The Language of Community

I’m going to observe, rather than define. Communities are groups of people who share a common language, in which communal relations can be articulated. The most basic such relation is membership.

How much is the language peculiar to that community? Are all English-speakers a community, because they speak English? Let’s set that question to the side for a moment and treat the big, recognized languages as something separate. Particular communities draw on the resources of the big languages but develop their own idiosyncrasies. In some contexts this is called a dialect. In other contexts it is called jargon. But it is peculiar to the community.

More important, perhaps, is lower-level language; language at the level of practice. “Body language” puts it crudely, but the nonverbal aspects of practice have a kind of vocabulary of their own. We see this quite clearly in community rituals, thick with meaning even when no one is saying a word.

But we also see it in how people in a community behave towards one another; telegraphing their relative standings without consciously intending to do so. There are also formal protocols, of course, on top of informal ones. I know how to behave in an interview, a wedding, and a barbeque hosted by a friend; the expectations in each case are quite different. But people have no trouble communicating when I’ve crossed a line I shouldn’t have.

Communities rest on formal relations, spelled out at least in part in actual forms. That is, documents. Dave has hammered this into me again and again in our discussions of community, and it has stuck at last. The local Catholic church has a deed for the property, a charter, a formal relationship with the mother church. There is a whole set of documentation behind the priest. They undoubtedly have lists of who attends regularly, especially if they have signed up for church activities at some point.

My diploma, my lease, my employment contract, my birth certificate—all of these things indicate membership in communities of various sorts. In this case they refer to a community of alumni, or a neighborhood, or an industry, or a political community. Some are more specific than others; my employment contract gives a thin outline of my role at the company, what I owe them and what they owe me.

There’s only ever so much that’s put on paper, but the paper establishes a formal relationship with a formal community.

Not everyone is multilingual at the level of big languages, but at the level of community-specific language, we are all multilingual. A white Mississippi boy from a poor family who is the first in his family to go to college, and eventually takes a job in Canada, learns to speak in the language of at least three communities. Typically, he is most likely to seem like a foreigner in how he speaks and acts to the people in the town he grew up in.

The nature of community is, in short, intimately tied to the nature of language. This drives home Hans-Georg Gadamer’s belief in the universality of the hermeneutic dimension, and his evocative phrase that “being that can be understood is language.” Hermeneutics and linguistics are as important for understanding community as sociology—perhaps more important.

But He Will Rule You

Mary Ellen was always pretty as a girl, and she knew it coming through grade school. She kept the boys enthralled with a wit that drew them close and kept them at bay, like Redbones on the scent without a command to hunt. “You might be tall, Hugh Johnson,” she told him, “so tall the Lord God couldn’t reach up to put any brains in your head.” When she blossomed, they howled. Right then she determined not to marry in her town because they knew her too well.

In the next town they ached for her. The other young ladies frowned severely, each trying to look through the back of her gentleman’s head, whose neck was twisted dangerously, too tight, you might say, if you understand what I mean by that frown. They puzzled, too, wondering how a girl without much in the way of physical attributes could twist every neck in town. Was it her dress? Her shoes? Her hair? Her money? All were the same as theirs. In fact, nothing about her stood out except her glow, and when she smiled: oh, my…

Was there a man in town made for her? In fact there was a man every young lady hoped she was made for. He was Jeremiah Fenton, Jeremiah, Jr., in fact, the son of Jeremiah, Sr., who was the owner of Fenton Construction, a contracting outfit interested in new home builds, garage builds, remodels, and general home repair. As for Jeremiah, Jr., he was a savvy businessman himself, right out of high school, having the good sense to listen to his father, who had built up that business before the war, during those dark times of the Great Depression, then holding on until the soldiers came home. The soldiers listened to him, and then to his son, whom he taught the business.

It didn’t hurt that Jeremiah, Jr. was the very definition of strapping, with shoulders broad and proud. Good humor tinged everything Jeremiah said and did, so that even when he made a mistake, a customer could point it out with equal good humor such that whatever was lacking was made right without much fuss for either party. “If I had used a bigger hammer,” Jeremiah said to Willy Gaithers, “I might have had to build you a new sun room on the back of your house.” Willy Gaithers laughed while Jeremiah’s crew plastered over the hole Jeremiah had made while putting some finishing nails in the trim Willy Gaithers wanted around his windows.

