerned exist in a wider
context of self-revelation. The ideas of auto/biography, self-speaking and
self-representation have in common the notion that members of the public are
telling personal stories, in public.
The idea of self-representation has acquired new significance with the
development of new media, particularly the internet (Cheung, 2000; Pariser,
2000; Dovey, 2000). The view that self-representation is possible in ways it
was not previously, is summed up by Cheung “ is the only medium in
which most people are truly able to become ‘authors’, presenting their
suppressed or misrepresented selves to audiences around the world” (Cheung,
2000: 51). The significance of such representation is brought into question in
the context of unequal access to the internet, and in the context of varying
levels of media literacy (Bonfadelli, 2002; Burrows et al., 2000; Haddon,
2000). Further, the significance of such representations for democracy are
implicitly questioned by the argument that the consumer has achieved
primacy over the citizen (Gandy Jr, 2002). This last observation means that
any consideration of the significance of self-representation must question
how members of the public are representing themselves, which aspects of self
are represented and, following from this, what are the implications for
Social Constructs: Ordinary People
In explaining his distinction between “ordinary worlds” and “media worlds,”
Couldry articulates a version of social constructivism. He suggests that there
is an analogy between Durkheim’s theory of the socially generated
distinction between the sacred and the profane in religion, and his own
conception of the “pervasive” division between “media worlds” and
“ordinary worlds.” He argues that in both cases the distinction “operates as if
absolute” but is in fact continually reconstructed. Although the distinction
between media and ordinary worlds is constructed, Couldry insists on the
“real” distinction between those who have and those who do not have access
to “symbolic resources,” and that these constructed differences have
experiential consequences (Couldry, 2000). This is the version of social
constructivism that is employed here: that is that social realities are
constructed but that these constructs have real, lived consequences.
Williams’ Keywords provides a starting point for considering the use
of the term “ordinary people” (Williams, 1983). Building on Williams’
discussion we can identify four broad senses of the term: Hierarchical-
Mediated Self-Representations
pejorative; hierarchical-celebratory; customary; and public. These are not
neat categories, but do provide a useful conceptual framework. In all senses
“ordinary” and “ordinary people” are understood in opposition to something
or someone extraordinary.
First, “ordinary” is used in a hierarchical and pejorative sense. Here
“ordinary people” are ordinary because of their inferior position in a
hierarchy. Here ordinary is equated with ignorance, and defined in opposition
to expert, which is equated with knowledge. Or “ordinary people” might be
evoked in opposition to special people, extraordinary people: in this sense
“ordinary” can also imply banal, dull, and mundane. “Ordinary people” have
long been invoked in a hierarchical negative way in the notion of the “mass”
and here the term often functions as a euphemism for working class (Adorno
&Horkheimer, 1993 [1944]). The notion of the masses implies an
undifferentiated group, and “ordinary people,” in this sense, denies
distinctiveness and difference.
As discussed above, Couldry suggests that the definition of someone
as “ordinary” reconfirms a hierarchy between those that do and those that do
not have ready access to the tools of media production and distribution. He
points to what he calls the “pervasive” division between “media worlds” and
“ordinary worlds” (Couldry, 2000). Couldry’s work suggests that the term
“ordinary people” operates not only in a hierarchically negative sense, but
also as a categorising and containing construct. I shall return to this idea
Second, the hierarchical sense of “ordinary” is claimed in a
celebratory way in direct reaction against that negative portrayal. In this
sense “ordinary people” are valued precisely because they have been
marginalised. Here again “ordinary person” can often operate as a
euphemism for working class, as in the phrase “voices from below.” The
hierarchical-celebratory sense of the term “ordinary people” indicates a
political position, which disputes whose account of reality matters. The oral
history movement can be understood, in this light, as being motivated by the
argument that the history of the general public is as important as the official
history of rulers, politicians and the like. But “ordinary people” is used in
this hierarchical celebratory sense to invoke any number of marginalized
groups, which indicates a tension between the notion of “ordinary” and the
notion of difference: can everyone be “ordinary” while also being different?
For example, on the one hand, the British National Party invokes the notion
of “ordinary people” to unite white, working class British people, and to
exclude others. While on the other hand, public service projects that invite
members of the public to represent themselves, invoke “ordinary people” to
argue that everyone’s life is central to the historical record of a society. Here,
Nancy Thumim
“ordinary people” is used to unite across difference. The term is used in the
celebratory sense, then, to unite groups of people based on shared marginality
from positions of social, or political, power.
Third, the customary sense of “ordinary people” describes the use of
the term to refer to people whose practices are “ordinary.” In this sense
“ordinary people” again operates as a claim. But in this usage the claim is to
declare that people who might seem different, in fact have much in common,
they too are “ordinary.” The sense of “ordinary people” as the public works
to claim commonality, even equality, and deny difference, between people.
Yet, Highmore’s observation that the everyday is also the home of the bizarre
and the mysterious highlights a paradox in this customary sense of “ordinary
people” (Highmore, 2002). The idea of “customary” is also problematic since
we need to ask, customary for whom? (Highmore, 2002). While Sacks
suggests that we continually reaffirm our “ordinariness” by speaking from
recognisably personal perspectives in an understandably “ordinary” way
(Sacks, 1984), Billig argues that conversation analysis fails to address
inequalities in conversation and society which problematize the unifying
project of “ordinary” (Billig, 1999). Schegloff, responding to Billig, sees
difference and distinction as factors emerging from time to time but not
rendering the notion of “ordinary” inherently problematic (Schegloff, 1999).
Lastly we can discern a use of the term “ordinary people” which
locates “ordinary people” as the citizens of democracy; the public. Here
“ordinary people” functions to invoke people as a political force, as in the
phrase “the people.” Peters notes that in the bourgeois public sphere, “the
personal characteristics of the speaker must be irrelevant to participation and
critique” (Peters, 1993). When “ordinary people” are invoked to mean “the
public” they are conceived as citizens, and opposed to the notion of the
“mass.” The use of the term “ordinary person” to mean citizen is used to
argue that public service institutions should represent citizens, as well as
informing and educating them (see above). This sense of “ordinary people”
also figures in the subsequent debate about how well the public are being
represented, are these representations for example, biased and stereotypical,
or meaningful and valuable?
As argued above it is not only in the broadcasting sphere that the
figure of the “ordinary person” is used in debates about how best to fulfil
public service obligations. The figure of the “ordinary person” is central to
contemporary museum studies in its attempt to account (and call) for the
general shift towards representation of the “ordinary” in museums (Hooper-
Greenhill, 1995; Hooper-Greenhill, 1997; Wallace, 1995; Hemming, 1997).
Discussing the formation of museums, Bennett draws on Foucault to argue
that museums are one of the public institutions wherein “culture is brought
Mediated Self-Representations
within the province of government, its conception is on a par with other
regions of government” (Bennett, 1995). Bennett draws on Habermas to note
the role of museums (as part of art and culture) in the formation of the
bourgeois public sphere, “…in whose name the subsequent development of
the debased public sphere of mass culture could be castigated” (Bennett,
1995). Thus the figure of the “ordinary person,” and their relation to the
question of what “culture” is, has arguably been central to museums since
their inception.
This question has acquired renewed importance as museum policy
now insists that contemporary museums, as public institutions, should serve
the whole population, not just a small elite. Representing difference in
“ordinary” life is central to this change. Here “ordinary” is meant
hierarchically to celebrate previously excluded experience. It is often also
invoked in a customary sense in the museum context, to mean a focus on
everyday life in Britain.
Finally the term “ordinary” is invoked in a public
sense, as the different communities and citizens of Britain are pulled together
by an emphasis on their status as “the public;” as can be seen in the example
The Hillingdon Asian Women’s group participated in the Museum of
London’s London’s Voices project, Holidays of a Lifetime. In this project
members of the public took part in storytelling workshops and then produced
personal stories and family photos for exhibition in local libraries. This
exhibition then toured London libraries, growing with the contributions of
local groups. Below is an excerpt from a group interview with members of
the Hillingdon Asian Women’s group, where they discuss their responses to
seeing their stories in the exhibition:
Chendani: So when the exhibition was held in Uxbridge also we did go when
the opening ceremony was there. Which was a thrill, really, really nice. Our
name in the book our displays on the, on the board, her items.
[Everyone agreeing]
Chendani: It was really nice.
Interviewer: So tell me why it was nice, what, how did it make you feel?
Maya: We felt proud that our things have been shown .. to the public. And our
stories have been shown. People are there, they’ll come and read the stories,
whatever life stories and
Kesar: Yeah people read our poems, people read our stories.
Chendani: We are recognised, you know by the public [laughs].
For example the sense of “ordinary people” found in a collection of essays on
contemporary museum policy (Hooper-Greenhill, 1997).
Nancy Thumim
Kesar: Because that is, it’s not our name, it’s written down
Hillingdon…Asian… Women’s group, so we feel proud. We achieved
[Murmurs of agreement].
Here it seems as though these participants in the project are claiming
their place in the public. The public service institutions of broadcasting and
museums are fulfilling the obligation to represent the public as widely as
possible, through inviting that public to represent themselves. In these
democratising moves, these institutions are embarking on practices that have
long been at the centre of alternative media practice (Rodriguez, 2001; Atton,
2002). The huge variety of media forms and practices variously described as
alternative media, citizen’s media, community media, participatory media,
might be grouped together because of their shared intention to facilitate self-
representation by the public, rather than the more traditional representation
wherein it is the job of professionals to represent the public.
While this is a hugely simplified characterisation of a diverse field, it
serves to highlight what these media practices have in common with the two
case studies drawn from the public service institutions of museum and
broadcasting. Atton’s work, for example, defines alternative media by
referencing the production practices by which the people making the media
are the same people as those consuming it, or at least involvement in
production is open to all members of the audience. In alternative media,
implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the practitioners are constructed as
“ordinary people” as opposed to media professionals. In Rodriguez’s
discussion of citizen’s media, for example, the term “ordinary people” is
used in this celebratory sense, and as a euphemism for the working classes:
Although French radio libres state their goal as “to enable ordinary people to
express themselves without the intermediary of technicians, specialists, and
intellectuals who already had that privilege” (Cheval 1992: 171), the most
enthusiastic participants did not come from working classes, but from middle
and upper classes and well-educated sectors (Rodriguez, 2001:53).
Thus, in terms of our earlier definitions, “ordinary people” operates
here in the celebratory sense: here, “ordinary people” represent voices from
below, or voices from the margins. And this is the same sense of “ordinary
people” that is invoked when the term is used to describe what is radical and
democratic about the self-representations of “ordinary people” being invited
in the museum and broadcasting settings. There are clear links, then, between
Names of interview participants have been changed.
Mediated Self-Representations
the aims and practices in alternative, or community, media and the aims and
practices of projects now being carried out by public service institutions in
the cultural sphere.
Social Constructs: Community
I have argued that the members of the public who participate in the kinds of
projects under observation here are constructed as “ordinary people;” next I
want to suggest that a second construct shapes these representations: that of
the community, since the participating public are always understood as
located in “communities.” The term community has common sense meaning,
and it is used as a descriptive term, as in the ubiquitous phrase “working with
communities,” and it is assumed to be self-evident that we all know what this
means. In common with the construct “ordinary people,” the construct
“community” always operates as a claim (Silverstone, 1999). “Community,”
like “ordinary person” is an emotive, and a slippery, concept.
“Community,” as Williams has noted, conjures an image of people
rather than institutions (Williams, 1983). For Anderson “community” is a
work of a collective imagination. He writes “the nation is always conceived
as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 1991). For Anderson, then,
“community” refers to a kind of “comradeship” that rests on a shared
(imagined) history (and future). Anderson details how the press functioned to
sustain a symbolic national community. Because it was symbolic, this was
not to suggest that it was not also lived, as Silverstone notes:
Communities are lived. But also imagined. And if people believe something to
be real, then as the American sociologist W.I. Thomas famously noted, it is
real in its consequences. Ideas of community hover between experience and
desire. (Silverstone, 1999)
Anderson highlighted the role of the press in sustaining the idea of a
national community and, as Silverstone notes, the rise of other mass media,
notably the radio, fulfilled this function even more (Silverstone, 1999).
Thus the idea of a national community has long been entwined both
with media of communication and, in particular with systems of public
service broadcasting and with the other major public service institution of the
cultural domain, the public museum (Bennett, 1995; Boswell &Evans, 1999;
Corner &Harvey, 1991). The idea of national community is central to the
very idea of public service institutions in the cultural sphere. In the
introduction, I suggested that the question of representation is central to one
view of what public service institutions in the cultural domain are for. The
Nancy Thumim
question in relation to the notion of community is this: in representing the
public, how does community function as a site in which to situate those
It has been noted widely that the notion of community was always
problematic because it is necessarily exclusionary (Hall, 1999; Bauman,
2001). As a result “national community” is a notion that must be continually
reconstructed, through, for example, institutions like public museums and
public service broadcasting. Alexander and Jacobs note that communications
media are vitally important for the construction and maintenance of
connection across peoples in differentiated societies. They argue that what
they describe as the “realm of symbolic communication” is a vital function of
the public sphere in civil society. The maintenance of the “symbolic realm”
for Alexander and Jacobs, where the size of our societies means actual
interaction with everyone is impossible, depends on the media, and in
particular on the media’s ritualistic function (Alexander &Jacobs, 1998).
The national community cannot exist, or be represented, as it once
was, in the contemporary fragmented and diversified media environment. As
Silverstone notes:
As a result of these developments, the minority and the local, the critical and
the global, it is possible to suggest that the first and most significant casualty
will be national community. (Silverstone, 1999)
The problems that the idea of national community glossed over, like the
problem of racism (Hall, 1999), may now have fractured the idea of national
community. Yet, national public service institutions are inviting members of
the public to represent themselves, constructing them as “ordinary people”
and locating them in “communities.” The question is then, how is the
construct “communities” functioning in these kinds of projects, and why is
this a key term at a time when it has become so troubled?
Silverstone, Bauman and Mayo, among others, have pointed to the
current ubiquity of the term “community” and linked it to the individualised,
fragmented and insecure nature of life in contemporary societies. Mayo,
drawing on Giddens, emphasises that the argument is not to suggest that life
was once more secure, or community more real, but rather “individuals are
expected to take responsibility for themselves and their families” (Mayo,
2005: 388). Mayo goes on to link the current situation to the neo liberal
political and economic policies that dominate the globe, and the so-called
Post-Washington consensus. Mayo writes:
...there were increasing expressions of concern about the need to mitigate the
negative effects of too rampant neo-liberalism, concerns that were expressed
Mediated Self-Representations
internationally (via United Nations Human Development Reports for
example) as well as by national governments and by voluntary and
community organisations and agencies. (Mayo, 2005: 390).
Mayo suggests that it is in this context that we see “community as policy.”
I suggest that it is in the same context that two constructs, “ordinary
people” and “community,” shape self-representations of members of the
public, in projects run by national public service institutions: broadcasting
and museums.
Ordinary People and Community: Structures of Governance and
Empowering Categories?
As has been shown, a key difference between the two constructs “ordinary
people” and “community” is that “ordinary people” are invoked, often
implicitly, in discussion of the representation of members of the public.
However “community” is used much more overtly as a term in policy circles,
and elsewhere. Rose, drawing on Foucault, focuses on how “community”
works and who it works for (Rose, 2001). He suggests (in a similar argument
to Mayo, above) that “community” is a key tool of governance, in the Third
Way politics of Blair’s New Labour. Rose argues that “community” now
functions to proscribe and limit the kinds of “community” that can be
imagined. The notion of a tool of governance might also help us to make
sense of contemporary manifestations of the idea of “ordinary people.”
As discussed above, Couldry suggests that the definition of someone
as “ordinary” reconfirms a hierarchy between those that do and those that do
not have ready access to the tools of media production and distribution. He
points to what he calls the “pervasive” division between “media worlds” and
“ordinary worlds” (Couldry, 2000). Couldry’s argument suggests that the
term “ordinary people” operates not only in a hierarchically negative sense,
but also as a categorising and containing construct.
Taken together, Rose’s argument about community and Couldry’s
argument about “ordinary people,” make a convincing case to suggest that
where the constructs, “community” and “ordinary” are invoked together, they
must operate to control and order people’s representations of themselves.
However other work on how these constructs work suggests that “ordinary”
and “community” might not be pinned down so easily to these meanings or
The earlier discussion of the construct “ordinary people” highlighted
the contradictory ways in which the term is used. In addition to the negative
hierarchical sense invoked by Couldry, marginalised individuals and groups,
Nancy Thumim
for example, claim the term “ordinary people,” in the celebratory-
hierarchical sense, in the service of a struggle to be heard. And the term
“ordinary people” is used to mean the public, and to invoke the citizens of a
democracy, in which case it is used in political arguments to fight for
representation of the citizenry, regardless of their differences. Finally, the
term is used in the customary sense to emphasise commonalities between
people: as discussed above this is seen by many as part of the role of public
service institutions in the cultural domain in modern differentiated societies.
If “ordinary people” now operates in the way suggested by Couldry’s work,
does this diminish the importance of any celebratory or public or customary
sense that members of the public might invoke by taking part in projects like
Can New Labour’s Third Way usage of “community” succeed in
prescribing what the kinds of projects we are looking at here mean for all
concerned: that is for producers, and for participants? Mayo highlights the
risks and problems associated with social policy initiatives taking place in
this era of what she calls, “community as policy,” and her arguments adds
support to Rose’s view of community as a structure of governance, she
“Community as policy” also raises problems of representation and democratic
accountability. Communities are not necessarily socially undifferentiated, let
alone harmonious islands of consensus. So who can legitimately speak for
whom and how can the interests of the least powerful and most marginal be
represented as well as the interests of the most articulate? (Mayo, 2005: 392-
Mayo is talking here about community development and regeneration
programmes, but the same questions must be considered in the context of
representation in the cultural sphere. And indeed in the projects examined in
this study, the boundaries between these spheres merge, so that museum and
public service broadcasting initiatives based in communities are often seen as
contributing to development and regeneration.
