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Lars Gertenbach and Dorothee Richter

The Imaginary and the Community. Deliberations Following the Deconstructivist Challenge of the Thinking of Community

Even after the waning of the debates on communitarianism and liberalism as conducted intensively above all in the political sciences and political philosophy, discussion about community in general is evidently not diminishing. To a certain extent, however, the geographical coordinates of the discussions, and with them the philosophical orientation as a whole, have changed. Whereas the debate between the communitarianists and the liberals – which revolved to equal degrees around the ontological issue of the priority of individual or community as well as around normative matters and political partisanship (see Taylor 2003) – exhibited a strong U.S. American orientation both from the socio-philosophical viewpoint and in terms of the history of political ideas, the focus of the present discussions has tended to shift to France, or to stances bearing an affinity to French philosophy. Here a major role has been played by endeavours to deconstruct the concept of community which took as their point of departure a discussion between Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot and were then continued beyond the borders of France in the Italian speaking regions as well, above all by Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito. Since the translation of Être Singulier Pluriel – Nancy’s chief thematic work –, if not before, discussions on the concept of community have also resumed in the German-speaking regions, if under a different omen and with other connotations. Beyond the limits of this field, however, a further, more recent, thread of discussion can also be discerned, likewise zeroing in on phenomena of community. In particular the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, for example, has contributed to linking the debate on community with psychoanalytical and cultural-theoretical deliberations, and assayed to describe the characteristics of community-building anew on the basis of a constitutive element of the imaginary or fantasmatic.[1]

In view of this possible new orientation for theoretical research on concepts of community, this essay will revolve around linking these cultural-theoretical/psychoanalytical deliberations on the share and role of the imaginary in the building of community with the philosophical-ontological viewpoints hitherto discussed concurrently, at best, with the former. This interlinking endeavour is informed not only by the conviction that the two discussion threads essentially overlap for the most part with regard to the problems of classical community thought, but also, and above all, by the attempt to use this circumstance as a steppingstone for pointing out a number of conceptual and political problems in Nancy’s line of reasoning and, where possible, to fill in the gaps. By doing so, our intent is to pick up the thread of discussions rooted in the idea of a non-projectiform, “inoperative” (Nancy) community – an idea which, according to its own self-definition, points to a concept of community above and beyond finalization gestures towards the outside and homogenization within. In this sense the concern is with a clarification of the theoretical debate on the one hand, and political deliberations that might emerge from this discussion on the other.

Before we continue, however, let us point out two problems or gaps in Nancy’s stance, which in the following text will not only form a vanishing point of our critique, but are also of key significance for the idea of linkage with positions on the imaginary. Within this approach we can discern, on the one hand, a certain sociological blindness, since neither are phenomena of specific community building considered (and accordingly no differences between various forms and intensities of community can be taken into account) nor is particular emphasis placed on a historical perspective, which is indispensable for an empirically oriented theory of community. Yet since this is a gap that is hardly surprising in view of the effort to found a new “prima philosophia” (see Nancy 2000) on the basis of the concept of community, we will direct our attention to a different point. Of greater relevance for the following argumentation is the gap regarding the question of political practice. Even if Nancy consistently stresses that the deconstructive demand for community takes place per se on the political terrain – for example when, in the preface to the English edition of La communauté désœuvrée he refers to the political as the place “where community as such is brought into play” (Nancy 1991: xxxvii) – with regard to concrete political practice the question nevertheless arises as to whether that political element is not repressed so strongly behind the philosophical-ontological that it can virtually no longer be made discernible.

In addition to this double vanishing point, the following text – which is primarily dialogical in nature – also reflects a double research interest – on the one hand that of a sociological and political inquiry into contemporary concepts of community, and on the other hand a rereading of Lacan and Foucault from a feminist perspective, in which, roughly speaking, the concern is with the analysis of power and its practices, for example discourse societies and the regime of visibility. Against this background, the text is divided into four sections in which different accentuations come to bear. In order to confront the two paradigms with one another, we will begin by sketching the debate over the imaginary share in communities (I.) before exploring Nancy’s position in greater depth. Here we will first investigate its basic programmatic and philosophical orientation (II.), on the basis of which we will then focus on the question as to the element of the political (III.). Following a number of diagnostic allusions to the currency of the imaginary in constructions of community (IV.), the text will end with a summary (V.).

1. On the Share of the Imaginary in Communities

All communities are imaginarily constituted. They not only have to be experienceable as communities and have an external boundary at their disposal – the factor that constitutes them as individual communities to begin with –; they also require an idea (by no means always a conscious and reflected one) of themselves, an idea of their unity or common feature(s), quasi pictorially constituted and also embodied in practices. The design of community is necessarily dependent on this anchor point if it wants to be conceived and lived – indeed, if it wants to be efficacious and relevant. Within this context, the imaginary element is not to be understood as a contingent supplement; on the contrary, it is a constituent component of community. What is more, it is by no means situated solely in the imagination of the individuals, but in the practices and utterances of community that continually generate and continue the idea of community (and are responsible for making the community seem attractive to the subjects in the first place). Here the imaginary is thus the opposite of an illusion. It is the prerequisite and foundation of the community construction – not the reflection on it a posteriori.