Jeremiah took the blame, but everyone knew (because Willy Gaithers told everyone) what really happened was Jeremiah discovered a leak in the roof which had rotted away one of the wall studs next to the window frame. He climbed up on the roof, found the problem, fixed it, figured out a way to replace the stud without taking out the whole wall, then patched the greater hole that had formed anyway. In other words, everyone knew that not only was Jeremiah an honest businessman, he was generous.

When he saw Mary Ellen out of the corner of his eye, his neck twisted so hard that he was forced to let go of Martha Johansenn’s hand and pursue Mary Ellen’s. “Aha!” he declared. “At last! I have a woman who is for me!” Mary Ellen thought that was nice, and she told her folks, and her folks met with his folks, and the two towns were, on the wedding day, brought together in the union of this man to this woman. It was a match made in heaven, and everyone treading that ground knew it, and they smiled under the blessings of God.

It wasn’t that Mary Ellen was dissatisfied with the money; she wanted the prestige. While the two towns waited for progeny to embody the union, Mary Ellen lay awake at night crafting a plan to attain an upper middle class lifestyle, and from there, to step into the elite class, replete with its invitations to invitations, invitations to socialize in air-conditioned buildings up off the ground and away from the people of the land.

She said, “You should think about commercial construction. There’s a building boom going on.”

“You mean business buildings?” Jeremiah, Jr. shared with Jeremiah Sr. his misgivings.

“Can’t get comfortable,” said Jeremiah Sr. “There ain’t no such thing, not in construction. You can grow the business out or you can grow it up.”

“I’m going to need a construction manager,” he said to himself. “And a loan.”

What made Mary Ellen leave her town to make a union in Jeremiah’s town made her make Jeremiah leave his deliberations and take out a loan. A tax accountant advised them to stay liable for the money instead of sheltering it in a corporation. Something about equipment depreciation. Jeremiah barely understood. Mary Ellen guided his hand onto the bottom line. “This is our house, too,” he said.

The money froze the marriage. Progeny were not possible.

Jeremiah doused his God-given natural desire by gulping down Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey, a habit that made him a little unpleasant in the mornings, which made his hired hands a little displeased in doing their work, and they made mistakes. He roared at them, and they quit. While he was watching them leave, the bank tapped him on the shoulder, demanding to know just what in God’s name happened to those contracts to build additions, wings, wards, and extensions to hospitals, churches, department stores, and supermarket groceries.

The bankruptcy judge was perfunctory and cold. He didn’t even shake his head in disappointment. Mary Ellen was in the truck outside the courthouse, waiting for Jeremiah. He hopped in without a word. She was in tears. “We still have each other, don’t we?” she asked. He stared straight ahead, with his jaw clenched. Mary Ellen fixed her eyes upon her man, Jeremiah, Jr., waiting for a word from a him, that he might treat her as his bride. At a stoplight near their house, which now belonged to someone else, Jeremiah turned to his wife, and with all the strength he had in his broad shoulders to maintain his calm, he uttered, “This is all your fault.”

The light turned green and he turned his attention to the task of driving home.

Where was home?

Melting Away

Insofar as Reformation theology relies on this principle in interpreting Scripture, it remains bound to a postulate that is itself based on a dogma, namely that the Bible is itself a unity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

I have recently begun to read Jacobin Magazine, as a scout might enter the boundaries of an enemy encampment. A few days ago they posted a review of Marx’s Inferno, a book I had seen mentioned in my web community a few times. The central conceit of the book, apparently, is that Marx used the basic structure of Dante’s Inferno in the way he unfolded his arguments in the first volume of Capital.

The critic is charmed by this analysis, and thinks it’s pretty compelling, but believes the author makes a fundamental mistake:

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

The author responds:

[I]t is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.”

He locates their difference of interpretation in their model of Marx. The critic views Marx as an “explainer” who is distilling his findings to a broader audience.

