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Conceptualising Community in Germany and France: Ferdinand Tönnies, Jean-Luc Nancy, W.G. Sebald

Venue: Birkbeck Main Building, 633

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Aesthetics of Community Network Symposium
9 September 2019
Birkbeck, Malet Street, room 633

Conceptualising Community in Germany and France
Ferdinand Tönnies, Jean-Luc Nancy, W.G. Sebald


Dr. Niall Bond (Université Lumière – Lyon 2, France)

The ambivalence of the signifier “community” in English, German and French


Dr. Cory Stockwell (Bilkent University, Turkey)

Senses of the Common


Dr Rémi Astruc (Université de Cergy-Pontoise, France)

A presentation of the book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (Minor Compositions, 2013). The book is available for free online.





Niall Bond - The ambivalence of the signifier “community” in English, German and French

The word “community”, like all words according to Nietzsche, is a prejudice. (“Jedes Wort ein Vorurteil”). Or perhaps more accurately, a catalogue of prejudices from one can pick and choose. It can be used to be descriptive or prescriptive, i.e. normative or performative. Raymond Plant saw in the word a promise, a substantive that was used only to evoke positive and desirable relationships. However, in continental discourse, the term has been far more contentious. In post-war Germany, for instance, the reminiscence of the term Volksgemeinschaft and its abuse by the Nazis has impeded the “innocent” use of the word Gemeinschaft in broader political discourse. Volksgemeinschaft, a term that was used by almost every political formation in the Weimar Republic, at times even in the service of a liberal set of ideas, was identified with a State which decided which foreign bodies, Gemeinschaftsfremde to persecute and to annihilate. The problem here was the exclusivity with which individuals were forced to seek their identity in the nation state. French-speaking thinkers did not face the same problem with the term “community”, inasmuch as the term “communauté nationale” was as in vogue among Gaullistes as it was among Pétainistes, but mostly because the use of political discourse was not subject to the same historical scrutiny as was seen in Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This is to be seen in a series of writings, influenced by Tönniessian ideas, emerging after the 1980s, for instance in the philosophy of Nancy.

Asserting the priority of identification with the national community has been a political near impossibility in post-war Germany and remains highly problematic. In France, well after the war, but principally from the 1990s, the derivative “communautarisme” came to be used in a pejorative manner in France’s media and by France’s political figures: here, the problem seemed to be community appurtenances that challenged the nation’s monopoly over political appurtenance and identity. When announcing he would not run for a second term, France’s President François Holland announced he knew one community and one community alone: the French nation. He did so against the backdrop of acts of terrorism and division which revealed to what extent national unity was fragile. He also did so, however, in the context of European Union, which lays claim to community loyalty expressed in citizenship and whose ideal roots the jurist Werner Gephart traces back to Tönnies. Does the Nation State have not just the monopoly over the use of legitimate violence, but equally over love and identity? The historic semantics of community and identity are of the utmost importance in safeguarding fundamental freedoms – the freedom to choose whom we love – while preserving peace. Unravelling these semantics of community will allow us to get a better grasp upon our common humanity and common European history.


Cory Stockwell - Senses of the Common

On at least two occasions in the 1990s, Jean-Luc Nancy employed Nietzsche's dictum "the desert grows" to think about the political and indeed existential situation of the time, a situation in which all meaning collapses into (to employ a term to which Nancy has turned more recently) a general equivalent, in which meanings differ from one another only in degree, never in kind. This leaves us in a paradoxical situation in which meaning, collapsed into this general equivalency, has never been more common, yet at the same time rejects the very principles of community that Nancy has formulated, since there is nothing singular about it, since it is entirely closed in on itself, and since it rejects the possibility of the unforeseeable. One is tempted to ask how might it be possible to find a way out of this general equivalency or growing desert, but this paper will argue that this is the wrong question: that it is only, as Nancy suggests, by locating resources put forth by the desert itself that we might find, not so much new ways of creating meaning, but regions in which such meanings, such senses, have already begun to form. Drawing upon literary examples from W. G. Sebald, this paper attempts to think just such possibilities of sense, senses of the common that do not so much escape as cast a new light upon the deserts in which they arise.







This event is organised by BRAKC (Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community)

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