On the other hand Mayo suggests that there are important positive
aspects to the “community as policy” programmes, and it is worth quoting
these at length:
· Community policies and programmes can and do provide spaces that can
be and are being taken up and used by individuals, groups and
community-based organisations, working to meet locally defined needs
and to further social justice agendas more generally…
· Through participating in these programmes individuals, groups and
community-based organisations can and do develop knowledge and skills
Mediated Self-Representations
including the knowledge and skills to research their own needs and to
develop critical analyses of the wider structures of opportunities and
· For individuals as well as groups and organisations, participation in
community policies can also widen their own horizons…
· Community activists and community-based organisations can and do
develop strategic alliances both within their localities and beyond them.
(Mayo, 2005: 395).
If “community” and “ordinary” operate as governing structures, where are the
cracks? Is it possible that projects involving mediations of self-
representations actually might not function to contain and limit what
“ordinary” and “community” turn out to mean? Is it possible that such
projects might allow questions such as – what is a “community?” Who is in a
“community?” And who is “ordinary?” – to become part of a public
conversation? The idea of governing structures does not preclude the notion
that there is space for people to gain from the ascription “community,” or
“ordinary person,” indeed it might be argued that this space is an integral part
of “community” and “ordinary person” as structures of governance, enabling
such a structure to work all the more effectively because it is not resisted as a
category but rather embraced. Here we are faced with a confrontation
between two theoretical perspectives: while the theoretical framework of
production-text-audience insists on the importance of taking account of how
the audience, and here the audience as producer, sees what it is doing, the
approach adopted by Rose would argue that what people say they get out of
participating in these projects, and how they use the notions “ordinary
people” and “community,” does not change the way they may operate as
governing structures.
And yet it is clear that Capture Wales and London’s Voices do not try
to remove tensions in what community membership means, even though such
tensions might be expected to damage the project of constructing
“community.” All of these projects involve some degree of self-representation
or collaboration. As a result the ways in which individual participants
position themselves – as “ordinary,” as belonging to a “community,” or not –
cannot be, and are not, fully controlled. And so it follows that what
“community” and “ordinary” mean, and therefore how they function, must
also be beyond complete control. Indeed perhaps these kinds of projects
provoke us to consider anew what “ordinary people” and “community” mean
and how they function.
Nancy Thumim
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It is clear that the principal objective of television advertising is to
encourage viewers to become consumers, but in the case of British
practice, from the start of commercial television in the mid-1950s, the
appeal to social and communal norms has been an essential feature of
the techniques used by advertisers. The persistence of a general
tendency towards the reinforcement of “normal” or “collective” values
can be observed, most obviously in government advertising which
seeks to further the contribution of the citizen to the positive evolution
of society, but also in commercial publicity where certain mental
attitudes and consumer behaviours are encouraged. At the same time,
advertising reflects, admittedly with varying degrees of accuracy and
distortion, not only the values, but also the nature of the society to
which it is directed, representing therefore a living archive of the way
in which society sees itself, or is imagined to perceive itself. This
chapter will attempt to examine the often inaccurate picture of society
given in commercial advertisements, through to the present day, but
also to suggest that government advertising, for all its appeals to
recognisable local and individual interest groups or communities, aims
essentially to establish and to further generally acceptable and
politically correct social norms.
The association of television advertising with the notion of community
might, at first sight, seem tenuous. After all what is the possible relation
between commercial or product advertising, which aims to encourage / cajole
/ threaten individual consumers into purchasing a given product, and most of
the commonly-held notions about the collective concept of community? This
article will attempt to cast light on the question, but in any case it should be
borne in mind that TV ads are of different types and that advertisements
placed by local or national government, or by charities and other pressure
groups, which tend to replace the idea of insatiable consumer with that of
responsible citizen, are of a more immediate if not necessarily richer
Renée Dickason
pertinence to the concept of community. I intend to refer to both kinds of
advertising in an effort to demonstrate the relevance of British television
advertising (on the terrestrial channels ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5)
this central theme.
Advertising is not just a field of academic study, with relevance to a
range of disciplines, but it is and always has been a social and therefore, in
one sense, a community phenomenon. Today’s television advertising reflects
the tasks accomplished by the first advertisements, that of issuing warnings
or supplying information and making it public, alongside the commercial
purpose of encouraging the demand for goods and services. Such a mixture
of objectives is no novelty; it could be observed in the Greek agora and the
Roman forum. Advertising in ancient times therefore fulfilled a community
function in a public place, announcing the development of new ideas
(products), creating new needs (which were beneficial to the population as a
whole by increasing trade and improving the lot of the common citizen), but
also indicating and reflecting lasting and changing social and communal
norms. Advertising on television, if we may rapidly pass over a couple of
millennia, still performs these basic functions, albeit in different degrees, but
has become a particular as well as a collective phenomenon. The individual is
assailed in his / her own home, and it is just this invasion of the private
sphere which has made TV ads the object of strict control and regulation ever
since their arrival on the scene in the mid 1950s. But this individuality is
actually deceptive, for ads frequently gain much of their effectiveness from a
representation of society, through an implicit appeal to common or
communal norms which are known to all, or at least all who watch television.
They therefore form part of the cultural baggage which constitutes the
common identity of the community,
creating and exploiting a range of
intertextual and inter-cultural references. Programmes and cassettes such as
those presented by Jasper Carrott and Rory McGrath, as well as publications
featuring “favourite ads” or “the 100 top television commercials of all time”
attest to abiding significance of ads as part of the spectacle offered by
television and retained within popular memory. The point is well made by
veteran broadcaster John Humphrys, who in his recent autobiography refers
to the lasting impact of the ads he first saw in the 1950s:

My comments are applicable to generalist (or broadcasting) channels rather than to
narrowcasting services.
We are close here to Ferdinand Tönnies’ definition of a community consisting of a
group of people with a subjective feeling of belonging, even though, from the
advertisers’ point of view, the aim is to connect with as large a part of the national
community as possible.
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
Forty years on from the start of commercial television it is impossible to
exaggerate the effects of those advertisements. Even now I can remember
many of the jingles. We all repeated them the way youngsters would once
have repeated nursery rhymes. I still wonder where the yellow went when you
brushed your teeth with Pepsodent and why Murray Mint should be the too-
good-to-hurry-mint. By today’s standards they were truly dreadful, but we
were fascinated by them [...] we were riveted by them. They were the
entertainment, just as much as the programmes that surrounded them.
(Humphrys, 1999: 98-99).
Commercial Ads and “Britishness”
To explore this question a little further, and to move away from the
conception of advertising appealing to a community as a homogenous whole
towards considering its relationship with more diverse and discrete groups, I
should like to make some brief general remarks about the nature of the
representations given by television advertising. At the start of the 1990s, the
BBC produced a five-programme series entitled Washes Whiter which was an
analysis of the phenomenon of television advertising in its first thirty-five
a task which the publicly-financed Corporation could undertake with a
substantial measure of impartiality. Three comments made in the series have
always struck me as especially relevant to any examination of the nature and
manifestation of advertising and of its relationship with society. On the one
hand, there was John Betjeman’s much quoted, if rose-tinted, remark that the
first ITV “commercials”
were hailed, with much relief by the broadcasting
authorities, as being “reassuringly British”; on the other there was the
comment, by social historian Paul Hewison, that TV ads were a “perfect copy
of a world and of a way of life that never existed.” The second observation,
Hewison’s, can be taken as a development and refinement of the assertion by
David Puttnam
that “Ads are a barometer of the age. If you want to know

Channel 5 has recently screened what was essentially a follow-up, produced by RDF
International, featuring some of the same contributors, while placing particular stress
not on the attitude of the viewer but on the objectives of the advertiser, thus arguably
reflecting the changing balance within the consumer society. The three broadcasts in
the series were respectively entitled, The Ads that Changed the World, The Funniest
Ads in the World and The Ads They Had to Ban.
At the time the word was a neologism in British English.
David (now Lord) Puttnam was an advertising specialist and became, in the recent
parliamentary debates over the role and function of the new media watchdog Ofcom,
a defender of the public interest as a major consideration to be taken into account in
all questions of broadcasting.
Renée Dickason
how a country perceives itself, look at its ads.” These differing comments
seem significant for various reasons which may be closely linked with the
idea of communities. Betjeman’s observation highlights the particular and
exclusive nature of British TV ads and their essential association with what
he no doubt regarded as the national community. It seems to me even today,
at least from a perspective on the French side of the English Channel, that,
despite globalisation, the fragmentation of television and new means of
communication, British television advertising retains much which is
distinctive, recognisable and narrowly oriented towards the national
audience. In other words, unlike the increasing number of international
advertisements, be they transnationally American, pan-European or the rather
bland English-language offerings from other sources, many British ads rely
on local / national / cultural / intertextual allusions and characteristics for
their effectiveness.
This does not mean, of course, that Betjeman’s remarks
can be accepted without question. In particular, we may wonder whether in
his use of “British,” he was not making the common but erroneous
assumption that the terms “British” and “English” are synonymous.
Moreover, we should remember that the audience for television ads in the
mid 1950s was hardly representative of the country as a whole. Reception
outside the London area was almost impossible and the viewers in the capital
represented a comparatively wealthy group. It would seem therefore that the
community concerned by the first advertisements and / or represented in them
was untypical of the British nation, which may reasonably be supposed to
suggest that a normalised vision rather than a celebration of diversity was
what was sought. Now, almost 50 years later, it appears that commercial
advertising is still guilty of disregarding whole sections or communities
within the population, both as a target audience and as a source of
Puttnam’s less sentimental vision defines and refines that of Betjeman.
His image of the barometer (an indicator of trends, of course, rather than a
totally reliable measure of the present, let alone the future) suggests that
advertising may give us an insight, admittedly with all the reservations we
can imagine about degrees of accuracy and distortion, not only into the nature
but also into the values and aspirations of the society to which it is directed.
The problem with his comment is, of course, the lack of objectivity in the
point of view. The process of advertising is undeniably one-sided: feedback
is at best intermittent, interactivity is almost unknown and it is the vision
imposed by the advertiser which dominates and may achieve the status of a
self-fulfilling prophecy. The observation by Paul Hewison is interesting

The use of the registers of humour and nostalgia is particularly striking.
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
above all for the different perspective it offers by centring firmly not on the
objective of advertising but on its methods. It questions the whole notion of
advertisements as representation, however perfect the illusion, viewing them
rather as the product of the inventiveness, imagination or sometimes
conformity practised by advertisers.
Perhaps more importantly, it implies
that the success of the process depends crucially on the willingness of
television viewers to subscribe to this distorted image. It seems to me that
these arguments take us to the heart of the contradictory and reciprocal
relationship between advertising and the community by implicitly evoking
the notions of fact and fiction, or of real or imagined communities. On the
one hand, it may be useful to consider the idea of adverts as a “living
archive” reflecting the way in which society sees itself, or the norms that
define it, but the relationship is complicated. According to this argument, the
archive is “living,” because the images it contains are necessarily subject to
organic transformation, while the documents within it, the adverts, are
immediately accessible, having forced their way into popular and collective
memory. The archive is therefore one way of achieving the “sense of
common identity” to which the Oxford Dictionary refers as one of the
defining characteristics of a community. On the other hand, there is
substantial evidence that sections of the community (or communities) feel
unconcerned by what are seen as unrepresentative advertisements and may
refuse the normalisation, consensus or connivance which the cosy image of
the barometer or archive would seem to suggest.
Commercial Ads: Homogeneity or Diversity?
How then can we relate this notion of community appeal or involvement to
commercial or product advertising? There is one immediate observation to be
made. In the vast majority of commercials, what is paramount on the part of
advertisers is the desire to present or treat all individuals from one particular
viewpoint, namely as potential consumers or as a market, similar in their
desires, anxious to conform and devoid of particular characteristics. Ads
which adopt this philosophy make little attempt to convince by argument or
originality, the belief being that endless repetitions of the same or similar
simplified messages will finally wear down whatever resistance may still
remain. Although sometimes condemned even by advertising professionals
themselves as being a throwback to the “dark ages” of early commercials,

The options open to advertisers are obviously limited, not only by regulation, but
also by political correctness and convention. Innovation, especially anything which
shocks or frightens, remains a risky commercial strategy.
Renée Dickason
these ads are nevertheless a common feature of the promotion of everyday
essentials, the basic technique consisting in nothing more inventive than
keeping the name of the product in the consumer’s mind.
To this method is frequently allied the device of social pressure,
imposing supposedly generally accepted but actually merely commercially
motivated norms, often reinforced by moral overtones (although Paul
Hewison would not agree, we are all supposed to want the whitest wash, the
cleanest kitchen, the best-fed children, the most efficient and therefore
ecologically friendly heating system and so on). Less frequently it is the
social criteria of the tabloids which dominate with the sybaritic promise of
indispensable instant gratification (available through the right choice of
shampoo, perfume, aftershave or cook-in-sauce). Taken as a whole, cultural
references serve to reinforce the process of normalisation by offering
identification with collective and national rather than individual or local
features. There are, in individual commercial advertisements, very few
concessions to diversity or to the idea of the national community being made
up of separate, smaller communities. The reason is, of course, largely
financial. Even specialist cable and satellite channels, which appeal to
communities constructed around common interests, represent too small a
return on advertising investment to have their own dedicated commercials. It
remains true that in these days of fragmented broadcasting the objective of
media buying is still to deliver a maximum number of members of the target
audience to the advertiser for as low a cost as possible, the effort being
largely concentrated on national norms rather than niche marketing, with
audiences being classified by such broad characteristics as age, sex and
socio-economic group.
This is not always the whole story, however, and I should now like to
explore the exceptions, which have a relevance for communities defined in
narrower terms. It is true, for instance, that some purely local or regional
advertisements do exist
and carry the names of local sales outlets, but these
adverts are a minority phenomenon extending only to very limited fields
(furniture stores, car dealers, local newspapers, etc.). Although such
advertisements are instantly recognisable as different, the difference lies not
in identity with the community (identification is limited to such strictly
functional details of giving addresses and telephone numbers) but rather in
their all-too-evident cheapness and amateurishness, often using still

I am referring to adverts which are carried only by one ITV contractor, which
benefit from reduced air-time rates and need approval only at local level. The ITV
network was established on the basis of 14 regions and the obligation to cater for such
local needs was imposed on regional ITV companies. Despite multiple ownership and
national marketing policies, this requirement still applies.
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
photographs, cartoon figures and voice-overs. It is also true that advertising
to specific sections of the community at specific times is not precluded; we
have only to think of the plethora of commercials offering products intended
for the attention of pre-school-age children and their long-suffering mothers
during morning children’s programming.
That this has most, if not everything to do with commercial rather than
community interests becomes clear when we compare this treatment with
those of other minorities. Until the 1980s, retirement pensioners tended to be
featured to a very limited extent and frequently for comic purposes. During
the Thatcher era, the marketing potential of the over-sixties dawned on
advertisers: pensioners no longer had one foot in the grave, many of them
(and not always the youngest) were physically fit and part of the mainstream
target for new products (and not just the golden twilight of Saga holidays);
moreover, they had the means to pay for them from their own substantial
pensions and from the added windfall of inheriting at least a share of the
sharply increased value of the former parental home. Almost at a stroke,
older people began to appear in commercials on a regular basis, not as
members of the supporting or competing extended family, but as characters
in their own right and with their own identifiable, legitimate and soon to be
satisfied ambitions.
Government plans to limit public provision of care for
the elderly and to amend pension policies, from the 1980s onwards, have led
to a spate of advertisements promoting products catering for the newly
discovered needs of those with longer life expectancy, precisely at a time
when changes in the nature of government and the family have meant that
pensioners are increasingly obliged to find their own solutions to their own
problems, rather than relying on help from the community or younger
relatives. The increasing number of commercials offering solutions to the
specific financial needs of pensioners is one of the factors which have
accounted for the rapid growth in the financial services sector of television
If the arguments so far are straightforward, greater complexity and
controversy are exhibited by the case of Britain's ethnic communities,
although the general observation holds good that, just as with the majority
community, advertisers seem to show little awareness of the diversities that

The question of advertising to children has always attracted special attention from
the bodies controlling independent television and merited a separate section in the
various codes of practice. The current debate on advertising for so-called junk foods
can be seen in the light of the on-going desire to protect those sections of the
community considered as particularly vulnerable or at risk.
It is a commonplace of ads that they should feature the type of people who are their
target audience.
Renée Dickason
exist within the ethnic populations. For many years, most commercial
advertising was marked by two very disputable features. The black
community found itself excluded or at least very seriously under-represented
in commercials. Ethnic minorities were not perceived as affluent,
mainstream, consumers and therefore interested advertisers much less, even if
one leaves aside the unspoken and unacknowledged fear of a possible
backlash against products which were promoted by members of the black
community. Coupled with this was the fact that presentation was often of a
token or stereotypical nature which the minorities themselves understandably
found reductive and offensive and which ultimately proved
counterproductive for advertisers.