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

One of the crucial questions in phenomenology and hermeneutics is what the relevant horizon of meaning is, within which some specific text is given its sense. The critic argues that Marx’s entire body of work, published and unpublished, trumps any one work standing on its own. The author, by contrast, argues that the public field into which volume 1 was published provides the most appropriate context.

“Horizon” refers to boundaries, but like the horizons of vision they do not bound all that could be seen. Marx’s other works are connected to yet others; ones that are directly mentioned in the texts as well as ones that were influential but did not get mentioned. And those texts, of course, were influenced by yet others, many of which Marx never read himself. And out and out.

The same holds for the disagreements and controversies he was responding to. If you had asked Marx to set out and draw a circle around the participants in these scholarly and political conversations, he could not have. He may have drawn it around the people he himself had read, or at some arbitrary point beyond them. But any participant would form a link to others, who formed links to others, going back to before any of the current participants were alive. If you look too hard, the “conversation” disappears into history itself.

The speech act theorist J. L. Austin described how the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” have, beyond their locutionary effect or semantic meaning, a perlocutionary effect; they are “doing something” rather than just “saying something.” They are effecting a change in status, from single to married, with all that entails within the specific speech act community. But it can go wrong—what if it turns out the officiant was lying about being licensed? Or if the couple never filed for a wedding license? In order to know whether the speech act took effect, “it is important to take the speech-situation as a whole.”

But how can we do this? What is the whole speech-situation? Jacques Derrida replied that because context is boundless, we cannot possibly know enough of it to determine if we have learned all of the relevant context. The speech-situation is too large, the relevant details too hidden behind the horde of irrelevant ones. If you stare at the speech-situation too long, it too melts away, deconstructed without mercy.

What are we to do? If we need the whole to interpret the part, and the whole is either infinite or in any case too large for human comprehension, then can we interpret anything?

We can, but in doing so we are walking on air. Like Marx we do not have a “fully-worked out” framework in our “back pocket.” Nor is our horizon of meaning made up solely of the specific texts we have read and conversations we have had. The authors of the texts we have read, the interlocutors in the conversations we have had, and we ourselves, have what Gadamer referred to as “historically-effected consciousness.”

We bring our prejudices to the texts we read and the conversations we have. These prejudices are shaped most directly by “our place within a historical series of persons” with whom we have already interacted. But these people are, as mentioned, influenced in turn, and under scrutiny the influence ultimately melts into the many currents of history. The currents are fluid, but we, with our prejudices in this moment, are concrete. We take concrete actions, come to concrete understandings and establish concrete relations. We engage in concrete practices that form the basis of concrete communities.

Or so it feels to us, and so it must for us to carry on. We’re aware that there are peripheries to these communities, we may even be aware how vague and porous they are. But many imagine they could find reasonable boundaries, if they had the time and inclination to perform a systematic study of the matter. They are wrong, but that hardly matters. They recognize the game, they recognize and are recognized by the players, and that is enough—enough for books to be written and read and understood, enough for men and women to marry, “putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties.” Enough to be active in the community of scholars, of gamers, of young mothers in the neighborhood.

Except for when people do attempt a systematic study. Our understanding of social space is implicit, similar to our understanding of how to navigate a familiar neighborhood without a map. But unlike physical geography, attempts to map our implicit social space influence the very thing under study. And so those theorists who approach the study of community with the prejudice that there is an essential, rational meaning of the word, and that each community is discrete and can be mapped, may end up doing a lot of damage along the way. That, in any case, is the story of the 20th century’s great tragedies, perpetuated by men who imagined themselves to be social engineers and scientists.

When you approach the question of community as an engineer or scientist, the experience of community melts away entirely. Cold, logical axioms are all that remain, taking the place of authentic understanding.

Ploenipotentiary Representation

Or: In The Beginning Was The Chicken or The Egg

One of nature’s wonderful delights, for those of us who are easily amused, is a kitten chasing her tail. Is it an evolutionary impulse which causes the kitten to lie in a soft sunny place for the purposes of, after resting, training herself in the finer arts of feline pursuit? Perhaps it is, in the genius that is Evolution, a polyvalent delight, a telos achieved in the now for the kitten and also for the young mother who is nursing her child, bored out of her gourd, and a little tired, receiving peace and comfort from the kitten who is chasing her tail.

