A Metonymic Community. Towards Poetics Of Contingency

Text: Thomas Claviez

In his 2001 book with the programmatic title Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Zygmunt Bauman sketches in an almost stereotypical way a concept of community, one that not only seems to be far away, sunken into history, but that, for all that we know, might never actually have existed: a community that is both “distinctive” and “indistinct” (or even “undistinguished”) in that it (a) distinguishes itself from all other groups around it, but (b) does not evince any noticeable distinctions within itself: “[T]here are no ‘betwixt and between’ cases left, it is crystal clear who is ‘one of us’ and who is not, there is no muddle and no cause for confusion – no cognitive ambiguity, and so no behavioural ambivalence” (12). And a short glance into the history of political theory – from Aristotle’s Politics to Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government to Tönnies’ Community and Society – confirms this dialectic. Community, be it conceived as polis, commonwealth, or the state, finds its justification in its alleged ability to overcome what are, in fact, two contingencies: One contingency – exposure to an imagined or real outside enemy, who might strike at any point – is overcome by a presumed simultaneous reduction of a second contingency within the community; it is this latter contingency that Bauman subsumes under “cognitive ambiguity” and “behavioural ambivalence.”

The concepts of communitas and immunitas, as developed by Roberto Esposito1 are two intricately (in fact, dialectically) connected phenomena as regards our social life, as all communities try to immunize themselves against contingencies from within and from without. Whether, as I pointed out above, such a community “without muddle or cause for confusion” ever existed, begs the question: Indeed, especially Tönnies’ reflections on the topic – which, if one only looks closely enough, are simply a rehash of Aristotle with a few Romantic ingredients – should by now be read for their symptomatic, rather than analytic, quality. But whether or not we take the existence or possibility of such a community for granted, or whether we simply add it to the Derridean folder of the “myth of the engineer,” what remains is that community is still being conceived as one of the bulwarks against contingency. Ironically, the well-known strategies of “social engineering” and “rational choice,” which have become the leading paradigms within sociology, try to restore, by rational means, what the myth of the “ur-community” considered as a given: a certain homogeneity that, however, seems lost forever, as even Bauman feels forced to admit – if, as I said, it ever existed.

What I would like to do in what follows is to pursue this topic of contingency, by means of three observations that pertain to it – three aspects that will hopefully allow me to carve out, and to throw into relief, its significance for an assessment of what I would like to call a post-subjective or post-identitarian community. If, as Jock Young claims – whom Bauman quotes – “as community collapses, identity is invented,”2 we have reached a point where not only has the concept of identity, in turn, come under pressure, but where the relationship between identity and (new forms of) community is being reassessed. And both the reassessments of the single terms, as well as their relationship, can be defined along the concept of contingency that – if in different shades, and with different emphases – in my view has to date informed a whole range of approaches and philosophical enterprises; its traces can be discerned not only in the work of Esposito, but also in the oeuvres of Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, and Maurice Blanchot, to name just a few.



Before I attempt to identify, collect, and eventually combine these traces, let me return to the three phenomena mentioned above. The first is the rather paradoxical role that contingency has played throughout human history: paradoxical because, on the one hand, at least since the advent of the Enlightenment, we have narrated human history as the genealogy and succession of presumably ever more successful and sophisticated strategies to overcome contingency – usually along the trajectory of myth, monotheism, and reason, each one claiming a larger explanatory power than its predecessors as regards our environment. On the other hand, if there exists any term that is evoked in relation to, and captures our experience of, modernity, it is contingency. And just a short glimpse of the titles of works that have tried, in the last two decades, to address or diagnose the status quo of a modern, postmodern, and globalizing world suffices to realize that the feeling of an increased and increasing contingency is the order of the day. Besides Bauman’s Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, what comes to mind is Pierre Bourdieu’s work on precarité3 as well as Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society or Judith Butler’s Precarious Life.

Now, if we take these two observations together – the narrative of the succession of allegedly ever more powerful strategies to overcome contingency, and the rise of an ever more acute, felt contingency – then we are forced either to declare human history a huge failure, or to reconceptualize the role that contingency plays within it. One such reconceptualization may imply that some of the strategies we have devised to overcome contingencies might have actively created, or unwittingly led to, even more, though different, contingencies in other walks of life. What we, in the light of what I said above, may also take into account is that, besides the three master strategies mentioned – myth, religion, and reason – community itself constitutes another strategy to overcome contingency in its own right; whether it is more or less successful than the others is a question I will come back to.