Examples such as the Asian shopkeeper,
the Afro-Caribbean sports figure or musician (nearly all male incidentally),
the manual worker were widespread. Virginia Matthews characterised this
phenomenon back in 1988: “The blacks you see in British commercials are
hidden behind counters, on the supermarket check out or they're the cool
Rasta-with-the-ghetto-blaster-and-sunglasses stereotype” (Matthews, 1988).
Changes have occurred, of course, bringing greater representation, if
not greater recognition, and the debate on advertising and the ethnic minority
communities continues, not least in the question of linguistic stereotypes.
How, for instance, should we judge the Homepride Cook-in-Sauces adverts
from 1996 which featured an Indian man with a strong Geordie accent and a
couple of Chinese girls who spoke in the broadest of Glaswegian tones
compatible with the understanding of the average viewer? Possible
interpretations vary. Was the advertiser making a positive attempt to turn
prejudice against itself by intimating that many within the ethnic minority
communities are not “immigrants” and that such communities enrich the
nation as a whole? Or was he playing on the conventional view of the diets of
the minority communities, while purveying what some would argue was a far
from authentic product?
According to a much-quoted report published in March 2003, the
argument over the stereotyping of ethnic minority communities is far from
dead. David Fletcher of the media buying agency Mediaedge:cia claimed that
advertisers knew little about the ethnic minority populations and that “there
was a sense that advertising [was] not part of every day life, particularly for
the Asian community,” which reflects both the inability of advertisers to

Arguably, of course, the questions of tokenism and stereotyping are different. Apart
from a few rare examples where advertisements for the same product include the same
characters over a lengthy period of time or develop almost into serial form, the brevity
of an average 45 or 60-second commercial allows little space for other than a
superficial or stereotypical characterisation. Among the best-known exceptions might
be the Oxo family, the Gold Blend couple or Renault’s Nicole and her father.
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
overcome cultural and linguistic barriers and a refusal, by part of the national
community at least, of the consensual or general vision mentioned earlier. In
this regard, Simon Cottle reminds us of two contrasting points of view, both
of which are viable for advertising to ethnic minority communities:
It is in and through representations […] that members of the media audience
are variously invited to construct a sense of who ‘we’ are in relation to who
“we” are not, whether as “us” and “them,” “insider” and “outsider” […]
“citizen” and “foreigner,” “normal” and “deviant,” “friend” and “foe” […] At
the same time, however, the media can also serve to affirm social and cultural
diversity and, moreover, provide crucial spaces in and through which imposed
identities or the interest of others can be resisted, challenged and changed.
(Cottle, 2000: 2)
Even when commercials go out of their way to be innovative and
more sensitive to diversity, the reception is not always favourable: one recent
AA advert which showed a young Asian couple rowing over their car
insurance attracted predictably contradictory reactions. In some quarters, it
was praised for showing a commonplace situation with which people of a
certain age from any ethnic group could identify, while elsewhere it was
accused of being tokenistic and therefore patronising use of an ethnic
minority. In the light of this case, it might seem that the advertiser can never
win, but sceptical reactions are probably best attributable to the effect of long
years of disregard and disrespect which have brought an inevitable reaction
and raise serious questions over the complex relationship between advertisers
and their target. As Jane Thynne stated, “Advertising has become a two-way
process – people are willing collaborators in the game as long as they are
kept interested and their intelligence is not insulted” (Thynne, 1990). Her
message, it seems, has still not been fully understood.
The Challenge of Innovation
Whatever the issues raised by the representation of different minority
communities, commercial ads have some need to be anchored in everyday
physical or cultural reality
which may cause them to be alive to changes in
the community as a whole. There must be an air of authenticity in, for
instance, clothes, vocabulary and setting, which should correspond to the

Cultural reality can, of course, include the fantastic and the register is widely used
for adverts addressed to children. In general, however, British ads tend to be more
sparing in their use of this technique than is the case in many other countries.
Renée Dickason
period represented, something which is particularly important when we
remember that British ads frequently have recourse to nostalgia and are
notable for the apparent fidelity of their reconstruction of the past.
Meanwhile changes in life style must be reflected, such as the changing roles
of men and women and the acceptance of differences in sexual orientation.
Some may claim that such changes are more supposed than real, and are
inspired by commercial opportunism rather than being based on genuine
sociological research, but the creation of new models remains a recurrent
feature of television advertising and they follow one another with relentless
predictability. Thus, the married bliss of the 1950s was followed by the
activities of the predatory male of the 1960s and 1970s, while the 1980s saw
him facing competition from the thrusting female professional. The 1990s
were the age of the more gentle New Man and New Woman while 2003 saw
the birth of Metrosexual Man.
Of course, there have always been new ways to persuade consumers to
buy, but the general argument remains valid that there must be some
connection with trends within society. Some adverts do genuinely exercise an
informative function, the original meaning of the term. One delightfully dated
example, as it now seems, was the commercials produced by the petrol
companies Shell and National Benzole in the very early days of television
advertising: motorists were informed of attractive places to visit by private
car. Product promotion was kept to a minimum while the emphasis was
placed on the use of leisure, something that the people as a whole were
believed to be benefiting from. The experiment was short-lived: the first oil
crisis, the rationing of petrol in the wake of the 1956 Suez Campaign, put
paid to this initiative which nevertheless played to the ambitions of groups
within the community beyond those sufficiently affluent to pay for their own
car, or lucky enough to benefit from what was to be the most abiding of
perks, the company car. Similarly, after the demands for self-gratification of
the “me-decade” of the 1980s, the years when Margaret Thatcher famously
asserted that there was no such thing as society, 1990s ads relied on a return
to some more socially aware values and there were attempts to show a greater
sense of concern for others or a greater sense of community. Some companies
asserted their ecological credentials, by highlighting actions designed to save
the planet, thereby helping the world community, and supermarkets
emphasised how considerate they were towards those needing help, by
stressing greater customer services alongside the abiding and incomparably
low prices. Almost inevitably, such an unexpected approach proved to be less
than fully convincing and rapidly gave way to other, more familiar,
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
Institutional Ads and the Interpretation of Community
On balance, we may perhaps conclude that awareness of community
implications can never be entirely absent from commercial ads, and indeed
that some appreciation of the nature of society and its evolution is essential to
good (i.e. successful) promotional practice. The relationship between
advertiser and community or society nevertheless contains substantial areas
of confusion and ambiguity, which adverts from national government and
other public bodies do not display. On the contrary, these ads concentrate on
such unifying and genuinely generally acceptable factors as safety, welfare
and social responsibility within society as a whole. More than this,
government ads may also concentrate on narrower parameters than the nation
as a whole, by focusing on and appealing to specific groups within the
community. The feature of being directed to a specific target audience
(classified by age, sex and socio-economic group), present as we have seen in
product advertisements, is even more pertinent to institutional ads, not least
because public expectations and demands are greater. The tax payer or rate
payer likes to think that his / her money is being well spent and is much less
forgiving when he/she feels that accurate and authentic representation is not
being achieved, or indeed that the advertisements are unlikely to achieve their
objectives. Institutional ads therefore have a greater need to respect
immediacy, the community as it is, which has led to a markedly higher
presence of those minority groups excluded from or neglected in commercial
adverts. For advertisements of general appeal, government ads ensure a
representation commensurate with the relative size of these groups within the
population as a whole. In some cases, communities such as ethnic minorities
may make up a major part of the target audience, and this phenomenon is
reflected by what at first sight might seem like over-representation. Focusing
may function in a negative, positive or simply neutral way. Those sections of
the community at risk from the dangers of drug taking or AIDS have been
targeted in a number of specific and non-specific ways, ranging from expert
advice and personal testimony to doomsday-style cataclysmic scenarios
addressed both to the vulnerable themselves and to their families and friends.
Specific adverts featuring exclusively Asian or Afro-Caribbean couples were
used to encourage such households to consider applying to become adoptive
or foster parents while determined efforts have been made to attempt to
persuade people of all backgrounds to seek recruitment in public or
government services such as the armed forces, the police, nursing or

The recruitment and retention of black and Asian police officers is a particularly
problematic area which obviously needs careful handling. The Metropolitan Police, in
Renée Dickason
Local variation may also be significant. Advertisements for the New
in 1998 were notable for their promotion of a national scheme by
identification with specific communities. If the accents and pictures of
Liverpool, South Wales and Tyneside, areas of notoriously high
unemployment, seemed sadly appropriate to the campaign, it was clear that a
positive response from the local community was essential to the success of
this government initiative. This approach could be contrasted with grandiose
associations of anonymous teamwork led by management efficiency in some
of the 1980s Manpower Services Commission (MSC) ads promoting
government training schemes, but it should be borne in mind that much of the
work of the UK MSC was focused on helping companies rather than
individuals. One potential risk in granting special attention to one community
or another is clearly the danger of stereotyping (the unemployed Geordie, the
cheerful Cockney, the hard-working but disadvantaged black, etc.), but, on
balance, the work of government adverts in bringing in a greater variety of
faces and types has undoubtedly had an impact on television advertising as a
whole and contributed to bringing about the establishment of truer
representation. At best, the depiction of smaller communities of all sorts as
being an integral part of a coherent national community is an essentially
positive and optimistic message.
Local communities also need to stand up for themselves. Community
Helplines, the institutional equivalent of local product commercials in both
their simplicity and cheapness, are a way of cementing community links and
encouraging local initiatives and generosity to improve life for all. Helplines
thus enable small-scale charities to make themselves known at minimal cost
and to receive both moral, physical and financial support. Television
advertising for charities is a recent development
but has rapidly become a
multi-million-pound business. Many of the campaigns are addressed to
international needs or to the consequences of particular natural disasters and
the quality of the regular advertisements from Oxfam or the Save the
Children Fund is undeniable. National charity advertising is, predictably
enough, undertaken by such organisations as deal with disadvantaged

1991, used a black actor and a modified verse from Rudyard Kipling's famous poem
“If,” in an interesting reversal of the theories of Empire.
The incoming UK Labour government’s New Deal initiative aimed at combating
youth unemployment by increasing training opportunities.
Air-time is usually granted free of charge to Helpline adverts which serve to fill
gaps in company schedules.
Authorisation was first granted in 1989, reflecting the Thatcher government’s
interest in encouraging the activities of the voluntary sector to fill gaps in public
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
members of the national community, the homeless, children, the elderly or
those suffering from particular diseases or handicaps. The appeal is to a
general sense of responsibility for others, although screening the
advertisements at certain times, or on certain channels, is believed by the
charities themselves to bring about a more cost-effective response, as donors
react more favourably to people like themselves, with whom they can
identify more easily.
In a different perspective, though again for a relatively modest cost,
local authorities have their own economic well-being to ensure.
Advertisements for seaside resorts and other tourist attractions have long
been a regular feature of television, but more recent years have seen a new
kind of self-promotion. The 1980s and 1990s saw attempts by various areas
to attract new residents, each community making a promotional point out of
its own perceived advantages. In 1990, Milton Keynes promoted itself as a
place where children could breathe fresh air and enjoy the unspoilt
countryside, an approach which was both reactive and innovative. The
London Docklands’ campaign in 1981 had chosen the line “why move to the
middle of nowhere when you can move to the middle of London,” stressing
proximity to the centre of the capital and work opportunities in the new
commercial and residential district which was being created on long-derelict
land close to the River Thames. Beyond the obvious question of how true the
representation of each area really was, we may perhaps ask ourselves what
type of resident the advertisers were attempting to attract, what type of
community they were hoping to establish or sustain and perhaps what the
long-term prospects of a work based community rather than a life- or leisure-
based community might be.
These examples have shown that institutional ads make greater use of
the notion of separate communities than do their commercial counterparts.
Central government adverts focus more generally on the cohesion of the
national community and most ads work on the principle that their major role
is to inform and warn the population and to indicate the obligations and
responsibilities of good citizenship as well as appealing to a degree of self-
Despite current complaints about the activities of the over-

It is worth noting, of course, that television adverts are not the only way for such
messages to be transmitted: government can use all the promotional opportunities at
its disposal, which include the inclusion of informational messages in soap operas,
emphasising once again the potential link between real and imagined communities.
The first such example dates back to Coronation Street in 1967, when Minnie
Caldwell, who had just applied for the newly introduced Supplementary Benefit
persuaded her friend and neighbour Ena Sharples to do the same. Broadcasters
Renée Dickason
solicitous and politically ultra-correct “nanny state,” this caring approach is a
phenomenon almost as old as television itself. In earlier times, the method
was extremely pedagogical, with the sound and vision offered by television
being turned into an audio-visual teaching aid in the depiction of the dangers
of badly-wired electric plugs, or in the explanation of such novelties as
continental road signs and radial ply tyres. Such health and safety messages
did, and their modern equivalents sometimes still do, seem to be stating the
obvious a little too obviously, leading almost inevitably to comparisons with
repetitive commercial advertisements.
There is nevertheless a growing tendency for such ads to become
more specifically addressed to different if still large sections of the
population (families with children in the run-up to 5th November, young
holidaymakers likely to drown while swimming after drinking too much,
children needing constant lessons of road safety). Meanwhile they have
sometimes become much more graphically hard-hitting in explaining the
dangers of smoking, drug taking or AIDS. In many cases, the long-lasting or
quasi-permanent nature of the campaigns allows a number of more or less
shocking approaches to be adopted, which may either reflect a more
voyeuristic attitude on the part of the community in these days of “reality
TV” or be an attempt to combat “reaction fatigue” on the part of the viewer.
A central plank of government advertising nevertheless remains a
certain vision of the community, associated with the awareness of
responsibility towards others. This shows in many fields but the most striking
example is that of road safety and in particular the question of drinking and
driving. Although the legislation introducing the breath test was passed in
1967, it was not until 1976 that the first high-profile campaign was launched
to stigmatise as extremely dangerous what in the past had been regarded as a
kind of perverse affirmation of virility. Since then, regular advertising
campaigns have been conducted, notably around the pre-Christmas / New
Year period, encouraging good sense and restraint among the section of the
community most likely to act irresponsibly, young men aged 17 - 24. Over
the years, campaigns have used a wide range of registers, from a sense of
indignation and anger, to those of loss and waste, but a general progression
from the less to the more explicit and shocking can be observed. Although
the effectiveness of any advertising campaign is never easy to prove, anti-
drink driving adverts would seem to be a substantial success, even after so
many years. UK government figures published in 2002 indicated that alcohol
was a major cause of 460 road deaths in 1999 and 520 in 2000. In 1976, more

themselves frequently reinforce such messages by including references to associated
Telephone Helplines.
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
than 1600 people were killed in this way (Department of Transport, 2003).
Moreover, community benefit and self-interest sometimes coincide in
government ads. All the campaigns encouraging precautions likely to reduce
crime come into this category: the community as a whole feels safer, while
the individual suffers less personal loss, trauma or inconvenience. It is no
surprise that the government should encourage local initiatives in the form of
support for and advocacy of Neighbourhood Watch schemes. The very
wording of the slogan connected with many such adverts is explicit enough
about collective effort and involvement: “crime, together we’ll crack it”
speaks for itself, but the different campaigns have included specific warnings
to particular and vulnerable groups.
As a general community interest is very clearly promoted in these
adverts, the involvement of government in promoting greater well-being can
hardly be questioned. The fact remains, however, that government
advertisements are often open to the charge of political motivation or
manipulation. Mark Jones’ article in The Listener in May 1988 summarised
the dilemma: “If Labour were elected, they’d spend even more money on
government advertising than the Tories, albeit on different aspects of
reform.” The campaigns for the National Lottery and for the privatisations of
key industries in the 1980s are a case in point and raise the issue of the
relationship between an advertising government and the community it is
supposed to serve. The Lottery was a huge initial success, causing anxiety to
existing charities who found some of the flood of public goodwill on which
they relied disappearing into the coffers of government agencies or, as was
subsequently revealed, into the bank accounts of the directors of the Lottery
organiser, Camelot. The incentive to buy tickets was always founded on the
hope of personal gain, “it could be you,” rather than the altruistic communal
advantage of money being used for good causes, at a local as well as national
level. That the Lottery was an opportunity for the national community whole
was emphasised by first advertisements showing a map of the British Isles
and clips of typically British activities. That its success reflected well on the
Conservatives is equally unquestionable for the government had apparently
found a painless way of raising funds for local and national projects of all
kinds. Nevertheless, advertising for the lottery was a sensitive and, for some,
a moral issue, which was even more the case for the promotion of the various
privatisations. Nationalised industries belonged, one might argue, to the
nation; their transfer to private ownership could therefore be seen as
doctrinaire Thatcherism, or what former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
memorably called “selling the family silver.” There is, however, another, less
negative, interpretation: the most successful of the privatisations, probably
because it was the nearest to home, was the “people’s share offer,” i.e. the
Renée Dickason
Tell Sid campaign selling British Gas shares. Making share ownership an
activity for all, to be publicised among friends and giving citizens the right to
own part of the national heritage for themselves might be regarded as a way
of achieving individual and collective advantages by extending community
involvement in major industries.
Saving the Community
In conclusion, I should like to refer briefly to one particular campaign, which
seems especially pertinent to the question of community, namely the
Northern Ireland Office’s Advertising for Peace campaign conducted
exclusively in Ulster from 1988 to 1997. Achieving a sense of common
identity, let alone common purpose, within the Province, the Six Counties or
the North of Ireland (even the names are rich in positive and negative
connotations) was highly problematic. Within the local context, the term
community usually refers either to Catholics or Protestants, to Unionists or
Nationalists, much more rarely to both: it was, nevertheless just this effect of
unity which the campaign was intended to achieve. The techniques used were
an accentuation of the very community appeal used in other government
advertisements, in an intensified and more specific form through an emphasis
on similar if separate suffering and common human values, along with a
good sprinkling of visual references recognisable to the local citizens who
were the specific target audience.
