Center for Humanities Research A Transdisciplinary Research Center for Advanced Study
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CHR Annual Theme 2022-23
Connecting/Not Connecting: Formations of Community, Solidarity, Alienation, Antipathy
“Only connect,” the novelist E.M Forster famously wrote, as though connection itself were a magical end as much as a means. Connect to do what? To ally, or to allay? To compensate? To empathize? To "uplift”? The idea of connection, it seems, has multiple valences, critical and utopian, historical and contemporaneous, affirmative and constrictive, for the humanities.
Connection also shades over into “community,” a term whose apparent desirability—community as voluntary affiliation—bears within it, inevitably, its opposite: forms of exclusion and non-belonging. “Community” can empower people through forms of social and political solidarity, it can serve as a foundation for people’s sense of belonging, and identity, but it can also burden persons with pressures for conformity, with dynamics of definition through antipathies and cleavages, or as naturalized, obligatory belonging. Notions of communal or collective responsibility can serve as the basis for recognition of structural ills and their redress, but they can also serve as the basis for group stigmatization and impulses for discriminatory actions and violence. Communities can be undone through acts of violence, through ideological provocation, or through the struggle over territory. Equally, they can be undone by the slow attrition wrought by social-economic forces (such as gentrification, the passing-away of unions, the loss of jobs or the demands of new forms of labor), by the transformations wrought by environmental and demographic developments, the emergence of a disease, the impact of climate change.
“Community” offers us an important category for thinking about experience, but it can occlude other imaginative possibilities for working or living together, or for understanding social and cultural dynamics: what might be the differences between “community” (as a structure of feeling and/or as a concept for social and cultural analysis) and other ways of experiencing and understanding social and cultural interplay, such as “networks” or “allies and alliances” or “institutions” (parties, unions, corporations, civic groups, churches, professions, etc.) or the traditional counterpoints of “individualism” or “nonconformity”? What are the implications of the technological, broadly construed, for community—or its opposite, alienation? And what role have social media played in heightening these dynamics?
The Center for Humanities Research has received a $10,000 planning grant from Virginia Humanities for its public humanities project, “Alienation and Belonging: The Shifting Cultural Landscapes of Northern Virginia."