“Because every impression and every emotion is part of my world, this part is too heavy for me to be capable of taking on all alone. This is because this part of the world assimilates me to universal necessity; it establishes me in the carnal community of my fellow men. But barely have I spoken, than I find myself separated from necessity and equality simultaneously… Having spoken because I cannot never speak at all, I fall into the contingency of language.”
Pierre Klossowski, “Language, Silence and Communism”, in Such a Deathly Desire
“It is time to abandon the world of the civilized and its light. It is to late to want to be reasonable and learned, which has led to a life without attractions…. We must refuse boredom and live only on that which fascinates”.
Georges Bataille, in the review Acéphale, June, 1936
In the mid-80s in a very brief lapse of time, four books were published in Paris: The Inoperative Community by Jean-Luc Nancy; The Unavowable Community by Maurice Blanchot; The War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras and Autour d’un effort de mémoire (Around an effort of memory) by Dionys Mascolo1. Although different, they seem to be constructed around the same paradoxes and have very similar causes. This is not surprising, given the close ideological and personal links between the authors, but the nature of these connections is such that they cannot just be attributed to a shared background or to simple overlapping.
In the first place, the four texts are permeated by the same dark, dense, hermetic undercurrent. They are full of extra layers of meaning that break up all discursive continuity and oblige the reader to make continuous circumventions. Secondly, everything that is told in these books seems to be situated in ‘another’ place, in an ‘outside’ that the writing deliberately accentuates, thus making clear the conflict between reality and language and certifying the constituting aspect of speech. Third and last, all of these texts take negation not only as a procedure for identifying and discerning oneself, but also as a sort of omnipresent being with which one can maintain a dialogue. Thus Nancy encourages us not to produce and to ‘be inside’ this same immateriality; Blanchot proposes the unavowable as a way of preserving the exceptional – and therefore unsayable – character of experience; Duras offers us a book with no writing and no author, where the text is no longer literature but has become an unbearable truth; finally, Mascolo shows us how only in the frustration that is left by great loss do we find sufficient strength to face oblivion and integrate it into our experience.
These three aspects – hermeticism, alterity and negation – together with the “truth” emanate from their writings, open up a vast area of almost inaccessible thought, which constitutes a different approach to the idea of being-in-community and experiencing ‘we’.
The two first books explicitly form a crossed dialogue, a sort of single text written in different episodes. Nancy opens the debate on community by pointing out that it is something quite different from an amplified version of individuality as conceived of by the old forms of hyper-subjective communitarism. He also states that it cannot ever be achieved and can only exist in an inoperative and inactive state, since it always develops through the other and for the other, in the other’s ‘in common’ and the other’s shared being. Blanchot takes these ideas further and radicalises the permanently unfinished character of Nancy’s concept of community by proposing that any type of community is, by nature, unavowable. To do so, he takes the example of two kinds of experience that share one almost hidden meaning: the community of lovers, exemplified in The Malady of Death, where Marguerite Duras approaches the conflict between subject, initimacy and society through Foucault’s thoughts on the ‘outside’; and the community of writing, personified by Georges Bataille and the famous Acéphale review.
The War: A Memoir approaches the subject from a completely different angle. This book reproduces unchanged the personal diary of Marguerite Duras that was written in April 1945. Published 40 years later, it contains the story of a husband (Robert L, the writer Robert Antelme) and his unbearable wait deported to a Nazi concentration camp, of the tortuous relation maintained by the main character with a Gestapo officer, and finally, of the return of a human being who had already been transformed into a ‘body without an identity’. Around an effort of memory could also be called a retrospective text. Dionys Mascolo wrote it in 1986, after coming across a letter that Robert Antelme had sent to him on 21 June 1945. When it was published, Antelme was suffering from a hemiplegia that prevented him from communicating, and so the author, who was Marguerite Duras’ lover during the post-war period, decided to write the text “in order to reestablish the two classes of relation in which man is offered the opportunity to fulfill his humanity: his relation with speech and his relation with his fellow men – two relations that at bottom are only one”.
