By Brunilda Pali
This reflection was steered from a visit to Anneessens quarter, located right at the heart of Brussels city centre. Despite the central location, the quarter is an extremely impoverished area, with high population density, high unemployment rate, limited living space, and hyperdiversity. The neighbourhood is divided by sharp class, race and gender boundaries. These boundaries, while once imagined, have now become materialized and physical, installed by the government in almost every other street, not only justified, but promoted, necessary, imposing. It becomes a challenge to reach the other side of whatever one is looking for, as one has to walk around fences and long distances to reach what seems to be only 10 steps away.
Fences, walls, wires: structures erected and designed to restrict or prevent movement across a boundary, lines of defense that separates inside from outside, self from other, normal from abnormal, lines of defense against something that supposedly threatens us. Once used exclusively for borders, prisons, camps, hospitals, zoos and other animal-containing spaces, now they have become an overly familiar and constituting part of our daily urban landscapes. The other human beyond the fence is believed to be either criminal, sick, or animal, and what glues all of us together seem to be nothing but fear.
How to understand these developments but as clear signs of fall of our civility and profound lack of faith in human kind, and how to move beyond sheer pessimism? How many fences do we need to protect ourselves from one another? How many fences can we bear erecting without endangering our lives and the very meaning of our existence? To answer these questions I will think briefly through the philosophy of Roberto Esposito (mainly relying on his translated book Terms of the Political, 2013, hereby referred to as Terms).
For Esposito, we have to think the idea of community (communitas) and that of immunity (immunitas) as reciprocal. Community for him refers to a common munus, which can mean both gift and obligation toward another. This is quite different from definitions of community as something which we share and have in common, or a common belonging, identity and ownership. Defined as a common obligation towards one another, community exposes each of us to a contact with an other, in the face of which a process of immunization is activated. Esposito argues that whereas community binds individuals to something that pushes them beyond themselves, immunity protects them from a risky contiguity with the other, relieving them of every obligation towards the other (Terms, 49).
The contradiction according to Esposito, is that while immunity, necessary for the protection of life, if carried past a threshold, becomes autoimmunity and ends up destroying the very thing that protects us. In other words ‘raising society’s threshold of attention with regard to risk…means blocking the growth of the social body, or even causing it to regress to its primitive state’ (Terms, 62).
In other words the cure becomes the poison. At the same time, an extremely fenced and walled community, would be according to Esposito’s arguments then only a ‘perversion of the idea of community into its opposite, into one that erects walls rather than breaking them down’ (Terms, 43).
Fences, walls, wires: protecting us from each other, excluding otherness to the point of obsession. We need to rethink what is common and what makes us human, before the very fabric of our lives is destroyed. We need a balance between community and immunity: it is truly difficult to understand the reason why we would have to live either under the image of a human jungle or that of a human zoo, but if this was really the choice we would have to make, the ones who chose the human zoo please stand up!