On a Community of Equals

What makes us “equal” is that we are all equally “unequal” to each other– just as no one is “equal” to themselves. What makes me me is unequal to whatever makes others who they are. But this is just what we share: that we are all “unequateable,” inexchangeable, and so priceless in our own way. Ethically, this prevents me from imposing my “way” or my “form-of-life” on anyone else– in other words, that it is unethical to try and make everyone “equal” in terms of qualities, actions, projects, ideas, etc. Thus it will always be difficult to “build,” by force of persuasion or arms, a community of equals. How can we do so without sacrificing the unequal that each one is, remembering that paired with each is an absolutely unique “community,” an absolutely unique exposure in the world? Because to subsume the unequal under the sign of the equal is not equality, but unreason.

“Unequalness” between unique beings (which takes on countless forms, from love and respect to incompatibility and conflict) is the crux of a “community of equals”– which is therefore spared no confrontation, no altercation, but is also open to every manner of alliance and address, however precarious they may be– and perhaps in forms that political consciousness has not yet or will never discover. For a community of unequal equals, no possibility of sharing is precluded– since sharing above all shares what can’t be exchanged: the inexchangeable between (un)equals–, and thus its “form” cannot be predicted or planned. In a sense, it manifests itself (it is no doubt entirely a question of manifestation), according to the relation that makes it possible. But we forget most often — and indeed, forgetting is a part of it– that we are this manifestation.

Manifestation makes possible a different idea of community: a social space not captured by identities, representations, projects, and so on, but made up solely of exposures, of relations between each and each; made up of those who recognize that they can’t properly recognize or understand or even contact each other. But as a fragment expresses it: “The greatest blessing is for your beloved to have no idea who you are.” A community of equals is one whose members are left to their strangeness, to their unequality– and thus “let” withdrawn from any “official” community. This means leaving the other to their own otherness in an absolute sense, leaving them to the world that they are so as to respect it and them, and in only this way to respect oneself and one’s own– to respect the manifestation named “us.”

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Perhaps we could take up the notion of Namaste here: the eternal in me salutes the eternal in you. Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “adoration” also involves this kind of salutation between “equals”– who are not equal because they share certain physical characteristics, legal rights, or existential qualities, but who are equals dans la mesure où they are “incommensurable” with each other and to themselves. It is this measure of the community of incommensurables (right there where it is: manifest) that each of us measures up to, is measured by, and measures with. Here I am not “one,” we are all plus d’un: more than one and no more one, even the one petal; and this excess over unicity and self-identification (any common representation of essence, for example in the party or state or religion: any contrivance to occupy the “empty place” of the “sovereign”) is simultaneously what is most proper to each and most common to all.

To watch over this “common incommensurability” entails something like that “more human love” that Rilke invokes when he speaks of, “two solitudes that protect and border and greet one another.” While most evidently manifest in the relationship between lovers, this type of welcoming allowance or space-giving-embrace could conceivably be extended out to the whole community– or rather, to an infinite series of faces and counter-solitudes–, which is surely an element of Rilke’s own poetic endeavor. But this is as far from activism as the Duino Elegies are from Newsweek; the extension of this love is not an operation to conduct, but a way of relating to existence as it manifests itself. For in every approach, in every relationship– indeed, every manifestation–, there is both encounter and leaving-be, approach and withdrawal, touch and separation– such that what is shared is indeed “ahead of all parting,” but only by bringing the departure into the very equation of “arrival,” which is therefore an arrival-at-a-distance– exactly what brings unequals into the space of just communication, as equals.

For indeed, the other is already absent when I am with them– since we can no longer understand presence save as co-presence, where the hyphen implies an absolute “abyss,” destabilizing self and other-self at once: this is what makes it so precious to be with them. But we must ask– perhaps in adoration of what slips away from all presence: what kind of “with” is this, if its “presence” can no longer be understood according to the present? If the community is already lost in and to itself? For it is impossible to think of “turning” to the other without also “mourning” over them, and the gap that makes our loving salutation possible demands it– as if turning-to and letting-go were two sides of the same opening to freedom, the same truth of the community. In that freedom, I could become myself, but only by losing myself in an address coming to and from the other, and which lets them be the other they are insofar as I get lost in my own address– which is also, but not equally, theirs.

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These comments– along with the whole problematic existence of the “inequality to self” that makes the self possible, and which manifests itself most clearly in the self’s own possibilities– lead directly back to the question of “the other in the self” and the possibility for a “return to self” after the encounter with the other. For the “encounter” is precisely what is at stake in the where? and whither? posed at the heart of a community of equals.

