Olga Shparaga: "The Possibility of Community?"
posted by: Olga Shparaga
This text was the basis of Olga Shparaga's contribution to the discussion "Being-in-Common – What Can a Community Be Nowadays?" within the framework of the conference "Thinking Europe - Discourses and Models" in January 2012.
The possibility of Community? What could be said about the problem of community from beyond the EU borders – from the part of Europe that is today denoted as the
post-Soviet space, since it is the Soviet past that makes the decisive impact
on it? Does the subject of community exist in this part of Europe and how does
it correlate with the formulation of this subject in other parts of Europe?
Due to the subject of community itself it is impossible to avoid the local perspective. As the sociologists have already shown at the beginning of the last century (e.g. É. Durkheim), community is a modern phenomenon that emerges as a reaction to the disintegration of connections inherent in traditional societies. Solidarity inherent in community is formed not on the basis of affinity and similarity of its members, but rather on the basis of their distinction. It is easy to imagine how the meaning of this “distinction”, constitutive for communities, has been changing over the last century: from the distinctions between those who belong to the same national state and the same national culture to the distinctions between the “citizens” of the global world.
In this sense, the problem of community in the context of the post-Soviet space is the problem of some disintegrated connections – not only geographical ones, but also political and social ones, as the disintegration of the USSR was accompanied by the establishment of new political and social regimes – and the establishment of new ones [connections] that are not yet properly comprehended. In these circumstances citizens of new states found themselves in the position of heirs to collectivism without the collective entities (since the collectives were established from above), which, first of all, is expressed in their inability to take part in common causes voluntarily – to come to an agreement, to keep their word and to take on individual responsibility, in the difficulty to trust each other.
Contemporary sociologists unite all the enumerated dimensions of the community with the help of the notion of social capital, which is considered to be a major function of community along with identification (Rosa H.). According to R. Putnam, social capital refers to the connections between people that develop into social networks, norms of reciprocity and reliability (Bowling alone, p.19). It is the hope placed on the social capital that helped the economy to overcome the crisis of Fordism – the hierarchically organised and directive management. Nevertheless, the problems caused by financial capitalism resulted again in the emergence of hierarchies – between top managers and a huge army of employees in the first place, destroying the skills and networks of social interaction and solidarity. On the other hand, the globalisation of economy and politics does not allow returning nowadays to the former models of collective entities either, that is, labour movement grounded on the integrated social substrate.
The basis for forming the collective entities and therefore communities today is various social, cultural, biographical contexts, whose representatives are rather separated (by their distinctions) than united.
Nevertheless, this situation finds its own interpretation among philosophers and social theorists. In his book about the university Bill Readings associates the possibility of community today exactly with disagreement, or dissens. Dissens is a sign showing that no communication can reach full transparency since we are not able to understand completely our responsibilities towards the others. Since it is not possible to identify the limit (the boundaries) of social connection due to its
inexhaustibility, and this results in nonremovability of claiming our attention
to “the heteronomous instance of the Other” (Kap. 12).
It is this nonremovability of claiming our attention to “the heteronomous instance of the Other” that should serve today as the framework for the discussion about community in various parts of Europe. At the same time the relations between the communities could be considered through the logic of forming the social capital. Thus, already quoted R. Putnam distinguishes between bonding and bridging social capital: while the first one is aimed at maintaining specific feedback and mobilizing solidarity within the community, and in this regard consolidates our limited identities (for example, ethnic associations or luxury clubs), the second one is used for connections with external resources and information distribution, thereby generating broader identities and feedback (for example, human rights or eco movements) (23). It is important to mention that the notion of the bridging social capital pulls down the traditional idea that some communities always exist as opposed to the others. However, it does not call off the idea of the diversity of human consolidations that respond to the diversity of human needs and values themselves.
In this regard, it is possible to draw an analogy between Putnam’s two types of social capital and N. Fraser’s idea of publicity in plural (hegemonic and subaltern).
According to Fraser, it is possible to overcome the tendency of withdrawal of
public spheres or their turning into subaltern enclaves if they solve the problem of spreading their own discourse onto bigger public arenas. The matter is basically in explaining the representatives of other public grounds that one’s own problems are also significant for them (for example, the problems brought up by feminists). In order to do so, it is probably necessary to recognise “the heteronomous instance of the Other” as a bearer of another system of values, with which, however, something can be found in common or into whose language one’s own meanings can be and must be translated. “A common cause” in this case can be formed only on the basis of explaining one’s own problems to the Other and at the same time qualifying (or disqualifying) them as generally significant.
To sum it all up it can be said that:
A) Just like a hundred years ago, nowadays communities exist as a result of human distinctions;
B) However, today these distinctions are united not by the faith in agreement, but by the attention to disagreements – social, age-specific, cultural ones and so on.
C) The mutual attention to disagreements, in its turn, presupposes understanding, decoding and disclosing the meaning of those responsibilities that have been already always binding us with the others.;
D) Such disclosure is only possible as an element of interaction itself – taking collective, joint actions, based on trust and mutual recognition – and requires the translation of one’s own community meanings into the language of another community, which allows these meanings to become (or not to become) generally significant.
In this regard, art can make the distinctions visible as well as suggest ideas of their communication (translation) into each other.
posted by Olga Shparaga