Community is a tricky proposition, rife with potential confusion and difficulty, and its constitution occupies an enormous amount of human creative energy. To open our multipart dialogue on “coming together,” I’d like to begin by considering the role of fictions and myths in community’s definition and realization. Last week, in a seminar I’ve been teaching on political art in Chicago, my students and I watched A Call And An Offering, a video by Latham Zearfoss and Dylan Mira. The work documents Pilot TV, a temporary queer television studio organized around the theme of “Feminist Trespass” that took place in Chicago ten years ago, and starts with co-organizer Emily Piper Forman’s explanation: “Pilot was what everyone who came made it. All the organizers did was spread this myth that this was going to happen, that there was going to be this DIY autonomous television studio.”
Pilot TV’s invocation of myth can be read in relation to the theory of social myths advanced by philosopher George Sorel. In his 1907 Letter to Daniel Halevy, Sorel considers the power of religious and other ancient myths as motivating factors for the rationalization of various, often individual, actions throughout history. His commitment to the myth of the General Strike is based on the insight that the working class needs to believe in a myth of something bigger and longer-lived, which can emerge from their collective existence to usurp both pragmatic and utopian impulses. Intellectuals use the concept of utopia, he argues, as a model for comparison with extant society, giving it a propositional quality that’s open to refutation. He goes on to argue that myths cannot be denied in this way, that the results of the myth matter little and should be judged on their success in motivating action in the present, rather than functioning as “astrological almanacs.”
Later in our seminar, the conversation turned towards a real estate developer who has long been touting a Chicago Arts District that has never fully caught on. It is as if the developer read The Rise of the Creative Class and misrecognized Richard Florida’s promotion of the creative economy as the voice from the W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (filmed as Field of Dreams), whispering “If you build it, he will come.” Cities throughout the United States have grappled with this kind of reinvention, often fumbling along the way as neighborhoods are destroyed in the process. The implications of imaginary communities being imposed on real territories dot the entire history of politics, as demonstrated by a series of articles on the myth of the nation-state in the online journal GeoCurrents, which documents recent conflicts over territory. While on a different register than arts-district planning, these geopolitical examples provide a certain weight to what can on a more intimate urban scale be reduced to bickering over gentrification, authenticity and belonging.
Considering the arts district in relationship to Pilot TV’s attempt to conjure a queer media convergence, there seems to be a similarity between the two ambitions. Despite the arts district being more profit-motivated, both aspired to invent a new social form. With the deformed strain of social relations that now characterizes urban life, it’s not too hard to appreciate that getting together in an innovative way might require a bit of fictionalization. While many long-standing social institutions bring people together, there is still a lot of room for seeing, if you build it, who might come.
What, I wonder, do the panelists think the role of myths and fictions might be in inventing and experimenting with community today?
The central question in Daniel’s kick-off text may be, at its heart, about time. All fictions and myths are also about time: we are temporal creatures, after all, and any story can be seen as a sculpture made out of words and time. But the word myth comes from the Greek muthos, which means something delivered by mouth, a story or tale or fable. To be a myth, it has to be believed by either the teller or the listener, or else it passes into folklore and is no longer a myth. Now this is where I’m getting hung up: one can believe a thing in the past to have already happened, and readily. Stories that we believe as capital-letter Truth have all happened in the past. I believe I just had a glass of wine, and as proof, I have the glass beside me with a coin of red in its bottom. But no matter how fervently you believe in something happening in the future, it will always be stuck in the yet-to-have-happened, and the distance between now and the future is vast. One minute from now, a giant meteorite could come screaming through the sky and Ciao, humanity! You can believe in the likelihood of something happening, but unless we’re talking about the supernatural, it is impossible to actually believe in it. The projection of a future result from any human project—Pilot TV, The Chicago Arts District, Brook Farm, or the settling of the New World—can’t be a myth, then: it can be faith, and hope, which are easily (and I’d argue wrongly) knocked.
The gap in belief only matters if you privilege the present, as Sorel does, in the letter Daniel referred to. If you’re judging a myth merely on its “motivating action in the present,” you’re narrowing the gloriously broad scope of human inducements to act. Novelists breathe motivation; no motivation is ever simple. One acts in the present as a corrective to the past; think of a murderer repenting in a grand catharsis, and afterwards living a saintly life. One acts in the present in order to rewrite history, to whitewash over what has happened. One acts in the present to change the future, and I would say that is the most urgent impetus of all. The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee, never ceases to fascinate me, and one of their current projects is the Ecovillage Training Center, where they teach people about permaculture, which is how to live in the present so that the future isn’t harmed. Those of us with children, for whom a future world must exist without us, can’t fail to live with our lives spread in the past, the present, and the future all at once.
Every project that humanity has embarked upon to change the future has been fueled by faith and hope; otherwise, nobody would have attempted them. A project is only ever called “utopian” if it fails; if it succeeds, we praise the project’s architects for their vision.
