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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
The Gate Creates the Community
by David Brett
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Carer: A person who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis who is not employed to do so by an agency or organisation. A carer is usually a friend or relative looking after someone who is frail or ill at home.
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I had been writing about 'gated communities' and the way they have been appearing all over Belfast; and about Belfast itself as a gated community, containing within itself, like so many Venn diagrams, communities enclosed within enclosures, enclosing others still. I went to see photographs of The Maze by Donovan Wylie, at the Belfast Exposed gallery in Donegall Street. This was the gated community perfected.
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In the midst of this I was applying for something official and found that I was being asked to record my 'perceived religious affiliation'. We all know why this is, but how often do we ask how it is possible to answer. Not knowing how I am perceived I entered a question mark. There was also a question about 'ethnicity'. Some forms give you a list of logically incoherent alternatives, ending in 'other'; but this was just a plain box to fill in. My passport says 'British' so that is what I wrote. But suppose I were to take out an Irish passport ? A leaflet was posted in my door. Would I participate in a 'community initiative'? This seemed a simple matter of geography, so I said yes and did. The geographic community turned out to contain three 'ethnicities' so far as I could judge and I thought I perceived a similar number of 'affiliations', but not along the same boundaries. At the same time I was being asked to address myself, as a member of the 'arts community of Belfast' to questions about 'community arts' whilst simultaneously studying, for completely different purposes, the concept of a 'speech community'.
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Donovan Wylie's photographs show a system embodied in ordered partitions, an architecture of internment and surveillance almost archaic in its abstract and geometric character. When The Vacuum asked me to write about gated communities I felt completely unable unless I first sorted out my own Maze. Since so much contemporary cultural and political rhetoric turns on the ideas of 'community' and 'identity', one owes a duty to the Spirit of the Lens.
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The first image that comes to mind is that of a handful of coins dropped on a tray; some overlap others, but all are in the same wider space.
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The salient fact of contemporary life is that we all inhabit several spaces of several kinds simultaneously and the vast preponderance of these are common to many. Thus I belong tot he community of internet users by virtue of owning a computer and modem (my gate); but within that network lie numerous sub-nets most of which I ignore or of which I am ignorant. Some of these are bizarre. But I am a member of other communities whether I will or no the neighbourhood, the city, the country. At this point I go back to childhood and start writing my name and address ending the world, the solar system, the universe, EVERYWHERE!
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We can all be categorised into a speech community by way of language, professional idiolect, local or acquired dialect, accent or habitual usage. I hear my voice as what I think of as 'Educated Northern English', with a definite Bradford edge to it (the flat 'a's, the confusion between 'd' and 't'). but after twenty-five years of clattery Belfast a host of local usages and phrases and rhythms have crept in, so they have. I also had to learn, in public speech, to drop down half an octave and use a chest rather than a head voice, especially south of the border. Then there is the language that you know without knowing. In a violent altercation in Barcelona with a Moroccan bag-snatcher last month I came out with a torrent of extremely filthy Italian which I did not know I knew.
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Everyone's voice is a palimpsest of their life there is a department of Leeds University where they can deduce your biography on the strength of a few spoken sentences. down to street level. That is awesome to think on.
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The notion of 'community arts', as it is loosely used, raises just these logical problems. All 'arts' have 'communities', but are they geographical, historical, class, large, small, restricted, wide or whatever. In the actual practice of an art say musical composition the question 'who for?' may well come second to 'What needs to be done next?'. The practice of an art is always partly concerned with constructing a community of listeners where there was none before. This is close to Russell's Paradox the class of all those things that belong to no class.
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You can go on for ever imagining all the different kinds of 'communities' and their gateways; but I think that the conclusion has to be, that any attempt to define 'community' (and therefore 'identity' in the sense of 'belonging to a community') will be logically incoherent. You can't infer membership of A from a membership of B any more than you can compare fish with fruit unless A and B are both the same kind of thing. The idea of community has no meaning whatsoever unless we all agree what kind of community we are talking about.
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This is not just scholasticism. Consider the use of the term 'minority community' and 'community leader'. The one is a political concept that invariably implies a special agenda; the second is almost invariably a retrogressive, even colonial notion ('Take me to your leader'). Consider the Issue of state identity cards to what is an identity card a gateway? I don't see how that can possibly be clear unless stated in some kind of written constitution. How long will that run in Belfast?
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The more you look at it, the more the idea of community embodies a principle of exclusion. There is a dismal kind of competition amongst some nationalistic Irish to determine who is the most Irish of all. (Some go so far west they might as well be seals). Loyalism depends for its very existence on a similar structure. Why is anyone surprised that, in the absence of anyone else to bully, the unfortunate Chinese 'community' has come under a deal of harassment in recent months? By the way, has anyone thought to ask the Chinese community whether or not it thinks of itself as one, two, three or more 'communities'. We have to do with a frame of mind that always ends up in 'racial purity' or 'ethnic cleansing'. The language of invective that helps to define the 'two communities' of Belfast is of a kind that anyone from outside recognises at once as racialist. At the same time, the outsider sees the inhabitants as depressingly undifferentiated until they learn the gateways and the passwords.
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At a more private level, the recognition that you are part of a 'community' is a statement of commitment, not fact or condition. This is an inclusive or purposive concept of community which in principle excludes no one, but which cannot be assigned to you. The difference between the assigned and the chosen or intentional community touches on the heart of freedom and political liberty. The one is 'for-others', the second is 'for-self' and can therefore be criticised, cancelled or extended.
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For the free citizen can always choose to be a member of the community of those who have no community; and the free spirit can always, with Groucho
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(all together now!)
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'I wouldn't belong to a club that would have me as a member.'
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