Care had to be taken to avoid adverse
reactions and this was achieved by the use of authentic accents but
unidentifiable actors, for within this high-risk strategy there was no margin
for error.
Much of the material was recognisably factual, one might almost
say objective (including, for instance, archive film), but the use of the
deliberately underplayed and understated mingled or more precisely
alternated with the effusively emotional, according very largely to evolutions
in what was euphemistically called the “security situation.” Opinions differ
over the impact (i.e. success) of the campaign and its role in the laborious
peace process. Unionist politicians tended to be highly sceptical and the
exercise ended abruptly when Labour returned to power in 1997 with its own
agenda. On the other hand, the advertising agency responsible, McCann
Ericson (Belfast), and the Northern Ireland Office were consistently positive
(McCann Ericson’s promotional cassette of the series of adverts claimed up

The adverts could also be seen in large parts of the Irish Republic which can receive
British programmes from Wales and Northern Ireland.
The campaign tested McCann Ericson’s ability to be faithful to its own motto,
“truth well told.”
Community and Communities in British Television Ads
to 88% of favourable responses). What is most interesting from our point of
view is that the campaign was overtly aimed at changing attitudes, but that it
was exceptional in its single-minded appeal to notions of community in order
to achieve this end. We can admit that the Northern Irish example was
innovative and imaginative and may be seen to have illuminated the ill-
defined territory between the discreet, consensual exploitation of common
ideals and the realms of political communication, information management
and soft propaganda. If nothing else, it throws into sharp relief the different
attitudes and practices of commercial and government advertising regarding
the question of communities and the diversity of the ways in which subjective
notions of community may serve as an anchorage for TV ads.
Works Cited
Bullmore, Jeremy. 1991. Behind the Scenes in Advertising. Henley-on-Thames: NTC.
Cottle, Simon. Ed. 2000. Ethnic Minorities and the Media, Changing Cultural
Boundaries. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Department of Transport (UK). 2003.
drinkdrive (accessed: 11.05.2003).
Davidson, Martin. 1992. The Consumerist Manifesto, Advertising in Postmodernist
Times. London: Routledge.
Dickason, Renée. 2000. British Television Advertising, Cultural Identity and
Communication. Luton: Luton University Press.
Featherstone, Mike. 1991. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. London: Sage.
Fletcher, Winston. 1992. A Glittering Haze. Henley-on-Thames: NTC.
Henry, Brian. Ed. 1986. British Television Advertising, The First 30 Years. London:
Century Benham.
Humphrys, John. 1999. The Devil’s Advocate. London: Hutchinson.
Matthews, Virginia. 1988. “White Market.” The Listener (9.06.1988).
Mérédieu, Florence de. 1985. Le Film publicitaire. Paris: Henri Veyrier.
Thynne, Jane. 1990. “Best TV Ads Have the Last Laugh.” Daily Telegraph,
Truxillo, Jean-Paul and Philippe Corso. 1991. Dictionnaire de la communication.
Paris: Armand Colin.
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The theoretical and conceptual uncertainties that surround the
definition and indeed existence of “community” are belied by its
usage in everyday language and in concrete experiences of “our”
communities. Amongst diasporic Pakistani Muslim networks in
Britain and Germany the “community” plays a significant role in
developing and sustaining, and is itself sustained by, feelings of
belonging, security and identity. For the most part these communities
are experienced in symbolic terms (Cohen, 1985) and echo many of
the principles that underpin Etzioni’s (1998, 1997, 1995)
understanding of “communitarian communities.” With specific
reference to the communitarian ideal of the moral voice and the
Durkheimian (2002, 1995) dichotomy of sacred and profane this
chapter utilises qualitative data generated in Britain and Germany to
explore perpetuation and change in the boundaries of diasporic
Pakistani Muslim communities through symbolic competition.
Whilst the concept of community remains a theoretically contentious issue,
these uncertainties do not negate individual daily experiences of, and
relationships with, communities. Cohen understands community to be “a
mental construct [that] condenses symbolically, and adeptly, its bearers’
social theories of similarity and difference” (1985: 114). Community
members seize upon tangible characteristics, in the form of symbols, to
provide definition to the elusive community. Through individual
understandings of “us” and “them,” symbols that come to represent the
boundaries of “our” community are vested with individual and community
identities. It is this commonality of symbols, and the values they are
underpinned by, that distinguish “our” community from all others. Thus,
tangible symbols come to represent a diversity of meaning and significance,
whilst embodying individual identities as part of “us.”
Bano Murtuja
The fluidity with which community boundaries are drawn is
illustrative of the diversity among individual members and their social
contexts (Dwyer, 1999; Hall, 1996; Massey, 1994). Individual members
share community symbols but ascribe to them different meanings and
significance. The ability to maintain such difference allows individuals to
negotiate their way between different cultures and community boundaries.
“Just as the ‘common form’ of the symbol aggregates the various meanings
assigned to it, so the symbolic repertoire of a community aggregates the
individualities and other differences found within the community and
provides the means for their expression, interpretation and containment”
(Cohen, 1985: 21).
So, definitions and boundaries of communities are ongoing, active
processes of identification that reflect individual identity formations as the
“self” is “reflexively understood by the person in terms of his or her
biography” (Giddens, 1991a: 53; see also Hall, 1992). Like community, the
definition and understanding of “identity” is a highly contentious and
sociologically debatable “problem.” It is widely accepted that identity is a
multi-faceted and multi-dimensional concept. The plurality of identity has
been encapsulated in terms such as hybridity (Modood, et al., 1994),
composite (Husain & O’Brien, 2000) and fluid (Parekh, 2000). The
dimensions of these pluralities are negotiated in what Breakwell (1987)
conceptualises as the content/value paradigm, where content is that which
informs identity (factors such as ethnicity) and value is the importance any
one individual places upon such factors. The values attached by an individual
to particular content within “composite” identities vary according to his or
her circumstances at any one time. In many instances, individuals are able to
smoothly negotiate which aspect of their identities comes to the fore by
attaching a greater value of importance to a particular facet at the expense of
another, potentially conflicting content, in accordance to their social
circumstance. As Taylor (1998) argues, whilst the faces individuals present to
the world at any one time are an accurate representation of their identity, they
are not a true reflection of who they are in their entirety.
Husain and O’Brien (2000) observe that identity construction is often
negotiated within the binary of “me” versus the “other,” and thus occur at the
boundaries of a community. “In constructing identity, the individual is at the
same time reflecting an imposed identity, so in the simplistic white/non-white
dualism, an individual becomes what she is not (I am black therefore I am not
white; I am white therefore I am not black)” (2000: 3 sic). To reduce identity
construction and perception to a question of either/or is to inaccurately
dichotomise the issue. Taylor (1998; see also Brah, 1996) views identity as a
sense of coherence, where the “I” at the “core” of each individual “unifies the
The Bubble of Diaspora
fragmentation of experience” caused by the comparative definition of “self”
through difference. In many ways this appears a tautological argument, ‘I’ is
realised through difference, whilst difference is an expression of “I” within
social relations. This said, Taylor (1998), provides a useful means by which
to theorise the multiplicity of identities.
According to Taylor’s theory, the definition of one’s identity, with
reference to the “other,” is where difference is utilised as a prism, which,
although accurate in its portrayal of an individual within a particular context
of social relations, is not expressive of “I” in its totality. Further, the social
relations to which an individual affiliates, are, through their own structural
constraints, determinate of which categories of individuals are given
admittance. So, for instance, labels of “Pakistani” will, for the most part, be
restricted to those who demonstrate some ethno-cultural affiliation with
Pakistan. In this manner, individual identities inform the structure of social
relations whilst at the same time, are informed by them.
The use of symbols, particularly those associated with identity, to
create and define the boundaries of our community is particularly evident in
the context of diaspora. Metcalf (1996) observes that Muslim diasporic
communities utilise religious objects, language and paraphernalia as a means
of “making Muslim space” (see also D’Alisera, 2001). This essay draws upon
43 in-depth qualitative interviews of Pakistani Muslims in Britain and
Germany. These interviews were conducted for the purposes of a doctoral
enquiry that sought to explore processes of social exclusion from within
diasporic Pakistani Muslim communities. In the course of this enquiry, a
great deal of discussion centred around the symbolic repertoire of “our”
community and individual identities. Whilst respondents locate perceptions
of “their” community using objectively identifiable terms such as “Pakistani”
and “Muslim,” they go on to qualify such statements with reference to
Pakistani cultural and Islamic norms and values. These norms and values
symbolise the essence of what distinguishes “us” from “them.” The
boundaries of “our” community, the demarcations between “them” and “us,”
are drawn when respondents talk of what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim.
Further, what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim is often defined with
reference to what it means to not be a Pakistani Muslim.
They [Germans] have made, what do you call them, those houses… old
people’s homes. They take them there and leave them. But if we bring that
child up well, in an Islamic environment... they are in their own homes, they
are being looked after. (Yasir, German male, emphasis added).
Caring for ones’ elders becomes a symbol of Pakistani Muslim communities
and identities because it is what “we” do and what “they” do not. Exercise of
Bano Murtuja
these symbols affirms an individual’s membership to the Pakistani and/or
Muslim group and reflects the relationship between symbols and individual
In part, the importance attached to caring for ones’ elders stems from
what Cohen (1985) terms “condensation symbols” that represent the
“memory, fantasy, narrative and myth” (Hall, 1993: 396) of Pakistani
Muslim pasts, continually informing identities in the form of the ideal.
Formed through memories of “better times,” the construction of community
boundaries through the use of condensation symbols is “a symbolic
recreation of the distinctive community through myth, ritual and a
‘constructed’ tradition” (Cohen, 1985: 37). The past is viewed as the ideal, in
comparison to which change is deemed negative and damaging. These
“condensation symbols” form nostalgic considerations of identity anchors,
becoming concentrated emblems of “us.” Through such an ascription
condensation symbols are re-invested with social values. “[W]e thus
encounter the paradox that, although the re-assertion of community is made
necessary by contemporary circumstances, it is often accomplished through
precisely those idioms which these circumstances threaten with redundancy”
(Cohen, 1985: 99).
The use of condensation symbols as a means to define ‘our’ identities
is utilised even where respondents explicitly acknowledge that such a norm
or value is located in an idealised memory of the Pakistan that was left
behind during migration.
[W]hen people came from Pakistan and India they bought with them old
values. Now Pakistan and India have moved on, they have developed. But the
people that came from there they have not developed. They are holding on to
those values because they think those are important. (Hana, UK female)
The use of condensation symbols develops and maintains a cultural bubble,
the principles of which individuals are able to live in accordance to, and
utilise as a means of defending their identities and understandings of what it
means to be a “Pakistani Muslim.”
The relationship between symbolic boundaries of a community and the
identities of its individual members can also lead to what Cohen terms
“symbolic competition.” Symbolic competition is a mechanism whereby the
symbols of a community are utilised to re-assert and re-constitute the
identities of the community, and in turn, those of its members. In the case of
boundary (and identity) construction and maintenance references to the
“other” become all the more salient where the “other” is considered to be
particularly powerful and/or a significant threat. Where “they” begin to
encroach upon those symbols of a community that define “us,” the “other” is
The Bubble of Diaspora
seen as a threat to the integrity of individual and community identities. In the
case of communities reliant on condensation symbols “one often finds… the
prospect of change being regarded ominously as if change inevitably means
loss. A frequent and glib description of what is feared may be lost is ‘way of
life;’ part of what is meant is the sense of self” (Cohen, 1985: 109).
Symbolic competition re-asserts the importance of the symbol and re-
affirms its relevance and shared value in the contemporary context. “Through
such symbolic behaviour people draw the conventions of community about
them, like a cloak around the shoulders, to protect them from the elements –
other people’s ways of doing things, other cultures, other communities. The
conventions become boundary through their re-investment with symbolic
value” (Cohen, 1985: 63, original emphasis). Thus, community boundaries
are relational. The more assertive the encroachment upon a boundary, the
greater the feelings of affiliation between members of the same community
and the sharper the distinction between “them” and “us.”
The manner and veracity with which communities engage in symbolic
competition is illustrative of the way in which the “other” is understood,
particularly in relation to “us.” Located in the norms and values of Islam and
Pakistani culture, the symbols of diasporic Pakistani Muslim communities
come to embody respondent understandings of sacred and profane. Durkheim
(1995) defined the sacred with reference to that which is holy or consecrated.
In contrast the profane is “that which has the capacity to contaminate the
sacred” (Morrison, 1995: 191). The language and sentiments used by
respondents to refer to the norms and values that they feel define the “other”
equates to the profane. These norms are not just understood as being secular,
but as being unholy and sinful. British and German cultures are perceived to
be inherently un-Islamic, with “sin at every corner” (Bilal, German male) and
many of their norms considered as leading to “evil” consequences (Safa, UK
female). In contrast the Islamic affiliation of the Pakistani Muslim diasporic
provides its symbols with sacred connotations. Distinctions such as sacred
and profane result in “community boundaries [that] not only reflect pre-
existing apprehensions. [But] by insulating ‘us’ from ‘them’, they help to
create the kind of environment where outsiders become constructed as
dangerous” (Dixon, 2001: 597, original emphasis).
The sacred/profane binary attached to symbolic boundaries leads to a
great deal of insecurity and mistrust within this diasporic community.
Respondents fear that as their children become more and more “integrated”
into Western secular society, those things deemed to be profane will be
normalised in their daily lives, and they will begin to reject “our” beliefs and
values in favour of “theirs.” Respondents perceive two categories of threats.
The first is from those norms and values that are so diametrically opposed to
Bano Murtuja
‘our’ own that there is no middle ground in which to compromise, such as the
consumption of alcohol. The second is from those whose norms and values
differ from “ours” but whose proponents may, in certain circumstances, be
included in the boundary of “us.” It is evident from the data, particularly with
reference to German respondents, that divisions based upon the
sacred/profane dichotomy run within the Muslim Umm’ah,
as well as
without. The majority of respondents in Germany draw distinctions between
“us” the Pakistani Muslims and “them” the Turkish Muslims who are
considered to be Muslims in name only. This distinction is drawn much more
vehemently than that between “us” and ethnic Germans (a distinction
considered to be so obvious that it needs very little elaboration). As Muslims
there is the potential for Pakistanis and Turks to be perceived of as being
from one and the same community. Where this is the case their theological
beliefs and practices are also collated.
Whilst Islam may be considered a set of guidelines, open to
interpretation, respondents perceive there to be constraints as to the way in
which they can be interpreted (Parekh, 2000). One such constraint is
provided by, and in turn informs, the boundary between “us” (Muslims) and
“them” (non-Muslims). The participation of Turks, in what are conceived of
as German, and therefore non-Muslim norms leads many respondents to
stress the need to maintain the distinction between Pakistani and Turkish
communities. This is particularly so as the conflation of these communities
negates the boundary between “us” [Muslim] and “them” [non-Muslim], and
threatens the sacred quality of many of the symbols that shape and are shaped
by respondent Pakistani Muslim identities.
I have seen that the Turkish here… 90 per cent of them are not full Muslims…
because for them it [Islam] makes no difference. And when it doesn’t make a
difference, when you are a child, then they grow up and children say that it
doesn’t make a difference. When these people [Turkish Islam] do it then what
harm does it do if we [Pakistani children] do it? (Ulfath, German female)
As a mechanism that allows for theological justifications, the symbolic
binary of sacred and profane is used to make daily symbols and rituals
irrefutable. It is the use of this binary in faith based communities that makes
Etzioni’s understanding of communitarianism particularly relevant as a
conceptual framework within which to consider Pakistani Muslims in
diaspora. In his advocacy of communitarianism, Etzioni (1997) seeks to
Within the Holy Qur’an the term Umm’ah has been used to define past and present
religious communities, Islamic or otherwise. For the most part, contemporary use of
the term Umm’ah has become restricted to refer to the global Muslim community.
The Bubble of Diaspora
establish “the new golden rule” that basis communities on core values that
are normative, implicitly understood and “good,” categories that also grant
them the accolade of being “moral.” Through adherence to these core values,
Etzioni seeks to “reduce the distance between the ego’s preferred course and
the virtuous one” (1997: xvii). Etzioni suggests that shared moral values give
rise to community duties, formed from “positive compelling commitments…
that are beyond debate and dispute” (1995: 24). Failure to abide by these
commitments elicits rebuke and condemnation through the moral voice of the
community, a form of “moral suasion.” This moral suasion can take the form
of pressure and even exclusion whereby “[m]embers of the community…
seek to dissociate themselves from people [who behave in a manner that
contravenes the moral values of the community]” (1997: 30). In this way
individuals become answerable to the community for their actions, or lack
thereof, as “communities draw on interpersonal bonds to encourage members
to abide by shared values” (Etzioni, 1995: ix). The incontrovertible character
of such duties permits the moral voice complete legitimacy.
Moral voices of Pakistani Muslim communities are provided their
authority through the binary of sacred and profane. The profane constitutes
actions that are “beyond debate and dispute” because they are so
diametrically opposed to the sacred. The authority of a supreme being results
in absolute legitimacy of the moral voice, providing justifiable means of
compulsion to ensure individuals act in accordance with the sacred, and in
contravention of the profane. Such compelling commitments render any
dissent by one who acknowledges this authority as spurious. Thus, the shared
values of Islam and Pakistani culture form the precipice from which
community moral voices seek to regulate individual agency.
