Tyler's Keyword Project

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To Community or Not to Community

As a keyword in the Cultural Studies lexicon, community is an unsettled term. Evidence of this term’s instability is perhaps nowhere as readily apparent as in the disparate deliberations on community produced by Miranda Joseph and Raymond Williams respectively. To read Williams’ essay on community from his Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society next to Joseph’s consideration of the same term in Keywords for American Cultural Studies appears at first to be reading a tale of two keywords. Where Williams dwells mainly on the term's ability to "distinguish [a] body of direct relationships from the organized establishment of realm or state"(75), and notes that community "seems never to be used unfavorably"(76), Joseph speaks of a keyword that has been overused into near meaninglessness, is more persuasive than descriptive, and is actually directly implicated in the very capitalist exploitation it claims to contrast(57-59). Given the ambiguous, and potentially destructive, position occupied by the term it is interesting, to say the least, that community occupies such a central position in Cultural Studies, and in particular the recently launched Master of Arts in Cultural Studies (MACS) program at the University of Wahington Bothell (UWB), which claims "to partner the interdisciplinary study of art and culture with a community-based learning network." ([1] emphasis added). One must ask why a masters program in Cultural Studies- a field that prides itself on exploring the unexplored and being unendingly critical in those sites that others take for granted -would place a term that has been so uncritically over-deployed at the very heart of its mission. This page is an attempt to answer that question. Through an exploration of past, present, and potential future deployments of the term community, this page seeks to prove the necessity of placing community at the center of Cultural Studies and MACS mission.

Community b(u)y the Cup

File:Evil mcdonalds.jpg
over 1 billion communities served welcome consumer
A careful reading of Joseph's thoughts on community indicates that she is not calling for a complete abandonment of the keyword so much as she is expressing a justifiable frustration with the "uncritical deployment of the term"(60). In particular, Joseph is concerned with the term's blatant appropriation by entities that have only dysfunctional and disruptive relationships toward communities. One of the most obvious mis-deployments of community, and probably the most egregious, is its excessive use at various levels of corporate propaganda. One of the most extraordinary exemplars of this cooptation is Starbucks, whose excessive emanating of the term was significant enough to garner a mention in Joseph's contemplation on community(57). Even within the corporation's mission statement one can find an example of the very appropriation of community that is at the heart of Joseph's critique. The fifth plank of Starbucks' six point mission statement misguidedly claims that "Every store is part of a community". While it is certainly true that every Starbucks store is necessarily situated within some sort of physical area, and many of those areas are indeed neighborhoods, and it is even likely that there exists a real sense of community in more than a few of those neighborhoods, none of these facts lends any legitimacy to the corporation's claim that "every store is part of a community". In fact, a quick and critical analysis of the claim shows it to be not only inaccurate, but almost Orwellian in its effort to mislead. Firstly, as pointed out above not all of the stores are even located in neighborhoods, nor is it the case that neighborhoods are necessarily synonymous with communities. Furthermore, even those stores that happen to be located within communities are not actually part of those communities in any real sense. To be part of a community suggests a level of engagement in and entanglement with that community that is simply unachievable for a satellite of a multinational coffee company. Not only are these stores not part of the communities they occupy, they actually have a deleterious effect on the potential for community within these sites. Joseph's concerns about the shortcomings of discourse around community not withstanding, even she acknowledges that this discourse emphasizes community's concern for social value as standing in sharp contrast to capitalism's more narrow concern with monetary value(58). As a publicly traded corporation Starbucks' primary focus is necessarily on the interests of its stockholders not with the concerns of the communities in which particular stores are located. Therefore, Starbucks and other corporations like it are compelled to see everyone as part of a homogeneous mass of potential consumers, and as such act against the very essence of community: a diverse collection of individuals connected by commonalities of geography, passion, challenges, etc.

Lest one think Starbucks' cooptation of community is limited to descriptions of its consumer relations, one of the most disturbing examples of the company's tendency is actually found in a section of its website dedicated to outlining Starbucks' commitment to the producer communities it imagines itself as being a part of. The "Community Involvement" section of the company's Shared Planet public relation's exercise uses the word community so repeatedly in extolling its many virtuous programs that one could be forgiven for thinking that Starbucks has mistaken community for the mythical figure Candyman- believing that if they say it enough times it will magically appear. No matter how many times they use the word community to describe the corporations relationship to its producers, however, Starbucks cannot escape the fact that its relationship to the communities that may, or may not, exist at these sites of production is just as dysfunctional and deleterious as it is at the sites of consumption.