Before I do, I would like to address the second paradox correlated to contingency: that of its definition, and of its status within the Western metaphysical tradition. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines necessary and contingent truth:

A necessary truth is one that could not have been otherwise. It would have been true under all circumstances. A contingent truth is one that is true, but could have been false. A necessary truth is one that must be true; a contingent truth is one that is true as it happens, or as things are, but that did not have to be true….

A permanent philosophical urge is to diagnose contingency as disguised necessity … although especially in the 2oth century there have been equally powerful movements, especially associated with Quine, denying that there are substantive necessary truths, instead regarding necessity as disguised contingency. (257)4

This wonderful definition captures, in a nutshell, the troublesome role that contingency has played, and continues to play, in our theoretical considerations. Though rather inconspicuous, a closer look at this definition makes one realize that it actually performs rather than describes contingency, as two mutually exclusive definitions of contingency (and definitions always imply a truth claim) are contingent up on each other, and in fact cancel each other out. It is as if contingency seems to contaminate the very truth that, in this definition, it is both juxtaposed with and, qua definition, claims to endorse.

This brings me to the third paradox, which is neither a historical nor an epistemological, but rather a semantic one. And here, too, we notice contingency’s almost uncanny ability to evade being nailed down to any truth(s). Its Latin root contingo comprises, according to the PONS Online Dictionary, the following meanings: to touch, to moisten, to grasp, to eat, to enjoy, to reach one’s goal, to bounce against something, to be concerned about something, to be poisoned or contaminated by something, to blemish or to stain something, something that “occurs” to me (also in the German sense of “widerfahren“), and something that just so happens. Moreover, contingo is etymologically contiguous with, and “contaminated” by, contagio, which, in turn, can mean to contaminate, to touch, to influence, to approach, to infect, or to serve as a bad example.5

Thus, all definitional “examples” of contingo or contagio not only mean, but are “bad examples,” as they touch, contaminate, infect, blemish, and bounce against each other in an abysmal and contradictory semantic vertigo. Again, contingency thus not only designates the concept “contingency” – it genuinely performs it. And vis-a-vis its great antagonist – necessary truth – it retains and performs its own truth/untruth, serving, as it does, as the crutch, a stand-in, for all the occasions where truth simply cannot (at least as yet) be ascertained.

Now, what has all of that to do with community? Well, first of all, community, as I have already pointed out, serves, and has always been considered to serve, as a counterforce against “contingencies” of all sorts: either, in its Aristotelian variety, to safeguard us against the barbarians before the gates or, in its Hobbesian variety, to tame the wolves that we are to each other with the help of an overwolf called Leviathan. If, however, one thing has become clear, it is that, in Aristotle’s polis, the exclusion of those diagnosed with apaideusia – that is, with not “doing things as they are usually done,” which Bauman calls “behavioural ambivalence” – by no means serves to make the community in the polis coherent and homogeneous, as still about So percent of its inhabitants are excluded from having a say in the city.6 And it is quite striking that even Jacques Rancière (so intent on providing those who have no part in society with a voice) prefers to exclude the phaulos – the warmongering stranger who, in Aristotle’s view, threatens the community of the polis – from his consideration.7

Nor can we, with Hobbes, be sure, as Esposito has so brilliantly shown, that all wolfishness disappears under the auspices of an omnipotent Leviathan to whom, if anything, the community subjects itself to then re-invoke the Aristotelian scenario of the spectral enemy outside (while, interestingly, the most spectral cause for contingency is now the overwolf Leviathan itself). Both attempts to exclude the other, the stranger, them, from “us” and our confines – our shared borders – not only fail to provide security from contingency, they also “close” or “wall us in” with strangers or wolves, and thus heighten rather than lower the potential contingencies within. That is why for Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, and, to an extent, even Locke, consensus is the sine qua non of any community.