These preliminary remarks are important in order to liberate the deliberations on the imagination of community from their apparent triviality, and to stake out a number of paths on which these deliberations can be carried further. In the following, we would like to identify a number of aspects and thus also to clarify why theoretical reflection on community – in addition to the careful preoccupation with the historical semantics and forms of expression in which the concept is embedded in society – must to a very decisive degree be carried out by way of the imaginary element. We will begin with a number of idiosyncrasies of the debate on community; from there we will go on to stake out the place of the imaginary, and finally we will identify a number of problems with which a discussion on community is confronted.

Since the modernist age, if not before, the debate over community has been permeated by a peculiar ambivalence: community can be thought of simultaneously as the redemptive and peaceful alternative to the alienated modern society and as its totalitarian duplicate. Since the days when, in the nineteenth century, community managed to establish itself as an antithesis to society (at least in German-speaking regions), and up to the very present, interpretational patterns of this kind have been embedded in the semantics which pervade everyday discourses. Community is considered a form of reconciliation; it promises a means of overcoming the contingent forms of modern intercourse.[2] Since the advent of the modern age at the latest, the semantics of community has accordingly been dominated by a naively pious imagery of safety, warmth and sympathy. This seems all the more surprising if we consider that, again and again, its manifestations are indubitably concatenated with mechanisms of violence and exclusion. Communities have a standardizing mechanism; they function as discourses of closure towards the outside and harmonization within – a harmonization that can, however, have a violent or compulsory nature. This double animosity, which already strikes a balance in Romanticism, is one idiosyncratic component of the modern discourse on community.[3]

This aspect bears a certain fascination with regard to the interpretation of community phenomena; conceptually, however, it is at the same time extremely difficult to put a finger on. After all, it interweaves two elements: the attractiveness of the concept of community with regard to the disquiet associated with modernity, and the peculiar inner logic of communities which sometimes transforms the need for harmony, unambiguousness and belonging into violent excesses. The reason for this double status lies in the element of the imaginary, i.e. precisely in the realm where communities – over and above pure imagination – take effect through their practices (whether positive in the sense of safety and the stabilization of personal identity, or negative in the sense of extreme acts of violence and exclusion).

An emphasis of the aspect of the imagination of community is found – though rarely in systematic form – in the works of numerous authors. In addition to Benedict Anderson’s study on the invention of nation (Anderson 1991), which, for example, identifies the factors necessary for the production of an imaginability of (national) community above and beyond face-to-face interaction, it is above all protagonists of psychoanalytical theories who play a central role. At the same time, already Durkheim emphasized that mechanisms of projection, transference and misjudgement hold key significance in the process of community-building (see Durkheim 1968). It is cultural-theoretical-oriented psychoanalytic deliberations, however, as encountered, for example, in Slavoj Žižek or Cornelius Castoriadis,[4] which supply the decisive theoretical link for such matters. Here the imaginary is the prerequisite and basic component of sociality per se. The application of psychoanalytical concepts to society in general may be fraught with problems (see Emmerich 2007); for a number of aspects, however, it is instructive. What appears particularly interesting to us here is the element of the identification with the community, since the component of the imaginary plays a decisive role for the question as to the individual’s bond to community. For example, there is a desire for community that far exceeds the scope of mere affiliations with groups. In this context, what already applied to the ego can initially also be assumed for phenomena of community: the individual’s reference to society is constituted in the process of identification with the imagined other. Freud already discussed this idea in connection with mass phenomena, viewing the latter from the perspective of the obliteration of the self and the replacement of the ideal of self with the communal “we” (or the “Führer”) and speaks of the “libidinous constitution of a mass” (Freud 1989). What is more, in addition to the individual’s affective and passionate bond to the community, the violence occasionally arising from communities can also be attributed to an imaginary or fantasmatic scenario.

If we follow Lacan, for example, in proceeding on the assumption that the identity is constituted imaginarily, we emphasize above all that the conception of identity as unity is part of the imaginary, i.e. necessarily remains within its bounds. This aspect of unity is an illusion which belies the factual dissonance and heterogeneity. One insight often drawn from this consists in a rejection or critical interrogation of the kind taken into account, for example, by feminist art scholarship – which applies equally, or all the more, to semantics of communal unity. The fact that communities are imaginarily constituted also means that they appear complete and unified only in the imaginary mode. The conception of their wholeness cannot leave the sphere of the imago, a circumstance with which two decisive consequences are related. On the one hand this conception thus conceals actual differences and heterogeneities within the group; what is more, however, it also conceals the fact that the rift between “reality” and the imaginary as such is structurally irrevocable. Complete identification of the kind promised by the imaginary cannot be achieved, and the unity/identity of the community must thus remain fiction and is not applicable to reality. What comes about instead is an element of alienation and “discordance with [one’s] own reality” (Lacan 2002: 4).[5] The imaginary thus possesses a paradoxical structure: on the one hand it is the production site of alienation/misrecognition; on the other hand it is also the instance which negates such alienation in favour of a fictional unity, providing the driver and motive for its denial – such as the desire to become one or to merge as posited against alienation.