The kitten’s training exercises now complete, she wanders off into her patrols, seeking where she may to find a way out, but all the windows and doors are screened off, and every way out is simply another way in, but around the house she goes, patrolling. Young Mother rises, compelled by boredom to seek where she may to find a way out of her gourd, so, after tightening the bonds which secure her baby into her bosom on this fine spring day, she loosens the bonds which secure the screens closed against the kitten’s absconding.

It is a neighborhood into which Young Mother escapes, planted by city fathers in 1925, somewhere in-between the timber boom and the industrial boom. It is now 92 years later, enough time for a child to have been born, lived, married, produced children and careers, fought in wars, survived economic and marital hardship and change, grown weary, grown old, and perhaps has died or is about to die, given the mortality tables nowadays. It is not just a generation, but an entire lifespan which has waxed and waned.

There is womanly chattering nearby, a grandmother and a mother and Young Mother and a toddler or two, with the occasional automobile passing by, recognized or not. What is the conversation? It is of the weather, of politics, of family relations, of occupation, of career, of local government, of gardens, of school, of transportation, of–

Just what distinguishes 1925 from 2017?

–of hopes and dreams? I think not. Hopes and dreams are not for casual conversation out in the open, where there are no fences. –of hopes and dreams dashed? I think so.

“That worthless husband of mine…”

When Sheila’s man moved out, there was a ripple through the community, and the rest of us made adjustments, trying to be nice to her children while also warning our own children that there would be trouble, hoping to convince the children both of the particular kind of trouble, because who knows what kind of trouble comes from deep-seated emotional consuming fires which are kindled by divorce? And also that our children should be faithful to their friends in kindness and in deed, actual friends, not mere playmates. On the other hand, there was an envy, palpable, depending on who you talked to: Sheila had become free of her man, the asshole. I must admit, however, he was good to me, just tall and a little rough, and, I think, probably immature in certain ways. Maybe. I’m not sure.

Who said it? Who said, “That worthless husband of mine…”? Not Sheila. She never uttered an unkind word about her man. She rarely spoke of him at all, in fact, and her liberation from him was de jure, at least as far as we all could observe. The de jure declaration had more of an effect on us than the de facto reality she was living had on her. No, the others, namely, grandmothers, mothers, Young Mother, uttered those words, and regularly.

When the time of conversation comes to a close, Young Mother looks at Other Young Mother, knowing that an emotional bond has been forged, a strong bond, probably unbreakable (except by circumstance, which comes by chance and cannot be accounted for), but also knowing that Other Young Mother is about to go into her domicile to interact with her own man. It’s time for Young Mother to return to her own domicile, to make the life that she and her man agreed to make, an agreement forged in utter and absolute freedom, and witnessed, gazed upon by mother and father and mother and father. In these days, there are a few attachés via divorce and remarriage, and also illegitimacy, but the ties that bind are mother and father and mother and father, even if the ones who occupy those offices are destructive, and the attaché has no authority beyond helpful advice and good counsel, or unhelpful and bad.

“That worthless husband of mine…” An utterance she received from her mother many times. Young Mother thinks of her own utterances to the same effect. “By the power invested in me…” is the other utterance which engages, in fact which ended the engagement, putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties, not just an utterance, but a declaration, with authority, “…I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Is it an evolutionary impulse which causes nearly every other house in the neighborhood to be occupied by those under authority? And by what authority to bind together those whose binding would be in various stages of decay?

Young Mother, closing the door to the neighborhood behind her, finds the kitten asleep, having finished for the time being her patrols for freedom. The infant awakens, hungry, and Young Mother returns to utter boredom, nourishing her offspring. And her husband’s.

Tectonics

I have a new gig in two communities in New York State near Lake Ontario. The communities are eighteen miles apart, oriented east and west from each other. The community to the east we shall call Parker; the community to the west we shall call Coomer. Parker and Coomer are both towns centering respective town-and-country lifestyles. Those who live outside Parker envy those who live in Parker, and those who live outside Coomer envy those who live in Coomer. I live in neither community: I commute from no small distance to work in one or the other, or both, four days a week, driving in from the south.