In order to overcome this potential source of contingency that, especially in the era of the national state, has been at its roots right from the start, we have tended to tell ourselves narratives that allegedly prove a common ground, a shared history, or even a “destiny” – a term that Heidegger also falls back upon. Heidegger is of importance here because he is the most prominent philosophical voice to remind us that being is always also – and already – Being-with. Now, Heidegger’s Being – with-that is, being contiguous, and thus contingent upon – lays the ground for thinking of our being (and being in general) as by default contingent. Indeed, he forces us to think ontology as co-ontology, or even “con-tology,” if the neologism be permitted. In Being and Time, Heidegger states:

By reason of this with-like [mithaften] Being-in-the-world, the world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with- world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is Being-with Others. Their Being-in-themselves within-the-world is Dasein-with [Mit-dasein]. (115).

As Esposito has convincingly shown in Communitas, this means that the community of Being-with that Heidegger evokes has to be thought of in a radically negative, nonessential, and nonsubstantial vein:

… [T]he community needs to be understood literally as “coincidence” [that is, as contingency, T.C.), as a falling together … , with the warning that such a fall, the “being-thrown” … , is not to be taken as the precipitous fall from a condition of prior fullness but as the sole and original condition of our existence. (95)

– the condition that Jean-Luc Nancy defines as “exposure.”8 What is so pertinent to our case at hand is that the ethics of “letting be” that Heidegger proposes refers to the very potentiality of those we are with:

Dasein’s resoluteness towards itself is what first makes it possible to let the Others who are with it “be” in their ownmost potentiality-for-Being, and to co-disclose this potentiality in the solicitude which leaps forth and liberates. When Dasein is resolute, it can become the “conscience” of Others. (344)

This potentiality, I would argue, has to be read in the vicinity of contingency, as the not-yet of potentiality embraces the may-be but may-be-not of contingency, and in turn takes place in a context of a “co-incidence” of these potentialities. However, as I have shown elsewhere, Heidgger’s concept of “conscience” is deeply compromised, as it does not extend to the other, but only to the truthfulness toward one’s own authentic potentiality of being, that is, to the heritage of the community. That is why Heidegger himself seems unable to bear the sheer and pure contingency and potentiality of a community of being-with; and in this, he continues the romantic thread of Tönnies. Indeed, he feels forced, at the end of Being and Time, to resort to contingency as the “destiny” that we have encountered above (note that in the German original “fate” means Schicksal, while “destiny” translates as Geschick):

But if fateful Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, exists essentially in Being-with Others, its historizing is a co-historizing and is determinative for it as destiny [Geschick]. This is how we designate the historizing of the community, of a people. Destiny is not something that puts itself together out of individual fates…. (436)

a propos of which Esposito remarks: “We know the unforeseen and indeed utterly ruinous consequences that Heidegger will suffer some years later, when that destined community will take on the national traits of a ‘true German community’ ” (Communitas, 98).That we do; but what is at stake here is also the transformation of “fate” (as contingent potentiality) into “destiny” (as teleological narrative); and only this destiny, in Heidegger’s view, constitutes the “full authentic historizing of Dasein” (436). For a community to “occur” – that is, for it to have left its state of contingent possibility and achieved actuality – it has to narrate its own, contingent roots and original potentia as a teleological narrative designed to overcome contingency by means of (which means to reformulate it as) necessity, which turns the passive Schicksal (fate) into active Geschick (destiny). This term Geschick, too, comprises a rather ambiguous semantic field, as it combines the two etymologies of geschickt, one being the passive one that something has been sent to me, the other designating being skilled or artful.10

If anything, in a globalized world like ours, and after the abuses of the Nazi regime, such destiny has become thoroughly questionable; and indeed, more and more, our neighbors are not as “necessary” as they might have been in earlier, more tightly-knit communities. Our neighbors have become less “destined” than “fateful” or “accidental” – contingent, that is- constituting what Judith Butler, in a recent article, has called “populations living in conditions of unwilled adjacency” (“Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation,” 134). This globalized world, according to Esposito, is characterized by another paradox: On the one hand, while “(t)he more human beings, as well as ideas, languages, and technologies, communicate and are bound up with one another, the more necessary preventative immunization as a counterweight becomes” (Terms of the Political, 60); on the other hand, “globalization also expresses the definitive closure of the immunitary system onto itself” (Terms of the Political, 46). This paradox might explain why such closure is far from achieved. As regards the concept of contingency, this immunitary system has succeeded in reducing the rich semantic field surrounding contingency to its contaminating, poisoning, infectious connotations, ridding it of its more positive ones such as touch, newness, concern, or enjoyment.

