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Identity sprouts on the graveyard of communities: Bauman on community

April 28, 2013

Philosophising over the nature of ‘community’ (at the turn of this century), Zygmunt Bauman points out that while negative connotations may be found to attach themselves to words like ‘society’ or ‘company’, ‘community’ is a word that feels good.

“To start with,” he writes, “community is a ‘warm’ place, a cosy and comfortable place. It is like a roof under which we shelter in heavy rain, like a fireplace at which we warm our hands on a frosty day. Out there, in the street, all sorts of dangers lie in ambush; we have to be alert when we go out, watch whom we are talking to and who talks to us, be on the look-out every minute. In here, in the community, we can [-p.2] relax – we are safe, there are no dangers looming in dark corners (to be sure, hardly any ‘corner’ here is ‘dark’). In a community we all understand each other well, we may trust what we hear, we are safe most of the time and hardly ever puzzled or taken aback. We are never strangers to each other. We may quarrel – but these are friendly quarrels, it is just that we are all trying to make our togetherness even better and more enjoyable than it has been so far and, while guided by the same wish to improve our life together, we may disagree how to do it best. But we never wish each other bad luck, and we may be sure that all the others around wish us good.
To go on: in a community we can count on each other’s good will. If we stumble and fall, others will help us to stand on our feet again. …Our duty, purely and simply, is to help each other, and so our right, purely and simply, is to expect that the help we need will be forthcoming.
And so it is easy to see why the word ‘community’ feels good. Who would not wish to live among friendly and well-wishing people whom one could trust and on whose words and deeds one could rely?” (pp.1-2) “What that word [community] evokes is everything we miss [in today’s “ruthless times”] and what we lack to be secure, confident and trusting.” (p.3)

However, these days, Bauman opines, “‘community’ stands for the kind of world which is not, regrettably, available to us – but which we would dearly wish to inhabit and which we hope to repossess. Raymond Williams, the thoughtful analyst of our shared condition, observed caustically that the remarkable thing about community is that ‘it always has been’. We may add: or that it is always in the future. ‘Community’ is nowadays another name for paradise lost – but one to which we dearly hope to return, and so we feverishly seek the roads that may bring us there.” (p.3)

“It is not just the ‘harsh reality’, the admittedly ‘non-communal’ or even the explicitly community-hostile reality, that differs from that imagined community with a ‘warm feel’. That difference, if anything, only spurs our imagination to run faster and makes the imagined community [-p.4] even more alluring. On this difference, the imagined (postulated, dreamed of) community feeds and thrives. What spells trouble for the cloudless image is another difference: that between the community of our dreams and the ‘really existing community’: a collectivity which pretends to be community incarnate, the dream fulfulled, and (in the name of all the goodness such community is assumed to offer) demands unconditional loyalty and treats everything short of such loyalty as an act of unforgivable treason. The ‘really existing community’, were we to find ourselves in its grasp, would demand stern obedience in exchange for the services it renders or promises to render. Do you want security? Give up your freedom, or at least a good chunk of it. Do you want confidence? Do not trust anybody outside your community. … There is a price to be paid for the privilege of ‘being in a community’ – and it is inoffensive or even invisible only as long as the community stays in the dream. The price is paid in the currency of freedom, variously called ‘autonomy’, ‘the right to self-assertion’, ‘right to be yourself’. Whatever you choose, you gain some and lose some. Missing community means missing security; gaining community, if it happens, would soon mean missing freedom. Security and freedom are two equally precious and coveted values which could be better or worse balanced, but hardly ever [-p.5] full reconciled and without friction.” (pp.3-5)

We cannot be human without both security and freedom; but we cannot have both at the same time and both in quantities which we find fully satisfactory. This is not a reason to stop trying….” (p.5)

Whereas sameness and homogeneity once characterised the (members of) ‘community’ (and that homogeneity was reinforced by the distances between communities), these days, as Bauman explains:

“Distance, once the most formidable among the communal defences, lost much of its significance. the mortal blow to the ‘naturalness’ of communal understanding was delivered, however, by the advent of informatics: the emancipation of the flow of information from the transport of bodies. Once information could travel independently of its carriers, and with a speed far beyond the capacity of even the most advanced means of [-p.14] transportation (as in the kind of society we all nowadays inhabit), the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ could no longer be drawn, let alone sustained.” (pp.13-14)

