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Lars Gertenbach


Any community is constituted as imaginary. Not only does it need to be capable of being experienced as a community and possessed of an external boundary that constitutes it as the specific community that it is in the first place, it also requires a notion of itself (albeit by no means always a conscious and considered one), an idea of its unity or its commonalities in the form of a quasi-image that also becomes manifest in its practices. The concept of community necessarily depends on this anchor if it wants to be conceived and lived at all as something real, if it wishes to become effective and relevant. This imaginary moment must not be understood as a contingent supplement; it is rather a constitutive component of communities. It is situated not only in the imagination of individuals but also in the practices and manifestations of the communal itself, which constantly produce and maintain the idea of community (and thus make the community appear attractive to subjects in the first place). The imaginary is thus the opposite of illusion. It is the precondition and basis for the construction of community rather than its logically subsequent reflection.

These preambles are important to strip these reflections on the imagination of community of their apparent triviality and to indicate a few pathways for further consideration. I will state a number of aspects and attempt to explain why a theoretical reflection on community must substantially involve the aspect of the imaginary in addition to a careful engagement with its historical semantics and the social manifestations in which the concept is embedded. I will begin with a few peculiarities of the debate about community in order to delineate the place of the imaginary and conclude by outlining a number of problems confronting the community discussion.

Ever since the modern era characterized by a peculiar ambivalence: Community can be regarded both as the redeeming and peaceful other to the alienated modern society and as its totalitarian double.[1] Ever since community (at least in the linguistic sphere of the German language as the notion of 'Gemeinschaft') established itself in the course of the 19th century as a counterpoint to society [Gesellschaft], corresponding patterns of interpretation have become embedded in its semantics and continue to play a role in everyday discourse. Community is regarded as an instance of redemption since it promises to overcome the contingent forms of interaction of the modern era.[2] Ever since the modern era the semantics of community has thus been pervaded by a naively pious metaphoric of security, warmth and sympathy. This is particularly surprising given the fact that without a doubt its manifestations have again and again been connected with violence and mechanisms of exclusion. Communities have a unifying effect; they function as discourses of closure to the outside and (occasionally violent or enforced) harmonization on the inside. This dual front, which calibrates itself already in the period of Romanticism, is a peculiar component of the community discourse in modern times.

With regards to the interpretation of the community phenomenon this aspect appears fascinating yet at the same time it tends to elude the conceptual grasp. Two aspects are linked here: the attractiveness of the notion of community in the face of discontent with modernity, and the peculiar internal and intrinsic logic of communities which occasionally transform the need for harmony, clarity and belonging into violent excess. The reason for this dual position lies in the imaginary aspect, even when and precisely where communities have real effects beyond mere imagination (whether positively in terms of security and stabilization of personal identity or negatively in terms of violent excess and exclusion).

An emphasis on the aspect of imagination of community can be found in many authors, albeit rarely in a systematical fashion. Besides Benedict Anderson’s study on the invention of the nation (Anderson 2005), which lists the factors necessary to produce the possibility for a (national) community to be imagined beyond face-to-face interactions, predominantly psychoanalytical theory patterns play a crucial role. At the same time already Durkheim stressed the fact that mechanisms of projection, transference and misrecognition play an important role in the production of community (cp. Durkheim 1994: 313). The decisive theoretical connection for such questions, however, is provided by psychoanalytical considerations transformed into cultural theory, for example in Žižek and Castoriadis. The imaginary is understood as a precondition and fundamental component of the social itself. The transfer of the psychoanalytic concept may be problematic but it is instructive for a number of aspects. What I find particularly interesting is the aspect of identification with the community since the component of the imaginary plays a crucial role in the question of the attachment of individuals to the community.

There is a desire for community that goes far beyond merely belonging to a group. What is true for the Ego can at least initially be assumed to be true for the phenomenon of community as well: The way in which the individual relates to the community is constituted in a process of identification with the other. Already Freud considered this with regards to mass phenomena by subsuming them under the aspect of ego-elimination and the replacement of the ego-ideal with that of the communal We (or of the leader), speaking of the 'libidinous constitution of masses' (Freud 1921: 108). Not only the affective and passionate attachment of individuals to the community but also the violence that occasionally emanates from communities can be attributed to an imaginary or phantasmatic scenario.

If we assume with Lacan that identity is constituted as imaginary, the emphasis will fall first and foremost on the fact that the notion of identity as unified homogeneity is part of the imaginary and will thus necessarily remain there. The fact that communities are constituted as imaginary also means at the same time that they will appear complete and closed only in the imaginary mode. The notion of their completeness cannot leave the sphere of the imago, which implies two crucial consequences: On the one hand it covers the real differences and heterogeneities within the group, but more importantly it also covers the fact that the gap between the real and the imaginary as such is structurally irrevocable. The complete identification promised by the imaginary cannot be achieved. Instead a moment of alienation and "non-correspondence with one’s own reality" arises (Lacan 1975: 64). The imaginary thus has 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 reality is constitutive. Since the imaginary promises to close and negate the abyss, a scenario arises by which the desire for identification and community can ultimately lead to the excesses of community (exclusion, violence) as much as to its jubilatory moments (inebriation, ecstasy, celebration).[3] The imaginary of the community thus plays a central role with regards to the mechanisms of exclusion and the scenarios of violence that emanate from communities, and they cannot be understood without such a concept. An approach based on these premises is based on a crucial shift in perspective: Rather than assuming the projection of community to be real, the (allegedly) real of the projection is understood as a projection of the social imaginary.