A new concept of community would have to turn this semantic usurpation around; I am not sure, however, if all the exclusively negative emphasis on risk, precariousness, and an insecure world that are being evoked so incessantly are at all helpful in this regard. If we live, as we increasingly do, in “conditions of unwilled adjacency,” I would suggest that we start thinking about community as metonymic.



In such metonymic communities, we share nothing but the sheer space of the earth’s surface – something that Kant already knew we did – in which we are contiguous and contingent upon each other; we do not, as traditional, metaphoric conceptualizations suggest, share a third that implies either a transcendent abstraction, an essence, or a dynastic and patriarchic genealogy.11 Contrary to metaphor, in which the tenor and the vehicle retain their purity by means of this third which connects one to the other, in the case of metonymy, as a short glimpse into poetry and prose reveals, tenor and vehicle in fact contaminate each other, and neither retains its “purity.” That is why, whereas a radical metaphor might be hard to decipher, a radical metonymy is simply unthinkable. This might be one reason for the fact that a community, conceived along the lines of metonymy, is indeed “unavowable,” as Maurice Blanchot has called it. In metonymy, the outside is indeed also the inside, as both tenor and vehicle share, but also occupy and are the space that they share. This is what I take Esposito to mean when he talks about the “metonymical contagion that is spread [si comunica] to all the members oft he community and to the community as a whole” (Communitas, 122).

As I have argued elsewhere,12 no poet has given a more metonymic description of modern society than the godfather of modernist poetry, Walt Whitman, whose endless lists dramatize, if anything, the contiguity and contingency that characterize our modern experience, and whose “imperial self” – the one metaphorical remnant in his poetry – is stretched to the limit to contain the contagious co-presence of sheer difference.13 It can come as no surprise that Gilles Deleuze chose Whitman as the potential poet to evoke a non-totalizing whole that leaves the fragments that constitute it intact.14 I would argue, however, that this is only part of the truth, in that the one reason why these fragments do not seem to contaminate each other – as they are prone to do in a metonymy – is that the omnivorous poetic self of Whitman immunizes them against each other. However, Whitman indeed often comes close to what Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, have called “a fascination for the pack” (to which Esposito alludes at the end of Third Person) and “for multiplicity”: ”A fascination for the outside? Or is the multiplicity that fascinates us already related to a multiplicity dwelling within us?”15 To which Esposito adds: “But this also means plurivocity, metamorphosis, contamination – and preventive critique of any claim to hereditary, ethnic, or racial purity” (Third Person, 150).

The Whitman of the later Democratic Vistas, however, sees such a “contaminated” and impure community in a different light, as he complains about “cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics” (12). lt is indeed useful, as Esposito admonishes us in Communitas, “to consider that communis (always referring to its earliest meaning) meant, in addition to ‘vulgar’ and ‘of the people,’ also ‘impure’: ‘dirty services’ [sordida munera]” (16). The impurity and the sordidness reappear once the imperial poetic self of Whitman is replaced by Whitman the distant (and disillusioned) observer.

Arguably, another famous literary figure – which recently has received a surprising amount of attention – is Melville’s “Bartleby,” whose “meaningless antics” and “behavioural ambivalences” do, indeed, create a lot of “cognitive ambiguity” for those around him. It is as if Melville, accidentally, had torn out a name from Whitman’s poetic phone book lists and, under a looking glass, magnified this figure, making us aware that there is a lot of maddening “betwixt and between” in the modern day democratic community.