Or, as they say, I drive from “up,” because I live above the Niagara Escarpment. In this way they are the same culture. Below the Escarpment is one culture, what I might call the Lake Culture. It is populated by very old, early-American farm families, in some state or another resembling the The Sound and the Fury, some having achieved greatness, others having fallen from greatness into utter ruin, still others having wallowed forever in the misery of poverty. Overlaid is the Erie Canal Culture, which is archetypal mid-century blue-collar America, its participants working in the many and varied factories of heavy industrial giants, seen in one way as the purveyors of great wealth to a rural class of people without the back-breaking and agonizing labor of farm-tending, and also as the soul-destroying never-ceasing powered shafts and conveyor belts. The factories shuttered suddenly.

Above the Escarpment is another culture, with a completely different history, distinct family infrastructures, and different institutions, even though the factories are shared.

So I drive north, down, to do my work in their midst as an outsider, always looking in, watching them as families interacting, and I on occasion being invited in to interact with them, to my great delight. I get lonely while I’m driving, and they’re good people, enviably so.

It has been given to me as a task to unify a few families of each community, so that they might achieve some effectiveness in certain charitable endeavors, endeavors which are to be determined in the future, after we can determine what sort of resources we might be able to pool together, determined by ascertaining what resources these several families are able to acquire. Driving from Parker to Coomer, and then again from Coomer to Parker, is a lovely task under pleasant skies, with regular glimpses of vast lake waters to the north, the constant shoulder of the Escarpment to the south, the land between lined all long with orchards, vineyards, farms, and wooded lots, wherein dwell various species of game animals and their predators. It is a flat plain without a single geographic interruption.

Nevertheless, the people of Coomer, being separated by a mere eighteen miles of empty highway, translating to twenty minutes of travel time, have no knowledge of the people of Parker. The people of Parker know nothing of Coomer. In fact, they are suspicious of each other. At first, this flummoxed me. How is it that these very old families, who are veritably nearly in view of each other, know nothing of each other? When their respective high schools compete against each other in varsity contests, the enmity is palpable and brief. After sharing a regulated and tightly contained space to yell at their children for an hour or two, they depart, socializing not. They have not intermarried.

Instead, each community looks up the Escarpment to sizable little cities, traveling north and south for goods and services not available in Coomer or Parker, respectively, which journey is more than twenty minutes. It seems obvious, to an outsider, that Coomer and Parker together, with greater ease, could support each other with those same goods and services, such as restaurants and larger supermarket grocery stores. It is not so. They think on a north-south axis, they speak of a north-south axis, and they live on a north-south axis, going up and down the Escarpment, to the disadvantage of their own utility. Well, maybe. I dunno.

Driving on the east-west axis, the horizon is apparent, I suppose. One could argue that I’m trying to manufacture a horizon, where the one community ends and where the other begins, but I think I’ve found one. There is a third community, which we shall call Lakeshire, a very thinly populated town, spread out over some area, closer to the Escarpment than Parker and Coomer. There is practically nothing to this Lakeshire community to speak of, no important institutions, no real history, no central presence in the area. Although it is little more than a crossroads, it is more than a crossroads, but no inhabitant of Lakeshire claims to be from Lakeshire. Instead, they claim to be from either Parker or Coomer. The inhabitants of Parker and Coomer, on the other hand, would not consider Lakeshire a part of their respective communities.

There exists, north of Lakeshire, exactly halfway between Parker and Coomer, and on the main road, a mobile-home park. It is large, containing the population of a small town all by itself. The inhabitants of the mobile-home park are located exactly as far away from any amenities as is possible in this area.

There it is, a blight, an unpleasant experience, seeing all those country poor people gathered together in one forlorn place, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind. What is life like within this mobile-home park, each home nestled too close to its neighbor, with no fences to make neighbors, good or otherwise? Caricatures fill the mind. And then the conscience strikes.

There are no trailer parks on the north-south axes.