Had the virus not intruded, I, and many of CLT’s readers, would be in Dundee right now, for the annual Critical Legal Conference, an event that has happened every autumn since the mid-1980s. The CLC has often proclaimed its non-existence for all but three days of the year, leaving no permanent institutional structures or office holders in place in the 362/3 days between events, convening on the first day and dispersing on the third, by courtesy of the efforts of that year’s temporary organising committee; this year it has surpassed itself, achieving non-existence for the entire year. Instead, the Dundee organising committee tells us on their website, ‘to help maintain the ongoing vitality of the CLC and the communities that surround it, we have cancelled the September 2020 dates’. A paradoxical statement, but fitting the paradoxical nature of CLC.
This brief note seeks to acknowledge both the cancellation and the ongoing vitality of an institution, which, in its occasional moments of self-definition, has often, perhaps too often, invoked Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of the inoperative community. That notion, building on the thoughts of Blanchot and Bataille, is invoked by Nancy as a version of communism,
an emblem of the desire to discover or rediscover a place of community at once beyond social divisions and beyond subordination to technopolitical dominion, and thereby beyond such wasting away of liberty, of speech, or of simple happiness as comes about whenever these become subjugated to the exclusive order of privatization.
It is a large claim to make for an academic conference, but not indefensible in the case of the CLC, at least in glimpses. As a community (and ‘the communities that surround it’), it is a community in Nancy’s sense, a ‘community [that] acknowledges and inscribes – this is its peculiar gesture – the impossibility of community. A community is not a project of fusion, or in some general way a productive or operative project – nor is it a project at all.’ The banal operational productivity of the contemporary university sector is something quite alien to the CLC.
Nancy credits Bataille with the crucial insight into ‘the modern experience of community as neither a work to be produced, nor a lost communion, but rather as space itself, and the spacing of the experience of the outside, of the outside-of-self’. Bataille says ‘There can be no knowledge without a community of researchers’. Turning to Blanchot, Nancy states that
community cannot arise from the domain of work. One does not produce it… Community necessarily takes place in what Blanchot has called ‘unworking’, referring to that which, before or beyond the work, withdraws from the work, and which, no longer having to do either with production or completion, encounters interruption, fragmentation, suspension.
This unworking cannot be an intentional project, but it is, for some, to be found in the space of the CLC, in the interstices between the work. Nancy again: ‘It is not a matter of making, producing, or instituting a community … it is a matter of incompleting its sharing. Sharing is always incomplete … At bottom, it is impossible for us to lose community.’ Nancy summarises: Community ‘is not a work to be done or produced. But it is a task, which is different – an infinite task at the heart of finitude. A task and a struggle, one that Marx grasped and Bataille understood’. The work of the CLC is cancelled for September 2020, but the vitality of the task and the struggle remains, even in interruption, fragmentation and suspension. The Dundee paradox is understandable in this way: in 2020, for the CLC, in place of a deed, an undeed .
How to respond to the Dundee undeed? I propose this: through duende. The inoperative community of Nancy’s formulation is often presented as ‘resolutely set in the present .. explicitly reject[ing] those models of community that situate community as either lost idyll or future ideal that can never be realized’. In 2020, Nancy’s formulation is inverted. The only CLC community in 2020 is indeed the lost idyll or the future ideal; for the present, there is only the undeed. But it is here and now that we evoke the Dundee CLC, in its cancellation, not only with nostalgia or hope, but certainly with both these emotions, and one way to think this through is with the notion of duende.
The notion of duende has been expounded by Nick Cave in a lecture on the Love Song, where he emphasizes its quality of profound sadness, links it to saudade. Cave, in fact, overdoes the element of sadness in duende – it is not saudade. He cites Garcia Lorca’s essay on duende, but reads it purely as addressing ‘the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives at the heart of certain works of art’. If we turn to Garcia Lorca’s essay, we find, to the contrary, that his conception of duende is something more than a simple sadness. Garcia Lorca says the duende is ‘a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought’. (Unmistakably a restatement of Blanchot’s unworking). For Garcia Lorca, the duende is a spirit to be struggled with, akin to but distinct from an angel or a muse. The angel sheds grace upon the poet, the muse dictates and prompts. The duende is a spirit that does not come from outside, but erupts, to be confronted as being (as Nancy says of community too) to do with death. But the duende’s attitude to death is not that of the angel or muse. As Garcia Lorca says, ‘When the muse sees death appear, she closes the door, or builds a plinth, or displays an urn and writes an epitaph’. ‘When the angel sees death, he flies in slow circles, and with tears…weaves the elegy’. The duende, by contrast ‘won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house’. Death, the other theme of Nancy’s meditation on community, is present in duende in a way that is not the case for the angel or the muse. It is the kinship with death that gives the duende its flavour.
Garcia Lorca concludes his lecture by evoking three arches, in one of which stands the muse, motionless with finely pleated tunic, in another the angel, disturbing heads of hair, tunics, violins, and finally, ‘Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.’ This duende, this pixie or imp, a quality of passion, is surely the spirit of Dundee CLC 2020, in its cancellation, in its ongoing vitality, an empty archway but yet still an inspiration. And as I have often raised a toast to the CLC in many of the spaces where it has taken place, so I do so here, in this time in which it is not taking place, not with an epitaph or an elegy, but with the passion of the duende.
Angus McDonald, Associate Professor Emeritus, Staffordshire University, is a long time Critical Legal Conference participant.