The copyist, as Giorgio Agamben claims, constitutes one of the rare literary examples of sheer contingency. Consequently, metonymic space indeed plays a formidable role in the short story. Contrary to Whitman, who omnisciently sees and hears everything, the attorney shares the same space with Bartleby, hears him, but cannot see him as he is hidden behind a screen. Bartleby is, if anything, an instance of an “unnecessary neighbor.” Moreover, Bartleby does not “contain” anything; nor, for that matter, can he be “contained.” The entire story revolves around the narrator’s attempts to distance himself from Bartleby, first by trying to get him out of the office, then by refraining from entering the office himself, then by moving to another office, and finally by encountering Bartleby in this most striking of spaces or non-spaces, the penitentiary. What makes him so enigmatic, how- ever, is that his notorious “I prefer not to” does not simply denote a personal resistance, as Slavoj Žižek claims,16 but that these words in themselves resist decipherment by our usual linguistic arsenal. And, as Deleuze remarks – who calls “Bartleby” a “violently comical text” (“Bartleby; or, the Formula,” 68) – the undecryptable copyist is far from being the only “mad” figure in the text, because his stubborn insistence that he’d prefer not to elicits even more striking symptoms of madness in the narrator. Writes Deleuze: “With each instance, one has the impression that the madness is growing: not Bartleby’s madness in ‘particular,’ but the madness around him, notably that of the attorney, who launches into strange propositions and even stranger behaviors” (70).

Another pivotal voice of modernism, Franz Kafka, will distill such Whitmanesque malformations and meaningless antics in the memorable figure of Odradek, in the short story “The Cares of a Family Man.”17 Odradek is an instance of total contingency, whose utter purposelessness, combined with the fact that he has “no abode” (does that ring a bell as regards Bartleby?), leads the family man to admit that “the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful” (429). Odradek defies all claims about hereditary, ethnic, or racial purity, as it defies any dynastic third, any transcendence; he – or it – thus comes rather close to what Agamben defined as the exemplars of the “coming community”:

… pure singularities [that] communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. They are expropriated of all identity, so as to appropriate belonging itself, the sign E. Tricksters or fakes, assistants or ‘toons, they are the exemplars of the coming community. (10.1)

The fact that Slavoj Žižek, for example, evokes Odradek to exemplify the monstrosity of the Lacanian Real or the “thing,” and that he obliquely ignores the telling last sentence about the father’s fear that Odradek might survive him,18 goes to prove that contingency, and the bad press it has gotten in Western philosophy, might also be connected to a patriarchie discourse keen on extinguishing it by all means, and on establishing clear-cut heredities – that is, on establishing a metaphoric “third.” Odradek’s alleged monstrosity does not lie in its/his/her “thingness,” but in the sheer fact that this thing is “alive,” and thus might not only outlast, but outlive the caring father of the house. It emphatically lacks any kind of Heideggerian “resoluteness toward death,” and defies all destiny or heritage. Moreover, it defies any metaphoric decipherment via a third, because it is this third. lt is, if any- thing, a metaphor for a metonymy that remains radically contingent, a metaphor for life that outlives life. We might indeed think, as Esposito claims Lyotard does, of something like a “pleasurable encounter with the Real,”19 were it not for the fact that Odradek shatters the dynastic phantasmagorias of the father in bringing, as Blanchot claimed, “the neutral into play.”20 Can such an encounter be envisaged as pleasurable? A question that we might begin to answer with another one: How might the children and the family man’s wife deal with Odradek? Surely not by wondering who will survive whom. I’m pretty sure his children would have a ball with him.

Would we, however, be able to tell a story about such a metonymic, contingent community peopled by Odradeks and Bartlebys – or maybe even, dare I say it, a myth? Well, I assume that if there is a narrative comprised of such creatures, it would be – myth! Which brings me back to the historical genealogy of the strategies devised to overcome contingency, of which myth, as our narrative has it, is allegedly the weakest. But again, emphasizing metonymy over metaphor might give us new leverage with regard to myth. Traditionally, myth has always been interpreted as a “mini-metaphor.” A closer look at Levi-Strauss’s definition of it, however, clearly shows that nothing could be further from the truth: His structural analysis of the Oedipus myth and others shows that myth by no means solves the irresolvable contradictions it addresses – as, for example, the one between the autochtonous and the non-autochtonous origin of Man – but that, by narrativizing them through successive layers of not-so-irresolvable binaries, and sometimes the introduction of a third term (as, e.g., the trickster) mediates between the two poles without entirely collapsing them.21 This is as much as to say that the contingency of the coexistence of two mutually exclusive terms is not abolished, but preserved. Note that the trickster, which Agamben also evokes, is a highly contingent figure – indeed, a figure of contingency. In fact, any dialectic is a highly metaphorical operation, in that it has to presume the very metaphorical third that thesis and antithesis share in order to guarantee any sublation into a synthesis.