This hiatus or gap, as Lacan calls it, between the imaginary and symbolic (classification in symbolic orders) on the one hand, and reality (schism, separation, death) on the other, is constitutive. Yet since the imaginary promises to close and negate the abyss, a scenario emerges by which the desire for identification and community can ultimately lead to the excesses of community (exclusion, violence) to the same degree as to its jubilatory moments (inebriation, ecstasy, celebration).[6] By mediating between the projected community scenario and individual desire, the imaginary thus holds key significance with regard to the exclusion mechanisms and violence scenarios that arise from communities, phenomena which cannot be understood without such a concept. An approach proceeding on these assumptions is based on a decisive shift in perspective: rather than ascribing something real to the projection of community, the (allegedly) real is conceived of as a projection of the communal imaginary (see Žižek 1992: XX).

Only then does it become evident that, for example, communities again and again perceive their existence as being threatened. Žižek suspects that the reason for this may have something to do with what Lacan calls enjoyment (French: jouissance): a kind of painful pleasure inherent in all concepts of community and manifest particularly in their egocentrism and egointoxication. This serves to explain not only the specific coherence of communities or the sometimes passionate support for other, fellow members, but also the voluntary subjugation – particularly virulent in nationalism – of the self to the project of the community, even to the point of self-sacrifice. To ensure this enjoyment, communities create something like a “communal thing” (Žižek 2000: XX), which not only encompasses common symbols but also functions as a placeholder and representative of the communal. This “thing” is seen as that which secures the enjoyment of the communal identification and is thus – for example in the projections of nationalists – regarded as constantly threatened (above all from the outside). Paradoxically, this is accordingly conceived as “something inaccessible to the other yet at the same time threatened by him” (Žižek 2000). The conception of threat must therefore not be misunderstood as a real scenario, since this logic is not triggered by the immediate social reality but rather by projection mechanisms and by fantasmatic exaggerations on the part of the imaginary. Relating the excesses of community to its imaginary structure also reveals that such phenomena cannot be sufficiently explained by functionalist or rationalist concepts alone. What Žižek emphasizes generally with regard to identity formation can thus also undoubtedly be observed with regard to communal identities. It is “not the external enemy that prevents me from attaining my identity with myself, but that identity is always already blocked within itself, marked by an impossibility, and the external enemy is merely that little piece, that last remainder of reality onto which we ‘project’ or ‘externalize’ this intrinsic, immanent impossibility” (Žižek 2005; here translated from the German by J. R.). If we relate the community’s excesses to such an imaginary community structure, we ultimately also realize that functionalist or rationalist concepts reach their limits here, since they alone do not suffice to explain the dynamic that lies within such excesses (also see Essbach 1993).[7]

Ultimately this also means that any politics in the name of community is problematic not only because differences are ignored and boundaries totalized, but above all because the idea of realization already misrecognizes its core and permanently defers its failure (see Vogl 1994).[8] Yet we have thus come in sight of two points central to Nancy’s line of reasoning: the impossibility of identifying and representing community, and the question as to a different politics of community capable – to the extent possible – of coping with this problem.

2. Vanishing Points of a Deconstruction of Community

Another means to the realignment of the community debate taking into consideration the problems identified here can be found in deconstructivist positions. The authors subsumed under this heading, first and foremost Jean-Luc Nancy, play a special role within the community debate because – in contrast, for example, to communitarian positions – they acknowledge this highly ambivalent and structurally seemingly irrevocable dimension of community as a fundamental problem, and treat it as an essential aspect in their reflection on this concept. What is more, of all the deconstructivist approaches, Nancy’s offers what is perhaps the most fundamental proposal for a reformulation of the concept of community. Even if he does not discuss the problems of the thinking of community on the basis of the imaginary but depends primarily on recourse to ontological leitmotifs, the general thrust is similar on a number of key points. On the one hand, here as well the concern is with a questioning of the classical concept of community on the basis of a critique of identity logic, origin metaphors, and visions of perfection.[9] On the other hand, this critique also comes down to a different politics of community which nevertheless does not dispense with taking community seriously as a political demand, and which accordingly endeavours to reformulate it as a radical democratic project. Due to the fact that – owing to a number of fundamental theoretical decisions – this political element is nevertheless somewhat neglected in Nancy’s argumentation, it will be discussed in the following in somewhat greater depth. The combination of this line of discussion with the discourse over the imaginary thus pursues two aims: on the one hand, within the debate over the imaginary of community, a shift of emphasis to a community concept that is as non-identitary as possible, and on the other hand an enhancement of the deconstructivist position to include the element of political conflict and difference. The general vanishing line of such an undertaking (even if it can only be touched on within the framework of this text) accordingly consists in taking the critique of the classical concept of community – encountered to equal degrees in the cultural-theoretical-psychoanalytical debate and in deconstructivist positions – as a point of departure for the formulation of a different politics of community. To the extent possible, the latter should moreover be capable of leaving the ambiguities and problems of the demand for community behind, but without lapsing into an apolitical attitude as a result. Against the background of the observations on the imaginary, the concern will accordingly be with radicalizing Nancy’s approach beyond its own limitations. For however prominent his critique of identity topoi, Nancy himself clings to a line of tradition which usually tends to foreground the unifying and connective as opposed to the conflict-fraught and antagonistic (see Marchart 2007). This accentuation appears particularly questionable because Nancy’s argumentation targets precisely the difference between the heterogeneity within the communal and the standardized conceptions of concrete communities.

