On The Promiscuous Use of “Community”

by Jason Peters on May 20, 2009 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place

Little Boy and Girl Kissing

Little Boy and Girl Kissing

ROCK ISLAND, IL

If there’s one thing I hate it’s Miller Lite—and also a loose turtle-neck on a shapely girl. But that’s two things, and neither has anything to do with the promiscuous use of “community,” which is a third contemptible thing.

I acknowledge that too much less-filling beer can sometimes involve a too-little-guarded shapely girl in communal promiscuity, but still I digress.

What I meant to say is that we’ve got to get hold of our language. “Like,” for example, is neither a subordinating conjunction nor a dab of verbal spackling invented to fill conversational interstices created by girlish mouths outrunning their sorority brains.

And “community” should never be used unless it refer to an identifiable place inhabited by people who live there and know one another.

Here are a few examples of the promiscuous use of “community”:

“Community of scholars.”

“Global community.”

“Gay and lesbian community.”

“Community of ham radio operators.”

“The ‘East Jesus State University’ community.”

What’s wrong with these uses—which is to say abuses—of “community”? A “community of scholars” is an abstraction marked by nothing more than a narrow set of interests and attendant egos. It survives only because it is placeless. A “community” of scholars in one place would soon crumble, because scholars are odious egomaniacs who can’t get along with one another. They would never survive the demands of place.

As for a “global community,” well, try walking through one. In several lifetimes.

Gays and lesbians exist, it is true, and sometimes they live “in community,” but to claim that they “belong” to a larger “family” or “community” is to take what is knowable and expand it beyond the limits of knowing. Or, to put it another way, such a “community” would crumble for the same reasons a “community” of scholars would crumble.

Ham radio operators … ah, let’s move on …

… to East Jesus State. No college or university is a community. The damnedest thing about colleges and universities is that the “permanent” members do not reside on the premises but the transients do. This is bass ackwards to say the least.

These uses of “community” make sense only by a dubious metaphorical extension that so attenuates the meaning of “community” as to render it threadbare. The word’s so thin it has only one side, and none of us lives in one-dimension, except maybe frat boys.

And as a former president of I Phelta Thi (having been kicked out of Tappa Kegga Beer) I’m here to tell you that The Front Porch Republic is not a community—and for the same reasons that no “gathering” of individuals at any “place” on the internet is a community. Community requires bodies in an actual place—a place where whole human beings can live and move and have their being. That is, a community requires a place where we can walk, eat, kiss, defecate, give one another the finger, and go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

That list has nothing arbitrary about it. It spans the gamut: we move, we consume, we copulate, we produce waste, we fail more often than not to get along, and we die. And each item on the list is necessary to the health of real communities.

Item the First: Walk. To know a place we must experience it on human, not mechanical, terms, and this means not only that the places we inhabit must be built to human scale but that we must be willing to experience them as humans, not as machines. No one knows the earth, says Elie Wiesel in The Town Beyond the Wall, who has not walked it.

My own street, for example, which is a slow serpentine dead end, is inhabited by people who have never seen it except through the windows of their cars. I sometimes see these people in other places, and I usually wave to them or say hello. They look at me as if a sapling aglow with acid rain has sprouted from my left nostril. They’ve never seen me before.

Item the Second: Eat. Our communities must also feed us, and we must be willing to eat with one another in them. It may be regrettable that there is too much petroleum implicated in what gets crammed into the American maw at Kay’s Kuntry Kitchen (a state of affairs soon to end), but at least there is a real gathering there: old men by turns complain to and rib each other, and Dottie the waitress, both fed-up with and flattered by the old guys, readily calls you “Sweetie” and brings you your coffee, your eggs over easy, and your American fries. That is to say, the local diner is a sign that community is actually possible.

The morning drive-thru? Not bloody likely. (First of all, “thru” is spelled “through.”) Almost every morning on my walk into campus I see people idling in their horseless carriages, eating dripping globs of Occlusion McAngioplast from standard-issue paper wrappers. This is what we call the American Dining Experience: fat people in their minivans eating corn-fed beef and communing with AM talk radio (which has turned the GOP base into a confederacy of half-wits). Onan would approve, but this, O best beloved, is bad for community.