Having reached this point, it is useful to ask oneself once again whether these four books, in their different ways, make up a pragmatic corporeal image of the idea of community and, if so, what this image is telling us, what it is encouraging us to do, what form it takes, and what values contribute to it. Some of the answers to these questions can be found in Blanchot’s work and especially in two concepts that play a significant part in his political ideas: his interpretation of the meaning of communism, and his notion of the unavowable.
With regard to the first of these concepts the author himself says “Communism is that which excludes (and excludes itself from) every community already constituted”2. Here communism should be understood not so much as a particular practice but rather as the attempt to respond to the call of the community without allowing oneself to be carried away or seduced by identity. Writing occupies a fundamental place in his new thoughts on community. It is an obsessive, confessional, inevitable kind of writing that is offered to the reader, to the other, as an incomplete experience to be carried on. Mascolo calls this a “communism of writing”.
As for the meaning of unavowable, it is interesting to look at the title of Blanchot’s book, The Unavowable Community. Does this mean that the community does not openly declare itself, or rather that no avowals can possibly reveal it? Perhaps the second, since whenever its way of being is talked about, one feels that it has been described by default, by what it is not. Maybe it would have been better to have said nothing and, instead of attempting to evaluate its paradoxical traits, to have lived the experience of community that corresponds to a past that has never been able to be lived? Wittgenstein’s famous and over-used precept “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” indicates in fact (since on enunciating it he has not been able to impose silence on himself) that in order to be silent it is necessary to speak. But with what kind of words? This is one of the questions that this little book entrusts to others, not so much for them to reply to as for them to take on and perhaps carry forward.
In fact, as Blanchot sees it, the unavowable is a communitary requirement, a condition that results from experiencing the community in a certain way. It does not result from any conscious division between what can be made visible and what should be kept hidden; there is no kind of strategy or moral imposition behind it. The secret that lies behind the unavowable is thus an open secret, that is to say, it is spoken in words and, above all, it is shared.
The ‘communism of writing’ and ‘the unavowable’ are two apparently antagonistic ideas, but as we have seen, they can become parameters around which to develop an intense experience of community. However, the ‘problem’ of defining what is communitarian is by no means resolved, and Blanchot’s invitation to go on thinking about the nature of community takes on more significance with every moment, in every place and in every discipline. Perhaps the art project entitled The Unavowable Community arose precisely because the artists could not extract themselves from the contradictory nature of the collectivity made up by the four authors under analysis, and although they found it impossible to reconstruct the experience completely, they also felt the need to share it.
From the thoughts of Paolo Virno on the multitude as an economic and political form where the most profound risks of human nature are revealed to the idea of the end of metaphysics suggested by Giorgio Agamben in The Coming Community; from the post-humanist theory of Peter Sloterdijk to the immanent community defined by Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia; from Roberto Exposito’s reflections on community versus immunity to La Théorie du Bloom (Bloom’s Theory) by the Tiqqun collective, where formless life converts itself into resistance against the strategies of the biopower, the truth is that the most stimulating and radical ideas on social dynamics today cannot be approached unless the social space is understood to be a fragmented area made up of remnants, where the most diverse communities search for, negotiate and define their respective territories of visibility and action.
However, as we commented before, it seems that the question of the meaning of community and its development mechanisms has overflowed the limits of contemporary anthropology, sociology and political philosophy and colonised other disciplines. Over the last twenty years, in a gradual and cyclical way, different artistic projects have appeared under the communitary heading that operate from the area of tension where art and community are trying to connect. It is not easy to plot these practices, since many of them are episodic and hard to identify. Nor is it easy to measure their significance or to establish to what extent they are authentic projects and to what extent they are merely populist. In any case, it is clear that with the advent of community a different area of work, and also a different market or public, has opened up for art. To explore this field of social action it is necessary to find new methodologies of negotiation, to take on different tensions and dynamics, to construct different forms of representation and to approach new unknowns.