Let us begin, however, with the foundations of Nancy’s argumentation. His discussion of “being-with” is founded in the distinction – introduced by Heidegger – between the ontological and the ontic (see Heidegger 1996). Nancy endeavours to show that, even beyond the boundaries of a concrete (ontic) community, on the more fundamental ontological level we are granted a “being-with” that exists not only “beneath” all respective communities, but also even before we are subjects. To circumvent the usual juxtaposition between the individual and the communal, as well as classical concepts of identity and subject, Nancy reverts to the “singular/plural” dichotomy that, in his view, expresses more clearly that these two terms have to be thought of as interlinked. When, in his work Being Singular Plural (2000), he accordingly attempts to develop “being-with” as a fundamental prerequisite of existence, this accordingly implies “that the singularity of each is indissociable from its being-with-many and because, in general, a singularity is indissociable from a plurality”.[10] This concept also exhibits astonishing resemblance to Lacan’s category of the symbolic.

Against this background, Nancy’s approach insists on the development of an ontology of “being-with”, which has far-reaching consequences for every conception of community: “in my view, the first requirement is to view the traditional conception of the ‘communal’ and the ‘community’ with reservation. On this basis we can begin to understand that the ‘being-in-the-community’ is not communal being, and that it is to be analyzed differently, for example as ‘being-together’ or ‘being-with’”.[11] Nancy’s concept of community thus occupies a different level, so that from now on community refers to something that “has always preceded every singular or generic existence” (Nancy 2001/2007; here translated from the German by J. R.).

Nevertheless, he is not concerned solely with proving that there is a common “with” associated with every existence. In the reformulation of the communal existence, he makes an effort to shift the excessive – a consequence of the communal identity concept already discussed above in conjunction with the imaginary – to an element of the ecstatic (Nancy 1991). That implies that not the community itself is subject to a potentially excessive process of closure (“potentially” excessive because it can never succeed, or only imaginarily), but the community is to be conceived in such a way that it always rises above itself and is never closed (Greek: ékstasis: “step out of oneself”). His efforts to deconstruct the idea of community can accordingly be understood as an endeavour that recognizes the abovementioned problem in the classical concept of community and takes this problem as its central point of intervention. He thus aims at a cleansing of the community concept of all connotations of identity logic and fatality, but without relinquishing the concept itself as a political demand. The aim of this process is to shift the debate deconstructively to a different concept of community located as far beyond the “dialectic of origin and realization, of loss and rediscovery, of being diverted and then of returning” (Esposito 2010) as possible.

Taking these fundamental deliberations as a point of departure, Nancy develops the demand for a recognition of difference and a self-encounter which – in analogy to the antecedence of the ontological – plays out in categories beyond the concept of subject.[12] He would accordingly like to understand communities as number – in contrast to concepts of mass, crowd or class, which in his opinion are pervaded by ideological concepts: “the fascisms – so much we knew – were operations carried out on the ‘masses’, the communisms on the ‘classes’, both of necessity dedicated to a futile mission.”[13] A decisive figure for the development of this concept of community is the term “inoperativeness” (“désœuvrement”), borrowed from Blanchot (Nancy 1991). Blanchot used this term in the sense of interruption, non-consummation, and intentionlessness: no project follows from the discussion; a community is not objectifiable and not institutable. Nancy applies this to the concept of community in the sense that this fundamental (i.e. ontological) community cannot be realized – or put into operation – on the social and political (i.e. ontic) level. It remains unimplementable in the sense that it cannot be realized or represented (Nancy 2001/2007). In addition, this brings about a shift in the question of politics: “The main issue is how politics is to be conceived as a non-totality, and that means other than as a subordination to existence as a whole. Between the ontology of the being-with and politics, there must be no constitutive connection, and no connection of expression. In other words, politics must not give expression to the totality of the being-with. If, on the other hand, the being of the being-with is fundamentally a plural (singular existences and singular orders, arts, bodies, thoughts…), then politics must be that which guarantees justice in the plurality and the diversity, but must not be a suspension of the being-with”.[14]