The trickster is thus emphatically not a dialectical sublation: lt is able to bridge contingent truths without either dissolving the both/and into an either/or, and without establishing a metaphoric third. Indeed, if anything, the trickster is the “impure” metonymy at the heart of a metaphoric myth. And while myth, as Esposito claims with regard to Hobbes’ analyses, might often have a murder in the family at its core,22 this might pertain to the classical Greek myths – which already forma second stage of the development of myth – but hardly ever in early myth, where, even if siblings fight and kill each other, their contingent relationship with each other is upheld.

Moreover, it is quite striking that, in the face of an ever more contingent, globalizing world, rhetorical trickster figures seem to abound, in which mutually exclusive concepts are contiguous and, indeed, contingent upon each other: Vernacular (Bhabha) or rooted (Appiah) cosmopolitanisms, strategic essentialism (Spivak), particular universalisms, and other strange creatures and straight curves are peopling our globalized, discursive worlds, trying to describe the experience of our globalized communities, and in the process kissing any claim to syllogistic purity good-bye-which surprisingly no one seems tobe too bothered with. The only difference from Levi-Straussian myth is that, in some instances, the artful narrative mediation between the opposite poles that characterizes myth is not provided – or even attempted –anymore.

What I am arguing is that we might in fact have discursive models at our disposal, if we manage to unearth Levi-Strauss’s theory of myth from the layers of its Barthesian appropriation and abuse. Roland Barthes has definitely clone us an utter disservice by completely mixing up the concepts of myth and ideology,23 a conflation whose repercussions can still today be felt, for example, in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, who considers myth a purely Western creation that “for others, for ‘primitives,’ for example … is quite aristocratic and ephemeral” (The Inoperative Community, 46). If anything, myth, as defined by Levi-Strauss, admits and attests to the world’s contingency; that, in my view, was indeed the main reason why Enlightened reason took such pains to disenchant – and discredit – it.



How difficult it is to achieve synthesis in the face of the contingency of modern life might be illustrated by another literary example which – although coming from a different theoretical angle – supports my point, as it is another instance of literary metonymy. One passage that Jacques Rancière frequently comes back to in order to exemplify what he calls the “aesthetic regime” is a scene at the beginning of Honore de Balzac’s novel The Magie Skin (also translated as The Wild Ass’s Skin), which was first published in 1831. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

At a first glance the place presented a confused picture in which every achievement, human and divine, was mingled. Crocodiles, monkeys, and serpents stuffed with straw grinned at glass from church windows, seemed to wish to bite sculptured heads, to chase lacquered work, or to scramble up chandeliers. A Sevres vase, bearing Napoleon’s portrait by Mme. Jacotot, stood beside a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The beginnings of the world and the events of yesterday were mingled with grotesque cheerfulness. A kitchen jack leaned against a pyx, a republican sabre on a mediaeval hackbut. Mme. du Barry, with a star above her head, naked, and surrounded by a cloud, seemed to look longingly out of Latour’s pastel at an Indian chibook, while she tried to guess the purpose of the spiral curves that wound toward her. Instruments of death, poniards, curious pistols, and disguised weapons had been flung down pell- mell among the paraphernalia of daily life; porcelain tureens, Dresden plates, translucent cups from china, old salt-cellars, comfit-boxes belong- ing to feudal times. A carved ivory ship sped full sail on the back of a motionless tortoise.

The Emperor Augustus remained unmoved and imperial with an air-pump thrust into one eye. Portraits of French sheriffs and Dutch burgomasters, phlegmatic now as when in life, looked down pallid and unconcerned on the chaos of past ages below them.

Every land of earth seemed to have contributed some stray fragment of its learning, some example of its art. Nothing seemed lacking to this philosophical kitchen – midden, from a redskin’s calumet, a green and golden slipper from the seraglio, a Moorish yataghan, a Tartar idol, to the soldier’s tobacco pouch, to the priest’s ciborium, and the plumes that once adorned a throne. This extraordinary combination was rendered yet more bizarre by the accidents of lighting, by a multitude of confused reflections of various hues, by the sharp contrast of blacks and whites. Broken cries seemed to reach the ear, unfinished dramas seized upon the imagination, smothered lights caught the eye. A thin coating of inevitable dust covered all the multitudinous corners and convolutions of these objects of various shapes which gave highly picturesque effects.24

