The Joy of Co-belonging? – symposium in Zagreb

On the 1st of June 2012 a discoursive meeting on the topic of „The Joy of Co-belonging?“ took place in Zagreb Dance Center in the frame of the symposium „Choreography before the movement“. After contributions by Martina Ruhsam, Chris Standfest and Katherina Zakravsky there was a discussion with the audience and a screening of two films related to the topic. The following text is an excerpt of the lecture of Martina Ruhsam.


We live in times of liberal capitalism and are therefore confronted with a certain devalorisation of collective processes and a certain inflation of the term collectivity. We are aware about the failure of all communisms and at the same time suffer from new individualisms. The society of the spectacel in which we live (and as Guy Debord has named it long ago) lives not only from the consumption of goods, but also from the consumption of mediatized self-representations: Commerce and the spectacle of the commodity need the representation of those who exist via the embodiment of what they bought as a self-appropriating event. That´s how the real appropriation of being social becomes in its representation a spectacle. On the one hand neoliberalism proclaims individualism as its highest value and more than that, as a kind of „natural right“ and it attributes the highest priority to self-realisation. On the other hand corporations discovered long since the social as a profitable market-niche and are ever since eager to establish and merchandise social situations and their representations. On the one hand the pursuit of one´s own goals is deemed ultimately worthy, on the other hand if there is one principle that could stand for what we call „new economy“ since the 90s and in times of immaterial labour it would be: work together.


Jean-Luc Nancy claims that our spectacularly exposed society is lacking a horizon of sense, that would endow our being together in capitalism a meaning beyond the consumption of products and representations. He pleads for a community in which everyone can say „we“ without expressing any representational concern, a „we“ that is practice and ethos.

So, in a way Nancy suggests to disidentify from all communities – in the name of being together (or being-with as he would say). It may seem strange to bring the performing arts together with these claims by Nancy, because we of course inevitably deal with representation in the performing arts. Yet, I would claim that the critical potential of the performing arts (and especially of contemporary choreography) consists in the possibility of representing and exposing disidentifications and the instability of communities and of staging unconventional and post-consensual practices of collaboration that go beyond the attempt of representing common abilities, attributes etc.

This assumption and also my experiences as a choreographer and performer in collaborative performance-projects made me write a book about collaboration in the field of contemporary choreography. The title of this book is: „Collaborative Practice: Choreography. The staging of collaboration and its performance“. I departed from a statement by Florian Schneider in which he says: „What is at stake is the very notion of establishing a new understanding of the term together, within a contemporary dynamic of working together.“


The first conclusion that I drew was that an understanding that pits individual work against collective work is totally misleading. Positing an opposition of individualism and collectivism entraps one in a binary construction and can tempt one to think in terms of overcoming one system in order to reach another system that does not exist yet. The problem is that political philosophies are often based on such a binary construction. In many cases they seek to create a community in the future that does not exist yet, they have a project, so to say, based on a projected future, a kind of historical mission that consists in the establishment or reestablishment of a certain communal way of living or working. Jean-Luc Nancy totally rejects such a wilful attempt to establish a community in the future; he is convinced that the community as a kind of „work“/achievement has to be rejected if we don´t want to link the circulation that being with others demands with a common identity, ideology or purpose. Nancy positions himself in a great distance to political theories of incorporation, integration or unification that have the formation of a community as their goal. And indeed we could observe many times throughout history that if people should fit into a predefined social construct or if ambitious politicians tried to form the social like an ideal communal scultpure, they always had to resort to more or less violent methodes of disciplining.

A community or being together is for Nancy signified by a certain dispersion of a number of people more than by a social cohesion or coherence and can only be kept alive by the maintenance of an endless communication about an absent sense. So, it is about a contact that doesn´t result in an amalgamation but is configured by approximation and distancing, a being together that is free from any discourse of substance or subjectivity that usually resonates in theories about communities.

All this makes clear that the conception of the social body as a collective body and the kind thinking or speaking that this thought entails is highly problematic. The collective body as a metaphor of a community or state is widely used but questionable in respect to what Nancy wrote about the dispersion or distance that a togetherness always also implies. Only the acknowledgement that we are apart or detatched opens the possibility to share experiences and partake in those of others. And being-apart as a constitutive aspect of being together does not only name a distance between singularities but also a fission of the singularity itself (a kind of being faced with oneself).

Roberto Esposito writes: „…the community isn´t translatable into a political-philosophical lexicon except by completely distorting (or indeed perverting) it, as we saw occur so tragically in the last century. This appears to contradict the tendency of a certain kind of political philosophy to see in the question of community its very same object. It is this reduction to „object“ of a political-philosophical discourse that forces community into a conceptual language that radically alters it, while at the same time attempts to name it: that of the individual and totality; of identity and the particular; of the origin and the end; or more simply of the subject with its most unassailable metaphysical connotations of unity, absoluteness, and interiority.“1


The fact that I spoke so far only about the singularity and not about the subject points out that thinking about community, collaboration or collectivism demands a revision of the term subject at first. The singularity is not any more what we termed an individual or subject – so a kind of closed entity that is signified by the relation to itself. The ideal conception of the individual is stylised into an immanent totality without others. So, the thinking about the individual is based on the conception of a secluded whole in which the individual – like other particularities – is a relatively autonomous element of the whole. Individual etymologically derives from individuus which means indivisible or unseparable. The subject or the individual are usually imagined as an entity that is indivisible, a kind of social atom.