Mirrored in the element of the imaginary, the aim implied here can by all means be understood as the aim to conceive communities as something other than identical, homogenizing, and connective entities. And even if this reveals itself to be an “infinite task” (Nancy 1991: 35), the deconstruction of the concept of community is in any case more than a permanent reference to the problematic dimensions of communal constructions. It is simultaneously an attempt to create other communities, and to achieve a radical reinterpretation of the idea of community, and thus also of the imaginary of the community itself. Precisely in this regard, the efforts towards a deconstruction of the concept of community exceed the scope of psychoanalytical descriptions of the imaginary scenario.

3. In Search of a Politics of the “Inoperative Community”

Even if this train of thought reveals the general thrust of Nancy’s position, on the political level the question as to how this gap between the ontology of the “being-with” and the actual political institution is to be dealt with remains unanswered. Because however convincing it is to negate the direct connection between the ontological and political level, it remains unclear what the concern of politics is, above and beyond the recognition of this gap. If politics stops at the insistence on the gap, Nancy’s argumentation reaffirms a position (if unintentionally) which emphasizes that no solidified structure, no installation of hierarchies can be a radically political act. In the final analysis, however, an endeavour of this kind foregoes specific political demands – on the one hand by elevating already the mere deconstruction of conceptions of unity to the status of radically political act and “unheard demand” (Nancy 1991), and on the other hand, in the (genuinely Heideggerian) gesture of the “always already”, by exhausting itself in pointing to the antecedence and irreducibility of the “being-with”, i.e. the ontological level. This project thus has the problem – in a certain sense a conceptually intended problem – of being non-realizable, or of withdrawing to what is ultimately a philosophical position that confines itself to pointing out the impossibility of the representation of the ontological in the ontic (see Marchart 2007).

However, drawing on the Althusserian approach – which does not necessarily have to be read as reductionistically as is often the case – the political dimension can be reintroduced in a different way. Ideological apparatuses of state play a role in the creation and consolidation of systems of government, but the ideological sphere can also be used against existing systems of government.[15] This is a circumstance of great significance for all entities, fragmented subjects or singularities within these systems. In other words, to use Foucaultian terminology, power is thus reversible, influenceable.[16] The concept of the “interpellation”, which theorizes that subjects are brought forth by being addressed, can be counter-checked with Lacan. It is thus presumably no coincidence that the mirror situation which, as discussed by Althusser, constitutes subjects is reminiscent of the Lacanian conception of a mirror stage, the moment in which the basic structure of a uniform – though only imaginarily complete – subject emerges. The subject is accordingly always a divided one – indicated by Lacan in his post-1957 writings by the term $ (see, e.g., Lacan 1960). Subjectivization, which can take place only in the symbolic register, creates a subjugation to its own order and divides the subject, which can only attain the capacity to act as a “subject” (in the sense of a being in a state of being subjected). The subject is thus already “spoken” before birth, since it is necessarily born into a historical, class-specific, familial place. An embedment in any form of commonwealth is thus, comparable to Nancy, an inseparable component of being, since “being-with” and “being” are inseparable. Lacan conceives of this in a sense as divided, i.e. as being located in symbol systems (the symbolic), and on the other hand, as fantasmatically unified in the pictorial-imaginary (the imaginary). In the Lacanian and Althusserian conception, however, it is possible for the subject to answer to being addressed (interpellations). Seen in this light, the subject is capable of action, but only in the universality-claiming dimension ultimately decontextualized by Nancy. The split subject, whose being cannot be separated from its “being-with”, is conceived of as radically historical. Not only is it capable of acting, but its action, as an influence on the symbolic, is moreover unavoidable.

With this reference to Althusser and Lacan, it can accordingly be shown that the demand for a complete withdrawal from politics is ultimately a certain form of a politics of non-intervention. As a claim for an emancipatory project, the mere demand to allow differences to exist side by side, together, thus proves to be a utopia which also cannot be attained as an inoperative project. In keeping with Lacan, but also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, it can therefore be maintained that political identities are always constructed on the basis of complex discursive practices.[17] When Mouffe/Laclau break with the essentialist conception of the subject, they do not claim that social movements discover an idea – an inequality, for instance – that was always there, but that they create the terrain of this equality, and equality as such. They thus depart from exclusively representational theories of human equality and insist on the performative dimension that represents the prerequisite for equality. To form equivalence chains would thus mean to create equality in action as a continuing process. “But in that case, the logic of equality cannot be a logic of homogenization. It has to be a logic of what we call ‘equivalence’, because in a relation of equivalence, you are not simply discovering identity, you are discovering something which is identical within the realm of differences. This alludes to a much more subtle form of political logic.”[18]