Is there such a thing as a communitarian aesthetic project, or is this a contradiction in terms? Has the notion of artistic authorship really been replaced? What forms does collective art take? Is there an art of the unavowable? How can we escape from the exemplary nature of any representation? Which areas do historiographic discourse and the art institution designate for artistic projects that are situated on their limits? Is it possible to practice non-rhetorical art based on negation and inoperativeness?
These are some of the questions that have given rise to the project entitled The Unavowable Community. They are also questions that make themselves heard when one approaches art from communitary experience, or vice versa. Although it may seem paradoxical, one could say that in a certain apologia of the “collective project” fostered by the art world there is no community, because the parameter of authorship has not been overcome. The category of ‘artist’ is perhaps the aesthetic authority that is most loaded with metaphysical implications and therefore most in need of being completely dismantled. However, like most of the communitary philosophies that appeared during the 20th century – the organicism of the Gemeinschaft in Germany, neocommunitarism in America, Habermas’ discourse ethics, or the communist tradition – the art institution has persisted in structuring itself around the primacy of the subject-artist with the consequent semantics of identity. Nonetheless, within this same semantics, and also in its rhetoric, the community is seen as an attribute, as a quality that is first isolated individually and later enlarged in that spectral realm where aesthetic archetypes are negotiated. Thus the collective experience would seem to consist of nothing more than the recognition of something personal by others, a collection of singular experiences, an anthology of differences. The artist’s ‘own’ experience is converted into style and offered to others as something to be shared that permits property but prevents appropriation.
In a certain way, art distorts the communitarian experience by seeking transparency and clarity and distancing itself from what is undefinable and unavowable. But at this very juncture, a challenge is taking shape to collective forms of artistic activity and aesthetic projects that adopt the community not only as an interface but also as ontology: to preserve opacity as against schematicism, to prefer the diffuse to the exemplary, to reject dialogue and embrace solipsism, and also to avoid being esoteric. Bataille defined this better than anyone in the title of one of his collections of essays, talks and conferences: “L’oscurité ne ment pas” (Darkness does not lie).
The current exhibition project takes its name from the title of Blanchot’s book and is based on his philological interpretation of communism as “that which creates community” and his apologia of the community as the polihedral axis that shapes the political, existential and aesthetic dynamics between individuals. It is therefore an investigation into the nature of community in the area of art, focussing on identifying the representational structures and the forms of collective impact that this may suggest to us.
To do this, three projects have been selected: Archivo F.X. (F.X. Archive), Sitesize and Archivo Postcapital (Postcapital Archive). In spite of operating from different perspectives, they share the same strategies of transversality, antagonism, supplanting and interference, all of which are linked to the idea of diffuseness, the ‘unavowable’ nature put forward by Blanchot. Their practices occupy the same ambivalent territory in the interstices of the art institution and of models of cultural productivity, and are therefore difficult to map. The fact that these three ‘communities’ do not define themselves according to any habitual collective parameter and avoid attaching themselves to any model of representation enables them to develop using other kinds of logic and provides them with working tools that are not entirely subject to certain systems of codification and their respective forms of conditioning. Thus the different documents and kinds of knowledge that these three projects put into circulation share mechanisms that preserve and expand the ‘common’ dimension of subjects, or simply inject it into the different social institutions with which they cooperate.
Another link between the projects that make up The Unavowable Community is that they all question the idea of a single, or even recognisable, form of authorship. The very transversal and ambivalent nature of these projects and their non-exemplarising nature means that they place themselves beyond the reach of certain monopolies of decision, reusing pre-existing mechanisms of action, making use of or reorienting nodes of communication, parasitising on consolidated structures and creating new archives. All in all they situate themselves in the epicentre of the “general intellect” Marx talked about, the ‘social brain’ that is both a productive force and the principle of citizens’ organisation.