So far as the “self” is concerned, everything plays out as if we lost touch with its pricelessness to the very degree that we took it to be our own most prized possession– instead of thinking the self as it is, instead of sharing it: as the relation of itself to what is not itself, to what exceeds it inside and out. Because otherwise there is not really a “self,” but simply a concentrated, collapsed point in space-time, subtracted from the play of the world and its textures. But we must also remember that this deduced “self,” supported by an ideology of individualism and “rights” that cannot deconstructed here, is not simply imaginary. On the contrary, it is the symbol of the social relation that lives and dreams in us. The question is how to take up our lives amidst this social intimacy that dreams– that runs deeper than any form of sociality and association, since what is at stake here is the entire community of the living and the dead and the yet-to-come: the community of equals who never cease to be energized and enervated by the slope and shape of the sense of “we,” our world.

We use the word “intimate” for those moments of encounter when we feel closest to what nevertheless remains not-us or outside of us– or equally, at a depth deeper than we thought was possible, more interior to us than we are to ourselves (interior intimo meo), such as in moments of meditation or love: at stake is a “plenitude” that goes by way of an overflowing, one other into another, in being othered. Because intimacy is above all this: revelation of — alongside and as the creation of — a relationship to depths, which is therefore also a relationship to spilling-over. Reversed on its head, Augustine’s formula means that God is this relation itself, or its exceeding itself; and every relation is of such intimacy. Whether it draws blood or sends a kiss does not change the fact that, in this reversal, the revelation reveals nothing (if not the absence of mystery): that the depth is manifest, right there at the surface.

Knowledge capsizes, and must become non-knowledge, when presented with the infinity of instances of this “interior” God, these exterior faces of the world that are all absolute and unequivocally unequal, which can be felt anywhere I’m emptied and drawn into relation with “it.” Interior to us is this spacing-out of ourselves in the world, whereby we take up the relation, all different, all extended, all again: faces, flowers, fortune, whatever (equal?) it may be, everything is an instance, and so the insistence, of an “inside outside me”– and “I myself” am one of these instances, a “monad” so long as we don’t think it is without windows, and that rather, in the form and content of its very self, it is a relation that relates: more than mirroring the world, I reflect the relation of myself to it, my outside of it, and through that and it through others to myself– which both constrains it (temporally, physically, linguistically, spiritually) and makes it an absolutely “unequal” instance of the world as such. It is the unequalness of this world that we are that makes us equals, an “interior” experience unleashed and outside itself communicating. We are each an exposed origin, falling into its othered-self. And this exposure, this each-time-unique origin, is: manifest.

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To relate myself to God is therefore to relate to the world opening up outside me, and so outside of itself. To love God is to have faith in the otherness there presented; to love my neighbor is to share in that faith in full otherness, testifying to it. Sometimes “nearest” is another person, but sometimes it is me. Always am I suspended in the relation that makes me possible, and must love that possible self just as I love what is nearest, one in the other and both through each other– loving the strange neighbor that I am to myself, because in truth I am just such a stranger like all the rest. Speech (irreducible to what’s written) also involves this intimacy of love for self and for others– where ethics tips over into poetry, and prayer into punctuation. Because just as we don’t know what to say til we say it, we only become who we are in our exposure to existence, to us and the existence of the world.

But again the question, “Where is the other really located, inside or outside, and how can I reach or let myself be reached by that otherness?” In the final analysis, we cannot decide, and we cannot let ourselves decide; all we can do is “hold ourselves” to the “heterogeneity” or difference that constitutes us, and which constitutes us and every thing as an instant-origin. Sometimes the draw of heterogeneity leads to a withdrawal from the society, other times it means following the line to its center axis; modes of engagement with the world will vary as much as every “unequal” being varies–will be as various as the manifestation itself is. Only by comprehending the possibility of openness– which is absolute– in this engagement (which thus exceeds every obligation and commandment) can we understand the meaning of a “community of equals,” because this unequality of each to each, the “unequalness” of the self to itself,  implies that each must trust his or her own sense of the thing, his or her own sense of possibility: what it means for them to “hold to” the other, to the heterogeneous, to the “opening of the world”– beyond all predetermined specificity of what or who this ‘other’ will be. But the world is already holding us open there, waiting for us to embrace it beyond its present self; and this embrace, this welcoming of the world, is “equal” to one’s very self: it is the (im)measure of (un)equality, of pricelessness. It is the uniqueness of that relationship, this one each time renewed, that makes each “self” the world (and perhaps also the changed world), unequal to every other: an absolutely intimate apart.