This brief recourse to Althusser, Lacan and Laclau/Mouffe can also serve to connect the discussion of the ontological level encountered in Nancy with issues of political practice that go beyond the limits of the deconstructive gesture alone. The discussion of the irrevocable “being-with” and the structure of the singular-plural can accordingly be conveyed more clearly into a political or, as defined by Lacan, ethical dimension than is already the case in Nancy. Or, conceptually speaking, even the ontological level on which, for Nancy, the “being-with” is located as a fundamental fact of existence per se, cannot be cleansed of political (or, in the Laclau/Mouffian sense: discursive) meaning or social power relationships. Seen from this perspective, the question of power relationships within and outside the community, in the “being-with”, would have to come into view on the ontological level in order to allow philosophy to become political.

4. Media Images of the Community – Deliberations on a Diagnosis of the Times

It is no coincidence that the preoccupation with the imaginary element of community proves so productive. For not only have the digital communication media vastly accelerated the flow of capital, but communication itself has shifted into a new projective-imaginary mode. Already more than a decade ago, the film and media theorist Christian Metz argued that cinematographic projection represents a virtually paradigmatic cultural production for our society. Yet his assertion is all the more applicable today, in view of the computer, which – with its projection surface, the computer screen – has become a leading medium. Since Metz based his deliberations on a concept of the imaginary indebted to psychoanalysis, his work offers a means of drawing a connection to the deliberations on the imaginary aspect of community discussed above. With regard to the paradigmatic character of the cinematographic projection, Metz comments as follows: “It has very often, and rightly, been said that the cinema is a technique of the imaginary. A technique, on the other hand, which is peculiar to a historical epoch (that of capitalism) and a state of society, so-called industrial civilization.”[19] He considers cinema’s foremost quality to be in the construction of a fictional narrative based on the antecedent techniques of photography and phonography. All the more inevitably does Metz’s observation come to bear in the post-industrial communication society. Metz sees the viewers as being complexly involved in the fictional aspect of this projection; he sees a link between the filmic imaginary and the imaginary in the Lacanian sense of an intrapersonal psychic institution. Here the double construction of the Lacanian conception is particularly interesting: if on the one hand we recognize the “being-with” of existence as something interwoven with the symbolic, as a positioning of the subject (prior to the subject) – undertaken with words and gestures – in an order, and on the other hand recognize in the subjectivization a share of fantasmatic or imaginary projection (as a result of the mirror stage), then, within the context of a diagnosis of the times, the cultural-historically heightened importance of the element of the projection can be applied to community formations. From this point of view we are, with Nancy, fascinated by the imaginary because individual and collective identities are invoked more and more comprehensively by pictorial projections, whereas the localization through institutions, on the contrary, may possibly be on the decline (see Salecl). We thus arrive at the preliminary supposition that community-building originates more strongly in the pictorial-imaginary mode, and less in allocations within established institutions and their symbol systems.

To follow Metz’s line of reasoning, what is special about media projection is that the subjectivizations thus mediated succumb to a deception that points to a different person. The subjectivization now tends to shift from an initially disparate constitution of the subject to a form of secondary narcissism of one’s own mirror image, to a mirror that is to a greater degree allocentric, projective. In the long run, according to Metz, these changes turn the human being into “the double of his double”.[20] Within this context, the identitary offer is always a linking of language and image, whereby the pictorial message, however, is particularly suited to functioning as an imaginary foil. If the speculation of the increasing media construction of communality is correct, community’s mode of construction in a sense shifts. To an ever greater degree, communities are shaped by media-based pictorial languages which convey collective identities by way of intrapersonal processes.

Ordinary film scenarios thus confirm and reinforce the imaginary component in the viewer’s psychic topography. At the same time, the narratives conveyed by the media are imbued with social and cultural codes, and the projective apparatus is thus multiply linked with the formation of imaginary communities which – literally and figuratively – function projectively to adjust and normalize. Since Merz made his observation, this process has been extremely intensified in view of the fact that, with the development of the telecommunications and Internet media, concrete and invisible spaces have begun to interpenetrate in a hitherto unknown manner.[21] As a preliminary conclusion, we can therefore establish that a hitherto non-existent digital dimension of interaction and the imagination with its corresponding imaginary registers evokes “new” communities and reorganizes “old” ones. The project screen and its pictorial production are becoming increasingly separate. (Urban) spaces, imaginary, social and political spaces are accordingly being influenced to an ever greater degree by spatially remote efficacies that – in the places where they bring about consequences – are neither tangible nor require legitimation. An emancipatory project would thus be to re-expose these contexts, hierarchies and interests, and to identify the imaginary basis for the evocation of communities and to reject it in its identitary consequences.