But the singularity is always already the locus of a with and there is nothing prior to this „being with“, the singularity is in permanent becoming and therefore open, a being that can never really become itself. (Nancy even calls the singularity the first person plural).

If a group says „we“, we are confronted with an event of plurality; with the co-existence of singularities (in plural) that communicate via languages and their corporeal exposition (and are thereby a whole society.) The political dimension of working together therefore does not consist in an ideological („common“) message but in the excessive production of differences and in an uncompromising practice of negotiation of singular plural authors. Nancy would say that it is not about the reappropriation of the WITH (of a substance of a being together), but about the WITH of reappropriation.

One of core-questions for collaborative projects is: how is a collaboration possible that comes along with the singularisation of the involved? How is it possible to work with others while not submitting oneself to a common identity, representation or form? How to avoid the tiring discussions about belonging that communities that are focused on self-representation so often provoke?


However idealistic we are, in the performing arts the necessity to collaborate is not just opening up a potentiality, but is also the result of a crisis. In many cases permanent collaboration, multiple bindings (and dependencies) are also the result of a permanent fight for the financial survival.

Since the dance- and performance-field became dominated by the principle of coproduction in the 80s and 90s one is forced to multiply the contexts of production and presentation and the collaborators involved in these temporary working-places. These dynamics mirror what Paolo Virno writes about the multitude that only has the feeling of “not being at home” as a common horizon of experience, which comes up with the lack of substantial communities. Determined by postfordistic production-processes in which verbal and cognitive skills are increasingly important, the multitude that Virno describes is dependent on self-organisation and self-determination while “being exposed to” the unpredictability and contingency of events.

The precarious working conditions outside of institutions (and sometimes also within them) have to be constantly organised and established anew (also because of their financial instability). If choreographers don´t work in the context of the global self-marketing-machine that the art market generates and try to create their own space(s), they are again dependent on networking and they have to act – even more than others – as entrepreneurs committed to the task of self-organisation. And this task can demand so much energy that the timeframes for artistic creation are minimized, because of the enormous amount of time that one has to dedicate to communication, applications, organization etc.

Cultural globalisation and the emergence of transnational networks in which one communicates primarily via the internet, led to an excessive communication, to a limitless community of communication. And this explosion of communication on the one hand has to be resisted and on the other contains the potential for the development of the very singularity of one particular collaboration. Strictly speaking there is nothing to say about collaboration in general. In the collectively binding decisions that a group without representatives takes and that enable this group to act or to perform, a common loss is expressed, a loss of subjectivity in the form of a commitment to what is neither mine, nor yours or theirs, but a result of the with in that very moment of the encounter. This process is not romantic at all, but a rather painful and confusing experience and sometimes a very exciting endeavour. I quote Roberto Esposito once more: “…the community is never a point of arrival but always one of departure [di partenza]. Indeed, it is the departure itself toward that which doesn´t belong to us and can never belong to us. For this reason communitas is utterly incapable of producing effects of commonality, of association, and of communion. It doesn´t keep us warm, and it doesn´t protect us; on the contrary, it exposes us to the most extreme of risks: that of losing, along with our individuality, the borders that guarantee its inviolability with respect to the other; of suddenly falling into the nothing of the thing.”2


Esposito, Roberto, Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, übers. von Timothy Campbell, Stanford: Stanford California Press, 2010

Nancy, Jean-Luc, Die herausgeforderte Gemeinschaft, übers. von Esther von der Osten, Zürich/Berlin: Diaphanes, 2007

Nancy, Jean-Luc, La communauté désœuvrée, Paris: Mesnil-sur-L’Estrée (Verlag Christian Bourgois), 1983

Nancy, Jean-Luc, Singulär plural sein, übers. von Ulrich Müller-Schöll, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2004

Schneider, Florian, „Collaboration – 7 notes on new ways of learning and working together“, formatLabor, Jänner 2007, Zugriff am 7. 3. 2009.

Schneider, Florian, “Collaboration: The Dark Site of the Multitude”, Theory-kit,, Zugriff am 3. 6. 2008.

Virno, Paolo, Grammatik der Multitude, Wien: Turia + Kant, 2005

1 Esposito, Roberto, Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, übers. von Timothy Campbell, Stanford: Stanford California Press, 2010, p.1

2 Esposito, Roberto, Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, übers. von Timothy Campbell, Stanford: Stanford California Press, 2010, p.140

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