Certain religious and cultural norms and values are perceived to be so
integral to the establishment and defence of community boundaries that
actions contrary to them are seen as profane and beyond the pale. Within the
diasporic Pakistani Muslim community the fear of this profanity permeating
the membrane of the community and diminishing its integrity leads to the
enforcement of community moral voices. By encouraging members of the
community to abide by the rituals, myths and traditions attached to the
“sacred” practice of Islamic and cultural norms and values, moral voices
facilitate and precipitate the perpetuation of community boundaries. Rooted
in condensation symbols these moral voices are resistant to change, which is
deemed to be inherently negative, threatening the status quo and the mythical
Within the empirical data moral voices of the community are
articulated in two different ways; those that are overtly expressed by the
community itself, and, those that are projected onto the community by
Bano Murtuja
respondents. Through these moral voices the community ensures its members
remain “Muslim” and “Pakistani” by sustaining the practice, and in turn
importance, of Islamic and Pakistani cultural symbols. Respondent behaviour
is not only expected to be religiously or culturally acceptable, but also visibly
demonstrative of Pakistani and Islamic identities. By attempting to compel
individuals to behave in accordance with the norms and values of community
boundaries, these moral voices ensure continuity through symbolic
competition, defending against the encroachment of “other” values. In so
doing these moral voices represent the thresholds that differentiate “us” from
My father was very adamant that we all wore Asian clothes at home, and you
know maintained our sort of identity and really conformed to what the
neighbours you know thought we should be doing (laugh). (Safa, UK female)
We respect each other a lot… if someone in the neighbourhood has passed by
me, an uncle or someone and I have referred to him using his name… then the
person next to me will say “oi what are you doing? Have your parents not
explained anything to you?” …In our environment there is a lot of respect.
(Raees, German male, emphasis added)
As individuals exercise the symbols representative of the norms and values
upon which the boundaries of the community are constructed, the
community, through expression of moral voices, conveys its approval at what
is perceived to be their “good” behaviour. Where these symbols are not
exercised in a manner considered appropriate the community expresses its
disapproval and labels individuals as “bad.”
Many people that do not agree with us [respondent and husband] on this, they
say “what is that meant to mean, they [children] will just learn the language
[Urdu]? It is important to teach them the Qur’an.” (Yusra, German female)
I get quite a lot of abuse from the community that I am a working mum.
(Zahra, UK female)
In addition to the overtly articulated accounts of community moral voices,
respondents, in both Britain and Germany, speak to an internalised account of
reflexively negotiated morality (Giddens, 1991b). This morality is projected
onto the community and regulates individual behaviour as actions are taken
in light of “what will people say?” This internalised expression of community
voices is used by individuals to police their own behaviour through a self-
constructed, albeit externally referenced, moral voice. Such instances are
The Bubble of Diaspora
overt illustrations of the ways in which the moral voices of the community
influence, shape and regulate the moral voices of the self.
You think, “what will they think?” (Dilshad, UK female)
This internalised familiarity and practice of external morality is akin to
what Wallwork perceives as Durkheim’s notion of “transcendent aspect of
moral experience” (Wallwork, 1972: 38). This transcendent experience is an
individual belief, or assumption, that moral positions of the community
“derive from, and are enforced by, some power, real or ideal, which is
superior to us” (Wallwork, 1972: 38). Moral voices of the community, when
experienced in such a manner, are but “symbolic representations of the real
moral forces which act upon individual members of society, namely, those
exercised by public opinion” (Wallwork, 1972: 39).
As representative of community identities, moral voices of the
community carry with them enforcement endorsed by the whole community.
Etzioni (1995) advocates the use of “shame based strategies” to sanction
breach of the moral voice. This means of sanction is particularly relevant and
effective in the context of the Pakistani Muslim community. As Werbner
highlights “the politics of the subcontinent is a politics of honour and shame,
of izzat” (2002: 27 sic.). The majority of respondents articulate the
possession of izzath as a form of social capital, which enables participation in
Pakistani Muslim communities. As a concept, izzath denotes honour,
reputation and standing of the individual, family and/or community at large.
Actions contrary to the shared moral values of the community are thought,
not only to diminish the izzath, and therefore social capital, of the individual,
but also his or her family, and in some instances the community at large.
Further, where individual behaviour does not conform to symbols
representing Muslim identity it can be considered contrary to, and therefore
diminishing of, the community’s Islamic integrity. Thus, an individual who
acts contrary to the Islamic and cultural values upon which the boundaries of
a community are based can be made subject to processes of social exclusion
as his or her izzath, and that of their family is diminished. This ensures that
the community does not fragment from the inside by excluding those who
pose such a threat (Mohammad, 1999; see also Dixon, 2001). In more
extreme cases, it has been documented that in some areas of the world,
families, in order to protect or redeem their izzath, have been known to kill
their female members, who are thought to have acted in a “dishonourable”
way (Faqir, 2001).
Bano Murtuja
Izzath is all about doing good things and then you will have izzath. People will
look at you in a good light, they will look at you with izzath… If you have
izzath then you have some sort of status in the community. (Haidar, UK male)
Izzath is important isn’t it? If we do something wrong and people find out
about it then obviously the extended family’s (khandan’s) izzath will be
diminished, people will not say good things then will they? (Najm, UK
Where the parameters of the sacred and the profane (the “us” versus
the “them”) are breached, moral voices of the community respond with “talk”
and gossip from the community. Such “talk” and/or gossip takes the form of
moral judgement, and occurs where an individual’s behaviour is thought to
be “below” acceptable standards and thresholds. Moreover, the “bad”
behaviour of one individual negatively influences the izzath of another where
their relationship is such that one is considered to have had some part to play
in the communication of values, or the regulation of the other’s behaviour.
Yes it [izzath] is affected. Obviously then people talk as well. (Maha, German
The point of izzath close to us is that we not do anything which results in
anyone being able to raise a finger to us. (Kamil, UK male)
If my children do something bad then people will say look he has done this,
but they will also say he’s so and so’s son. (Haidar, UK male)
The fervour with which respondents stress the importance of practising
particular symbols to be a “good” Muslim (one who abides by the sacred) is
illustrative of the non-negotiable interpretations attributed to a community’s
symbols when its boundaries are threatened. The “defence” of Muslim
identities through such symbolic competition results in Islamic guidelines,
and the community boundaries they give rise to, being perceived as static and
immutable, and fail to reflect the fluctuating processes of negotiations to
which they are otherwise subject.
This is especially the case where what threatens the boundaries is
perceived to be so prevalent as to endanger the very foundations of the
community. The furore surrounding The Satanic Verses in Britain was just
such an instance, where the integrity of the Muslim Umm’ah in general, and
that of Muslim communities in the West in particular, were threatened by
“Western ideals.” As Weller observes, publication of The Satanic Verses was
The Bubble of Diaspora
not only a slur on the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH),
a central tenet of Islam,
but became a question about “the nature of British society and the place of
Islam and Muslims within it” (1990: 39). The public outrage against British
institutions that permitted such an insult to be published and promoted in the
popular media, and book burnings, were means whereby many British
were able to re-assert their “Muslim” identity by distinguishing
themselves from the British establishment, whilst overtly expressing the
strength with which they held their Islamic faith, and the status of the Prophet
(PBUH; Ballard, 1994). In such an instance Mohammad (1999) argues,
certain facets of identity are no longer negotiable. Where the community
feels under threat, “notions of group identity [are] used by the Pakistani
Muslim ‘group’ [to] construe cultural difference as immutable, absolute and
incommensurable” (Mohammad, 1999: 236).
Whilst identities, and thus community boundaries, may, where
threatened, take on fixed characteristics, through their defence they are being
re-constituted. Hall (1993) argues identity is constructed even as it is being
portrayed and described to the outside world. Although cultural identities
“reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes” (1993:
393) of a group, they nevertheless “undergo constant transformation…
subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power” (1993: 394).
Cultural identity is at once the reflection of historical commonalities and
shared “cultural codes,” and the process of becoming, as circumstances
intervene and create differences within this shared history. Whilst the threat
of The Satanic Verses was battled, through, what came to be perceived as,
fixed and immutable understandings of what it meant to be a Muslim and the
values one ought to hold dear, the identities of those involved, and thus, those
of the communities that they purported to represent, were reconstituted in the
process. In a similar fashion the perceptions and reactions of German
respondents to the Turkish community are demonstrative of the ways in
which such static expression of community boundaries, in itself, informs the
identities of those who express them as such. By being so definitive of the
distinction between “them” and “us,” respondents in Germany inform their
own Islamic identities, resulting in much more solid and rigid definitions of
what it means to be a Muslim (Taylor, 1998; Hall, 1993).
Community boundaries do not necessarily exclude all difference.
Given the fluidity and negotiable character of “new ethnicities,” Husain and
Peace Be Upon Him.
Not all Muslims agreed with the burning of the Satanic Versus, or indeed the hostile
reaction to what was considered by some to be a piece of fictional writing (Ali, 1992;
Khanum, 1992; SBS, 1990).
Bano Murtuja
O’Brien (2000) argue that Muslim communities are adopting certain western
secular norms and values, both within community practices and individual
identity construction. Similarly Vertovec (1997) highlights that the minority
presence in Britain does not equate to an either/or choice as to which culture
an individual is influenced by, rather, these cultures are “co-present” (see
also, Blakemore & Boneham, 1994). As Parekh points out however, it is
important to recognise that identity is “neither unalterable nor a matter of
unfettered choice. It is alterable within limits and in a manner that
harmonises with its overall character and organising principles” (Parekh,
2000: 6). Given the links between individual identities and community
boundaries this suggests that communities have to be amenable to change,
and that change has to fit the context of those communities, both in their
historical and present outlook.
Shifts in community boundaries and identities are also reflective of
overt negotiations between individual members and community structures to
which they are subject. From the empirical data such negotiations are
particularly evident between individuals and moral voices of the community
that are not as all-powerful as Etzioni (1998, 1997, 1995) contends. Etzioni
argues, that it is only when the social order is “aligned with the moral
commitments of the members” (1997: 12) there is no need for coercion;
rather, individuals abide by the prescriptions of the social order through their
own free will. This is an insufficiently nuanced understanding of an
individual’s morality and moral reasoning. Etzioni pays scant attention to the
plurality of moral voices to which an individual can be subject, or indeed to
individual negotiations between different moral pulls.
The empirical data is saturated with a multiplicity of moral values and
guidelines that structure, influence, and are themselves, expressed through,
the exercise of individual agency. As voices which individuals interact with
during the course of their daily lives, moral voices of the self give expression
to the values that an individual holds most dear, because they are what he or
she believes to be “right,” “good” and “moral.” “To be a person of high
moral values if you will, I think you have got to look at… within” (Beena,
UK female). The authenticity and moral authority of respondent voices are
located in, and derived from, the roles they occupy in a social context,
different facets of their identities and their cultural (Pakistani and/or British
or German), and, Islamic values. By articulating their own morality in this
way, respondents illustrate the internalisation of moral positions they
associate with, and feel are appropriate for roles such as parent hood. “We
[husband and wife] didn’t want to move out, we wanted to live together [with
in laws] like a proper family should” (Dilshad, UK female, emphasis added).
The Bubble of Diaspora
Respondents engage in implicit, and at times explicit, negotiations
with moral voices, be that their own, or those of the community. These
negotiations are influenced by numerous considerations, which in
themselves, are not always “moral” in character. Much of the negotiations
that respondents speak of when articulating their own moral voices are also
reflective of renegotiations and reconstructions of their identities in particular
For somebody like me, I mean, I am in that position, you are trapped between,
where you have your own children and you have your own parents. And
sometimes the priority goes to your children, my children have the priority for
me at the moment because they are at this stage, this is happening every day.
(Deen, UK male)
Respondent negotiations of moral voices are further informed by what is
perceived to be the comprehensive applicability of Islamic beliefs. Whilst
particular moral positions are accorded varying degrees of applicability in
any given situation, some respondents speak to over arching frameworks of
moralities in which their voices are grounded. For many respondents this
framework is provided by, and located in Islam and a respondent’s “Muslim”
identities. Articulation of Islam as this central frame of reference is
illustrated, by respondents, through its use as a set of guiding principles that
inform the construction and negotiation of alternative, and additional
identities and personas. Conflicts between different moral voices of the self
are resolved through reference to Islamic principles and guidelines. Islam is
not perceived by respondents to be an external set of values which structure
individual agency. It is seen as morality which, when internalised through the
acceptance of the Islamic faith, becomes integral to an individual’s own
belief systems. These respondents suggest that to occupy the “good” and
“moral” position with respect to any social role one simply has to become a
“good Muslim.” As a way of life Islam is considered to provide signposts as
to what it is to be of “good moral standing.” These signposts are considered
applicable to any and all scenarios and social roles. In this sense, amongst
many of the sample frame, individual morality is mediated through Islam,
with reference to the moral authority of a supreme being.
My only expectation is that they [children] follow the path of Islam. And all
the things that Islam says, then, in that, lots of things come into that don’t
they? So our expectations are very big from them. So then, just that they
become good Muslims. (Taj, German female)
Bano Murtuja
Whilst there can be seen a focus among the British sample, across
gender and age cohorts, to develop more Islamically orientated moral voices
of the self, there is also greater acceptance, in comparison to the German
sample frame, that this Islamic morality is negotiated, and conditioned, by
other facets of an individual’s life. The morality derived from Islamic
prescriptions runs parallel to, and in conjunction with, but does not
necessarily guide or supersede, that which is grounded in the alternative
identities and roles of an individual. Thus, in contrast to the German sample
frame, the moral voices of British respondents see Islamic morality mediated
through that of the individual.
Obviously being a Muslim, Islam is a way of life… [But] obviously I do not
pray 5 times a day, I wouldn’t say I am a fully practising Muslim, but I do
keep all of my fasts and I pray as regularly as I can and I would expect my
children to do the same. (Safa, UK female)
The authority of the community’s moral voices and the effects of it’s moral
outrage/suasion on the izzath of different individuals and families are not
uniform. Respondent articulations of community moral voices, and the
degrees to which these shape an individual’s decision making and agency,
vary considerably. Fluctuations in the authority of moral voices can be
attributed, in part, to shifts in content/value balancing during the course of
individual identity negotiations (Breakwell, 1987). Shifting identities are
simultaneously informed by, and give rise to, alternative resources that
individuals are able to utilise during the course of their reconciliation with
community moral voices. Pre-existing resources and social capital in the
form of izzath, education and money also have a bearing on the degree to
which the moral voices of the community are given credence. Finally, and the
most significant with regard to the construction and re-construction of
community boundaries, is the perceived legitimacy of community moral
Whilst claiming legitimacy through Islam, community moral voices, in
both Britain and Germany, are often informed to a large degree by Pakistani
culture. This does not reflect the prevalence respondents’ attribute to Islamic,
as opposed to Pakistani cultural, identity. As a representation of the
community’s “conscience,” instances where values of community moral
voices are no longer synchronised with those of individual members call into
question the legitimacy of boundaries that are drawn upon such presumed
congruence. Where moral voices are influenced by culture, regional politics
and different theological inflexions, they are perceived by many respondents
as un-Islamic, often antiquated, failing to meet the theological challenges
posed by daily life in the “secular” West. In light of this, there is a conscious
The Bubble of Diaspora
and overtly collective drive, amongst the majority of respondents, to gain
distance from ethnic differentiations in favour of more Islamically orientated
identities and outlooks. Justifications for a more “modern” way of thinking
are made with Islamic reference. Thus, respondents are able to allow the
integration of perceived Western norms, such as female participation in the
paid labour market, or choosing a marriage partner, in the daily lives of
themselves, their children and other community members by grounding them
in Islamic values. Islam is utilised in this manner as a resource with which to
negotiate the reduction of Pakistani cultural identities, and corresponding
denials of those moral voices based upon cultural norms and values.
I asked all of my sisters… If you have any objection [to marriage partners] tell
me…my cousin baulked at this a lot, what has happened to you… your mind
has become European. I said no my mind has not become European, I have
studied Islam. I said your minds are traditional, Islam gives total permission.
(Bilal, German male)
Because a lot of people, they get so confused with this culture and tradition
and enforcement and every thing and they probably think that it is part and
parcel of it [Islam]. (Deen, UK male)
This trend is also evident amongst those respondents who have been
born, and/or raised, in Britain. Many of these respondents have the view that
the perspectives of the “older” generation, and the moral voices of the
community are “traditional,” steeped in cultural rather than religious maxims.
Not only are the moral voices of the community, where influenced by culture
thought to be defunct in Britain and Germany, but in many instances they are
also considered to provide an inaccurate interpretation of Islam. Such re-
interpretations of Islam suggest fluidity in Islamic prescriptions themselves.
It is not really that there are religious pressures, pressures about religion, but
really pressures about cultural attitudes. (Safa, UK female)
The unfortunate thing is what we call our culture, that is not Islamic. We have
put a curse on ourselves, the culture that we have made is often totally
unrelated, it is just related to the area in which we live. Often many things in
this are un-Islamic. (Wahid, German male)
What I mean to say is that Islam was so flexible, so flexible, so broad minded,
it is us, sometimes people blame the Ullemah [religious clerics], that the
Ullemah are too rigid, they are not open-minded, that could be a possibility…
Islam has come for all ages, and we have to rethink about how in today’s
world we can practise Islam correctly. (Naim, UK male)
Bano Murtuja
The authority of community moral voices is also negotiated by individuals in
light of different perspectives on izzath and how it ought to be constituted. If
an individual does not share the same concept of izzath, or values that affect
izzath as community moral voices, then being judged against such values is
perceived to be inconsequential. Where moral voices are considered to
represent specific Pakistani cultural, rather than Islamic, norms and values,
respondents stress that these voices can have no bearing on his or her izzath.
