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#9: What do we have in common?

Oleg Aronson – Oxana Timofeeva – Alexei Penzin /// As subjects, we always come in last

Alexei Penzin (AP): The word “community” first somehow became significant in the context of the post-Soviet period, when old notions or words like the “collective” were rejected and the necessity arose to define the new forms of social relation that were arising. But then again, there is a great deal of nostalgia for the collectivity of the past, even if this nostalgia cannot yet give itself a name. At present, the state is actively trying to develop and utilize it, pontificating on “uniting against the threat of terrorism”, for an example. Recently, the public sphere that was opened up in the 1990s has been re-appropriated by the state. As a consequence, much of the critical-intellectual milieu finds itself artificially ghettoized into small communities. But at the same time, there is a demand raised both by a broader public space as well as the state, and this demand is connected to a wholly uncritical nostalgia toward collectivity.

Alexei Penzin (AP): The word “community” first somehow became significant in the context of the post-Soviet period, when old notions or words like the “collective” were rejected and the necessity arose to define the new forms of social relation that were arising. But then again, there is a great deal of nostalgia for the collectivity of the past, even if this nostalgia cannot yet give itself a name. At present, the state is actively trying to develop and utilize it, pontificating on “uniting against the threat of terrorism”, for an example. Recently, the public sphere that was opened up in the 1990s has been re-appropriated by the state. As a consequence, much of the critical-intellectual milieu finds itself artificially ghettoized into small communities. But at the same time, there is a demand raised both by a broader public space as well as the state, and this demand is connected to a wholly uncritical nostalgia toward collectivity.

Oxana Timofeeva (OT): Nostalgia for collectivity lost is actually nostalgia for the childhood of humanity, for some golden age. So my childhood was Soviet, which is why I often remember it as a happy childhood. But there are also more refined attempts at nostalgia that eviscerate or emasculate the past, reducing it to some ideal form, getting rid of any excess, and finding the iconic notion of community behind which the “countenance of the divine” would loom. In its pure form, community always bears a religious character.

AP: This nostalgia actually appeals to idealized constructions that present communion or community as a certain type of happiness, a bliss in common that we relished in the past. Can we think community beyond nostalgia, subjecting it to a renewed examination from our specific historical condition?

Oleg Aronson (OA): To me, the connection to nostalgia seems highly significant, be it the nostalgia toward archaic societies or the nostalgia to a sense of community lost. Marx attempted to transform this feeling into nostalgia for the future (communism). In a certain sense, nostalgia is exterior to both history and utopia. And the images of nostalgia can be interpreted as images of the common that always step into a polemic relationship with images of the social or the historical. Nostalgia is the first step toward not thinking the community as a form of collectivity. When we speak of the community, we are speaking of a certain way of thinking a situation in which the individual’s right to thought is constantly called into question; in appropriating any act of individual thought, the institutions of power also raise this question, incidentally. Thinking through the community means thinking non-individually, beyond the values of the subject, the personality, individuality, and the “new”. Today, thought is something with little value. In following the path of this deprecated value, we are following the path of the community.

AP: So you’re affirming a mode of thinking that doesn’t have any ambitions, that isn’t attempt to organize its own “career” within the framework of power?

OA: It is a mode of thinking that doesn’t want to confirm itself as proprietary. There are values that immediately need to be reconsidered as soon as the notion of community is introduced. For me, these are the values of property, labor, freedom, justice… All of these notions need to be forgotten for a moment; then, one need only look and see what remains after the fact…What is left belongs to the community.

AP: In other words, community is a procedure of effecting a change in the intellectual’s mode of existence and its conception, a certain philosophical machine.

OA: Yes, but this is a different philosophy, a philosophy that it located outside of philosophy’s historical framework. The community asserts that thought carries something “dirty” from philosophy’s point of view. And this “dirtiness” alone is its entity, its involvement in life.