5. Prospects

One aim of this text has been to reveal the traces of a hitherto only timidly endeavoured link between the discussion of the imaginary aspect of communities and deconstructivist positions. Even if the two lines of reasoning originate in different theory traditions, similar approaches to community can nevertheless be discerned – similar in the sense that they are initially both interested in similar problems of the classical concepts of community. Even if no special role is assigned to psychoanalytical perspective in Nancy’s observations, that perspective may prove helpful for clarifying certain motives for the rejection of the assumptions of the thinking of community based in identity logic. In addition to a number of philosophical and conceptual affinities, there is moreover a structural resemblance with regard to the thrust of the critique, since both can be understood as rejections of concepts of community based on identity logic and fixated on unity. They each thus ultimately emphasize that an emancipatory politics – to the extent that it can at all have recourse to the category of community – cannot but accept the above-identified hiatus between the unitary imagination and its impossible realization, or between the “being-with” and a de facto politics of community, and to recognize the heterogeneity of the participants in the community as an irrevocable fact of a political practice.

The advantage of psychoanalytical positions clearly lies in their empiricism. For in contrast to deconstructivist approaches, they are fundamentally interested in finding an explanation for what mechanisms are equally responsible for the “collective effervescence” (Durkheim) of community life and for its violent excesses, two aspects which Nancy – despite a similar rejection of identitarily closed concepts of community – strangely neglects to take into consideration. A sociological perspective that is nevertheless interested in actual phenomena and in the community’s forms of articulation can hardly overlook these aspects. At the same time, however, these positions prove to reach certain limits with regard to the question as to a different politics of community. The reason for that lies in the fact that psychoanalytical and cultural-theoretical positions generally proceed on the assumption of the inevitability of this (identity-)logical construction and occasionally emphasize that the structure of this deficiency is constitutive for the formation of identity (both individual and collective) and cannot be overcome. This is thus precisely the point of departure for a dialog with deconstructivist positions, a dialog that picks up the thread of their efforts to redefine the concept of community, in order at least to air the possibility of developing a different concept less strongly indebted to identity logic. This possibility would arise precisely because of the fact that here, in contrast to the argumentations revolving around the imaginary, there would be more insistence on adhering to the idea of community as a political project.

The critical examination of Nancy nevertheless shows that, within its own approach, this demand for a different concept of community excludes a concept of the political that tends to be more problematic, because it is apolitical, and that forces the political aspect into the background in favour of the ontological. To the extent that this conclusion is not a necessary consequence of the rejection of the classical concept of community, however, but arises from the problematic reduction of Nancy’s argumentation to ontological issues, an alternative presents itself, as proposed here on the basis of the example of Laclau/Mouffe, i.e. of a position founded in discourse theory and arguing from a historical perspective. Rather than exhausting itself in the mere deconstructivist gesture of pointing out the inadequacies of the political demands and overemphasizing the gap between ontology and ontic, the task must consist on the one hand in taking the connections between ontology and politics into account in the sense of a “historical ontology” (Foucault), rather than conceiving of them as two separate spheres, and on the other hand in articulating political demands for equality and community in a form less beholden to identity logic. The recognition of the abovementioned gap, however – that much will presumably have become clear from the two theoretical positions – must be a constitutive element of a possible emancipatory politics.

Literature Consulted

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Lars Gertenbach
studied Social and Political Science and Macroeconomics in Göttingen and Freiburg, academic staff member at the Chair for General and Theoretical Sociology at the University of Jena. Research focus: Sociology of culture, poststructuralism, critical theory, governmentality studies, actor-network theory. Selected publications: "Die Kultivierung des Marktes. Foucault und die Gouvernementalität des Neoliberalismus", 2nd edition, Berlin: parodos 2008; "Ein »Denken des Aussen«. Michel Foucault und die Soziologie der Exklusion", in: Soziale Systeme. Zeitschrift für soziologische Theorie, Vol. 14 (2008), Issue 2, pp. 308-328; Theorien der Gemeinschaft zur Einführung, Junius: Hamburg, 2010 (together with Henning Laux, Hartmut Rosa, David Strecker).

Dorothee Richter. Art historian and curator; Director of Studies for the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ICS, at the ZHDK Zurich; prior to that Artistic Director of the Künstlerhaus Bremen; symposia on questions of contemporary art with the following publications: Curating Degree Zero – an international symposium of curators (with B. Drabble); Dialoge und Debatten – on feminist positions in contemporary art; Im (Be_)Griff des Bildes (with Katrin Heinz and Sigrid Adorf); Die Visualität der Theorie vs. zur Theorie des Visuellen (with Nina Möntmann); Re-Visionen des Displays, (with Sigrid Schade and Jennifer Johns); Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, Kassel (with Rein Wolfs), teaching: University of Bremen, Ecole des Beaux Arts, Geneva, Merz-Akademie Stuttgart; University Lüneburg, Zurich University of Arts. Initiator (with B. Drabble) Curating Degree Zero Archive, archive, travelling exhibition and website on curatorial practice, www.curatingdegreezero.org. Other editions: Curating Critique (with B. Drabble): editor of the web journal www.on-curating.org


1 In contrast to the authors who can be assigned to the deconstructivist field in the broadest sense (Nancy, Blanchot, Esposito, Agamben) Zizek’s deliberations have never been published in a monograph but are scattered among various texts. The motifs of his argumentation are most clearly conveyed in two essays: see Zizek 1997 and 1998.

