Rome: The Coming Community

In ‘The Coming Community’ the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that community nowadays is less about shared identities and more about contingent experience. Or at least I think he does, I’ve only really read the title and a couple of synopses which made my head hurt slightly. I’m not going to read any more about it this morning as I’m feeling a little tired, the result of a poor night’s sleep.

The area where we live could be classified as quiet, and has even been described as anonymous. There are cafés and shops we all occasionally frequent but my wife and I don’t know or recognise many of the neighbours who share our street. There are a couple of local characters: the guy who drinks Peroni on a bench and snarls at anyone else who tries to sit there, the ebullient beauticians downstairs who always say hello and coo over the baby, the reliably cheerful Bangladeshi guy who runs the local grocer’s. In the cafés (of which there are three or four) people nod at acquaintances, gulp down their cappuccini and scoff their cornetti standing at the bar in that Italian way, but don’t stick around to chat. It’s by no means a hostile area but most interactions seem to be largely transactional in nature.

Sometimes it takes a single visionary human being to create a sense of shared experience out of seemingly unpromising material, to produce a spirit of communality by connecting elements of otherwise atomised lives, like all religion, art and politics aspires to do. Last night one man took it upon himself to unite people on our street. It’s not even clear whether he himself lives locally. Maybe it was the selfless gesture of a Christ-like outsider figure offering himself up for society’s approbation or crucifixion: a wandering prophet, a drifting shaman, a perambulating teller of universal truths unpalatable in the light of day. It’s not clear what the content of his speech was. The language that he’d chosen for his testimony was one unknown by the overwhelming majority of his audience. (It may even have been Aramaic.) It was the force of his sermon which was so compelling, the relentlessness and particularly the volume of whatever it was he was he was bellowing over the course of at least an hour.

In response, a community emerged from nothing, an implicit understanding of our commonality spread through the souls of those anonymous men and women in the surrounding buildings. Hundreds of rudely-awoken residents who had previously shared little more than the occasional pavement glance were united in what was at first mild annoyance and then, as the minutes wore on, under-the-breath curses, muffled complaints about punishing work schedules, he’ll-wake-the-bloody-baby and some-people-have-NO-consideration, developing gradually into fantasies of picking up non-existent airguns, marching purposefully to the window, taking aim and, to the silent cheers of the entire neighbourhood (one which until that moment had never thought of itself as such), as the local birds just started to chirp in the local trees, neutralising the irksome threat to our peaceful coexistence.

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