For even the act of thinking — of contemplating my own capability to act, which Spinoza says relates directly to blessedness– makes me different from myself automatically, engages the world in its broadest possibility by suspending its actuality (in a sense, this condenses the whole problematic of otherness). Likewise, speaking brings us into another communication with otherness– with the otherness of words and languages, but also voices and mannerisms, all of which make it impossible to say positively “who” said “what” (which is partially what led Bataille to say of his Le Coupable, “The wind outside is writing this book”). Because we see here, find here, only an infinite dispersal of intimates in the intimacy of “being” (each one the joining, each one the disjointure): there is otherness in the kitchen, on the train, in the class room, at the reading, at the kino, at the wedding, at the funeral… How could we ever “pinpoint” where we are “situated” in this heterogeneous mix of things and moments– where whole moments can be things, and things moments? What can we do but “hold ourselves” to it however we know how, and to share the hold– exceeding knowledge, exceeding oneself, in the direction of the other even when that other is me myself, withdrawn from everyone else– as if it were just then that the world outside became most at stake in my own soul and body?

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Again the question of “mine”… When I say “my,” whom do I speak? And how could I speak of “me” if not through these common words, in a clearly equal way? Can one hold one’s “mine” to the other at all costs, to the point of pricelessness? This bent of the question is a question of “faith” and of “testimonial existence.” Faith acts, is fully its act and is only in its act, of community. That is, it only acts in and through the other, or through and for the other; and it is through this other-wise that it is possible for me to be infinitely more than I would have been in and for myself, to speak something that reflects a relation to the world and not the position I may or may not have in it– to testify to the common manifestation, to the world we share.

But since I can never know what the other needs (in that they are absolutely distinct from me, in desire and in being), and since I can never know how I will be exposed to the world, to the instant that manifests (the how of the world remains absolutely withdrawn), each time unequal to all the rest, the “heterogeneity of the origin,” the “sense of the world outside”– so can I never “know” or be assured of what it means to keep the faith. Justice requires this not-knowing, requires this “absolution” in the other: I can only remain exposed in what I don’t know, exposed to all the otherness in existence, however it presents itself when it presents itself (even if it presents it as “me,” or whether or not it “presents” itself at all), in all the million ways that being is expressed in the time of existence, acting in faith that this is the only way to will to “live and breathe” justice at the level of the body, word and deed– at the level where “my” body is first and foremost a matter of spacing, heterogeneity, and contact… and so of community and language– of equality and peace.

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2 Responses to On a Community of Equals

  1. Roland 9000 says:

    a provocation. First I´d like to recast the challenge you´re offering in my own terms in order to clarify what I think the philosophical question is that you are asking. I am sorry if my response seems conceptually extremely simple and does not do honor to the depth of your exploration. Let’s regard this as a necessary violence.

    So, you ask the question regarding community. Your first thesis, if I am at liberty to summarize it as such, is that community relies on the “unequateability” of one human to the next. Now this notion already makes me resist your discourse, because “unequateability” as you use it seems to mean something like radical or absolute difference (you say something in this direction a couple of times). This notion thus stands in stark opposition with absolute sameness. Now I agree fully with you that basing the idea of a community on a notion of sameness without taking difference in account is untenable, and potentially a recipe for violence. Now, it seems to me that the only solution that you offer to this problem is to stigmatize sameness and to valorize difference to an almost absurd extent. Also, you simply rename those phenomena (friendship, etc.) to mean those moments of absolute difference, foreclosing a meditation of the sameness-component within these phenomena. In fact, to be more precise, what seems needed to me with regards to these questions is a deep meditation of the notion of “similarity:” the same AND different. A vexed philosophical notion which immediately undermines the “rigorous” notions of identity and difference, and yet a so much more appropriate term with regards to all of experience, being-with and language: the simile.

    I find many instances of the foreclosure of the possibility of the discussion of the figure of the simile in your text. Your treatment of the “fragment” (“The greatest blessing is for your beloved to have no idea who you are”) demonstrates to me the slip from simile to absolute “theological” difference. This happens through an odd literalization of a strict poetic exaggeration/metaphor; when someone would indeed speak that phrase to their beloved they are exaggerating another, much more boring statement, which goes “The greatest blessing is for your beloved to regard you as similar, not identical to what you were a moment before”. It is indeed true that an “identical” person would be impossible to love, but so would a person which the original fragment, taken literally, describes. Someone who has no idea who you are does not love you: this is the tragedy of memory loss. It follows that if you insist on difference as an absolute condition of possibility for the phenomenon of community, then I insist on also recognizing the part that sameness plays, inasmuch as the figure of the simile presents us with an “unknowable” synthesis between sameness and difference which is our unique burden as human beings to carry.