AP: If we admit that thinking itself loses all ambition and no longer evaluates anything, no long attempts to establish universal justice, but always decides it in the conditions of the community, what should we do with the critical function of the intellectual? Is a critical position possible at all under these circumstances?

OA: Nietzsche says “What can we set against the truth? Only honesty”. In thought, the moment of communion or communication is more important the establishment of truth. Thought, in action, is inevitably modified and “misunderstood”. The community does not rest upon one and the same common, but upon misunderstandings, on our common feeling that we do not actually want to commune. This is always the community of those who do not want to be together. It is based on an injustice that is quite material and on the falsity of thought itself. In this sense, honesty consists in confirming life as a connection with lies instead of any politics of truth.

AP: In keeping with a tradition that begins in the Renaissance, we have always imagined the intellectual as a individual hero, even if, after Foucault, the intellectual was no longer a universal figure but now broke into the concrete zones of a given society in order to show how unjust or disgusting these zones actually were, now only operating locally. But once we introduce the community, does this mean that we can no longer construct this figure of the heroic intellectual-enlightener? Even if the community itself is extremely critical in its zone of action?

OA: If you use the thought that the community rests upon as your point of departure, the critical function come true on its own. The logic of the community demands that you side with those values that are not dominant. And this is not the demand of one power or another. Dominant values such as property, individual effort, work, freedom, justice, and equal rights do not fit into the frame of the community. The community is the immanence of a life that manifests itself when these values get stuck in the mud. In this sense, “being honest” means answering the demands of life, demands that you yourself know nothing about, demands that are not written down anywhere. This is far more difficult than partaking of the “truth”. But this thought steps into contradiction with reflection…It moves along the paths of falsity.

OT: But doesn’t this transmission of “misunderstood” thoughts manifest itself as a certain product of the community’s activities?

OA: It isn’t a product, but the activity of the community itself. Or, to be more exact: the community is activity. I cannot appropriate the injustice of thought. This thought is always stolen; you can only recognize it through whoever understood it incorrectly.

OT: In a community of friends, for an instance, utterances are always appropriated or return as reinterpretations; a mechanism of necessarily mutual references is in operation, even if it becomes difficult to separate your “own” thoughts from the thoughts of the “others”.

OA: This is the only way that thought actually operates, in philosophy as well among other things. Even more: the honesty that Nietzsche speaks of consists in understanding thought as an object that is made especially to be stolen, not appropriated. When a thought is stolen, you remain anonymous as a producer, and your work or piece is not a product or a commodity; instead, it still contain the wind-worn poesis that is the language of life itself (if we speak of any language at all in this case). Within appropriating any artifact of production, located in endless becoming, this poesis organizes a moment in which people who would ordinarily never communicate at all, who might even be in a state of enmity, come together in action and turn out to be accomplices. There can be no community between friends: friends understand and trust one another. Instead, the community unifies singular existences that are incompatible with one another in principal.

AP: You’re introducing an understanding of politics much in the vein of Carl Schmitt, introducing the friend-enemy relation and the community; the result is that there is a certain political form to the community you describe.

OA: On the contrary. The division into friend and enemy is a necessary material precondition for the community. Schmitt’s idea of politics is based in the recognition that “friend” and “enemy” are not individuals and not even political subjects in the conventional sense. For the division into friends and enemies to take place, the common already needs to exist as an immanence of being-in-common. In this sense, the community is a certain “action” that we have not become aware of, an action that is recognized as such by politics, which actualizes it in notions like friend and enemy. Politics sees the community as a threat: it always attempts to erase the community as its precondition, because the community as a condition of politics assumes the possibility of other forces. Then that war is not an opposition but the power of life, a necessary function, much like a feast or a carnival… What is a carnival? Not a pause of work, but the necessity of life. Work is only done so that people may play or make some sacrifice…

AP: But Marx’s idea consists in reaching an alternative form of labor without throwing the category of labor overboard as a whole. In the 1960s-70s, there was a widespread idea that that labor or “work” is an exclusively repressive figure which actually hides the function of keeping society in a state of obedience, so that the only form of insubordination is the refusal of labor. But we shouldn’t exclusively think of work as a negative category: instead, it can be positive. Even if I accept your position of refusing labor, I would ask you what can separate us from labor, actually.

