The Latin mass had an odd glamour—all that mystery and tradition. Religion has not been a major element in my work, and for some years now I think the true American religion has been “the American People.” The term quickly developed an aura of sanctity and inviolability. First used mainly by politicians at nominating conventions and in inaugural speeches, the phrase became a mainstay of news broadcasts and other more or less nonpartisan occasions. All the reverence once invested in the name of God was transferred to an entity safely defined as you and me. But do we still exist? Does the phrase still soar over the airwaves? Or are the American People dead and buried? It seems the case, more than ever, that there are only factions, movements, sects, splinter groups, and deeply aggrieved individual voices. The media absorbs it all.
☛ PEN America: “An Interview with Don DeLillo”, September 15, 2010 (more details below).
From the traditional Latin mass to modern mass media, from communion to communication1: in this excerpt Don DeLillo is registering the profound transformations of the condition of human coexistence. What he’s observing ―the vanishing of “the American people” in favor of a number of exclusive factions and movements― resonates to some extent with some of the writings by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, and especially with his work on the problematic topic that is the community. Jean-Luc Nancy saw in the rise of individualism a testimony to the fact that community has not actualized itself as a way of being together:
An inconsequential atomism, individualism tends to forget that the atom is a world. This is why the question of community is so markedly absent from the metaphysics of the subject (…) (The Inoperative Community (OC), tr. Peter Connor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,  1991, p.4; in French La Communauté désoeuvrée (CD), Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986, p. 16)
Yet, Jean-Luc Nancy’s position is not one of nostalgia and that may be one of the most striking aspect of his work. When talking about the community, it is often tempting to think about it as something better than its usual counterpart, society:
The lost, or broken, community can be exemplified in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of paradigms; the natural family, the Athenian city, the Roman Republic, the first Christian community, corporations, communes, or brotherhoods ― always it is a matter of a lost age in which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds and in which above all it played back to itself, through its institutions, its rituals, and its symbols, the representation, indeed the living offering, of its own immanent unity, intimacy, and autonomy. (IC: 9; CD: 29-30)
However, that’s a temptation Jean-Luc Nancy resists vigorously. What he argues is that there never was such communities, at least not as we imagine them today. Community is not something that was lost. Rather, it is something that has never happened. What I’ve called elsewhere the “longing for belonging”2 may well be a form not simply of nostalgia but of melancholia3 and could remain as such as long as the problem of community is not acknowledged for what it is: the actual problem of our present coexistence and not a long lost dream or an revolutionary ideal suspended in the horizon of our political future4.
Society was not built on the ruins of a community. It emerged from the disappearance or the conservation of something ―tribes or empires― perhaps just as unrelated to what we call “community” as to what we call “society.” So that community, far from being what society has crushed or lost, is what happens to us ―question, waiting, event, imperative― in the wake of society.
Nothing, therefore, has been lost, and for this reason nothing is lost. We alone are lost, we upon whom the “social bond” (relations, communication), our own invention, now descends heavily like the net of an economic, technical, political, and cultural snare. Entangled in its meshes, we have wrung for ourselves the phantasms of the lost community (IC: 11-12; CD: 34-35)
No ideal community went missing. In fact, in the past two centuries, each time attempts were made to realize such idealized visions, it lead to disasters of incommensurable proportions.
Although we haven’t lost the community, it is missing nonetheless, However, this loss is precisely something “we” should care for:
What this community has “lost” ―the immanence and the intimacy of a communion― is lost only in the sense that such a “loss” is constitutive of “community” itself. […] Death is not only the example of this, it is its truth. (Ibid.)
- “We” are interrupted: Jacques Derrida on the condition for being together (1999)
- “Losing too is still ours”, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1924
- Fear and disasters: Don DeLillo on the “communal spirit” in the age of globalization
• • •
In mid-September 2010, the PEN America Center announced that Don DeLillo had been awarded the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction (watch his acceptance speech on YouTube; see also at The Guardian: “Don DeLillo wins PEN/Saul Bellow award” Sept. 27, 2010). For the occasion, writer Antonio Aiello faxed him seven questions on behalf of PEN. DeLillo typed his answers and faxed them in return. A transcript of both questions and answers was later produced and has been available at the PEN America website since: “An Interview with Don DeLillo” (September 15, 2010). Photo-reproductions of all of Don DeLillo typed-than-faxed answers were later uploaded online on the PEN Center website: “Don DeLillo: Strange and Dangerous Times” (Nov. 4, 2010). Those photo-reproductions have also been published in PEN America A Journal of Writers and Readers, issue 13: “Lovers” (New York: Pen America, 2010, pp. 20-24).
The photo-reproductions of the faxed interview are especially relevant in light of one of the answer offered by DeLillo regarding technology:
I was reminded of this interview with Don DeLillo while browsing Progressive Geographies.
• • •
1. On the delicate subject of the withdrawal of religion it could be tempting to argue, on the contrary, that there is a resurgence or a renewal of the religious both in Occident and in Orient. Jean-Luc Nancy seems to be thinking that this precisely a sign of the withdrawal of religion:
How to, not so much exit religion ―since, when it comes down to it, that is already done, and the imprecations of the fanatical can do nothing about it (they are, indeed, the symptom of it, like the ‘god’ engraved on the dollar)― but exit the monolithism of thought which has remained ours (simultaneously, History, Science, Capital, Man and/or their Nullity …). That is to say, how to go to the ends of monotheism and of its constitutive atheism (or what one might call its absentheism) in order to grasp, from the reverse side of its exhaustion, whatever might be extracted from nihilism, brought out of it from the inside? (“The Confronted Community”, tr. by Amanda Macdonald, Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2003, p. 23; first published in French as La Communauté affronté, Paris: Galilée, 2001, p. 13).
Aside from that it’s worth noting that Jean-Luc Nancy developed more exhaustively the relation between communion and communication in his writings: it certainly is not as simple as I chose to put it here when I summarize Don DeLillo’s views. ↩︎︎
3. Specifically in the sense Giorgio Agamben understands it in his book Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture. See previously here: Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos dies at 76 (1935-2012) ↩︎︎
4. That last statement could be interpreted as a contradiction in regard to Giorgio Agamben’s own thesis on community exposed in his book The Coming Community. It would be a contradiction only if one understands this “coming” as a coming-from-the-future in a chronological sense, which is not the case. In Agamben’s readings, the community is a messianic event and therefor is concerned with the “now time” or “the time of now” (which is also to be understood as an opportunity to seize): it’s coming is kairological, not chronological. In Agamben’s own words:
The restoration of Paul to his messianic context therefore suggests, above all, that we attempt to understand the meaning and internal form of the time he defines as ho nyn kairos, the “time of the now.” Only after this can we raise the question of how something like a messianic community is possible. (The Time That Remains, tr. by Patricia Dailey, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005, p. 2) ↩︎︎