    To summarize: the only “manifest” sign of the other/thing comes as the simile. We need to dwell on how compatibility and incompatibility are co-constitutive, instead of installing a hierarchy of one over the other.

  2. tmlavenz says:

    Hi Roland, as I’ve already told you, I appreciate your response very much. Let me speak on what I can, from where I can. Hopefully I will find my way to your questions– though probably never explicitly enough, given the pointedness of your inquiries and the vagueness characterizing my entire response.

    Though of course theory aspires essentially to be poetic and poetry is essential to the communication of theory without “terms”– essential to the word’s reach, to the possibility of its touch–, I would say that my writings tend to attend most to poiesis. Poiesis– taken broadly here as the “work” of community, its building or making, but also narrowly in the writing sense– can only proceed from a praxis. And praxis means at bottom a praxis of sense, of being-in(-and-outside)-the-world. Insofar as that praxis is “of” existence– absoutely–, it remains held there, where sense is made or makes itself– makes itself up, is made up of itself. It’s where the sense can’t be known, but only done and undone, opened and closed, played and replayed as it manifests. What I write is an attempt to speak a sense of community in this sense– and I do not at first say “my” sense of community, because of how tied up it is with its “in-common” manifestation. “Its”: of the world, of community, of sense, of language? And too tied up with it, or not yet tied up with it enough? These are the impasses that concern me. How to dwell with/in it, this/the/these impasse(s)?

    Let me leave off with that, and say something about “unequateability.” What I meant by this word, first, is primarily: inexchangeable. If the question of identity and difference comes in, it only does so after this one. I would agree that the idea of radical difference is, in a way, ridiculous– as much as “radical sameness” would be. (I didn’t use either phrase in this essay, but I’m sure I have before.) Not only do they run contrary to experience and the history of any subject, but are also at odds with the notion of “inexchangeability” itself. Inexchangeable means: it is what it is “as such”: as it manifests, as it will have manifested itself, as it did. Even the conception of “person” comes secondary to this question, which has less to do with the certainties of being than its impasses: inexchangeable manifestation(s), inexchangeable intimacy(ies). And to be understood in the singular plural– plus d’un.

    I doubt I’ve clarified much by emphasizing one synonym over the other. What I can say is that the dual question of intimacy and manifestation breaks on to the “inequality” of the self to the self. (My whole thinking hinges on this, but so far I’ve written more about it than anyone could read, me included; it is a sense, it is sense itself…) This “inequality” of myself to myself does not at all preclude the notion of similarity (Adorno: “Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar”– adding two more: “True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves,” and “Love you will find only where you may show yourself weak without provoking strength” (Minima Moralia, #122)). The notion of “simile,” while not a part of my writing vocabulary (not a part of my practice, my thinking), is not at all meant to be foreclosed. (Please, speak your sense of community, speak it to its very limit.) Ultimately, this is the question of the body, but in saying so, I move faster than I’m able to think and write: what is the similarity between birth and death, between silence and speech? What’s the similarity between the first thing I wrote, and the last, which I haven’t written yet, and won’t know when I write it that it was the last? And yet, perhaps I will. Ah, forgive me, but that’s how it strikes me: this is the last…

    Back to love. I stick to my fragment: “The greatest blessing is for your beloved to have no idea who you are.” I stick to the openness and surprise that to me is suggested by this phrase. (On another level, it relates to forgiveness for being, but this is maybe not the space for that.) Those who love me don’t have any idea who I am, and neither do I know. They do not see, I do not see, no one sees, and so we see. Agamben has said it much better: “The Idea of Love: To live in intimacy with a stranger, not in order to draw him closer, or to make him known, but rather to keep him strange, remote: unapparent–so unapparent that his name contains him entirely. And, even in discomfort, to be nothing else, day after day, than the ever open place, the unwaning light in which that one being, that thing, remains forever exposed and sealed off.” I would also repeat Rilke on that “more human love” so difficult in coming: “two solitudes that protect and border and greet one another.” This is a question of the “idea” of the other as their very manifestation, their sensible presentation, their visible form as it comes and shows itself– to others but also to itself, unintentional, uncontrolled, surprising and thus generous in the strongest sense of the term.

    Appearance as (the rift of) presence: less a matter of denying similarity than of recognizing excess as constitutive, as the very plumb line of praxis and sense, an excess dually peaked in the aura’s other; and not a matter of losing “memory” (though unforgettable means: immemorial but exigent), but of leaving the other to their secrecy– the secrecy of their language, their sense, their time, their world. Secret because inexchangeable, immeasurable, and incommensurable. Secret because named, because in-finite. Secret because secret to themselves.

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