OA: I’m not refusing labor, but want to find in labor that which is not only co-participant to laziness (carnival), but also to the gift, sacrifice or war… All of these notions are not social, anthropological, or political, but non-representative notions of the community’s action, or, acts of thought… Following Deleuze, for an example, one could surmise that that the brain is the world of those notions that are located beyond labor, notions that are not produced. In his concept of the brain, Deleuze finds a way of overcoming the working body. The body does not work. It simply does what it cannot help but do. Deleuze assume that there is only one brain in common but many bodies, and that we participate in this common brain’s wondrous activity with our bodies. A common brain… As you philosophize, you should never forget that your brain is sitting across from you in a foreign body, listening but failing to comprehend, misunderstanding you… And the logic of the community demands action and not arrogance. You only have the duty to explain Hegel or Lacan to your random neighbor on the bus because s/he needs this explanation.  Even if you don’t have the same supports that you’re used to from your professional milieu, not enough terms, or notions to effect this explanation. You are doomed to misunderstand everything, but this – in fact – is honesty. This is how you overcome the narcissism of philosophy.

AP: On the one hand, you are protesting against the fetishization of the “purity” of thought (i.e. against transcendentalism), but on the other hand, you’re talking about the elusive nature or the ruptured relation to values and truth. It seems to me that this is yet another purism that blocks the operation of analytical languages located beyond such notions of community. In other words, it places a prohibition of a certain zone of the empirical. But actually, I would still like to expand the location of the community from the perspective of a different empiricism; for an instance, I would like understand whether it isn’t constructed according to the same logic that capitalism is connected to in a such a productive and long-lived way. Isn’t the community itself a valuable experience which the state (or power) hunt down and capture in order to build it into their functioning? After all, late capitalism is a system that is constantly actualized by one community or another. It seems to me that something very important has happened since 1986: the critique of immanentism has lost some of its value. Capitalism supports refined, non-immanent communities with a great deal of enthusiasm. Take, for an example, all the ravers that live their life in the club: anonymous people meet on the week-end and open up to all of those commercial, power-controlled mechanisms of entertainment, remaining “free” at the same time, because they understand that all of this, in fact, is “nonsense”.

OA: Under capitalism, you are being “used”, but what’s more important is that the others are being “used” as well. And to think as a community is an experience (an experience that is quite empirical at that), an experience that passes along this path of loss or injustice…

AP: It seems to me that Oleg is actually introducing a hidden theological narrative of the community as a certain “ordeal” of poverty, lies, and dirt…

OT: I would even say that his narrative is Gnostic.

ÎÀ: Even if it is theology, among other things, it is actually quite secular. In a sense, Christ, in the act of the Eucharist, recreates the primal community. Bread and wine are primary material or empirical conditions of the common. We all partake of bread and wine, but have forgotten that these are not so much needs as much as life itself. As Levinas wrote, we eat to eat and not to live… This is the trivial level on which reflection has been suspended. And this is exactly where we need to search for the community. I want to separate out this material layer from the general religious problematique. This is why, for an example, I oppose miracles and revelations to one another radically. The community is a constant miracle (and not an ordeal!). It takes place through witnesses. Only this is life. The community is based on valueless, anonymous, absolutely trivial things. Their value has been erased on the strength of their banality, which is why the common can restore them to thought. The point of this movement is not to invert the poles that structure value, but to find a sphere in which value no longer works, but which, nevertheless, is a material pre-condition of thought as an act of life. Thought is an affective moment in which the common is more important than any accretion of significance. In and of itself, the community is neither a goal nor a blessing; instead, it is far closer to injustice, which still knows nothing of the abstraction of justice. The community is theology insofar as by following the path of injustice, we reach a point at which injustice becomes affirmative and is no longer thought through death. And then labor, love and war take on a new significance. The same can be said of parties or states…

OT: It seems to me that first and foremost, the primal injustice of life lies in death. Life is something that was stolen from those who did not survive, an injustice with relation to the dead. But let’s remember Benjamin, who said that in the moment of the past, in the “missed” opportunity of what did not survive, I need to recognize my own opportunity: revolution, understood in this way, is the point of communication.

