Headline of the festival 2022
In the dictionary, the word “community” has three meanings. The first is a common characteristic of a group of beings, not necessarily humans. The second is that which unites and links certain elements into a whole. And the third is a group of persons linked by a common history, culture or goals. Etymologically, the word “community” derives from the adjective “common”. Today, we use it to describe something that is connected, united, focused and organized as well as that which is public, social and civic. The word “common” has the following synonyms: belonging to a team or group, collective, shared, befriended and certain, a stable point of reference for someone or something.
Since the word “community” is sometimes used in the sense of the attribute of a group of beings, some define it through such concepts as the “property” and/or “ownership”. This entails, for example, similar properties of certain individuals that connect them to one another or bring them into one cluster. The Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito notes, however, that we should be very careful about this context, as in most languages deriving from Latin (and some of different origins), the adjective “common” (commun, comus, kommuri) means something contrary to the adjective “own” or “proper” (proprio, propi, approprié). Quintillian writes that quod commune cum alio est, desinit esse proprium: what we share with another ceases to be our own.
The root of the Latin noun “communitas” (community) is “munus”. This word has at least three meanings. The first is “responsibility” (onus). The second is “duty”, “obligation” and “office” (officium). These meanings are evidently related. To be responsible means to perform one’s duties and obligations and to be ready to accept punishment for wrongdoing. In Ancient Rome, the word “munera” (plural of “munus”) meant social work as well as all kinds of entertainment organised by wealthy patricians. It was a gift from a high-born person to an individual or a group. In time, this word started to mean gladiator fights organized by their owner as part of funeral celebrations of another wealthy Roman.
How do we reconcile the above two meanings with the third connotation of “munus”, that of a “gift” [donum]? After all, giving, the same as receiving a gift, is voluntary, spontaneous and free – concepts that are contrary to an obligation, coercion, constraint and slavery. Yet, Esposito argues that, in this context, a gift means something else. The core “mei-”, from which the noun “munus” derives, means something that we associate today with the word “exchange”. This meaning is strengthened by the prefix “com” (with, together, communally). A gift that circles between individuals who establish a communal relationship is etymologically something that needs to be offered, something that we must give, that has to be released so that a bond may be formed. This triggers the following questions: Does an individual posses that gift from the very beginning and passes it on to others only when joining a certain community? And what is that gift? A deed? A gesture? A promise? Can we withdraw from such transaction and offer the gift to someone else? If this is the case, is the gift transformed then? Can one refuse once and for all to participate in such exchange?
Esposito’s etymological analyses, interesting as they may be, seem to unilaterally impose an ethical interpretation of community. They only mention the duty, obligation, responsibility and necessary gift which, in fact, is what an individual owes to others. Yet, other options are possible. It should be noted that ethics as the foundation of communal bonds was and still is used to conceal their political functions. An ethical imperative may be both a curtain that hides the political dimension of every community and a tool that a given community uses for political purposes (an obligation towards one group distinguishes that group from other communities and enables it to fight with them). Neither should we rush into rejecting the positive interpretation of the word “gift”. A community may be thought and organized as a voluntary union of persons who want to collaborate with one another not despite but as a result of their differences. Such understanding involves free will, spontaneity and freedom of participation.
As you can see, the deeper we go into the meaning of our slogan, the more questions we have to ask. One of the most important questions is the fundamental dilemma: “What was first, an individual or a community?” And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another vital problem is the following: “If we agree that a community is imagined (is the effect of social mechanisms at work), can we also assume that the category of «individual» is primary? And what is an individual outside of the communal context?”
These and other questions will be asked to the participants of this year’s edition of Conrad Festival.
Programming Director of the Conrad Festival