Note how close Balzac here comes to the panoramic view and list-like style of Whitman. For Rancière, hardly any other literary scene is as emblematic of the dehierachization that characterizes the aesthetic regime as this one. While the representative regime – which preceded the aesthetic one-based its genres, plots, and characters on the social hierarchies encountered in real life,25 the aesthetic regime undoes this interconnection. Sujets – that is, both persons and things – that were formerly deemed unworthy of literary representation now could become objects of literature. In The Politics of Aesthetics Rancière comments upon this pivotal scene as follows:

When Balzac … has his reader enter an antique dealer’s shop, with the hero of The Magie Skin, where jumbled up together are objects both profane and sacred, uncivilized and cultured, antique and modern, that each sum up a world, when he makes Cuvier the true poet reconstructing a world from a fossil, he establishes a regime of equivalence between the signs of the new novel and those of the description or interpretation of the phenomena of a civilization. He forges this new rationality of the obvious and the obscure that goes against the grand Aristotelian arrangements and that would become the new rationality for the history of material life (which stands in opposition to the histories of great names and events). (37)

“In the topography of a plaza, the physiognomy of a facade, the pattern or wear of a piece of clothing, the chaos of a pile of merchandise or trash,” according to Rancière, Balzac “recognizes the elements of a mythology. He makes the true history of a society, an age, or a people visible in the figures of this mythology, foreshadowing individual or collective destiny.”26 Here however, I would venture to disagree: If anything, the objects collected in the shop window have, because of their contingent contiguity, lost all mythology that might formerly have pertained to them. The utter “democratization” of things high and low, sacred and profane, valuable and worthless, is emblematic of what Rancière considers tobe at the heart of the political: contingency. In Disagreement, he defines this equality as “the equality of anyone at all with anyone else: in other words, in the final analysis, the absence of arkhê, the sheer contingency of any social order” (15). And a little later, he adds: “The problem is not the always more but the anyone at all, the sudden revelation of the ultimate anarchy on which any hierarchy rests…. The foundation of politics … is the lack of foundation, the sheer contingency” (16).

Contrary to the argument as developed, Rancière locates contingency at the root of any political order, any hierarchical social given, and not only in modernity. However, what the aesthetic regime, freed from Aristotelian mimesis – which, for Rancière, is indissolubly chained to those social hierarchies – enables us to see is exactly that: the anarchy/contingency/lack of foundation looming below the orderly surface. Thus, for Rancière, community is not a means to overcome contingency; it is, in fact, coextensive with manifestations of the latter:

Equality and inequality are incommensurate with each other, and yet, when the egalitarian event and the invention of community connect, they do indeed become commensurable. The experience of this common measure is an extreme experience. Equality is an exception. Its necessity is governed by the contingency and the resolve which inscribe its presupposition in transgressive strokes lending themselves to the invention of community, to the invention of demonstrations of effective community. lt is not hard, then, to understand the attraction, the continually renewed dream, of community as a body united by some principle of life (love, fraternity or work) having currency among the members of that body or serving as a yardstick in the distribution of functions within it. (On the Shares of Politics, 88)

However, this “continually renewed dream” cannot but be the attempt to narratively overcome the sheer contingency of equality as such. If the opening scene of The Magie Skin has any diagnostic virtue to it, it shows us that there is no possible synthesis anymore between the mythologies and the stories of either things or people. Needless to say, Balzac, we the readers, Cuvier, or anybody facing contingency will, almost instinctively, try to invent a story that in one way or another will help us overcome contingency. This is clone by transforming metonymy into metaphor, fragments into a narrative, accident into “destiny.” In so doing, however we will also always lose something. Desperately trying to immunize us ourselves against contingency and the other by conceiving of it exclusively in terms of precariousness, langer, contamination, or incalculability might not only suffocate us within the same; it will also inevitably lead to mechanisms of exclusion that result from establishing the metaphoric third by which we nowadays define community.