If they [parent or child] understand then [the izzath of both is ruined]. The
person that does not understand he would kill 10 men and think himself big
for it. Look at Bush, the Muslims around the world are cursing him, but for
his race he is a hero isn’t he? Now [they think] he is doing the right thing, his
izzath is increasing, but really it is decreasing isn’t it? (Shabaz, German male)
I think our community latches on to that word [izzath] too strongly, I don’t
think we really know the meaning of it. Sometimes they will lose their family
and their loved ones for the sake of izzath. They’ll lose everything for izzath.
But at the end of the day are they being good Muslims? No. They don’t
question that. They get stuck on the word izzath and then some will not move
on at all. (Zoe, UK female)
Individuals negotiate which norms and values they feel are relevant,
worthy or acceptable yardsticks by which their izzath ought to be measured.
If they are not then respondents disregard the sanctions of moral outrage,
exercised to enforce these norms and values, as being unimportant or
irrelevant to izzath. In such instances it is often felt that izzath is used too
readily as a mechanism of control. In particular, moral voices of the
community apply macro-level guidelines of “sacred” and “profane” to issues,
respondents feel, are completely unrelated to such a consecrated boundary.
As such, the lack of conformity to such “misdirected” thresholds of “us” and
“them,” or “sacred” and “profane” values, are considered to be inapplicable
to an individual’s izzath and therefore inclusion in the community.
My parents’ definition of me bringing shame on them is different from what I
would expect or think bringing shame on me is. I mean for my parents me
wearing trousers in the community might be a knock against their izzath, but I
don’t mind that. For [daughter] to wear trousers for me that wouldn’t even
harm my izzath. (Zoe, UK female)
[Community control] too is part of [Pakistani] culture, whether your child is a
son or a daughter, a persons izzath is mushtariq (attached/fused) with that [his
The Bubble of Diaspora
or her behaviour]. We take it far too seriously… we make that into a question
of life or death. (Wahid, German male)
Respondents are in a process of negotiation with community moral voices, as
their identities and roles come into conflict with the “traditional” norms and
values of the Pakistani Muslim community. As individual views of what
“their” community symbols ought to be and represent, differ from
community voices’ perceptions of the way symbols are, individuals negotiate
within the parameters of power, voice and ownership. These negotiations are
bringing about subtle shifts in community boundaries as the distinctions
between “them” and “us,” and the symbols representing such distinctions,
In conclusion Within the Pakistani Muslim community there are
multiple moral voices, of which those influenced by Islam and culture are
only two. Different origins, including an individual’s own perspective, may
give rise to different moral voices. In addition, alternative moral voices may
all bear relevance to the content/value judgements made during the course of
identity construction and re-construction (Breakwell, 1987). An individual’s
identity as a mother, may, at any one time, supersede her role as a Pakistani
Muslim, and thus, it is to the moral voice of motherhood that she will
attribute greatest value (Silva, 1996). In such instances moral voices of the
community, which espouse the norms and values of Islam and culture may
well be rejected, threatening the “compelling commitments” and therefore
legitimacy, upon which they are based. When different moral voices come
into conflict, individuals are able to use their own interpretation of the moral
high ground to determine which they agree with. Such interpretation and
agency however, is subject to an individual’s position vis-à-vis the structures
of the community (Abu-Lughod, 1991).
Moreover, there is a symbiotic relationship between communities and
their individual members. Located in symbolic understandings of what it
means to be “us,” community boundaries are illustrative of the different
facets of an individual’s identity. Simultaneously, the construction of
community boundaries in a particular manner provides the framework for,
and shapes individual identities by establishing them within a set of concrete
structures and labels such as “Pakistani.” Whilst the communitarian ideal of
the moral voice is being exercised as a means to engage in symbolic
competition with the “other” it does not succeed in maintaining community
boundaries. Rather the construct, boundaries and identities of communities,
like those of its individual members, are in constant processes of negotiation
and change.
Bano Murtuja
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This essay explores works by Jeffrey Weeks, Kenneth Plummer,
Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler and Diana
Fuss and investigates the paradoxes in recent research vis-à-vis the
concept of gay “community.”
In his recent groundbreaking study on community, Zygmunt Bauman notes
that in today’s world of personal alienation and societal fragmentation,
community is “another name for paradise lost – but one to which we dearly
hope to return, and so we feverishly seek the roads that may bring us there”
(2001: 3). While Bauman’s claim of nostalgia for returning to communities
applies to societies in general, this assertion can be appropriated to the gay
community in particular – a community that has not been exempt from
contention and discord amongst its members or its theorists in recent years.
Gay people and queer theorists have endorsed the concept of community as a
working theoretical base upon which to build political cohesiveness and unity
by asserting that the homosexual consciousness goes beyond one’s individual
experience and includes an awareness of belonging to a distinct and particular
social group which has claims of its own on society at large. Yet inasmuch as
any community is assured through the stabilising concepts of a shared
experience or common identity, the very notion of community is taken to task
when one more deeply considers the constructs of identity and individuality.
Some theorists therefore hold a contravening view of community, claiming
that it is a regulatory instrument, a category of oppressive structures that
denies individual difference.
Is the homosexual community one that is reified or imagined? Given
the premise that a gay community does exist, what role does identity play in
the formation of such a community? Are homosexuals excluded from a wider
social community in forming a sexual community? How does the issue of
Tammy Grimshaw
exclusion from a larger community affect the struggle of gay men and
lesbians for political recognition and equal human rights? Offering an
analysis of works by Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Diana Fuss, Kenneth
Plummer, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Jeffrey Weeks, this essay reveals the
disagreements and paradoxes in recent research in the fields of queer and
social theory as it explores possible responses to these queries.
Before embarking on an analysis of the gay community, one must first
query whether the existence of such a community is fact or fiction. In his
analysis of the social and historical forces which impact upon the lives of
homosexual people, Jeffrey Weeks concedes that “the idea of a sexual
community may be a fiction, but it is a necessary fiction: an imagined
community, an invented tradition which enables and empowers” (2000: 192).
Weeks’ claim that the origin of the gay community lies in imagination and
invention echoes Benedict Anderson’s recent study on nationalism.
Anderson asserts that nations are “imagined communities” because “the
members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-
members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the
image of their communion” (1991: 6).
While the homosexual community is not a nation in the strict sense of
being established according to geographical location or topographical
boundaries, Weeks points out that “geographical concentration” is essential
to “produce a sense of [gay] community experience” (1985: 191).
Considering the prerequisite of “geographical concentration,” one could
argue that the gay community meets Anderson’s criteria for imagined
communities: the majority of gay men and lesbians will meet and become
acquainted with only a few other gay people within a limited geographical
area; most will never meet the majority of the gay polity. Indeed, with
estimates of the gay population ranging from 4.5 to ten percent of the
national population (Swann, 1993; Tarmann, 2004), the notion of a national-
wide gay community quickly appears as a logistical impossibility. Further,
the sense of communion that Anderson describes – whether “real” or
imagined – is the impetus behind much of gay politics. The gay community
ostensibly emerges as an imagined community in meeting these criteria.
Bauman advances a view on the illusory nature of community that is
similar to Anderson’s theories, recognising that “if relationships (including
communal togetherness) have no guarantee of durability other than
individuals’ choices ‘to make them last,’ the choices need to be repeated
daily, and be manifested with a zeal and dedication which would make them
truly hold” (Bauman, 2001: 99). Bauman’s mention of the creation of the
illusion of durability of communities through repetition also resembles Judith
Butler’s theories on the sociocultural invention of gender. Butler explains that
The Gay “Community”
gender is performative, meaning that the various gender-related acts which
culture compels an individual to perform create the illusion of the existence
of gender. These actions, repeated over time, constitute the “reality” of the
individual’s being (Butler, 1999: 173). Butler claims that individuals do not
have choice in the creation of the fiction of their own gender, while Bauman,
in contrast, does speak to the choices which individuals make daily.
Nevertheless, Bauman’s mention of the repetitive nature of actions as a
means of creating and inventing sociocultural illusions does bear some
resemblance to Butler’s theories. Whether chosen or compelled by culture,
the performative behaviours in certain gay relationships, such as the butch-
femme dynamic or the sadomasochism culture, create the illusion of the
existence of a community – a community that will survive only as long as its
members reiterate those behaviours. The ephemeral, illusory nature of the
communities built around these relationships further supports the view that
the gay community is imagined.
Anderson’s analysis of nationalism also brings to mind homophile
organisations such as Queer Nation. According to Anderson, communities are
imagined through language in general, and the use of language in the novel
and the newspaper supports particularly strongly the imagining of
communities (1991: 144-54). Although not as high-brow as certain novelistic
or journalistic discourses, the on-line comic book Queer Nation, published by
the organisation of the same name, could be considered a tool for the
formation of imagined communities. The publication uses language not only
to create solidarity amongst its readers as they collectively enjoy the comic’s
satirical content and perhaps identify with the exploits of the gay characters,
but also provides social opportunities for its readers to have virtual chats with
other readers about the publication and other matters (Cooper & Dennis,
2001). A perusal of the “Queer Nation” website reveals that those who visit
the webpage can register as “citizens” by confidentially providing their
personal details, again recalling Anderson’s assertion that the use of language
in citizenship supports the imagining of communities.
Members can post photographs of themselves in order to make contact
with other registered citizens on the “Face the Nation” page and can post
public comments on the “Reader Mail” page. Even though Anderson
proposes that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face
contact... are imagined” (1991: 6), the method of registering on such a
website brings with it the possibility of an intimate online chat, which may
lead to such face-to-face contact. As David Bell argues, the internet has
recast notions of both “intimacy” and “community” because it provides the
opportunity for the formation of “pure communities” – which Anthony
Giddens defines as those of sexual and emotional equality (See Giddens,
Tammy Grimshaw
1992: 2). The intimacy in gay virtual space which may lead to face-to-face
contact thus conversely points to the idea that such contact can form
communities that are not imagined.
Whether one subscribes to the view that gay relationships form
imagined communities, or instead endorses the notion that the gay
community can be reified, most queer theorists agree that the notion of a gay
community is necessary. Weeks stresses that “it is because homosexuality is
not the norm, is stigmatized, that a community transcending specific
differences has emerged. It exists because participants in it feel it does and
should exist” (2000: 183). Initially it appears that this assertion ties into
Anderson’s notion of imagined communities since it maintains that members
of the gay community merely “feel” that it an extant one. Yet, Weeks’ claim
goes beyond Anderson’s because it asserts that perceptions not merely impact
upon, but ultimately are one’s “reality.” For Weeks, the gay community is
therefore reified on the basis of its members’ perception of and necessity for
its existence.
If the gay community is reified by the common agreement of its
members, one wonders what role individuality and identity might take against
the backdrop of this common understanding. Marjorie Mayo (2000)
comments that while identity is a pivotal issue for all communities, the notion
of a shared identity can act as a prerequisite for the formation of
“communities of identity.” That the gay community exemplifies one such
community of identity was particularly evident during the Gay Liberation
Movement of the 1970s since “community organising... was based upon the
shared identity of being gay” (56). Kenneth Plummer has expressed a similar
view, asserting that identities are of heightened significance when
communities of identity become mobilised for political action and social
change (1995: 190).
Such communities of identity emphasise shared agreement and
common action, from which accrue gains to the community as a whole.
Further, queer theorists are quick to add that communities of identity have
benefits for their individual members, one of the most significant of which is
individual affirmation. As Weeks points out, the gay community rests on the
implicit assumption that “it is through social involvement and collective
action that [. . . gay] identity [is] affirmed” (2000: 184). Using identity as the
basis for collective action can then result in formidable community power:
“the strongest sense of community is in fact likely to come from those groups
who construct... a community of identity” (Weeks, 2000: 182). Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick has also noted that gay identity plays an important role in the lives
of many gay people, giving them “a real power to organize and describe their
experience of their own sexuality... If only for this reason, the categorization
The Gay “Community”
commands respect” (1990: 83). Gay identity can accordingly be seen as a
shared basis for forming communities, empowering, building solidarity and
camaraderie amongst, and reassuring their individual members.
Yet, while theorists acknowledge that the notion of identity can be
used as a basis for the establishment of a community, they recognise that
identity is in itself a contentious enterprise. Mayo cautiously addresses this
issue: “the concept of identity is not more straightforward than the concept
of community. And if the concept of individual identity is problematic, so too
is the notion of communities of identity, let alone the notion of identity
politics” (2000: 45). Mayo’s assertion rings especially true when one
considers that there are divisions within the gay community, for instance,
those based on class, race and political and theoretical differences, just to
name a few.
In turn, this particular contention within the gay community stems
from disagreement over the very purpose of identity. Most theorists readily
acknowledge that identity is an efficacious construct for political
mobilisation. Nevertheless, it has been found that an inherent contradiction
pervades such a political enterprise – a contradiction which exposes a deep
ambivalence about communities of identity. Diana Fuss (1990) contends that
poststructuralism and deconstruction have revealed the paradox upon which
much of identity politics rests as gay people embrace a unifying identity to
mobilise their politics, but simultaneously decry the manner in which societal
constraints have thrust such identity-based restrictions upon them. She has
discerned that the notion of gay identity “is relied upon to mobilize and to
legitimate gay activism; ‘gay pride,’ ‘gay culture,’ ‘gay sensibility’ are all
summoned as cornerstones of the gay community, indices of the emergence
of a long-repressed collective identity.” Yet, the idea of a “universal gay
identity” is concomitantly rejected (97). Weeks similarly explains that the
gay community attempts to shirk “imposed definitions” and stresses instead
“a struggle for social space” in which identities can be formed. However,
“there is of course a historic irony in this process. The identities are being
shaped on the very terrain that gave rise to domination in the first place”
(2000: 185).
Because of this domination, Butler views identity categories as
“instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as normalising categories of
oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of
that very oppression” (1991: 13-14). By way of example, it is worth pointing
out here that the passage of Section 28 in the United Kingdom in 1988 – a
law that prohibited the promotion in state-supported schools of gay domestic
partnerships as “pretended family relationships” – imposed oppressive
Tammy Grimshaw
regulatory regimes upon the gay community and gay identity, while
simultaneously providing a space for the contestation of those very restraints.
As a result of the potential for identity categories to oppress and
dominate, identity is “vilified” by some, even though “sanctified” by others
(Fuss, 1990: 102). Although exploring the positive aspects of identity, Weeks
expresses grave concerns about the construct, adding that it can have a
sinister side particularly “when it is allied to the prescriptive work of religion,
psychiatry, medicine or law” since, in these cases, “the imposition of identity
can be seen as a crude tactic of power, designed to obscure the real human
diversity with the strict categorisations of uniformity” (1985: 187). In other
words, while enabling and mobilising of political change, the very
classification of individuals according to their sexual identities has the power
to control, restrict and inhibit gay people, especially when deployed by those
in roles that have traditionally been regarded as authoritative. Some might
therefore argue that communities of identity can be pernicious collective
forces which use the friendly and parochial construct of community to
disguise the oppressive power of identity restrictions.
Bauman’s volume can be called upon to cast light on this theoretical
dispute. For Bauman, disagreements about the function of identity might
possibly be resolved if identity is viewed as a malleable construct – one
which is not merely susceptible to, but in some cases welcoming of change.
Acknowledging the controversy that surrounds identity, Bauman suggests
that theories about the construction of identity will only be efficacious when
the construct is seen to represent “a neverending and forever incomplete
process... Identity must stay flexible and always amenable to further
experimentation and change” (2001: 64). Weeks also believes that identity
should be seen as a flexible construct, but he attributes the malleability of
sexual identity in particular to changes which are sometimes external to the
individual, claiming that “sexual identity... is provisional, ever precarious,
dependent upon, and constantly challenged by, an unstable relation of
unconscious forces, changing social and personal meanings, and historical
contingencies” (1985: 186). Because identity is constructed on the shifting
sands of historical, social and personal change, so too are communities of
identity, meaning that the critical issue, according to Weeks, has become “not
whether community, but what sort of community, and what sort of identity,
are appropriate at any particular time” (2000: 182).
Even though identity and community can been seen as labile
constructs that change and adapt in ways beneficial to individuals, being in a
community nevertheless comes at a cost to its individual members. Bauman
emphasises that “the price is paid in the currency of freedom, variously called
‘autonomy’, ‘right to self-assertion,’ ‘right to be yourself’” (2001: 4). Thus,
The Gay “Community”
communities are built on the seismic tension that exists between the security
that their members crave as opposed to the desire of those members for
individual freedom, creating a binary opposition between the safety in the
numbers of the community of identity and the freedom of the individual.
Bauman therefore claims that the concept of community is incompatible with
that of identity because “‘identity’ means standing out: being different, and
through that difference unique – and so the search for identity cannot but
divide and separate” (2001: 15-16). Such division and separation seem
antithetical to the common aims and concerns of a community and
accordingly it could be argued that a community will begin to disintegrate
when the emphasis is shifted from communality to identity. This shift then
begs the question: how can one be free to establish one’s own unique identity
when labelled and categorised according to the “safe” and more monolithic
notion of identity that the community promotes?
