‘Community’: networks, nepotism and exclusion


Ali Alizadeh

In my previous two posts I attempted to develop a theory of literary ideology in contemporary Australian writing. According to my formulation, such an ideology does two seemingly contradictory yet complimentary things simultaneously: it conceals the signified of socio-economic exchange-value production by displacing it with a Master Signifier (‘our nation’, ‘our physical environment’) to ensure that the prerogatives and decisions of those who absorb the surplus-value of production are naturalised; and, at the same time, it ensures that this state has a metaphysical, indeterminable quality (‘cultural heritage’, ‘ethics of land care’) which transforms the initial concealment into a mystical concept that demands fealty and devotion.

I fear that my last post may have presented me as an anti-environmentalist–which would be a misrepresentation–and that the below critique of ‘community’ could portray me as an antisocial misanthrope. Yet I agree with philosopher Alain Badiou’s sombre observation that “in politics the idea of producing an ideal community has been forsaken” (152). In a capitalist milieu in which the spectre of axiomatic communality as such–better known as, yes, communism–has been exorcised from the socio-political zeitgeist, it’s common for the noun ‘community’ to be moderated or mediated by a cautionary adjective, so that “we find Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy reflecting upon an ‘inoperative community’ and Giorgio Agamben writing about a ‘coming’ community” (Ibid). If so, then how should one account for the persistent and at times excessive repetition of the term in contemporary literary discourses?

Consider these examples. In an official 2011 media release by the Australia Council for the Arts, the decision to merge two existing literary organisations to form Australian Poetry Ltd. was justified, in part, by the need to “support the existing poetry community”. The judge of the 2009 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets used the word no less than three times in the final paragraph of her judge’s report (emphases are mine):

This year, all the winning and commended poems are by people whose work I am familiar with through their participation in the broader new and emerging writers’ community […] What makes their work stick out from the pile […] might have something to do with the cross-fertilisations that are happening between poets as readers and writers, as they participate across a networked community of practice […] For me, this loose-knit community is where a lot of the energy and action in Australian poetry is …

Although the above passage ends with the nomination of a “loose-knit community”, its earlier statements seem to depict a rather close-knit community. This possibility is more evident in an earlier part of this judge’s report in which she boasts about more or less knowing the identity of the winner of the poetry competition, hence making the anonymity of submissions to the competition functionally meaningless: “Although all entries are judged anonymously, I had a strong inkling that [the winning poem] was written by [a specific poet], whom I first met in 2005 […] Like [the poet], I grew up in Wagga […] and last I saw him he was floating down the Murrumbidgee River with his partner and kids in inflatable tyres.”

The judge’s rather weird determination to overemphasise her physical proximity to the winning poet runs the risk of hinting at a degree of favouritism (which would be rather unfortunate since, in my view, the winning poet is quite an interesting writer.) I feel the term ‘community’ has been summoned to foil such misgivings and, more importantly, to embellish the judge’s decision with an ethical aura. According to the discourse of this report, the responsibility for the decision is no longer the judge’s and is deferred to the unquestionably Good, Big Other of community, an ‘invisible hand’, the ineffable, mysterious entity (supplemented by the natural ‘floating’ metaphor of a river) that forges ‘networks’ and foments ‘cross-fertilisations’ without subjective human intervention: in other words, the very definition of late capitalist ideology. (I do not believe this report to be reflective of the ethos of Overland, and for a far less ideological judge’s report, one which is actually about the literary qualities of submitted entries, I recommend this, written for a literary prize also hosted by the Overland magazine.)

An implied ‘ethical dimension’/responsibility avoidance strategy is also apparent in the Australia Council press release which presents a purely administrative decision (to merge two existing bodies) as something very Good and hence indisputable. Had the press release simply stated something along the lines of “this merger is taking place for financial and bureaucratic reasons”, then we would expect to be provided with a rational explication of the interests of those bureaucrats likely to financially and professionally benefit from such a merger and also an explanation apropos of those likely to be affected negatively by such a merger. Here an invocation of a communal ethics–“supporting an existing poetry community”–obfuscates the bureaucratic-economic Real and presents the august Council’s decision as an unquestionably Good development. Who, after all, would be tactless enough to argue against ‘supporting a community’?!

‘Community’, therefore, may easily stand in as an alibi to naturalise and legitimise the decisions and actions of those with cultural and economic power. But this utilisation should not be seen as a mere, innocuous rhetorical device. My experiences of our cherished ‘poetry communities’ in particular suggest that the term is more often than not a warm and fuzzy euphemism for the signified of self-serving scenes, gangs and cliques which–in addition to being nauseatingly nepotistic, incestuous and partisan in their use/abuse of a Kantian public use of reason–operate on the basis of what philosopher Jacques Rancière has described as “the problematic remainder that [the community] terms ‘the excluded’” (115-6).

‘The excluded’ is the unsettling Real of the symbolic/myth of community. As someone who has often been excluded from social formations–due to racial, political and no doubt personal reasons–I may have a particular bias vis-à-vis the sheer malice of this aspect of community. So I’ll instead quote Rancière as he describes the excluded as:

the one who is separated from the community for the mere fact of being alien to it, of not sharing the identity that binds each to all, and of threatening the community in each of us. The depoliticised national community [e.g. ‘the Australian poetry community’], then, is set up just like the small society in Dogville – through the duplicity that at once fosters social services in the community and involves the absolute rejection of the other (Ibid. 116)

I won’t burden the reader with accounts of how I and a number of writers I greatly admire have been made to feel excluded from a range of poetic and literary communities/cliques, and that I have personally come to identify very much with the mistreated protagonist of Lars von Trier’s excellent film on more than one occasion. Suffice it to say that, as illustrated by von Trier’s movie, such exclusions are not accidental, and they are very much at the heart of the very ontology of coteries and exclusivist formations. The excluded heroine Grace’s solution to the problem of her brutal exclusion is not to punish a few exploitative ‘bad apples’ in the community, but to decide that Dogville is a town “this world would be better without”, prior to enacting the divinely violent annihilation of the very being of this community. I feel a movie like Dogville offers a very cogent alternative to the sort of excessively positive and optimistic presentations of the ideal–such as this or this–which one often finds in contemporary literary discourses.

I for one would love to be a member of a genuine and genuinely egalitarian, engaged and productive collective of producers and thinkers of writing. My observations and experiences have led me to perceive, however, that such a community has very little chance of existing under the aegis of capitalism, and that the term ‘community’ itself has been reified into a signifier that more often than not obscures the fact that in the writing milieu, as with much of the rest of our commodified and exploited landscape, competition, favouritism, exclusionism and animosity have annulled the possibility for a true collective. As far as I’m concerned, solidarity, camaraderie and compassion are, for the time being, the preferred alternatives.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. The Century. Trans. Alberto Toscano. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.
Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Trans. Steven Corcoran. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.