Item the Third: Kiss. Now if people walk a place and eat with one another, chances are good some of them will eventually kiss a little too, and kissing, we know, leads to other things, like getting caught. But it can also lead to marriage and procreation. It can foster love, keep proximity present to our eyes and hearts and minds, and in walkable places where people eat together it can even result in that rarest of things: young people marrying into families their parents have known and learned either to trust or distrust.

Can you imagine? Your daughter wants to marry a young man, and you don’t have to wonder about him beyond the usual array of fears. You know from whence he issues. The bands of accountability spread out within your field of vision. You aren’t constantly wondering why his mother, whom you will never know, is more like the woman at the well than like the mom next door.

That parents must see their children marry strangers who come from strange places is surely one of the grimmest consequences of our much-vaunted hypermobility. We know what can happen when a son or daughter marries a young woman or man whose people we don’t know and can never know. Kissing can sometimes lead to heartache.

Item the Fourth: Defecate. But let us not dwell on such unhappy matters as marriage. Let us set our sights on things below—defecation, say. Let us note the importance to community of taking care of its own—as opposed to someone else’s—wastes. Rural communities especially have been given the privilege of taking care of their own plus city people’s garbage (city people, being important and powerful, never have to take care of their own garbage), but the point here is that a community should turn its wastes to good account. As its young people willingly see to fertility of one kind, the community itself must preserve fertility of another. This will make future eating together possible and so demonstrate at least one important function of any community: that it perpetuate itself in health and agricultural potential. Let there be gardens. Let there be CSAs. Let there be garden co-ops. And let there be compost. Let waste be turned to life.

Item the Fifth: Give the Finger. And let life be understood in all its beauty and ugliness. The walking, eating, kissing (etc.), and fertilizing will necessarily involve some wrath and acrimony—that is, some flipping of the bird. Acrimony tends to follow people wherever they go. But a community marked by real people in real places is poised to deal with real middle fingers. Unlike a supposed community—like, say, the FPR—an actual community is comprised of people who flip one another off in physical proximity. They do so with real fingers extended in front of faces that attach to real names. They cannot hide behind the anonymity afforded them by the computer screen. Even the young boys throwing snowballs at cars after midnight will be found out sooner or later. As a thrower of late-night snowballs I know this to be true. The longed-for anonymity is always pretty short-lived. What we throwers learn is that it’s hard to dole out abuse anonymously in a place that takes seriously the business of caring for itself.

In such a place I don’t mind getting flipped off. But let’s be clear: someone who flips you off from a moving car is a placeless coward. Let disputes take place face to face. There will be fewer of them if they are not conducted in abstraction.

Item the Sixth: Go a Progress Through the Guts of a Beggar. And when the acrimony has died down, as in a real community it eventually will, let communities bury their dead. If they presume to go marching into the future with no physical markers of their past, no indicators of a placed people having inhabited their place, then such communities are poised for decimation. Here’s a good community indicator: the names of people you know are etched in slabs of stone that yield themselves to the elements in a cedar-bemused cemetery nearby. You want to keep up with the Joneses? Keep the names of your people next to theirs where “the inexhaustible bodies that are not / Dead … feed the grass row after row.”

What I have said here is reducible to what ought by now to be a general law: that whereas abstraction conduces to abuse, its opposite makes love and care and health possible. This does not mean that in communities—real ones marked by real people in identifiable places—there will be no abuse. This means that in circumstances marked by concrete relations—to the land and to others—conditions favor real human thriving. Circumstances marked by lonely grubbers at their keyboards are inimical to it.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 20, 2009 at 6:57 am

A delightful and hilarious post, Jason, with much truth in it. If walking, eating, kissing, pissing (literally and figuratively), arguing and burying were all really done, or really could be done, within the spatial bounds of particular, self-sufficient places, our lives would be in many ways better, and our language would be more honest. Well done…

…except that I can’t resist making a pedantic, or perhaps philosophical point. Isn’t it the case that all this post does is insist upon one particular meaning for “community,” rather than abjure every and any other use of the word? If you think it does more than that, then are you also abjuring the communal or collective possibilities that exist in other-than-spatially-defined contexts entirely? So does that mean that historically was actually was no such thing as “the republic of letters”? Does that mean that you reject the scholarship of Benedict Anderson (he of “imagined communities” fame) and other students of nationalism completely? And so does that mean we who write at FPR really don’t have any tie with each other aside from being dislocated individuals who happen to self-interestedly contribute our words to the same site? I know the curmudgeon is a fun role to play, but sure you’re not going to carry your nominalism that far, are you?