Noting that freedom can be restricted for members of the gay
community, Foucault warns that identity constructs limit and impede one’s
autonomy. In “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity,” he explains that
friendships and other relationships between men were “a very important kind
of social relation: a social relation within which people had a certain freedom,
certain kind of choice (limited of course)” (1994b: 170). Foucault’s emphasis
on sociality and camaraderie recall Bauman’s comments on the security that
is to be found in participation in a community, while his parenthetical
comment regarding the limitations on freedom also brings to mind Bauman’s
analysis of the security/freedom dichotomy. Foucault thus suggests that since
there is freedom (albeit limited) within community life, communities are
never completely secure. In other words, there is a certain amount of
insecurity that inheres in the (limited) freedom that members of the gay
community enjoy. Fuss has similarly noted that sexual freedom often
functions against the backdrop of insecurity because “borders are notoriously
unstable, and sexual identities rarely secure” (1991: 3).
Bauman concludes that “the argument between security and freedom,
and so the argument between community and individuality, is unlikely ever
to be resolved and so likely to go on for a long time to come” (2001: 5).
Bauman’s comment is not only of critical importance for its prophecy on the
future of conflict in community, but also for his use of the term
“individuality,” revealing that in his schema, “individuality” and “identity”
appear to be synonymous and interchangeable. By way of contrast, Weeks
has attempted to surmount the freedom/security dilemma by insisting that
members of a community can share a common identity, but still posses an
individuality that is unique to each member of that community. While
Tammy Grimshaw
recognising the limitations of both community and identity, Weeks believes
that “individuality can be realized” within the gay community (2000: 184).
Contrary to Bauman’s assertions on the inverse relationship between
individual autonomy and group security, Weeks asserts that “the idea of a
sexual community has developed because of a conviction that it is only
through the enhancement of a collective identity that individual autonomy
can be realized” (2000: 192). Perhaps in contradiction to his assertions about
the limitations on freedom, Foucault maintains that identity can be a
liberating construct which enables gay people to discover, if not celebrate,
their own particular individualities. He argues for “an inventiveness special to
a situation like ours” (1994a: 139) and adds that “if we [gay people] are
asked to relate to the question of identity, it must be an identity unique to
ourselves” (1994b: 166). Foucault’s description of uniqueness and
inventiveness suggests that individuality is possible within collective identity.
Further, his mention of shared experience, i.e., a situation like ours, implies
that individualities can happily co-exist within a community of identity.
The distinction between identity and individuality seems tenuous at
best, however, leaving one to ponder alternative avenues through which the
struggle between identity and community can be explored. While running the
risk of stating the obvious, it must be noted that much of the contention
surrounding homosexual identity and gay community stems from confusion
over precisely which community is being considered at any particular time.
That is, the issue of inclusion in or exclusion from a community revolves
around which community has been selected for analysis. Weeks has noted
that particular definitions of community, especially those relating to sexual
identity, may pose problems to, or perhaps even undermine, a wider sense of
community (2000: 182). Applying this principal to the gay community, one
could conclude that gay people may have a right to be themselves as defined
within their own inclusive community, but may not be conferred that right by
the larger (predominantly heterosexual) community. Members of the gay
community may then be excluded from the larger community because they
undermine the larger community’s sense of sexual coherence.
Fuss and Butler both assert that all formations of identity are based on
exclusion (Fuss, 1990: 110; Butler, 1991: 19). Simply stated then, if the gay
community is based on identity, and identity is based on exclusion, such a
community is constructed on the very basis of that exclusion. But are such
sexual identities and communities shaped on the terrain of the gay person’s
involuntary expulsion and marginalisation from the larger community? Or are
these communities of identity based on exclusivity, helping gay people to
construct exclusive identities on the basis of their active repudiation of the
restrictive mores of the larger community? Seen as a participant in a
The Gay “Community”
community of identity in which its individual members choose to take part,
the homosexual is defined in relation to that which he or she has voluntarily
excluded on the basis of becoming a member of the gay community. Yet, if
homosexuality is read as a transgression against heterosexuality, a
transgressive and “non-normative” practice of desire which marginalises gay
people from larger society, then presumably gay identity is formed with
reference to that from which it has always already been excluded.
For Butler, it is sheer folly to assume that individuals possess any
semblance of freedom from the cultural constraints and expectations that
would be necessary in order to make informed decisions about what they
wish purposefully to exclude from their identities. Rather, identity remains an
oppressive enterprise that marginalises individuals and groups because of
cultural processes of exclusion (1991: 15). This rings true not only for
homosexuals, but for any others who are alienated from larger society on the
basis of “non-normative” genders, sexualities or practices of desire.
Acknowledging that the process of identification “has everything to do with
the structures of alienation [and] splitting... which together produce a self and
an other,” Fuss believes that the formation of a gay identity exemplifies these
structures with particular clarity as larger society aligns the homosexual with
“the very mechanism necessary to define and defend any sexual border.”
According to Fuss then, “homosexuality, in a word, becomes the excluded”
(1991: 1 and 3). Excluded on the basis of being outside the larger
“normative” heterosexual community, homosexuality reconfirms the
centrality and importance of heterosexuality within the larger community.
Nevertheless, these processes of inclusion and exclusion inhere in
circularity. Although homosexuality may be the excluded, heterosexuality
also becomes the excluded since heterosexuality’s centrality rests upon that
which it is not: by virtue of its self-proclaimed exclusion from
homosexuality. The exclusion of homosexuality from heterosexuality, and
equally the exclusion of heterosexuality from homosexuality, is linked to the
larger community’s condemnation of homosexuality as socially or morally
unacceptable – a condemnation that derives from the deployment of the
homosexual as a sexual “deviant.” This deployment results in heightened
dynamics of power between the gay community and the larger community.
Fuss merely concludes that structures that label and exclude gay people work
to deny them power (1991: 2). Yet, a Foucauldian analysis of power comes to
a more deeply imbricated conclusion. In Foucault’s scheme, a dual dynamic
of power is present in processes of exclusion, meaning that homosexuals and
other “deviants” occupy a double relationship to power. For Foucault, the
power of larger society banishes the homosexual to the margins of society,
but the homosexual retains power by remaining integral to larger society
Tammy Grimshaw
since the “normality” of other identities hinges upon the repudiation of that
“non-normativity” and marginality (Dollimore, 1991: 222). Drawing on
Foucault’s paradigm to set out her own theory of the “epistemology of the
closet,” Sedgwick cogently explains this phenomenon: “the nominative
category of ‘the homosexual’ has robustly failed to disintegrate under the
pressure of decade after decade... not... because of its meaningfulness to those
whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define
themselves as against it” (1990: 83).
Although the argument that the gay community has a type of power
over the heterosexual “other” may appear theoretically sound, it does seem
devoid of import on a practical level since gay people still experience
prejudice in their day-to-day lives as a result of their sexual identities.
Indeed, homosexuals not only experience alienation and oppression, but also
can encounter the attempts of larger society to punish, control and reform
their sexual “deviance” (Fuss, 199: 2; Butler, 1996: 61). Sedgwick
emphasises that the recriminations of larger society stem from culture’s “high
ambient homophobia,” which creates difficulties for those who wish to
become part of a gay community. While Fuss and Foucault suggest that a gay
community will be formed in a somewhat evolutionary manner as the
dynamics of inclusion and exclusion unfold, Sedgwick believes that the
formation of a gay community can be much more problematic. She claims
that gay people may find it difficult “to patch together... fragments a
community, a usable heritage, a politics of survival and resistance” (1990:
To avoid the recriminations of members of the larger community, gay
people may remain “in the closet.” Sedgwick notes that closeting can be
pervasive in spite of the existence of gay community bonds and finds that
“there can be few gay people, however courageous and forthright by habit,
however fortunate in the support of their immediate communities, in whose
lives the closet is not still a shaping presence” (1990: 68). Further, the
process of “coming out of the closet” again reiterates the centrality of
heterosexuality since “being ‘out’ must produce the closet again and again in
order to maintain itself as ‘out’” (Butler, 1991: 16). Because of these
concomitant phenomena, gay people are often “in” and “out” with both
communities at the same time: they may be “in” a gay community and “out”
about their sexual identity with members of that community, yet they are “in”
the closet with their larger communities because of potential fears over being
“out” of or marginalised from those communities.
In order to help gay people overcome living this type of double life,
Weeks suggests that a different, empowering dichotomy can inform the gay
community. He explains the politics of this dichotomy as follows:
The Gay “Community”
Politically... sexual communities... point in two different directions at once...:
the “moment of transgression” and the “moment of citizenship.” The “moment
of transgression” is the moment of challenge to the traditional or received
order of sexual life: the assertion of different identities, different lifestyles,
and the building of oppositional communities... The “moment of citizenship”
is precisely this movement towards inclusion, towards redefining the polity to
incorporate fully those who have felt excluded. (Weeks, 2000: 190-91)
Previously stating that identity categories may be linked to deleterious
sources of power that marginalise gay people, Weeks notes that homosexual
communities based on a shared, collective identity can have a power of their
own. For Weeks, the “moment of transgression” is a conscious, empowering
choice gay people make as they exclude themselves from the heterosexual
other – a choice which is by its very nature in opposition to and challenging
of heterosexuality’s dominance in the larger community. Rather than being
always already excluded from the larger (predominantly heterosexual)
community as passive templates upon which the vagaries of larger society are
inscribed, gay people actively choose to exclude themselves from this larger
community. This choice is does not adulate exclusion, alienation or
marginalisation, but is instead inclusive by its very nature since it binds
together in citizenship those who seek recognition from the dominant culture.
In the same way, Foucault believes that even though based on a credo
of exclusion from larger communities, the gay community can be inclusive in
itself. He emphasises that homosexual relationships and same-sex friendships
can be “a way of life... shared among individuals of different age, status, and
social activity” (1994a: 138). That is, the gay community is inclusive by
virtue of transcending ageist and classist barriers. However, Foucault, like
Weeks, is quick to add that this inclusiveness is at present extant only within
the gay community; it is not something shared with the larger (predominantly
heterosexual) community. Foucault insists that it is a myth to believe that
“there will no longer be any difference between homo- and heterosexuality...
It’s not at all the idea of a great community fusion” (1994a: 138).
The insistence on the differences that exist between homosexuality and
heterosexuality also reveals that there have been inequalities in the
achievement of human rights for members of the gay community. Weeks
argues that what he has termed the “moment of citizenship” – the movement
towards inclusion in the rights conferred to the dominant culture – has
characteristically placed emphasis on the claiming of civil rights; he cites the
demand for partnership rights for same-sex couples as one that exemplifies
the manner in which the moment of citizenship has been thrust into the public
consciousness in recent years (2000: 191).
Tammy Grimshaw
“Intimate citizenship,” which is predicated upon “shared identities,
values, social capital and political belongings that we know by the term
‘community,’” is formed at the moment of citizenship (Weeks, 2000: 191).
Kenneth Plummer emphasises that intimate citizenship, formerly viewed as a
private matter since it concerns the intimate pleasures and desires of the
individual, is now a source of public debate. The movement from the private
to the public ensures that members of the gay community have a forum for
public change – a place to demand equal rights – which in turn protects their
private space (1995: 17).
Yet, the demand of the intimate citizen carries with it “the burden of
compromise,” according to David Bell. Rights claims based on intimate or
sexual citizenship often result in political strategies that that bring with them
social prescriptions of “proper” modes of behaviour. These circumscriptions
classify the sexual aspects of homosexuality as “unacceptable,” resulting in
society’s demand that queer sexual citizenship be limited and de-eroticised
(Bell & Binnie, 2000: 3). The limitation is not only confining of the
individual’s sexuality, but can also pervade other aspects of life, culminating
in a reduction in personal freedom. As Bauman points out, social rules work
to “deny free vent to lusts and passions,” meaning that “the constraints
socially imposed on sexual desire [are] the last rampart of unfreedom” (2001:
While Bell’s and Bauman’s theses ostensibly apply to both gay men
and lesbians, Foucault and Sedgwick seem to suggest that the societal
regulation of same-sex love and sexual desire is more pronounced for male
homosexuals than for lesbians. Making it clear that her study is designed to
focus on male homosexuality, Sedgwick nevertheless claims that the denial
of same-sex love and sexual desire is much more profound for men than for
women: “the diacritical opposition between the ‘homosocial’ and the
‘homosexual’ seems to be much less thorough and dichotomous for women,
in our society, than for men” (1992: 2). For Foucault, society often views
contemporary friendships between men “as something dangerous” because of
the pernicious social tendency to eroticise such relationships. Foucault
explains that contemporary society’s biggest fear is not that men have sex
together since this fulfils the societal expectation of relationships between
men. Rather the predominant societal fear, according to Foucault, is that men
are beginning to love each other, experiencing “very intense emotional ties”
(1994a: 136-37 and 139). In a Foucauldian analysis, it is not the intimate
citizen’s right to sexual expression that the larger community denies, but
rather the citizen’s right to have loving, affectional relationships with
members of the same sex. Bell, Foucault and Sedgwick thus have differing
interpretations of the social regulation of gay erotics. Regardless of these
The Gay “Community”
differences, one can align the work of these writers by noting that the gay
community’s struggle for recognition and equality has certain characteristics
uniquely related to the attainment of equal sexual and affectional rights.
Despite these unique characteristics, the gay community’s demand for
equal rights bears resemblance to the struggle for human rights by other
groups, especially that of ethnic minorities. This leads one to query whether
the gay community is in any way similar to these minority groups. Bauman
does not blithely paint a cheery picture of inclusivity and larger community
integration for ethnic minorities. He points out that communities of ethnic
minorities are “the product of enforcement rather than of freedom to choose
and bear little resemblance to... free decision-making... in liberated society”
(2001: 89). Differing to Bauman’s analysis of the manner in which dominant
culture denies ethnic minorities freedom of choice, Weeks’ theory of the
“moment of transgression” suggests that gay people can make empowering
choices as they build oppositional communities.
Weeks’ analysis of the homosexual’s role in history does, however,
support the view that the gay community is similar to an ethnic minority in
that it is subject to the enforcement of dominant culture. Weeks speaks of the
“stigma, prejudice, legal inequality [and] history of oppression” that gay
people have experienced and asserts that these key elements form a
“community of knowledge amongst the marginalised sexual minorities”
(2000: 183, and 193-94). Sedgwick’s stance resembles Weeks’, but she
stresses that minority status can be of enduring political use: “The durability
of politics... of same-sex sexuality has seemed... to depend on a definition of
homosexual persons as a distinct, minority population” (1990: 83).
Minority status is important politically because it is the foundation of
the demand of a particular community for recognition and equal rights.
Weeks contends that queer politics has a greater potential for political
mobilisation in the United States because minority politics are better
established in America than in other western countries. In turn, as minorities
struggle for equal rights, they build larger communities that encourage and
foster social diversity. Weeks claims that this diversity is especially evident
in the gay community as “sexuality has become a potent political issue, and
sexual communities have become bases for political mobilisation, affirming
diverse sexual identities” (1985: 189).
Bauman also discusses the political importance of social diversity:
“the recognition of cultural variety is... the starting point for a long and
perhaps tortuous, but in the end beneficial, political process” (2001: 136).
However, Bauman warns that the political process should focus on genuine
and reciprocal dialogue, rather than on “multiculturalism,” which is often
used spuriously as “a manifesto for reconciliation.” The multiculturalist
Tammy Grimshaw
policy acknowledges that differences exist among various communities, but
asserts that “negotiation between different ways of life” is “vanity.”
According to this live-and-let-live manifesto, new groups “are surrendered to,
not challenged and contested” (2001: 80, and 133). Arguing against the new
credo of multiculturalism, Bauman asserts:
A true political process, consisting of dialogue and negotiation and aiming at
an agreed resolution, would be pre-empted and made all but unfeasible if from
the start the superiority of some contenders and the inferiority of others were
to be assumed. But it would also grind to a halt before it had begun if the
second interpretation of cultural plurality were to win the day: namely, if it is
assumed (as the “multiculturalist” programme in its most common version
does, overtly or tacitly) that each extant difference is worthy of perpetuation
just for being a difference. (2001: 136)
Applying Bauman’s analysis to the gay community, one can quickly
discern that historically heterosexuality has occupied a position analogous to
the superior group, with homosexuality taking inferior status. As Bauman
saliently argues and as history has shown, the paradigm equating the
heterosexuality/homosexuality binary to superiority/inferiority has foreclosed
any real opportunities for discussion across communities, let alone the
attainment of equal political rights within the marginalised community.
On the other hand, the multiculturalist manifesto equally fails to affect
a workable resolution. Under the multiculturalist schema, homosexuality is
merely to be tolerated as “worthy of perpetuation” by virtue of being a sexual
difference that helps to ensure cultural plurality. Bauman has found that the
right conferred by the multiculturalist policy to accept the differences
between communities has “a two-pronged effect: the right to be different is
acknowledged, together with the right to indifference” (2001: 135). The same
is true of the larger community’s reaction to homosexuality. As Sedgwick
points out, such an indifferent response is often given to many acts of coming
out of the closet, namely, “That’s fine, but why did you think I’d want to
know about it?” (1990: 72). Further, the two alternative positions Bauman
describes recall the demand of ethnic minorities for recognition and equal
rights – in terms of the assumption of the inferiority of certain races that was
widespread prior to the civil rights movement, as well as the politically-
correct “multiculturalism” which is the impetus behind much of present-day
What neither of the above positions accomplishes, however, is a
genuine political dialogue in which each party has a right to be heard. For
Bauman, “recognition... is... an invitation to a dialogue in the course of which
the merits and demerits of the difference in question can be discussed and...
