I was recently appointed as the curator for Uxbridge Arts and Culture, an organisation based in East Auckland, which, in the past, imagined and defined itself as a ‘creative leisure centre for the community.’ The word ‘community’ holds a ubiquitous presence in my field of work. Used in a hundred arbitrary ways, within a myriad of contexts, often with homogenising or flattening effects, its viability seems somehow marginalised, corrupted even. In what follows, I offer the Indian adda, a particular place-associated practice, as a conceptual tool with which to begin a tentative rethinking and refashioning of community, for the revitalisation of the word’s conceptual dexterity.
Two opposing impulses underlie the various uses of the word community: inclinations towards openness, inclinations towards closure. In the first sense, community signifies a group who have between them something taken-for-granted as shared —identities, resources, situations, etc. Implicit, here, is the necessity of something-between — a bond or a sealant — and as such, implies that for people to come and exist together in their everydayness, there need be some pre-given factor or binding force. However, a prioritising of bonds is, at the same time, the principle impulse towards closure. Bonds create borders between those who share a commonality and those who do not. The bonded group takes the border as a given, and creates further boundaries. In other words, community seems only possible so long as there is an outside. The bonding-border becomes the salient feature, fixing the group to its essence, to that which is held-within as common.
To think of community otherwise would be to conceive of ways to ensure that the word, and thus what it designates, does not become fixed. Community cannot claim a pre-allocated and undifferentiated belonging of beings, because this leads to the foundational violence of closure that erases singular differences and oppositions. We ought reject the notion of community as a collectivity. A community that is substantially unified, homogenous and enclosed enacts a shutting down of potentials and deactivates the complex relations that exist between people. How, then, can we re-think the terms of solidarity, and move beyond fixed essences?
Solidarity can exist without fixed essences, even as potentiality, by way of association and action in specific times of unease. As if automatically, communities form out of what French philosopher Bruno Latour calls ‘matters of concern,’ arising during crises, breakdowns and emergencies. This is the collective ‘oomph!’ during a traffic jam or a power cut, the gathering of varied responses to the water quality of a local stream, or the surge of aid and care after an earthquake. In these instances, communities do not exist as ready-mades or fixed groups, as pre-existing and already unified collectivities. Where there is immanent struggle, there is community as potentiality. And yet, communities are only actualised where there is action involved. For example, in 2010 when the migrant Indian cab driver Hiren Mohini was stabbed to death in Auckland, a community formed around and out of this event. But one need not have been a cab driver or a migrant Indian to become part of this protesting group. These are communities of openness, formed without fixed boundaries. The priority, here, is a unity of concern, without being contingent on this or that pre-given identity.
The Indian adda is a site of similar openness, yet with an altogether different capacity to enact connections. It is another possible antidote to the bonded-bordering and flattening of people. Adda is an Indian social practice of unrestrained palaver, but the word also refers to the place of practice—a roadside joint near a tea-shop, the outer parlour of a person’s home, an office after hours. Adda is a perch for connoisseurs of company, a spot for friends to ritually meet and practice unhurried, informal, semi-intellectual conversation, at times lasting for many hours on end, and at other times easy-goingly brief. Pronounced ud-dah, the word designates an interruption to the work/leisure opposition. It is not the same as a symposium, though, or a speaker’s corner. It is not a debating club, a game of chess or a congregation of worshippers, because in all these instances there is something immediate at stake—to present a thesis, exercise skill, win. Adda does not bear such formality, or even small doses of utility; its organisation is outwardly rough-and-ready and always improvisational. One does not need a lectern or a soapbox for adda, just a penchant for idle, directionless talk, and a place to sit or lie.
Although adda in its Kolkatan form is a flawed practice—almost exclusive to men and very often middle-class—it is nonetheless an impulse toward openness, a kind of coming together and being-together without an essence, or needing something in common. Emilia Maud Nixon’s Garden of Memories in Howick is an unlikely adda of two—myself at Uxbridge and whaea Taini, kaitiaki of Te Whare o Matariki. The garden is the outside for two insides; it is the common threshold between our workplaces where we routinely meet and speak. Ours is a non-substantial community of singularities and fragments. Our garden-adda in Howick is formed through an inessential commonality, neither through friendship, nor through fellowship, but by the very fact of being-with, or being alongside one another. There is no single and ultimate association between us that can be reduced to an essence. In other words, there is nothing in the garden-adda to unite us, except unity itself.
As an active, creative concept, the adda community demands us to begin from the notion of the impossibility of belonging. It calls for a continual un-working of the totalising and exclusionary myths of collectivity upon which community is purportedly formed. There is, with adda, a refusal to mortgage the concept of community to identity. Adda is a network of relations that is concerned not with race, class, gender, sexuality and culture, but instead, it is a community that is composed via relations formed across and against these categories. In adda, the bond is that which is commonly open. After all, nothing is expected in adda but idleness and palaver, with the quality of the conversation depending on the relational moods and mind-sets of its participants. Adda is a community without bondage. As a kind of place/practice, adda opens other possible and potential networks of relations, of living and being with others. The opposite of community, after all, is not purposelessness but loneliness. In this way, a community is conceived as a process within which to experiment by way of social links, connections, and relations, even though the impossibility of collectivity continues to haunt the very activity of the adda community.
“The Adda Community.” Localise issue 4. Ed. Ioana Gordon-Smith and Lana Lopesi. Auckland: Whau Arts Festival. 18 October 2015. Image: Emilia Maud Nixon’s Garden of Memories, 1954. Courtesy of Auckland Libraries (Footprint 01957).