avatar Katherine Dalton May 20, 2009 at 7:41 am

I’ll bite, Reuben: the answer is Nope. You can stretch a word, and it’s often fun to do, but too much stretching will break it. Goodness knows there has never been much of a republic of letters; you could call it a scrum of letters, perhaps, or a rollerball derby of letters, but in all my watcing from the edges of literary America, I have never seen the tip of a tailcoat of a republic. What would that mean, really? Each writer representative of some constituency for whom he spoke, and which somehow in coordination with other writers and their consituencies became what, or did what? There can be friendship between writers–we are capable of that much limited good will–and we have that here in some cases, among those of us who know each other. We also have regard and interest, some crossfertilization and confirmation, and some of us seem to hope for a confederacy. But I too think a “community” is something else, something rooted in a place, or the word is hollowed out and doesn’t mean what it can and should mean. We have other words for these other relationships.

avatar Wellsy May 20, 2009 at 7:45 am

Language changes. It is not static, nor should it be.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 20, 2009 at 8:49 am

There is “changing language” and then there is disregard of established definition and Peter’s jocularly ranting representation of the real meaning of “community”, last time I checked…. is in the dictionary…Oxford American to be precise. But, avast, you forgot one of my absolute favorite nougats of the many feral uses of this word: “Banking Community”. Well, admittedly, they may have title to several places, but they sure don’t consider them “homes”. Not that Banking is anything but an august and important business and an important part of any community but a community in and of themselves, they aint….particularly with the so-called authentic “hometown bank” getting fewer and farther between even though most of them survived the recent homage-to-complex-mathematics-applied-to-debt-as-a- commodity quite well.

As to the Middle Digit Accost: I am very glad you included it as an essential building block. It is a fine and imperative institution , absolutely vital to any community because a group comprised of only people who get along swimmingly is either a cult or delusional or disingenuous or so brain dead as to question sentience. Obstreperous Intercourse may be a sport but its vital nonetheless.

As to “new words”, I would most humbly like to herewith submit “Occlusion McAngioplast” to the Community of Nutritional Scientists Dictionary of Contemporary Usage.

avatar Kate Dalton May 20, 2009 at 9:27 am

I think very soon we are going to have enough entries for a McDonald’s Devil’s Dictionary. Is there an agent in the house?

avatar Nathan May 20, 2009 at 10:59 am

Agree with most here. The amorphous nature of language in no way obviates normative arguments for word definition. To cherry pick an FPR-appropriate analogy, Wellsy’s point (or what I perceive his limited statement to mean) is akin to arguing that recent discoveries in quantum physics negate meaningful use of the word “place”. My goodness, the scandal. A cursory read of Berry’s “Way of Ignorance” is recommended here.

Having studied Romance, Germanic, Semitic and Slavic languages, I’ve gained, if not proficiency, a tremendous appreciation for the incomparable expanse of modern English. Katherine has aptly noted our penchant for word playfulness. English is incomparably robust among the major tongues, with its aptitude for absorbing and coining new phrases without giving an inch on structural matters. The nuance and subtlety of such an able-bodied language is reflected in the range of words that describe similar but distinct concepts.

This leads me back to the examples Jason put forward of the varying uses of the word “community”, and begs the question of “why”?. Why do people/organizations blur the lines like this? Laziness, deception and stupidity seem to encompass the possible range of answers. And yes, motive is relevant, me’thinks.

