On Community

Currently I am secretary of Unite the Union’s, South Yorkshire Community Branch. I am proud to be a Community partner on this phase of the Working with Social Haunting Project. For nearly 25 years I worked in a Derbyshire Community School. And I am utterly clueless about what the word community means. I suppose I could construct some sort of answer, but I find myself none the wiser if someone mentions community education, or a religious community, or an industrial community. I am left with the sense that community is a weasel word, a bit like sustainability. If sustainability can be used by Rio Tinto Zinc and by the indigenous peoples of Australia then I am left with the impression that the same word might mean entirely different things. For community that might imply a geographical construct like village or a faith like Methodism. For me, it seems that we are talking about very different ideas here.

Perhaps the word community suggests a commonality, yet straight away there is an implicit sense that a boundary is being drawn, where some are inside and some are outside. If that is the case, then some very unpleasant consequences could arise from such an idea. But what if the word community implied a boundary that had inputs and outputs where there was conflict but where the protagonists were still mutually dependant? 

This thought struck me when I came across the latest work of my intellectually hero, the Marxist Geographer David Harvey. I first came across Harvey as undergraduate Geographer. ‘Social Justice and the City’, published in the early seventies, was the beginning of the resurgence of the subject. Harvey has never stopped, but it his latest work that seeks to map capitalism that really catches the eye. For in seeking to trace the flows and reservoirs of capital Harvey invokes the hydrological  cycle. It is thinking about the changes in the state of water that enables Harvey to build a map of capital. 

When it rains, water falls in different states: rain, snow etc. It is intercepted by vegetation, held as groundwater or in stores like peat bogs to be released as flows of water: the glacier, the stream, the river and eventually to the sea. If sufficient energy is applied, water can evaporate into the atmosphere eventually to cool as it rises to form clouds and the whole process can start again.

It is Harvey’s genius to use the hydrological cycle as an analogy for the flows of capital: where it moves, where it is stored and where it changes its form. Just like a stream, a pond and the process of evapotranspiration. I wonder whether a pond is like a community. There are inputs of energy, water and material into a pond. There are outputs of the same but there is still a boundary. Within that boundary there are biotic and abiotic components: there are rocks, soil, etc and living things like grasses, insects and fishes. Some of the living things eat some of the other things but they are co- dependent. Change one of the abiotic or biotic components and the community can collapse.

So is not a human community not similarly part of a similar web of biotic and abiotic components? Where there are boundaries but they can be entered and exited but within the community there is significant risk of suffering even though we are, in the end, co – dependant. When one interrogates the scientific literature on ecology and community one comes across the word assemblage, where biotic and abiotic components exist together, where the boundary between the two are not as clear cut as first thought. After all, the living become the dead in the pond: from life to the inert and back.

And it is that word assemblage that catches the eye. Felix Guattari talks of assemblages and it is clear that he, alongside Gilles Deleuze got many of his ideas from the ecological and geological sciences. I want to know more about ecology, geology, geomorphology, climatology because I wonder whether, rather like Harvey it is there we need to look to really refine what we understand about society. Of course none of this is new: I think of the work of Burgess in the twenties exploring Chicago using the idea of urban ecology. I used to dismiss that style of thinking as positivism but I speculate that a better understanding of the environmental sciences might lead to a better understanding of society. Indeed an interrogation of these sciences might enable us to dissolve the boundaries of community, nation etc because in the end all we will see is process and flow.

Mark James

Mark JamesComment