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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

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SEPT 2016 Issue
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The Community of Lovers

In order to think we must begin with the present—what we experience, what we hope for, what destroys us, what we cannot bear—for the present is probably but the mirror image of our broken dreams. And dreams (that is, the true present) are to be reinvented. Thought, in the splendid words of Ernst Bloch, is a “principle of hope:” a gay science in the midst of a new obscurantism, invasive and electronic. What we must confront, now and always, is the idea of happiness, even if these days we hear from all quarters of its cynical rejection. What is happiness today? Still the same thing or, rather, the flipside of something: happiness is the other when we find ourselves capable of loving. Happiness, then, is love: an idea that we must reinvent for this age of couples in turmoil, of societies of control, paranoia, and extreme violence. For love seems hard pressed from all sides when the other becomes the enemy and alterity a danger.

These days, the other is harmful, problematic, counterproductive. There must no longer be an alterity. The political, not to mention metaphysical and poetic, stakes of this “relational” question thus become clear. But do not see in this quest the slightest naïve hope: it really is quite impossible today to assign meaning, value, or truth. This is no search for meaning, no reestablishment of values, no truth system. The purpose is to halt our loss of the other, which gradually and inexorably transforms civilization into a work of death (the death of species—human and animal, as well as artistic, imaginary, and philosophical death).

“But we must nevertheless indefatigably conceive of a world that departs, slowly but brutally, from its acquired conditions of truth, meaning, and value,” as Jean-Luc Nancy insists. Such is our need. It is doubtless not our dreams that are broken, writes Nancy, but the world itself: “We must conceive of a world that is in itself and of itself broken, whose break originates in world’s remotest history and must today, one way or another, for worse or perhaps (who knows?) for the slightly less bad, constitute its dark meaning—not a darkened meaning but a meaning in which darkness is an element.” As we can see, the response to this break might lie in love, in love’s darkness, in dark love, or in the darkness to be found within love. I therefore think of the affective present in terms of the question of love.

Our dark element, in relational terms, is the impossibility of the loving couple, or at least its increasing difficulty, its day-to-day distress, its glasslike fragility in the age of internet transparency, social media, and recreational sexuality. But this is only symptomatic of the wider impossibility of the community in which the loving couple exists. It is the community of those who lack a community, or the negative community (the essence-less essence of the community, the community that is now “affronted”). Couples are torn apart, bodies are torn apart, and the world is torn apart: such is our terrifying present. The realm of intimacy, passion, and sexuality has met the political order of the community, with its terror, control, and excesses. Thus we must ponder the enigma that binds the intimate to the collective, the singular to the plural, love to war. This enigma, said Blanchot, defies statement. He called it the “unavowable community,” purposely using an oblique, obscure word with overtones of secrecy, shameful morality, and unbearable avowals. It is a word that connotes, too, the idea of an “inoperative” community (Jean-Luc Nancy): “a community that is not ‘operative [œuvrée]’ but operated in secret [unavowably] through the shared experience of limits: the experience of love and death, of life itself exposed to its limits.”

In considering the way this imperiled community goes beyond the “inoperative” to the “unavowable” we might turn to Bataille, and explore the community’s present-day vital sense by borrowing his term “community of lovers:” without the community all of us without exception, terrorists and fanatics included, would end up renouncing every opportunity of being together, however dysfunctional, untenable, or intolerable the opportunity.

What is this “community of lovers,” this “unavowable community?” What is this response? It is not a secret to be revealed. Still less is it an ultimate taboo to be broken. Nor is it a political alternative to the community-less community, the community that is empty, inoperative, affronted, and so on. It is not the ultimate truth of a contemporary community that responds to both the desire for and the anguish over present-day togetherness. It is a work only in the radical sense of a work of art. The community of lovers is the shared experience of limits, always occurring between oneself and the other, and it is always carrying us to our own extremes, so that we verge on separation, on finitude, on a tearing split, on facing the encounter in which we each falter on contact with others and the other. It is a philosophical, existential, and artistic program.


Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Purple Fashion Magazine. A former critic for Artforum and Texte zur Kunst, he is publishing in October a volume of his selected writings: Une avant-garde sans avant-garde (An Avant-Garde without Avant-Garde, Les Presses du Réel).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

All Issues