by Tom Jacobs
Years ago an earnest young student entered his professor’s office for a brief chat about a paper topic he had been turning around in his head. The professor was esteemed and well-dressed and famous for being a cool and political yet accessible writer about cool and political things. The student was spangly mediocre, wildly intimidated by his professor because he knew that he (the professor) was indifferent to this object/student before him that/who didn’t know enough about the world or the past or theory to challenge him on any level that he might recognize.
They shook hands limply and then sat down across from each other, the power differential radiating out in all directions, but it was mainly felt by the beleaguered student. The student fumblingly explained that the paper was to be about the nature of emergent electronic communities (this was the mid-nineties). He babbled and referenced a few novels and sociological and philosophical works that seemed to him potentially useful.
The professor, un-noddingly and somewhat socially autistically stared at him from across his desk with a mixture of curiosity, interest, and pity, giving the student neither quarter or shelter. After a few moments of squirming awfulness he asked a depth-charge question: “What do we mean when we say “’community?’” The question exploded in the student’s mind, and the shockwaves resonated well into the future. To this very day, this very moment, to speak truthfully.
It’s not necessary to go into the student’s flummoxed response. What’s important is the question: what the fuck do we mean when we say “community?” Because we say it all the time, the media says it all the time, politicians say it all the time, and it does an enormous amount of work for us even if none of us know quite what we mean when we say it.
I know, I know, there are many sociologists and philosophers and so forth who have considered this very question, and I will refer to some of them below. But the feeling precedes the concept, and that’s what makes it so interesting. We all know that there is such a thing as a community, even if we can’t put our finger on it. In that regard it’s a bit like pornography or (as has been said, I’m told) the clitoris. So what’s important is to figure out how really smart people who have thought long and hard about what “community” means maps on to what it means to the rest of us. How might we make these two disparate worlds sing in harmony?
I intend to approach this subject Augie March-like, which is freestyle, in the ways I’ve taught myself, and I will make the record in my own way. That’s the only way I know to do it, even if I nod and bow or reject the thoughts and ideas of others. I will do my best to do each of these things.
Our understanding of things either begins with our intuition and experience or with our rational and empirical selves. No question that both bundles of understanding overlap and mutually define the other like drunken co-dependents, or like a Mobius strip, but we have to begin somewhere. So I’ll begin with intuition and experience and the meaning of sensuous experience because rationality and empiricism and judgment have never been my strong points. I’m not proud of this, but this is the way things are and have always been, with me at least.
In a conversation about the sadness and sullenness that leaches into or dissolves the substance of our sense of being from time to time, a very good friend of mine once noted that “we are meant to live in communities.” We are not meant to be alone. We are meant to live in communities; who would deny or doubt that? But what does that mean? So we return to the gristly question.
Let’s try again. What does it feel like to be in a community? Is this an experience we recognize, know, or understand? Let’s think about this.
The moments that I have felt a profound sense of community have always been fleeting.
I went to mass with my parents over the holidays. There was much talk of community but I can’t say that I felt it. Perhaps because I wasn’t a fellow-believer.
I have been to sports events and felt a profound sense of communal identity, but it fades rather quickly once the absurdity of the whole mechanism is laid bare after a few moments of reflection.
Then there is the notion of being a part of a neighborhood , which is perhaps not precisely the same as community, but close. Here’s a story that might help illustrate.
Perhaps five years ago or so I used to live in the remote provinces of Bushwick, one of the formerly most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn but now one of the most gentrified. But the neighborhood I lived in was decidedly not gentrified. I was a thoroughly white guy living in what the census might call an “ethnically-diverse” neighborhood—meaning in this case, an African American neighborhood. And so, initially I felt kinda odd. But odd in a good way, in the way that someone who never feels their whiteness or straightness is made to feel it when they go into a black neighborhood or a gay bar. Time passed and I became just another denizen of the block. I would loan my laptop to neighbors who didn’t have one, I would help them wash cars, I would bring them food and they would bring food to me. It was like Norman Rockwell at a slight angle.
My thoughts about community and neighborhood (and the distinction is a fuzzy one) came to a head one evening when I went out to buy a six pack at a local bodega at about 4 am. Why I was doing this is none of your business. But at this hour you have to wait outside in a line for the man behind the bullet-proofed glass to retrieve whatever it is that you want. You basically have to point and yell “I want the twinkies on the shelf over there and two 40s from the far end….NO! not those 40s, the others! Yes! Perfect.” That type of thing
So I was waiting in line and was surrounded by several large men. Men who subtly but decisively began to surround me. I began to feel that this would not go well. Eventually one of them asked me rather curtly, “Who do you think you are, the white messiah?” I paused for a moment trying to understand what he meant and then said, “No, man. But I don’t even know what you mean…who’s the ‘white messiah?’” To which he responded something to the effect, “you know, motherfucker.”
It was at this point that my anus shrunk to the size of a honey nut cheerio and that I realized I was about, for the first time, to get in a fight and to no doubt get my ass kicked.
But at this precise moment, as these large men approached me with malice and vinegar in their eyes that a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen interceded and said, “no! he’s my neighbor! He’s a good man.” At which point everyone receded and my main interlocutor said, “nah, man, I’m just fucking with you.”
So I was saved by a neighbor. Someone in my community. And I felt that sense pretty intensely at that moment.
The readings from the gospels that I heard over Christmas were readings from Paul and John, I believe. And they are readings that are clearly, at least from this side of history, meant to keep the church coherent, together, and unified. That’s a tough thing. But here’s a quote that will give you a sense of what I mean (and this is taken somewhat at randomly from the gospel readings over the past few weeks):
Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.
2 Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving;
3 Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
4 That I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.
5 Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.
7 All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellowservant in the Lord:
8 Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts;
9 With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.
10 Aristarchus my fellowprisoner saluteth you, and Marcus, sister's son to Barnabas, (touching whom ye received commandments: if he come unto you, receive him;)
11 And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellowworkers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me.
12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.
13 For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis.
14 Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.
15 Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.
16 And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.
17 And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.
18 The salutation by the hand of me Paul. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you. Amen.
Here's the thing. We all want to succeed, to not fail, to become some kind of messiah. It’s a tough racket, but may we never lose faith, never give up. We will all, no doubt, fail in various and remarkable ways. We are all running around in circles, but even that circular movement represents movement, and movement is all that we have. may those ways rise like incense to the heavens, and may we all, each of us, become awesome and better than we currently are. I think that’s possible. I hope so. And I hope this happens for each of us in the coming year. I really do.