What Is a Community?

The first time I realized I was a member of a community of writers occurred in the mid-1980s when I read a letter to the editor in the Detroit Metro Times, at that time an alternative weekly (but now, a franchise).(1) The letter-writer complained bitterly about an alleged coterie of writers dominating Kofi Natambu’s journal of the arts, Solid Ground (1981-1987). According to the letter-writer, the members of this cadre all supported and agreed with one another about all the important literary and political issues of the day and refused to let anyone else into the “club.” Since I did not, at that time, know most of the writers who constituted this alleged bloc, an “oppositional” avant-garde (2), I felt both dumbfounded and elated. I was dumbfounded because it was clear that the letter-writer had not paid sufficient attention to the nuanced but significant differences articulated by the contributors to the journal. I was elated because I felt I had literary cachet by virtue of being associated with writers I did not know but, for the most part, admired. I would not have had the temerity to suggest to anyone that I was a member of this “community” because I had no reason to think they knew me beyond or outside the material I published there. As for those I did know? I did not consider Chris and George Tysh, Kim Hunter, Rayfield Waller or Kofi Natambu as part of a “group” because I knew them individually through so many other affiliations and relationships. Still, it is true that simply by contributing to the journal I was implicitly endorsing its opposition to certain hegemonies in politics and the arts. Moreover, I was acutely aware that the central issue for all artists in Detroit at that time was how art in general promoted or related to the cause of revolutionary socialism or anarchism. Nonetheless, I resented the letter-writer’s implicit assumption that resistance entailed conformity. I imagine — I know —a number of the contributors to the journal felt marginalized by and marginal to the avant-garde formation imagined by that letter-writer.

Doubtless my sense of marginality in relationship to these writing and political communities had to do with my affiliation with an academic institution, first as an undergraduate and then later, as a graduate student. It wasn’t due to the fact that books were and are also members of what I perceive as “my” community. Everyone I knew involved in politics and the arts were readers of books. No, it was the kind of books I read and the (institutional) setting in which I read them. Along with the usual and important agit-prop and political analyses, I was working my way through some of the cultural traditions I allegedly opposed on principle. Of course, whether or not one should — or could — oppose art per se to a hegemonic tradition was a central issue for many of us.(3) It appeared to be an absolute necessity to form and reinforce our own communities, for a community is not simply a matter of relations among “like-minded” individuals. It is also a matter of opposition even if the opposed is never named as such.(4) Communities are formed in response to other communities that call, that call one or others out, that call one or others out of a name or names.(5)

Several years before I had been inducted into the Solid Ground cadre, a community of academic scholars had hailed me by way of an English Department secretary who said to me, “you should go to graduate school.” She knew I was lost, that I’d been floundering about, that I had no direction, and that, interestingly enough, no one else in my various communities had had an answer for me. Someone not a member of any of “my” communities pointed me in the direction of yet another community. Perhaps she knew it was, as they say, time.(6)

In my last year of coursework in 1982 I, along with other graduate students, decided to take a seminar with the hot new kid on the block (so we’d heard), poet Edward Hirsch. Perhaps it is fortunate I knew Edward Hirsch, currently the president of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, as a teacher before I knew him as a poet. In his Contemporary American Poetry course we were not only introduced to the confessional school of Berryman, Plath, Lowell and Roethke but also to Olson, O’Hara, and Duncan. We read Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and Charles Altieri’s Enlarging The Temple side by side. The anthology and critical text both presupposed the creations of new poetry communities (even if Altieri’s book was attempting to open up a new franchise for so-called academic poetry). Just as important — and this, I’ve learned, can never be discounted — was the example he modeled as a poet and teacher. When, in the last third of the semester, he brought into our graduate seminar a bottle of wine to celebrate his “tenure,” a concept foreign to many of us in that room, he seemed genuinely pleased to have joined a community of academic scholars. From the distance of my life at that moment, the new life he christened seemed unattainable but still worth pursuing. Hirsch and others had several of us thinking that poetics per se constituted an oppositional practice. That I was taught the same brutal lessons everyone coming out of that cultural/political milieu of the Cass Corridor would be taught by the institutions of poetry Hirsch would go on to represent and defend was sobering but not entirely discouraging. Most important, and this may be one of those black “things,” I was wary of the consolations of embitterment. Perhaps it is only a well-honed defense mechanism, the product of the peculiar history of diasporic Africans and their descendants, but I was keenly aware that my bitterness would signal another victory for the cultural powers at large. Just as important — why deny it? — Hirsch continued to be supportive of my development as a poet even if he could not endorse the poetry I was writing alongside the standard lyrical poetry I was also writing. But even that material, however much it resembled mainstream versification, was inflected by the cultural and political environs in which I was slowly but gradually maturing.

When I moved to Cincinnati Ohio the next year, in 1983, I quickly realized that any community I would be a part of would no longer constitute a place, a locus, but would be founded on a discourse, a lexicon.(7) No longer a member of a site-based community of writers, artists and musicians, all of whom read voraciously,(8) I found myself having “chosen,” having been chosen by, a “career.”(9) In thinking of community in terms of a shared lexicon or discourse, I realized that the delocation of community foregrounds the problem of decision in regards to alliances, especially if they, in opposition to the institutional, are necessarily provisional, strategic and thus, temporary.