Only then does it become evident that communities – particularly national communities – again and again perceive their existence as being threatened. Žižek suspects that the reason may have something to do with what Lacan calls enjoyment (French: jouissance): a kind of painful pleasure that is inherent in any concept of community and which manifests particularly in their egocentrism and egointoxication. It explains not only the specific coherence of communities or the sometimes passionate support for each other but also the voluntary subjugation, particularly virulent in nationalism, of the self under the project of the community, which can even lead to self-sacrifice. To ensure this enjoyment, communities create something like a 'communal thing' (Žižek), which includes not only common symbols but also functions as a placeholder and representative of the communal. This 'communal thing' is seen as securing the enjoyment of the communal identification and is thus, for example in the projections of nationalists, always regarded as constantly threatened (particularly from the outside). Paradoxically this is conceived as "something inaccessible to the other yet at the same time threatened by him" (Žižek 1997: 137). The idea of such a threat therefore must not be misunderstood as a real scenario, since its logic is not triggered by the immediate social reality but rather by mechanisms of projection and by phantasmatic elevations 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.

The consequences of all this also mean that any politics in the name of community are problematic not only because differences are ignored and boundaries totalized but also because the idea of realization already misrecognizes its core and permanently defers its failure (cp. Vogl 1993). For this reason the question arises which concrete factors are responsible for the fact that in any specific case the imaginary of the community can take on forms and intensities that are susceptible to lead to actual violence and direct exclusion of others. Even though the discussion of the imaginary aspects of communities initially appears capable of providing possible answers since it endeavours to explain the affective and phantasmatic structure of the desire for community, at the same time it also gives rise to doubts whether such questions can be answered at all. A theoretical recipe or a set of categories by which such communities could be distinguished from each other (and perhaps even classified into good ones and bad ones) would hardly appear to make sense since it would necessarily have to disregard the non-rational and affective moments of social relations or reduce them again to rational or functional explanations. Such an approach seems hardly persuasive, given the significance of the imaginary.

A different answer, following a non-sociological and non-rationalistic approach, could be found following Nancy or Esposito. A connection, rarely undertaken to date, between the discussion of the imaginary of the community and deconstructivist positions could be made here. Even though they are derived from different theoretical traditions, these are ultimately similar approaches to community. At the same time such a link could integrate the aspect of the imaginary into Nancy’s considerations stronger than before. Although the concept has not played a central role in his explanations so far, it could help clarify certain motifs which result in his rejection of identitarian assumptions in the thinking of community.

At the same time these positions complement the discussion of the imaginary in two ways: on the one hand because the proposal is made that the semantics and the ways in which community is articulated must be clearly taken into consideration. And on the other hand because the endeavours to deconstruct the debate tend towards a different notion of community which is as distant as possible from assumptions rooted in the logic of subject and identity. With an idea of community beyond the "dialectics of origin and completion, of loss and recovery, of separation and return" (Esposito 2004: 170) it may be possible to resume certain motifs which can be connected to psychoanalytic discourse and which can equally be found in Žižek (and occasionally also in Castoriadis). It is only in such an interplay that the phenomena of society can be sufficiently grasped and at the same time critically analyzed in their premises – possibly a never-ending task but one which so far neither the psychoanalytically inspired concepts of the imaginary nor the deconstructivist positions alone have been able to tackle convincingly.



Anderson, Benedict: Die Erfindung der Nation. Zur Karriere eines folgenreichen Konzepts, 2nd edition including afterword, Frankfurt/M./New York: Campus, 2005. [Engl.: Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism]

Durkheim, Émile: Die elementaren Formen des religiösen Lebens, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994. [Engl.: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life]

Esposito, Roberto: Communitas. Ursprung und Wege der Gemeinschaft, Berlin: diaphanes, 2004. [Engl.: Communitas The Origin and Destiny of Community]

Freud, Sigmund: "Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse", 1921, in: id.: Studienausgabe Bd. IX. Fragen der Gesellschaft – Ursprünge der Religion, Frankfurt/M.: S. Fischer, 1974, 61-134. [Engl.: Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego]

Gertenbach, Lars/Henning Laux/Hartmut Rosa/David Strecker: Theorien der Gemeinschaft zur Einführung, Hamburg: Junius, 2010.

Lacan, Jacques: Schriften I, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1975.

Vogl, Joseph: "Einleitung", in: id. (ed.): Gemeinschaften. Positionen zu einer Philosophie des Politischen, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1994, 7-27.

Žižek, Slavoj: "Genieße deine Nation wie Dich selbst! Der Andere und das Böse – Vom Begehren des ethnischen »Dings«", in: Joseph Vogl (ed.):Gemeinschaften. Positionen zu einer Philosophie des Politischen, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1997, 133-164. [Engl.: Enjoy Your Nation As Yourself, last chapter in Tarrying With The Negative]


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).



1 More detail in: Gertenbach et al 2010.

2 Society’s approach to contingency would be likely to play a crucial part in the specific historical drama of the notion of community. Social practices that are open to contingency appear prima facie less vulnerable to regressive ideas in the affirmation of community.

3 At the same time exactly that is also what makes it problematic to separate these two moments, since violence and exclusion, too, can be celebrated as ecstasy and accompanied by a jubilatory affirmation of community.


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