As Eric Hobsbawm recently observed, ‘never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life’; and he commented, ‘Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain.’ Jock Young supplied a succinct and poignant gloss on Hobsbawm’s observation and commentary: ‘Just as community collapses, identity is reinvented.’” (p.15) “‘Identity‘, today’s talk of the town and the most commonly played game in town” Bauman continues, “owes the attention it attracts and the passion it begets to being a surrogate of community: of that allegedly ‘natural home’ or that circle that stays warm however cold the winds outside. Neither of the two is available in our rapidly privatized and individualized, fast globalizing world, and for that reason each of [-p.16] the two can be safely, with no fear of practical test, imagined as a cosy shelter of security and confidence and for that reason hotly desired. The paradox, though, is that in order to offer even a modicum of security and so to perform any kind of healing or pain-soothing role, identity must belie its origin; it must deny being ‘just a surrogate’ – it needs to conjure up a phantom of the self-same community which it has come to replace. Identity sprouts on the graveyard of communities, but flourishes thanks to the promise of a resurrection of the dead.
A life dedicated to the search for identity is full of sound and fury. ‘Identity’ means standing out: being different, and through that difference unique – and so the search for identity cannot but divide and separate. And yet the vulnerability of individual identities and the precariousness of solitary identity-building prompt the identity builders to seek pegs on which they can together hang their individually experienced fears and anxieties, and having done that, perform the exorcism rites in the company of other similarly afraid and anxious individuals.Whether such ‘peg’ communities provide what it is hoped they offer – collective insurance against individually confronted uncertainties – is a moot question; but no doubt marching shoulder to shoulder along a street or two, mounting a barricade in the company of others or rubbing elbows in crowded trenches may supply a momentary respite from loneliness. With good, bad, or no results, something at least has been done; one can derive some comfort from having refused to offer a sitting target and from having raised one’s hands against the blows. Little wonder, therefore, that – as Jonathan Friedman warns us – in our fast globalizing world ‘one thing that is not happening is that boundaries are disappearing. Rather, they seem to be erected on every street corner of every declining neighbourhood of our world.’” (pp.15-16)

Despite the claims of the boundary guards,” Bauman goes on, “the boundaries they protect have not been drawn to fence off and defend the distinctiveness of the already existing identities. As the great Norwegian anthropologist Frederick Barth explained, the opposite is the rule: the ostensibly shared ‘communal’ identities are after-effects or by-products of forever unfinished (and all the more feverish and ferocious for that reason) boundary drawing. It is only when the border poles are being dug in and the guns are aimed at trespassers that the myths of the borders’ antiquity are spun and the recent cultural/political origins of identity are carefully covered up by thegenesis stories‘. This strategem attempts to belie the fact that (to quote Stuart hall) one thing that the idea of identity does not signal is a ‘stable core of the self, unfolding from the beginning to end through all the vicissitudes of history without change.’” (p.17)

“‘The really existing community’ will be unlike [the] dreams [of contemporary seekers of community] – more like their opposite: it will add to their fears and insecurity instead of quashing them or putting them to rest. It will call for twenty-four hours a day vigilance and a daily resharpening of swords; for struggle, day in day out, to keep the aliens off the gates and to spy out and hunt down the turncoats in their own midst. And to add a final touch of irony, it is only through all that pugnacity, wolf-crying and sword-brandishing that the feeling of being in a community, of being a community, may be kept lingering [-p.18] and protected from evaporation. Homely cosiness is to be sought, day in day out, on the front line.” (pp.17-18)

“Progress, [Walter] Benjamin implies, is not a chase after the birds in the sky, but a frantic urge to fly away from the corpses spattered over past battlefields.” (p.18)

Repulsion, not attraction, being history’s principal moving force, historical change happens because humans are mortified and annoyed by what they find painful and unpalatable in their condition, because they do not wish these conditions to persist, and because they seek the way to mollify or redress their suffering. Getting rid of what, momentarily, pains us most brings relief – but that respite is as a rule short-lived since the ‘new and improved’ condition quickly reveals its own, previously invisible and unanticipated, unpleasant aspects and brings new reasons to worry. In addition, one person’s meat is another person’s poison, and people in flight are hardly ever unanimous in their selection of which realities need attention and reform. Each step away from the present will be eyed with enthusiasm by some, with apprehension by others. ‘Progress’ is a prominent member of the family of ‘hotly contested concepts’. The balance of the past, the assessment of the present and the appreciation of the futures are all conflict-ridden and strewn with ambivalence.
There is good reason to conceive of the course of history as pendulum-like, even if in other respects it may be portrayed as linear: freedom and security, both equally pressing and indispensable, happen to be hard to reconcile without friction – and considerable friction most of the time. These two qualities are, simultaneously, complementary and incompatible; the likelihood of their falling into conflict has always been and will forever be as high as the need for their reconciliation. Though many forms of human togetherness have been tried in the course of history, none has succeeded in finding a flawless solution to this truly ‘squaring the circle’ kind of task.” (p.19)

Promoting security always calls for the sacrifice of freedom, while freedom can only be expanded at the expense of security. But security without freedom equals slavery (and in addition, without an injection of freedom, proves to be in the end a highly insecure kind of security); while freedom without security equals being abandoned and lost (and in the end, without an injection of security, proves to be a highly unfree kind of freedom). This circumstance gives philosophers a headache with no known cure. It also makes living together conflict-ridden, as security sacrificed in the name of freedom tends to be other people’s security; and freedom sacrificed in the name of security tends to be other people’s freedom.” (p.20)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Zygmunt Bauman (c2001) Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK; Oxford, UK; Malden, MA


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