2 Society’s way of dealing with contingency therefore presumably plays a decisive role in the ever-historical drama of the idea of community. At least at first sight, social practices that are open to contingency appear to be less prone to regressive community-affirming ideas. See in general Makropoulos: Modernität und Kontingenz (Munich: Fink, 1997).

3 For an in-depth discussion, see: Gertenbach et al., Theorien der Gemeinschaft zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2010).

Also see Philipp Sarasin: “Die Wirklichkeit der Fiktion. Zum Konzept der ‘imagined communities’”, in idem, Geschichtswissenschaft und Diskursanalyse (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 150–76. Even if Castoriadis is not discussed in the present text, his theory of the imaginary offers a promising point of departure for the questions raised here. Unfortunately he has not published any work related to the concept of community to date. On Castoriadis in general and his theory of the imaginary; see Lars Gertenbach, “Cornelius Castoriadis. Gesellschaftliche Praxis und radikale Imagination”, in Moebius, Stephan, ed., Kultur. Theorien der Gegenwart, 2nd updated and expanded edition (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2011).

5 Already Freud had a similar aspect in mind when he positioned the “ego” as a precarious and exceedingly vulnerable intermediary function between the unconscious, the drives, the ego ideal and the environment. Lacan, in his conception of a subject constitution indebted to breaks, aligns himself closely with Freud. This is discussed in detail in, for example, Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London and New York: Verso, 1986).

6 Precisely that circumstance, however, makes it problematic to separate these two elements from one another, in view of the fact that violence and exclusion can be ecstatically celebrated and go hand in hand with a jubilatory affirmation by the community.

7 From a similar perspective, Klaus Theweleit applied this psychoanalytically motivated approach to the soldierly (German) men and their conceptions of the “Red Mass”, in the process elaborating in all depth and clarity on the fact that the projection of internal conflicts between drives, unconscious material and the ego ideal is deferred to the imagined other to rescue the threatened ego. The underlying paranoid tenor of this relationship has its roots precisely in the supposed threat scenario. (Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies [Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987–1989]).

8 At the same time, here the question may well arise as to which factors are specifically responsible for the fact that the communal imaginary can, in a concrete case, take on forms and intensities which can become prone to real violence and the open exclusion of others. Even if the discussion of the imaginary element of communities might initially appear capable of providing possible answers here, since it endeavours to explain the affective and fantasmatic structure of the desire for community, at the same time it also creates doubts as to the extent to which these questions can at all be answered. A theoretical recipe or a categorization with which communities could be carefully categorized with regard to this point (or even divided into good and bad) hardly appears sensible, since it would necessarily be forced to suppress the non-rational and affective elements of communal relationships or, alternatively, reduce them to rational or functional explanations – an undertaking which is hardly convincing in view of the significance of the imaginary.

9 For a more detailed discussion, see Gertenbach et al. 2010 (see note 3), pp. 158ff.

10 Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 32.

11 Jean-Luc Nancy, Singulär plural sein, French-German translation by Ulrich Müller-Schöll (Berlin: Diaphanes, 2004 [here translated from the German by J. R.]).

12 In his words: “… to confront one another with gazes when the gaze of the other always opens up only to the unfathomable: to absolute strangeness, to a truth that cannot be verified, but by which one must nevertheless abide”. (Jean-Luc Nancy, Die herausgeforderte Gemeinschaft [Berlin: diaphanes], p. 15; here translated from the German by J. R.).

13 Ibid., p. 21 (here translated from the German by J. R.).

14 Jean-Luc Nancy, Die undarstellbare Gemeinschaft, French-German translation by Gisela Febel and Jutta Legueil (Stuttgart: Schwarz, 1988 [here translated from the German by J. R.]).

15 Louis Althusser, Ideologie und ideologische Staatsapparate (Hamburg: VSA, 1977).

16 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley [New York: Random, Vintage, 1980], pp. 95ff.

17 “Hegemony and Socialism: An Interview with Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau”, http://anselmocarranco.tripod.com/id68.html, accessed on 22 November 2013.

18 Ibid.

19 Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 3.

20 Ibid., p. 4.

21 Viktor Kittlausz, “Urbane(s) Fragen, Auf der Suche nach den Medien des Städtischen”, in Elke Krasny and Irene Nierhaus, eds., Urbanographien, Stadtforschung in Kunst, Architektur und Theorie (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2008), pp. 193–203.

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