(Un)romanticizing Community

In her book, Against the Romance of Community, Miranda Joseph demystifies the notion of “community” by arguing that we must conceptualize communities as “economic units [and] that the bonding produced by particular values serves the abstract needs of the circulation of capital” (p. 139). Joseph’s ethnographic research reveals how identity-based groups often deploy the language of community as a disciplinary and/or exclusionary tactic (see p. ix) to achieve some end. For me, one of the most disruptive (?) points Joseph makes in her book is to demonstrate folks’ tendency to construct “community” as a place outside of the material and social relations engendered by the capitalist mode of production and I think Joseph goes to great lengths in her book to demonstrate that communities in fact often reproduce the very harmful social relations they seek to subvert, create refuge from, or do away with all together. Identity-based organizations carry the risk of (re)producing subjectivities and social relations that facilitate rather than challenge modes of capitalist accumulation – so that both the sense of community and the actual people these organizations profess to represent, preserve, protect, promote, engender, and are less likely to become sites of liberatory social change (although this may have never been the purpose of the organization in the first place). I don’t read Joseph as suggesting that identity-based organizations/social movements have not created legitimate and meaningful changes in people’s lives, but rather “constitutions of community as precisely autonomous from capital [can] enable community to operate as a supplemental to capital and that community thus enables exploitation” (p. 172).

I read Joseph as a cautionary tale – I don’t think she dismisses the notion of “community” all together, but rather, urges us to be mindful of its discursive deployment, to trouble its use in our own work and political activism. Personally, it was an interesting week for me to engage with her text, because I have been thinking a lot about beginning a project around the “Secure Communities” (SC) program – a federally designated (im)migration program that has been a source of recent protests across the country. Briefly, SC requires that local law enforcement hand-over fingerprints to ICE, who then run screens to identify folks here extra-legally. The program purports to identify, detain, and deport the “most dangerous” migrants – a claim that has been widely challenged. Joseph’s book has given me some tools to think more critically about the deployment of “community” in this program that will compliment my line of inquiry – notions of security/safety, alternatives to policing, creating security/safety in relation to the state, and so forth.

In class, I hope we discuss Joseph’s argument – I understand it in a basic sense, but have questions around her notions of “the performativity of production” and the “absent subjects of capitalism” (see p. 111 for example) among others. I think talking through some of her examples and examples from our own work would be useful as we try to work through her argument.


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