Thanks, Daniel, for starting with such an interesting angle. In order to address your question, I think it’s important to consider the different circumstances of the two examples you mention. The first is an artists’ collective that, based on your description, invoked potentiality—it stimulated the imagination of a group of people and prompted them to action. The work, in the Agambean sense of its actualization, retained its potentiality (that of one day becoming a real program), which is a wonderful thing; communities usually come together with a sense of hopefulness. In the case of Pilot TV, this was, arguably, the desire to find a forum for the creation of a communal representation.
By contrast, the developer, who I assume was not an artist, and who concocted or imagined a possible audience that never materialized in that “arts district,” probably suffered from—to use Benedict Anderson’s term—“imagined communities” syndrome, that is, the attempt to create economic and social conditions for an urban grouping that either didn’t exist, or which didn’t identify with or see a place for themselves in that district.
I think it is no coincidence that the first example is one of a project instigated by artists, who employed a somewhat mischievous but ultimately effective strategy to create a community, while the developer seemingly pursues a project in a much less imaginative way. This seems to justify the idea that, whether you want to call it fiction, myth-making, or the insertion of the carnivalesque, art allows one to create what I would describe as social parentheses—events or situations that produce communities.
But there is another absolutely key, and perhaps more important, component here than the ability to communicate a vision of what could be: the ability to know your audience. This is a talent, or a skill, at which both artists and marketers excel. Even when it is denied—I have always found the claim that some artists make that they don’t have an audience in mind when they make art to be disingenuous—everything we do has an implicit public. Is this someone who likes art? Is it someone who holds the same values as us? Who speaks the same language? Furthermore, these projects tend to be most successful when we are in tune with the language, the interests, and the idiosyncrasies of that audience. I would argue that while myth-making and any other strategy of the sort can be effective in helping to construct a sense of community, this can all fall flat if one lacks a sense—via intuition or research—of simply what is of interest to a group of people.
Daniel’s opening comments put me in mind of that noted theorist of the aesthetics of alternative community, John Wayne, and a line from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Toward the end of the film, there is discussion with a newspaper reporter about the real causes of Liberty’s death (which differ from the public account). But the reporter ends up deciding to burn his notes rather then publish what he discovers, his now notorious conclusion: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It’s interesting to start from such a film precisely because while myth may well underpin alternative forms of community and political art practice, it certainly doesn’t do so only within such milieus. The ways in which mythic claims act as foundations, underpinning and making possible the construction of a community, extend far beyond the intersection and art and politics. This is the argument that Derrida makes in his essay “Force of Law”—that any revolutionary government setting out a new constitutional arrangement does so only on the basis of projecting backwards in time a mythic foundation for its claim to the requisite legitimacy. Thus for Derrida the foundation of all authority is mystical—or as we might prefer to say here, mythical.
The question for me then becomes, what could distinguish the myth-making practices of radical social and artistic movements from those that are at the core of constitutional law and political history? A way in which I might start to make such a distinction would be to look back to the ideas and practices of the Situationists, whose influence far exceeded what one might reasonably expect of a relatively small bunch of avant-garde troublemakers scattered throughout Europe. It did this precisely not just because of their keen agility at mythmaking (both about themselves, and around events and uprisings against spectacular-commodity society that were already occurring), but also because of the way in which they claimed not to be inventing anything new, but rather to be working from existing popular ideas. The SI’s myth-making thus extended the potentials of forms of social action that were already occurring.
One could also look at the mythopoetic practices of the Polish underground in the 1980s, such as surrealist send-ups of the Soviet regime by the Orange Alternative, which saw participants dress as dwarves or hold mass events purportedly in honor of Stalin. These actions were doubly troubling for state authorities precisely because everyone knew that they were designed to satirize the state but did not present themselves as such. They demonstrate the principle that Jeffrey Goldfarb distils from the period in his essay “1989 and the Creativity of the Political”, that if one acts as if one is already free, one is helping to create the conditions for the realization of that freedom. This thinking connects very clearly to the way in which David Graeber describes the logic of direct action protests in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography not as militant petition, but as a way of positioning the mechanisms of the state as irrelevant—though that framing may be somewhat mythic in itself.
What distinguishes the use of myth in the formation of alternative communities and artistic practices today is these groupings enact what one could call, to borrow from Stephen Duncombe’s book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy “ethical myth-making.” Duncombe develops the notion of an “ethical spectacle” by looking at manifestations of political protest, such as Billionaires for Bush, that attempt, in a self-conscious style, to puncture the mythologies of contemporary capitalism, but in a self-conscious style. Thus they are different from the reporter who knows the truth about the death of Liberty but chooses to conceal it. Ethical myth-making undercuts dominant mythologies at the same time as wagering on the possibility of a community to come—but one that is only possible through the circulation of the mythic claim itself.
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