All in the Family: Community, Incommensurability and Dissensus

Kennan Ferguson’s All in the Family: On Community and Incommensurability puts forward a re-definition of the family as a metaphor for community. The main focus of the text is a re-interrogation of the family, away from an homogenous and normative basis for the grounding of community, but towards a definition of the family as a network of relations that present a model of dissensus. The family re-defined is a helpful alternative to the predominant liberal-communitarian-libertarian foreclosure of dissensus and incommensurability in the grounding of community.

The extent to which the book lacks or comes up short is in its dismissal of the notion that the family also re-enforces patriarchy and repression. So Ferguson does not treat the family in a thorough manner, and opts for a post-modern fluid identity conception of the family that is largely removed from identity problematics.

But what I want to interrogate is the way in which Ferguson identifies a conceptual difference in the concept of community amongst contemporary liberals, communitarians and libertarians with that of Marxist theorists. This difference entails the way these two larger paradigms treat the category of the political in relation to community. Ferguson writes that these two modes of thinking community are split in the way one seeks “to establish a normative, regulative, ideal” (liberals, communitarians, libertarians) and “those whose goal is something else, actively political” (Marxists and other such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Zizek and Ranciere).

While there are important theoretical differences in liberal thinkers such as Rawls, and Habermas, communitarians such as Sandel and libertarians such as Nozick, Ferguson notes two important points of commonality amongst them: “a prescriptive commonality, one leading inexorably toward normative unity” (51) and one based on “the practices of judgment, a descriptive commonality, that leads towards multiplicity and contestation” (51). But the problem for both of these views is that the latter lacks an ethic of universalism and normative unity to ground community, while the former lacks the room or space for dissent in its operation. While Ferguson recognizes Marxist thought as presenting what he refers to as “a dialectical engagement or class struggle as the necessary precondition for political change and growth” – he argues that this celebrates conflicts as leading to freedom and liberty, and thus to new forms of community (55).

What I think Ferguson misses in this dichotomy of community is how precisely the category of the political is treated in Marxist thought on community. In my work on community in late continental thought, I argue that the political is what precedes community and any discussion of community must entail an overlap with the category of the political. But even though the political precedes community, it does not mean that community is apolitical, as we find say in liberalism. On the contrary, the difference is one in which the political is a different mode of being-together, as opposed to being-with.

Ferguson is correct to note it, and it should be repeated, that the problem with the liberal-libertarian-communitarian paradigm is that they position community only after there is a shutting down of politics and the elimination of dissensus. The late-continental paradigm, which I would argue is not based in Marxism as much as it is in a re-reading of Rousseau and Hegel, is in fact based on the notion that community is a site of antagonism. Community is an empty signifier and thus serves as a receptacle for hegemonic struggle, but its ground is not necessarily apolitical. For the liberal-libertarian-communitarian paradigm, excluding difference in the name of community, forming communal identities in the face of threats, and institutionalizing protective mechanisms that develop and reinforce normative assumptions all make the term ‘community’ rooted in consensus.

The presupposition here is that the common moral code that grounds a community must be based in consensus. If we consider the thought experiment that grounds community for Habermas, as founded on speech, Ferguson rightly shows how the very ground of community becomes untenable because the voices of the subaltern are never commensurate with the normative speech. There is a fundamental asymmetry in any normative universalism. Ferguson writes, “the existence of some shared realities does not presuppose the existence of a single reality.” The foreclosure of dissensus, writes Ferguson, “for both communitarians and liberals relies on a view of community as the exclusion of difference and the development of a universally shared sense of political mechanisms” (44). So the category of politics in the liberal-communitarian-libertarian paradigm is perceived as a space of dissensus, but it is kept separate from the sphere of community in the liberal-communitarian-libertarian paradigm.

The problem with liberals-communitarians-libertarians who maintain a normative universalism conception of community is the way in which the very basis of community goes to re-enforce the most vague ethno-centrism’s and counter nation state formations. The communitarian liberal Michael Sandel views communities as enclosed spaces that can be protected by the vagaries of capitalism, but they must be protected in order to flourish (39). While Sandel’s model is compelling, it does not drive at the problem of incommensurability within community.

The two challenges we are faced in this aporia with is how incommensurability — the way that difference is managed without a political outlet, and the way that dissensus is foreclosed in the formation of community. Ferguson puts forward the model of the family to negotiate these two problematics. He invokes a helpful set of thinking on the role of silence as  way to negotiate the relation between community and incommensurability. “In silence, incommensurability, community and individuality coexist,” writes Ferguson.


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