Still, the question of affiliation depends on the problem of choice — what it means to make a decision. As a stereotype with particular social, economic and political force, choice is linked to free will, to human agency, to volition, to, in brief, the semi-autonomous individual. But if we take a cliché like “forced to choose” into consideration it is clear that choosing in no way presupposes agency. On the contrary, it can be argued that the moment one chooses from a place or time, a locus or a moment, one acknowledges that one has been chosen in advance. One accedes to forces — determinate and indeterminate (in fact, it is impossible to decide which acts are indeterminate, which determinate) — that buffet, twist, draw, pull, swing, and undermine all notions of a free will absolutely transcendental with regard to history. These forces are not abstractions — they belong to what we may call, for convenience, “nature” and “culture.” They may be, in the lexicon of medical and life insurance, “acts of God.” They include the force of an automobile (again the illusion of self-propulsion) in motion, the velocity of a bullet or missile, a ringing phone that stops ringing just as one is about to answer, a kiss not given, a kiss not received, etc. In short, this language — indeterminate, determinate, volition, free will, etc. — still presupposes a world without God (and his or her various proxies) and a world with God (again, his/her various forms, manifestations, etc.). God and his priesthoods and churches locate themselves in particular places at particular times. Thus the centrality of a place, a time.

An emphatic, even hyperbolic, invocation of history thus undermines the purely geographical, and thus proprietarial, determination of community, from the Greeks and Romans to Locke and Hume and onward to Dewey and Lippmann. Spatial proximity has been an absolute prerequisite for “true” or “real” or “intimate” community as well as “individual” or “private” or “public” property. This is because community and property have always depended on the face-to-face relation between human beings and the face-to-thing relation between human beings and things. As I have written in regard to Dewey in particular, this face-to-face/face-to-thing relation means that all other modes of relation — by language for example, by music or art — are inauthentic or false. It does not take a giant leap of logic to see in the valorization of the face-to-face/face-to-thing a long philosophical and political tradition that leads back to Plato and his idealization of form per se (Aristotle translates form into the “natural” limits of both the polis and Poetics). It is not that art undermines the face-to-face/face-to-thing relationship between individuals or replaces it per se. It is the possibility that the simulacra of face-to-face/face-to-thing relations that art enacts might lead one to not only confuse the realms of art and community — and this is one definition of ideology — but worse, that one might prefer the realm of art to the realm of human interaction. Both possibilities underscore the reputation of the artist as invariably anti-social if not anti-human. Kantian aesthetics translates the Platonic interdiction into supra- or omni-diction. The anti-social becomes the trans-social. The artist transcends history — and thus the social — which doesn’t make the artist any more attractive to the hoi polloi, perhaps, but does open up a space for the interpretation of this trans- back into anti-. Thus the advent of the critic becomes an historical necessity; he is the priest who explains to the laymen how art stands in opposition to a decadent, fallen and trivial modernity. And the priest, because he is lonely, like God, creates a priesthood, that community of scholars into which I saw Ed Hirsch in communion with one spring afternoon in 1982.




1. The enfranchisement of political “activism” outside the two-party system in the United States reinforces the strength and weakness of media communities, those “like-minded” subscribers to The Nation, Mother Jones, Z, The Progressive, and so forth.

2. I take the term “oppositional” from Kofi Natambu’s essay on literary and political activism in Detroit, “Nostalgia For The Present: Cultural Resistance in Detroit 1977-1987” in Black Popular Culture.

3. To put it crudely, the question was this: to the extent a great number of writers wrote from oppositional stances — Milton, Keats, Baudelaire — it was not altogether clear if they should be held responsible for their canonization, their being “drafted” into the services of Western culture’s hegemony. Of course, the other issue was precisely the issue of mediation: to what extent did the institutionalization of writing, its conversion into “literature,” “block” or “distort” a less mediated, if not immediate, relationship between reader/listener/viewer and the art work “itself”?

4. This is especially so in the wake of legislation designed, theoretically, to protect potential victims of redlining and other practices that serve, in effect, to insure the integrity of a self-defined community.

5. As Mike Davis points out in City of Quartz, the very names of redevelopment sites, with their transparent appeal to nostalgia via a “nature” determined as premodern, are meant to console and reassure those fleeing urban squalor, crime, smog, etc.

6. The question of temporality is as central to any notion of community as the more obvious one of space and location. For communities form in response to historical developments and the nature of these communities determine whether or not they locate themselves amid or away from these developments.

7. See, for example, Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment for a historical overview of the attention to language, community and poetics from Coleridge to Detroit house music. These may all be subsumed under the rubric of various communal lexicons “outside” of normative language usage (and thus, outside normative communities) as defined during and in their respective historical periods and places.

8. I never walked into a musician’s or painter’s house in the Cass Corridor (the location of Wayne State University in Detroit) without being impressed by the number of dog-eared, annotated books in crates and, occasionally, in bookcases.

9. “Of Having A Life, A Career, Choose Me,” a talk I gave to prospective English majors during my second year of employment at Xavier University in Cincinnati Ohio, specifically addresses the issues of “choice.”

Tyrone Williams (© 2007)