A look at how an evolving community proceeds “tropologically” might also help us to realize what I consider a significant mistake as regards theories of figuration: In them, metonymy is very often reduced to synecdoche. I would argue, however, that synecdoche is much closer to metaphor than to metonymy. The evolution of the nation – state might serve to illustrate this: While, in a first phase, the citizens of a nation are usually contingent upon each other – there are significant differences between certain groups and communities – national myths are designed to forge a (usually highly fictive) “common history,” which then turns a metonymic community into a metaphoric one sharing a third. Only once such a third is assumed, however, can we then enter the third phase of community building: the synecdochic one, in which every citizen of the nation can stand as a pars pro toto for the nation as such, as happens either in wars or, as can be seen nowadays, in huge sports competitions like the soccer World Cup or the Olympic Games. That is, a metaphoric community is the precondition for its members to arrive at a synecdochic relationship with it.

Those who are not a part – neither of the metaphoric third nor of the synecdochic whole – are those we tend to immunize ourselves against. As fugitives, immigrants, diasporic existences, they sometimes do not have “the right to have rights,” as Hannah Arendt so succinctly put it. Do “having a right” and “having a cause” in some way or another interconnect?

At the end of Communitas, Esposito quotes Nancy, who poses the question of how to understand the “nothing itself. Either it is the void of truth or it is nothing other than the world itself, and the sense of being-toward-the-world” (149) – a state of affairs that nicely captures the contingent concepts with which we today describe our globalized world. What I have tried to show is that contingency might account for both: the void of truth and, as a consequence, our sense of being-in-the-world. If we manage to re- appropriate those semantic fields that immunitas has monopolized, the contagious individualism of modernity might be reined in. Indeed, it might actually be an accident that Comte, whom Esposito quotes, co-angulates “Right”– a problematic term within the biopolitical discourse Esposito has so impressively unraveled-with the term “Cause”:

The word Right should be excluded from political language, as the word Cause from the language of philosophy. Both are theological and metaphysical conceptions; and the former is as immoral and subversive as the latter is unmeaning and sophistical.27

Maybe the inherent connection between “right” and “cause” is something still to be unearthed, especially since no right could possibly be claimed from a contingent root. But that would be material for another, probably rather lengthy essay.


First published in: Claviez, Thomas: The Common Growl. Toward a Poetics of Precarious Community, Fordham University Press, New York 2016, S. 39-56.



1. See Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community and Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life.
2. Jock Young, The Exclusive Society, 164.
3. Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, “La precarite est aujourd’hui partout.”
4. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Simon Blackburn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
5. Cf. http://de.pons.com/%C3%BCbersetzung?q=contingo&l=dela&in=ac_la &lf=la. Last accessed December 15, 2014.
6. Cf. Thomas Claviez, Aesthetics and Ethics, 53-111.
7. Cf. Jacques Rancière, On the Shares of Politics, 27.
8. Cf. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, 30.
9. That these were not as unforeseeable as Esposito claims them to be – that is, that the figure of the Jew is already outlined in Being and Time – is what I argue in my forthcoming essay “The Myth of the Early Heidegger.”
10. This is also something that Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe points out in his essay “Transcendence Ends in Politics,” 427.
11. Nor do we share, qua nation, a history. I cannot possibly share or have shared history with people that lived 100 or 500 years before me.
12. Cf. Thomas Claviez, “Traces of a Metonymie Society in American Literary History.”
13. This, however, is not to say that there aren’t renowned historical literary figures who also wrote in a metonymic style: The “ur-novel,” Cervantes’ Don Quixote, abounds in metonymies and contingencies; so does Rabelais’ series of five novels spun around the story of Pantagruel and Gargantua that appeared already between 1532 and 1564. What I am arguing is that we see a clear increase of this style connected with modernity in general and modernism in particular.
14. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 58.
15. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 240.
16. Cf. Slavoj Žižek, Violence, 183.
17. Frank Kafka, “The Cares of a Family Man,” 29.
18. Cf. Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence,” 163-67.
19. Esposito, Communitas, 85.
20. Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, 384.
21. Cf. Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” 212.
22. Esposito, Terms of the Political, 31.
23. Cf. Thomas Claviez, Grenzfälle, 135 ff.
24. Honore de Balzac, The Wild Ass’s Skin, 41.
25. This is a phenomenon already pointed out by Erich Auerbach in the second chapter of Mimesis, titled “Fortunata.”
26. Jacques Rancière, The Aesthetic Unconscious, 35.
27. Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, 289-90.



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