Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Community and Literary Experience in (between) Benedict Anderson and Jean-Luc Nancy

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Community and Literary Experience in (between) Benedict Anderson and Jean-Luc Nancy

Article excerpt

A comparison of the notions of the imagined community (Benedict Anderson) and the inoperative community (Jean-Luc Nancy) reveals how Anderson's and Nancy's very different projects both invest literature with the capacity to ground a form of community that differs from the national community (founded in the anonymity of the cenotaph) and the operative community (founded on myth).

Since the 1980s, community has become a key term in the fields of cultural and literary studies. One of the crucial reference points in the recent career of the term was the publication of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities in 1983. Anderson's book asserts the imaginary nature of the sense of national belonging, and this idea soon became nearly axiomatic to contemporary academic discourse (Cheah 6); it was received as a welcome affirmation of the important role that literary and cultural objects and practices play in the construction and consolidation of collective identities. The notion of the imagined community gave literary scholars an intuitively appealing shorthand to help them situate literature in its social and historical contexts, and to remove it from the splendid isolation in which earlier and more formalist research paradigms had contained it (Culler 220. Anderson's book participated in a more general critical tendency toward historical and social contextualization. At the same time, its emphasis on the unity and the cohesiveness of communities also went against another contemporaneous critical trend that sought to assert precisely the fluidity and instability of identities, and to pay attention to non-dominant counter-voices that an all to cohesive and stable national imaginary threatened to marginalize.

One response to such forms of collective identity that were felt to be too totalizing and too exclusionary was a radical rethinking of the notion of community. This occurred in the 1980s and early 90s at the crossroads of ontology, ethics, politics, and literary theory: we can think of Maurice Blanchot's The Unavowable Community in 1983, Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community in 1986--to part of which Blanchot's book is a response--and Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community in 1990. While there are considerable differences between these projects, they all attempt to locate the sense of community not in a given substance or in a specific essence (such as race, language, or territory) shared by the members of a community, but instead, and paradoxically, in a "removal at the heart of proximity an intimacy' (Nancy, "Confronted" 32). The traditional concept of community (Gemeinschaft) that we find tin fascism or National Socialism, and also in more everyday forms of nationalism, presents communities as closed, exclusionary entities; these critical projects, in contrast attempt to open up these closed communities from within, in order to conceive of a more ethically attuned form of togetherness. Even if Nancy's notion of the "inoperative" community--on which I focus in this essay--shares with Anderson a resistance to notions of community that locate the sense of togetherness in a given essence, (2) there is yet a considerable difference that separates the inoperative and the imagined community; While the ides of the imagined community justifiably foregrounds the undeniable but ethically problematic fact that "I feel more affinity with people who happen to inhabit the country I live in than with others" (Culler 20), Nancy's project starts out from the violence and exclusions that traditional forms of community have produced in order to conceive of more ethically aware forms of community.

Yet what if, in spite of these very teal differences, there might be a complementary rather than oppositional relation between the notions of the imagined and the inoperative community? This would make it possible to understand the inoperative community as an ethical addition that corrects he imagined community's tendency towards exclusion and totalization. …

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