Get Your Government Out of My Community

Governor Christine Gregoire seattle weekly
Government officials have also been guilty of exploiting community for their own ends. In the recent election, for example, politicians ran ads making various claims about what they had done for communities. Washington's Governor Christine Gregoire, for instance, repeatedly claimed that she was responsible for making "communities safe". There are several things about this claim that are problematic. The ambiguity of the assertion, for one, is particularly troubling. Who does the Governor include in her definition of community, and what does she mean by safe? Answering these questions provides some indication as to why the Governors deployment of community in this context is so troubling. The content of the specific example linked on this page shows that what Gregoire is actually talking about is locking up sex offenders. While the protection of children from those individuals who seek to exploit them is more or less universally accepted as a good thing, it is still troubling that she has chosen to coopt the term community in order to make this point? As pointed out by Williams, the term community is meant to provide distinction from the state(75). Williams is even more emphatic that state and even local politics is not the same as community politics which involves "direct action and direct local organization"(76). Thus by linking her accomplishments, no matter how virtuous they may be, to the sense of more immediate relationships connoted by community Gregoire is essentially engaging in the same form of appropriation as Starbucks and other corporate community-hijackers.

Another recent example of state cooptation of this contentious keyword can be found in the rhetoric on both sides, though particularly from those in favor, of the debate over the US government's bailout of of the nation's financial sector. The rhetorical device was more often than not to contrast communities with Wall Street in an effort to convince voters that their support of the bailout was about protecting communities, and not propping up Wall Street. President Bush, for one, spoke of the crisis' impact on "the communities in which [we] live [...]" arguing that the financial crisis "[...] had gone way beyond New York and Wall Street"(Bush's Speech). Here again is another example of the state deploying the term community for what Joseph calls its "performative effect of being warmly persuasive" with virtually no regard for the accuracy of the claim, or even the slightest acknowledgment of the logical inconsistency of such an assertion. Not only does the actual bailout that resulted from all of this rhetorical back-and-forth belie any notion that supporters of the plan were placing the interests of their constituents before the needs of Wall Street ([2]), but the very idea that constituencies and communities are synonymous is equally false. Even worse, this mis-deployment of community actually perverts and weakens the terms very meaning. It is exactly this type of uncritical deployment that causes individuals like Joseph to question the basic utility of the word community.

Reclaiming Community

Given all of this evidence of community's egregious overuse, its mis-deployment to point of near meaninglessness, and the perversion of whatever meaning remains, the question one must logically ask is why not simply abandon this bastardized keyword altogether? The answer to this question is quite simple. The reason that the term community cannot be abandoned by Cultural Studies, and in fact why it must occupy a central position in the lexicon of this (un/anti)discipline, is because there is simply no other word that captures the immediacy of relations, the common commitment to interrelated interests, and the shared stakes that is captured by community when it is critically deployed.

There is no shortage of evidence right on this very website of the continued utility of the term community

  • For every misguided coffee company pretending that communities can somehow be formed through a shared affinity for the same #espresso beverage there is someone deploying the term properly as in Michelle Fine's description of the women involved in a college #program in a Correctional Facility as "an intellectual and ethical community of scholars"(179 emphasis added).
File:Cult stud.gif
A couple of Cult Studs rutgers
  • For every gentrification effort that masquerades as a community development project there is a organization that is actually putting #communities at the fore of their own developmentCDS

I am reminded here of a story that I once heard from a wise, young professor about being asked why, given all of the of the negative connotations surrounding Cultural Studies, he was compelled to launch a Masters program in said discipline. The professor's response was something to the effect of "because of those connotations, to reclaim the discipline" (paraphrasing). This story has direct implications for the relationship between Cultural Studies and the keyword community. The reason that Cultural Studies and specifically this very first MACS Cohort must keep community front and center is precisely because it has been deployed so imprecisely, overused to the point of near meaninglessness, and perverted beyond almost all recognition. In short MACS must reclaim community.

Works Cited

  • Fine, Michelle, Maria Elena Torre, Kathy Boudin, Iris Bowen, Judith Clark, Donna Hylton, Migdalia Martinez, Missy, Rosemarie A. ##Roberts, Pamela Smart & Debora Upegui. 2003. “Participatory action research: From within and beyond prison bars,” in Paul Marc ##Camic, Jean E. Rhodes, & Lucy Yardley, eds., Qualitative Research in Psychology. Washington: American Psychological Association.
  • Joseph, Miranda. 2002. “Introduction,” in Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: vii-xix, ##179-181.
  • Williams, Raymond. "Community." Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Revised Ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, ##1985. 75-76.