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June 24, 2013 / Southerly

‘Community’: networks, nepotism and exclusion

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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.

6 Comments

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  1. Mark Cavill / Jun 24 2013 12:10 pm

    you saying ali you’re gonna enact divine retribution like grace or are you gonna give compassion? i don’t get it. thanks for the article tho, i dont know where i fit, performance activist or text, you give us voice, where can i sign up

    • alializadeh / Jul 1 2013 5:49 am

      hi Mark. i have some compassion for writers who, for whatever reason, feel the need to be part of gangs. but i don’t like it when they exclude perceived aliens, attack rivals, present mediocre members of their coteries as geniuses, etc. silly, ugly stuff, really. but i can assure i won’t be enacting divine retribution personally. & no need to sign up; just avoid any ‘community’ that doesn’t see the People and universal collectivity as its core necessity.

  2. Patrick McCauley / Jun 25 2013 6:06 am

    Yet it is not just Australian literary coteries – they are global and seem necessary in a multi-cultural/multi-tribal/multi-sexual/multi-gendered classless democracy. Somehow the social vortex create elites and exclusive ‘communities’ who only communicate through networks and ideologies but largely remain within their comfort zones. Nepotism and corruption are unavoidable results of valuing ‘exclusive’ communities through positive discrimination in search of ‘equity’ – Feminist women’s poetry, black only poetry,gay poetry,marxist poetry. ‘emerging poetry’ etc etc – all little elites unwilling and unable to enter the language of communication with the ‘other’
    The thing is to keep your eye on the ball. Ali – Ditch that US citizenship and apply to become an Indigenous Australian – the minute you do it – you will be struck with a great innocence – the shackles will be lifted and you will suddenly see very different cadences and rhythms. Did you notice, for example, how, Mick Ringiari’s poem in the latest Quadrant – ‘Redemption’ – managed a rhythm around a landscape ‘breathing in and out like a horses flank’?

    • alializadeh / Jun 25 2013 7:33 am

      Hi Patrick. Thanks for reading and for the comment. It seems to me, however, that I’ve been misunderstood, and that you and i have rather different definitions of ‘community’, perhaps due to our rather different politics. I’m not at all referring to an identity-oriented genre of poetry (e.g. queer poetry, black poetry, etc.) but to actual interpersonal formations of ‘real life’ poets who socialise in real or virtual settings (which i’m perfectly happy with) who then fetishise that social bond by depicting it as some kind of aesthetic configuration and a rubric for assessing the value of art (which i’m not happy with). So I do share (some of) your frustration with cliques, but not your concern with what you see as ‘positive discrimination in search of equity’. And I’m afraid i’m still not convinced that a landscape could either breathe or breathe in and out like a horse’s flank.

      • 2cokesPam / Jun 26 2013 6:06 am

        Ali, hi –
        you said (my edited extract) : I’m referring “… to actual interpersonal formations of ‘real life’ poets who socialise in real or virtual settings (which i’m perfectly happy with) who then fetishise that social bond by depicting it as some kind of aesthetic configuration and a rubric for assessing the value of art (which i’m not happy with).”

        Last last century ago I read the US poet Ann Lauterbach writing on younger or ‘emerging’ poets becoming part of a group, clique or coterie.( “Misquotations from Reality,” in Diacritics, #26, 1996).

        Of course her references are to the kinds of schools or groups that haven’t really actualised here in Australia (Jindyworobaks being a possible exception and the ‘Generation of ’68′ being not a movement but a label or brand). Nor is there a ‘totalizing’ array of critics here (alas). I’m not so certain that those marginalised or ‘left out’ poets all become ‘bitter and confused’ but, with those qualifications, I think what she had to say might be useful today -

        “The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to ‘fit’ her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities. Thus the marginalized world of poetry begins to imitate other identity formulations which increasingly govern contemporary academic, cultural, and political life. Frightened by exclusionary clubs, the poet ceases to identify herself with the essential margin from which a vital critique must come.”

        “In this culture, the choice begins to be either to move into the denuded brilliance of celebrity or become part of a group which knows itself not because its little dog knows it but because it represents the Society of Little Dogs. Thus allegiances are formed not so much by ideological choice but by a priori cultural determinates; one identifies with those who most resemble what one already claims as identification (I am a woman, therefore I must be a feminist). The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.”

        And there you have a bonus speculation as to what might become of some of the little dogville dogs.

  3. alializadeh / Jun 28 2013 12:42 am

    Many thanks, Pam. A very useful narrative which I think both confirms and challenges what i’ve said. I grant that the ‘school’ — in Lauterbach’s sense, which, exactly as you’ve pointed out, hasn’t really existed in Australian literature beyond, in my view, particular collaborations or actual schools (university creative writing clusters) — can provide a nurturing context for the young poet, but, exactly as Lauterbach says, these formations soon/often give way to ‘tribal identities’, ‘exclusionary clubs’ and so on, which replace the initial desire for the new with a compulsion for authority, self-proclaimed manifestations of (in most cases non-existent) ‘radicalism’. I love ‘the Society of Little Dogs’ analogy. I’m assuming you’ve posted this knowing that the only member of the Dogville community Grace doesn’t kill at the end of the movie is indeed an actual dog (as opposed to the sadistic self-identified ‘underdogs’). Thanks again for your post.

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