OA: I’m far more concerned with survival. Take, for an instance, the Jews who went off into the desert… No-one knows who they were. There are plenty of rational interpretations for exodus. But they had to go out into the desert to become the Jewish people, to undergo the experience of injustice that makes a people.

AP: This exodus is one of the most promising political forces of our time.

OT: So the community consists of those who have left, and not of those who have come to something.

OA: The community consists of those who are leaving, those who have lost. Politics actualize them as a “force” in a secondary movement. But for me, it is important to linger on that moment of exodus, at the moment before its actualization.

AP: But what if the pensioners go out onto the streets to protest actively and turn out to be the only vital political force, the way they did this winter? At same time, they simply vulgarize the concept of the “inoperative community”…

OA: What’s important is that it wasn’t some “civic position” that brought them to the streets. They are those people who don’t know that they are citizens, who essentially know nothing of their own rights. They suffered damage that threatened their zone of survival; they found themselves in a situation of injustice that they endured up to a certain point, until injustice didn’t become their principle of action.

AP: Essentially, when the pensioners went out onto the streets, this was, in fact, an exodus… In this case, isn’t the community, again, a certain imposed, forced form? You’re being pushed or forced out, forced to run away and to leave…

OA: It seems to me that the source of coercion is always lost or false… You simply need to gain life, and so you come to a place where it seems that there is no life (to the desert), where individual survival is impossible. There, you can only be-in-common. And this is because of the most trivial things.

AP: I can’t help but think of Gulliver’s Travel in the lands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag. The case of the community that you describe is as if these two places were combined into one country, with some kind of miniscule dwarves running back and forth between the legs of the huge giants of power. Some crumbs fall from the table and the Lilliputians steal them, but no-one notices, because these are nothing but trifles! And they don’t want to get in touch with the world of the giants or to do battle, because this world simply belongs to a different biological order.

OA: As a Lilliputian, you can develop your muscles as much as you want, and in the best case, all they will do is put you in the ring to fight a cockroach.

AP: But they’re doing something or another after all. They organize their little circles and recite poetry…

OT: Still, no one has ever proven that the big form takes priority over the small form. There are certain organisms that we don’t notice, but which live far longer than we do nonetheless. Among other things, they maintain and share a certain “zero-level of life” with us, which, for an instance, Agamben has talked about. A certain minimal level of weak being.

AP: All of this amounts to a rather bleak picture, worthy of a new Swift. It is really possible that there aren’t any other figures? Could one say that the only political manifestation of the community could be withdrawal or exodus? In speaking of the community in this way, we’re introducing the figure of the end: from your argumentation, it follows that anything else is simply impossible. In this context, the community denotes an absolute position: we accept that the end has come and agree to live in the desert. And that’s it?

OA: It’s not the end. The end happens through actualization, whenever we chart something as a community. Here, we are dealing with what Deleuze called “transcendental empiricism”, or the material quality of life in becoming. The community that we have charted and fixed has been objectified and is already dead, while the movement of exodus is continual and is only carried out by those who think with their bodies, like the pensioners, thinking with their bodies, hit the streets and become a part of life.

OT: This is their perseverance in life; after all, it is essentially their lives that someone wanted to deprive them of. Maybe it is this perseverance that actually forms the community’s basis, supplying the foundation for these or those forms of practice in what follows, not excluding certain forms of political struggle.

OA: There are lines of life that politics always captures, but we can take outdistance politics. But we can only outdistance politics as a community; as subjects, we always come in last.

Moscow, 31.03.2005

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