Jason, your quote: “someone who flips you off from a moving car is a placeless coward” is going on my all time best list which may ultimately be etched into an extra headstone for my grave. This is one of my biggest peeves, and I have a tendency to chase these sorts of badgers down to put them in their “place”. That is, I concede, indubitably unwise – particularly here in Texas with such liberal concealed carry regs. And further, as I write this, I am compelled to retreat to a quiet place of introspection to consider what it is I am doing with sufficient consistency to warrant getting flipped off so frequently in the first place…

avatar polistra May 20, 2009 at 1:08 pm

In most media circles, the word “community” by itself has precisely one meaning: the Authentic Black Community, as organized by Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton to protest city police doing their job properly.

avatar Empedocles May 20, 2009 at 5:38 pm

This essay is a fun look at community as “a place where…” But surely there is a sense in which a community is a group of people with certain things in common. It seems to me that in this sense a community must at least have a shared language, and some moral beliefs in common. But being a community can be a matter of degree. Communities become more “tight knit”, that is, have greater social capital, the more they have in common, especially to the extent that they share a history and all that entails.

avatar Wellsy May 20, 2009 at 7:09 pm

How do you think language changes without first disregarding the original definition of certain words, or doing more heretical things with even the grammatical structure?

Regardless, the American Heritage Dictionary makes allowances for all the meanings you discussed above.

com·mu·ni·ty
A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government.
The district or locality in which such a group lives.
A group of people having common interests: the scientific community; the international business community.
A group viewed as forming a distinct segment of society: the gay community; the community of color.
Similarity or identity: a community of interests.

I agree with Nathan, however, that the lines of language are blurred for certain reasons, among them laziness and deception. That’s nothing new.

avatar Nathan May 21, 2009 at 1:01 am

Empedocles – your comments point to an interesting phenomenon. The “marketplace” for community. One can choose that format which best fits one’s goals. But where have we arrived then, except at that which is its not real community, if by traditional definitions your community is the place you find yourself more by forces outside your control, in as much as you can’t really truly “choose your friends”, or to the extent you have, perhaps you haven’t, really…but I digress again… One could argue that community is the people and place closest at hand. Who is my neighbor? There you have it.

It seems that in seeking some “intentional” community of the current professional/fundagelical/lifestyle variety, we have people actually running from the community of their place.

Perhaps I’m only stating the obvious to this choir. But it feels to good to say it.

avatar A-gu May 22, 2009 at 2:09 am
avatar Steve Berg May 23, 2009 at 7:25 pm

As a ham radio operator for nearly 50 years now, and who has frequently operated his radio whilst standing on his front porch, hoping to spot tornadoes before they hit his community, I am curious as to why there is not a ham radio “community”? Some of my longest lasting friendships grew out of ham radio activities at my local high school, except for Chuck W5TTP, who went to a different high school with us. So, while we are now geographically separated, we are still in frequent contact, do favors for one another, console each other on the deaths of parents and illnesses of spouses. So, there is a social support function to ham radio that would certainly operate as one would in a geographical community. I mean, we even gossip, which is about as communal as it gets. We prefer to live in rural and exurban areas. We have raised chickens and cattle on our modest homesteads, along side our antennas and towers. I suppose that if Wendell Berry got his ham radio license, he would be booted off of the Front Porch Republic’s front porch? ._ _ …. ._ _ _ _ . . . . . . _ . . . . . . _ _ . .

avatar Hans Noeldner June 5, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Well said, Jason!

Here is something I penned recently on the topic of “community”:

Community grows where we plant our feet

Sprawl grows where we drive our cars

avatar John Gorentz February 27, 2011 at 1:24 am

What about the term “Communion of Saints” from the Apostles Creed? Communion comes from the same root as community. The Communion of Saints does eat and drink together, but not in the same place. They probably do give each other the finger, but they don’t all walk on the same ground.

Back when I taught a pre-confirmation class for 5th and 6th graders I tried to get young people to think about the meaning of the word by thinking of the relationship between Community, Communion, and other words from the same root.

avatar Doug Sangster June 16, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I will go one step further than Mr. Peters and suggest that incipient Gnosticism is the driving force behind the sloppy use of “community.” Those who superimpose on the word amorphous nuances would do well to pay attention to the earthy explanation above.

avatar Emil Kramer November 30, 2011 at 11:06 pm

I’ve walked, kissed, defecated and, at least in a very general sense, given the finger apud te. You’ve never set foot in my place, let alone kissed or defecated therein (should you come, at long last, I’d prefer you did the latter in one of our bathrooms — both recently remodled, so ideal for that function). Granted I’ve never invited you specifically, but I’m a democrat at heart when it comes to those things. Just sayin’.

Community is so much about place. You can’t walk home (easily) from my place, nor I from yours. Sadness. It seems like a great river seperates us.

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