This book is the result of certain ideas that arose during the Unavowable Community exhibition project. However, in order to make it less dependent on the exhibition, it has been structured differently, as a sort of polyphony of essays. It is composed of a collection of texts that were published in different contexts, periods and media but nevertheless put the same questions: What is community? In what political and mental space does the notion of community develop? With what elements does it come into collision? On what elements does it feed? Do people understand and take on all of the implications of the word ‘we’?
Interrupting this cluster of thoughts around the question of community, there are three inserts, each concerning one of the projects in the exhibition: Sitesize, Archivo F.X. and Archivo Postcapital. These inserts each contain a text presenting the respective artistic project, a visual work specifically created for the book and linked to the themes presented in museum format, and also a conversation between the artist and some philosophers, anthropologists, historians, geographers or museum curators who share some of the same ideological and conceptual interests. Please note that these three inserts were placed in the collection of essays totally at random and constitute a hiatus in the discourse rather than the illustration of any particular point.
The book takes as its point of departure a text by Maurice Blanchot entitled “Confirmer la rupture“ (The declaration of rupture)3 in which this French thinker reviews some of the fundamental concepts behind his political ideas in the light of May 1968. He re-evaluates his notions of revolution and of community, transforming them in such a way as to understand communism, or the value of writing, as an event and a truth. To follow this, the essay entitled “Sovereign Police”4 by Giorgio Agamben was selected. It contains thoughts on the nature of power (mechanisms of exclusion, linguistic codes, strategies of appropriation) and on the management of social sovereignty as a communitary challenge. Along the same lines, in “Retreating the political”5, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy talk about the need to restore substance to political discourse by developing new ideological areas from which to think and act collectively. The essay “Blanchot’s communism: our responsibility” by Lars Lyer is a detailed study of the political thought of the author of The Unavowable Community and the importance of Acéphale and Georges Bataille in shaping that thought.Peter Pál Pelbart’s essay “The community of those without community”6 – another reference to Bataille – traces an almost scholastic route through the ideas of the main authors who have approached the subject of community, from Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben and Blanchot himself to the recent Tiqqun collective. Finally Marina Garcés, in her essay “The inquiry after a shared world”, uses Merleau-Ponty’s work to bring thought on community and the tension between ‘I’ and ‘we’ closer to certain problems of our times.
1. Jean-Luc Nancy. La communauté désoeuvrée. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1983. (The Inoperative community.Ed. Peter Conner.Foreword Christopher Fynsk.Theory and History of Literature Series, Volume 76. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
Maurice Blanchot. La communauté inavouable. Paris: Les Éditions du Minuit, 1984. (The Unavowable Community. Trad. Pierre Joris. New York: Station Hill Press, 1988).
Marguerite Duras. La Douleur, Paris: P.O.L.,1985. (The War: A Memoir. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: HarperCollins, 1992)
Dionys Mascolo. Autour d’un effort de mémoire (Around an effort of memory). Paris: Maurice Nadeau, 1987.
2. Blanchot’s reflection on the meaning of communism, which appears in a brief article in 1968 entitled Le communisme sans héritage (Communism without a heritage) should be put into the context of the re-consideration of the meaning of political militancy that was carried out by some French intellectuals, including Edgar Morin, Jacques Francis Rolland, Eugène Mannoni, Dionys Mascolo and Robert Antelme, after they were expelled by the communist party in 1950.
3. Maurice Blanchot. Ecrits politiques(Political writings). Ed. Eric Hoppenot. Paris: Les Editions Gallimard, 2008.
4. Giorgio Agamben. Means without End. Notes on Politics.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,2000.
5. Philippe Lacoue Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy. Retreating the political. Ed. Simon Sparks. London: Routledge, 1997.
6. Peter Pál Pelbart, Vida Capital: Ensaios de Biopolítica (Capital Life: Biopolitical Essays). São Paulo: Iluminuras Editora, 2003.