The Gay “Community”
agreed” (2001: 80). Like Bauman, Sedgwick and Plummer posit that the use
of language is important in helping the gay community – like any minority
group – to gain recognition. But Sedgwick and Plummer differ from Bauman
in that they emphasise the individualities in such discourses much more than
dialogic exchange. Sedgwick claims that the new narrative structures with
which gay people tell of their identities help to present “potent new images of
gay people and gay communities” to larger society (1990: 84-85). Plummer
suggests that sexual communities create stories that help sexual citizens
demand their rights – rights which are “heavily contingent and dependent
upon the communities through which they grow.” The stories that sexual
communities have told in demanding their rights thus “help to shape the
rights which develop” (1995: 151).
The emphasis on storytelling again recalls the struggle of ethnic
minorities for equal rights since oral history played an important role in civil
rights movements. The gay community’s demand for rights also bears
resemblance to the political situation faced by communities of ethnic
minorities in that both of these marginalised communities need true political
dialogue with the dominant community in order to gain recognition and attain
equal rights. Nevertheless, a paramount qualification remains:
homosexuality, unlike race, can be hidden. Indeed, despite the long-standing
taboo against homosexuality, “social conditions have varied enormously, and
many homosexual people have been content to ‘pass for straight’ throughout
the century” (Weeks, 1985: 193).
Bauman’s imperative provides a fitting conclusion for a discussion of
gay and minority community rights: “If there is to be a community in the
world of the individuals, it can only be (and it needs to be) a community
woven together from sharing and mutual care; a community of concern and
responsibility for the equal right to be human and the equal right to act on
that right” (2001: 149-50). The gay community’s struggle for recognition and
rights is accordingly enmeshed with the larger community’s interest in and
respect for the gay individual, meaning that the constructs of identity,
citizenship and community are necessary not only within the gay community,
but also for use in dialogues between and across the gay community and the
larger community. It is only through such mutual communication, respect and
understanding that true equality – and hence a harmonious larger community
– can ultimately be attained.
Works Cited
Anderson, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. Rev. ed. London: Verso.
Tammy Grimshaw
Bauman, Z. 2001. Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge:
Polity Press.
Bell, D. and J. Binnie. 2000. The Sexual Citizen: Queer Politics and Beyond.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Butler, J. 1991. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In D. Fuss. Ed. Inside/Out:
Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. London: Routledge. 13-31.
———. 1996. “Sexual Inversions.” In S.J.Hekman. Ed. Feminist Interpretations of
Michel Foucault. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 59-
———. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2
London: Routledge.
Cooper, C. and J. Dennis, J. 2001. “Queer Nation: The Online Gay Comic.” (Accessed: 12 October 2004).
Dollimore, J. 1991. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Foucault, M. 1994a. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” In P. Rabinow. Ed. Michel
Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth – Essential Works of Foucault
1954-1984, Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 135-40.
———. 1994b. “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity.” In P. Rabinow. Ed. Michel
Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth—Essential Works of Foucault
1954-1984, Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 163-73.
Fuss, D. 1990. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference. London:
———. 1991. “Decking Out: Performing Identities.” In Fuss. Ed. Inside Out: Lesbian
Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge. 1-10.
Giddens, A. 1992. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in
Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Mayo, M. 2000. Cultures, Communities, Identities: Cultural Strategies for
Participation and Empowerment. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Plummer, K. 1995. Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds.
London: Routledge.
Sedgwick, E. K. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester
———. 1992. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New
York: Columbia University Press.
Swann, K. 1993. “% Gay?” Bad Subjects 5: 1-2.
(Accessed: 12 October 2004).
Tarmann, A. 2004. “Out of the Closet and Onto the Census Long Form.” Population
Reference Bureau.
_Onto_the_ Census_Long_Form.htm. (Accessed: 12 October 2004).
Weeks, J. 1985. Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern
Sexualities. London: Routledge.
———. Making Sexual History. Cambridge: Polity Press.
The chapter discusses the farming community’s reaction to the 2001
foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) epidemic. In particular, it discusses the
idea of community using the FMD epidemic as a case study to explore
the idea of a community in action – that is, whilst isolated by
movement restrictions, how social networks were maintained and how
their critique of the government’s handling of the crisis emerged. The
chapter uses the farming community’s use of the worldwide web to
consider self-definitions of community and also a series of interviews
with the farming community in one rural community hard-hit by the
epidemic. These websites include, and
Combined, these sources examine expressions of community and
identity in an historical context in which the dominance of an
agricultural occupational community in rural areas (Newby, 1985) and
a primarily agricultural rural economy has arguably been replaced by
a post-productivist countryside (Halfacree, 1999). The essay therefore
directly engages with the implications of such change upon remaining
agricultural communities and the very notion and concept of
community in the twenty first century.
On the 19
February, 2001, the UK experienced its first outbreak of foot-and-
mouth disease (FMD)
in over thirty years and which lasted until 30
This essay draws upon findings from an ESRC-funded study into the social and
cultural impact of the 2001 FMD epidemic (ESRC Science in Society project: Caught
between Science and Society: Foot and Mouth disease. Grant no. L144 25 0050).
Sam Hillyard
September, 2001.
The devastating impact of the epidemic have been
considered in relation to the economic consequences (Phillipson et al., 2002),
the legality of the contiguous and voluntary culls (Campbell & Lee, 2002),
cultural expressions and reactions to the outbreak (Nerlich et al. 2002,
Nerlich & Döring, 2005) and the policy context (Winter, 2003). In addition,
the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) insistence upon FMD-free status
constituted an historical framework dating back to the nineteenth century
(Woods, 2004). All of this took place in a rural context transformed since the
last outbreak in the UK in 1967. In 1967, the rural was a context
progressively documented by Newby (1977; Newby et al., 1978; Newby,
1985) in which farmers featured as almost ‘props on the rustic stage’ in the
context of wider economic context of the declining significance of agriculture
in the UK market. Inside this rural context, the erosion of the village as an
occupational community (although one which had been characterised by
poverty and inequality) was replaced by an influx of newcomers and the new
notion of gentrification (Newby, 1985; Phillips, 2002). Furthermore, among
the academic community, the rural field had stagnated following Pahl’s
(1968) work to return Tönnies’ (1955) concepts of Gemeinschaft and
Gesellschaft to their correct ontological status and further abetted by the
decline of the community studies tradition within sociology (cf. Stacey, 1960;
Stacey et al., 1975) and a lack of theoretical and methodological interest in
the rural (Hamilton, 1990). The 2001 FMD epidemic therefore returned the
rural to the spotlight, both for those whose livestock were infected and for
those affected by its wider impact. The essay here attempts to contribute a
social and cultural account to compliment the wealth of alternative accounts
and approaches that have documented the impact of FMD in 2001. It does so
by considering two forms through which the farming community reacted to
the epidemic – one web based, one utilising more traditional research
techniques – and by examining the forms and expressions of community,
solidarity and tensions that emerged within their accounts.
The disease itself is an acute infectious viral disease, revealed through symptoms
including fever and lesions on cloven-hooved animals, which can potentially include
elephants, hedgehogs and rats.
The last confirmed case.
The UK’s last outbreak had ended in 1968. Canada’s in 1952, the US in 1929,
Australia in 1872 and New Zealand has never has an outbreak. Nevertheless, there are
currently over thirty countries in which the FMD virus in active.
The Mobilisation of the Farming Community
FMD “Interest” Groups and Websites
A wide range of websites emerged during and following the outbreak.
Whilst too numerous to fully document here, the largest and most actively
maintained sites reflected a diverse range of interests in that they adopted
different standpoints relating to the epidemic. To offer a brief overview, some
sought to simply document the outbreak. “A Crisis Too Far”
(, for instance, was a social and cultural
documentary project and record of the foot-and-mouth epidemic co-ordinated
by LITTORAL, an arts trust, and featured poetry and photographs by artists
and farmers. Sites with a more political orientation included the National
Foot and Mouth Group (with links to Vets for Vaccination) and Sheepdrove
Organic Farm (, both of whom criticised the
government decision not to vaccinate. Other sites offered information and
resources for farmers, including legal advice (“Know Your Rights,”
http://www.fmdaction.il2com/printout.html) and farmer help packs
( Two of the largest and most regularly managed sites
consisted of science reports, media up-dates and archives with light relief
( and a call for vaccination and critique of the
National Farmers’ Union role in the outbreak ( Finally,
other sites queried the financial cost of the epidemic to the tourist and rural
economy alongside a critique of the government’s handling of the outbreak
The most clearly articulated statement appearing on the
website was, simply enough, listed as ten “simple demands”
( Amongst these, the denouncement of
“enforced culling” and support for vaccination were expressed and a critique
made of perceptions of FMD as a purely economic disaster were down-
played and set against “the misery caused by the culling policy and the
damage done to Britain’s tourist industry and image abroad.” In calling for a
public inquiry, it implicitly critiqued the government’s decision to hold three
government-sponsored inquires, rather than a public inquiry.
The website
was therefore involved with making specific demands on the government and
the then Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF), but also
The three government-sponsored inquiries were:
Anderson “Lessons learned from the FMD outbreak of 2001” (http://www.fmd-, Follett’s “Scientific review of questions relating to the
transmission, prevention and control of epidemic outbreaks of infectious disease in
livestock” ( and Curry’s “Policy
Commission on the Future of Farming and Food” (http://www.cabinet-
Sam Hillyard
contained a much more specific argument – that of farming as a way of life
and a defence of their occupation:
That they recognise that food production is about more than simply making a
profit and is also an intrinsically valuable way of life with strong ethical and
social merits. (, emphasis added)
Such an outlook was shared by one of the largest sites to emerge, Maintained in France, the “catalyst” for the site was the
author’s friend’s loss of their entire flock. The site is overarched by a
metaphor in which the government during FMD took on the characteristics of
a Police State:
People on the ground know the local situation, the farmers and were trusted
by them. Furthermore they were seen to be accountable for their authority and
power – unlike the lordly and unaccountable-seeming MAFF. The FMD crisis
illustrated the evils of centralisation. ( meeting with
Anderson Inquiry, 23 May 2002, emphasis added).
Collectively, these sites therefore differed from media analyses or special
reports, such as Private Eye’s (2001) and The Guardian’s (2001; not only in that they were run,
managed and written by members of the farming community but orientated
towards supporting their own community and their use of more abstract
textual forms and narratives. The essay now analyses two such textual forms
– one fairy story, another by “Mr. Pigg” – appearing on both of the largest
FMD-related websites. Rather an explicit statement of the “demands” or calls
for accountability appearing on the websites, such narratives can analysed in
order to unravel how each defined and represented its own community and
other groups – as friendly or alien.
“Fairy Story” (Critchley, 2003) on
Critchley’s (2003) site, amongst the media archives, discussion pages and
scientific reports and papers, features a fairy story written by the site’s owner
and manager. The story, when analysed, contains a vision of farming in the
twenty-first century and a construction of a community and its opponents
during the epidemic. The Prime Minister during the epidemic, Tony Blair
(“Smiling politician called Baloney B’stard”), is represented as delighting in
the UK’s contracting FMD (“secretly Baloney was saying, ‘Eureka!’”) and
negatively framed in the wider context of the European Union (“the ‘Hey
The Mobilisation of the Farming Community
You!’ Commission”) and the CAP appear (“the Stringpullers of the New
World Order”). Again on a national level, the then National Farmers’ Union
President, Ben Gill (“Bill Gun”), is also perceived to be in league line with
the Prime Minister Tony Blair (Balnoney whispered “Do what I say Bill and
you will one day be one of the really Big Guns”). On the ground, the main
players such as vets (“the Men in White”) are portrayed in a negative terms,
as those who were “supposed to protect the animals” but failed to do so.
The notions of community celebrated in the narrative were “the few
noisy people” with a love of England and the countryside and the animals.
These were the “farmers and the country folk” and “people who understood
about the disease” who had for generations had “cared for the land” and lived
“real” lives. In contrast, the general population is seen opposition – albeit
passively – for not thinking at all (“they watched a programme called Big
Brother and so stopped thinking about anything much”), though admittedly in
a more positive light than that of the media’s numbed critical thinking (“the
newspapers were quiet about it”). The villain in this fairy story is clearly the
Prime Minister:
Baloney was very clever. He said that the farmers were spreading the disease
themselves […] because he wanted to bring the farmers to heel. (Critchley,
The construction of a community in this fairy story is one in which FMD
serves to define in oppositions – to government, an indifferent public an
uninterested media, overarched by a centralised EU controlling the UK and
aiming “to have control of all of these beautiful places and make the farmers
come to heel” (Critchley, 2003).
“Mr. Pigg’s World: ‘A “Free Thought” Production’”
The reflections of “Mr. Pigg” ( on employ
more direct examples of irony than Critchley (2003), but share many
characteristics. In a series of commentaries on the outbreak, the “winning
side” here are the NFU and slaughtermen working “on inflated wages.”
Similarly, a critique of the government’s (“mr b and his cronies”) handling of
the epidemic is critiqued (“DEDRAT prats”) also with more specific detail
(“incompetence and lack of reliable disinfection routines”). Again, the real
world is one occupied by the farmers (“real people”), whilst the media
“report what they are told to report:”
Sam Hillyard
the bbc is a government quango and “independent” tv/radio can best be
described as “a private/ commercial partnership” run for the benefit of their
advertisers. (, 2003)
Using the form of a press release, the sense of a community misrepresented,
under siege and persecuted is captured:
all farmers are to be culled as a result of a series of hideous murders near
skipton. 231 f[r]ail old ladies were savagely mowed down by a baying pack of
evil farmers in b[r]and new 4x4s. the farmers were shot on sight by police
officers who witnessed them eating their victims. p.s. it was the farmers what
done foot and mouth. Luv ali c. (, 2003)
Farmers are portrayed as “the scum who now infest our lovely countryside” –
far more aggressive than Newby’s (1977) metaphor of propos on a rustic
stage – and to blame for the scale of the 2001 epidemic (“the truth is simple.
farmers have deliberately spread the disease in order to become
every farmer in the uk now has an account in the caymen islands. all
premiership football clubs are now owned by six welsh hill farmers. one dairy
farmer from settle has just boug[h]t london bridge and is planning to have it
delivered from Arizona one brick at a time by richard branson in a balloon.
(, 2003)
The narrative form of a fairy tale and a pig’s diary appeared on two of the
largest websites emerging from the 2001 epidemic and allow an overview of
the perceptions of a community of those social actors and institutions
involved as constructed at that general level. It characterises the key players
and their relationships, identities and tensions that can be pursued through
more traditional research techniques. The essay now moves from the
perspectives writ large by the websites to consider the micro experiences of
those on the ground. The following section is based on a series of interviews
conducted with the farming community in Cumbria. This enables us to see
the concept of community in action at a micro, interactional level of personal
meaning and understanding (Pole & Morrison, 2003). Whilst a more
traditional data source than website material, the interview and subsequent
analytic process are, of course, are not neutral but nevertheless are subject to
the principles of analysis within the ethnographic, qualitative research
tradition (Atkinson, 1990; Wolcott, 1995; Pole & Morrison, 2003).
The Mobilisation of the Farming Community
The Cumbrian Experience of FMD
It’s quite an old joke now but it’s fairly typical. Driving home one night, been
out to the pub, he came back “Dad,” he said “there’s two bodies down the
road, there’s a badger and a DEFRA official,” he said “How do you know it’s
a DEFRA official?” he said “There’s skid marks just before the dead badger.”
Some of them were alright, some of the temporary vets actually were brilliant
but the needless bureaucracy [...] couldn’t the chief county vets be allowed to
make decisions? (Farmer, Cumbria).
Immediately, from the above quotation, a theme continued from the website
narratives into the interview data was the neglect of local knowledge and
experiences by those involved in the crisis:
what annoyed me was the fact they wouldn’t even […] listen […] because
they know it all. Well I’m sorry they don’t know it all, there’s nobody in this
world knows everything and if you keep your ears open and your eyes open
there are times, it doesn’t matter who your, whether you’re Professor King
the Chief Vet you bloody well learn something. (Farmer, Cumbria)
The sense of opposition here is more based on frustration than the political
and policy critiques contained in many of the websites, particularly and fmdaction. The reflections of several land agents and
valuers in Cumbria commented upon networks that reached between the
oppositions constructed in the narrative representations of the epidemic. For
instance, one respondent described that the local NFU office “tried to keep
me informed which I really, really appreciated. So much so, that following
that I actually joined the company as corporate members because I thought
they’d done a good job” (Livestock Director, Cumbria). In this sense, the
shared ground-level experience of FMD in Cumbria drew together groups
considered to be alienated from one another in the wider frame of the national
picture, through “working very closely with the vets and so we got a lot
straight from the vets and the Army” (Land Agent, Cumbria).
Nevertheless, the interviews draw out some of the unique
characteristics of the FMD epidemic in terms of the disease’s impact upon
farming communities and in a way which is absent in the narratives discussed
earlier. The risk of the spread of the disease and contamination led to some
farmers taking extreme measures of caution:
I didn’t want visitors here because […] I would’ve been very upset to think
that I would’ve been responsible for taking out my neighbour’s cattle. And I
The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor in 2001.
Sam Hillyard
went and told them so, I did tell them that I closed this caravan site [on his
farm] and we didn’t open it at all that year. (Farmer, Cumbria)
that lad in particular to be honest with you was probably a little bit extreme,
you know if he gets something in his mind and that’s the way it’s done that’s
the way it will be done