Collaborative effervescence through communitas
In this essay a posse of graduate students, a gamut of walking writers, and an ensemble of diarologists explore the idea of communitas, ‘togetherness itself’ (Edith Turner), through a daisy chain of gifts: digital voice, live chorus, satellite offerings, testimony, wit(h)nessing, oversharing, listening, and secular ritual.
Drawing on three related sites of durational, hybrid, creative collaborations (presented collectively online at NonfictioNOW 2021), this choral text enacts the joyous embodied knowledge of the communitastic we experienced via the ‘live-but-not-live’ conference medium for which this riff was first devised. The panel tested out the idea of communitas via the creative unfolding of three projects: The Symphony of Awkward (diarologists and oversharers), Writing Walking (crossover writers-in-performance in a walking-not-walking walk/write/shop), and an interactive, unfolding experience with graduate students calling themselves the Columbia College Chicago Elementary School.
To compose this essay, we embraced collaborative or queered co-writing processes and crossover writing. As creative writing method, we ‘fountain up’ (Francesca Rendle-Short). We ask how do we really sense we’re together when we’re together – as in ‘togetherness itself’? How might the many, the lateral, and the collective show up in nonfiction? What sort of radical joy/effervescence can be generated in the liminal space of communitas? What can you do as a group that you can’t do on your own?
What happens when you watch people write?
In navigating the origins of the word communitas, Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito declares: ‘Here is the blinding truth that is kept within the etymological folds of communitas, the public thing [res publica] is inseparable from no-thing [niente]. It is precisely the no-thing of the thing that is our common ground [fondo]’. Esposito tracks a path where the adjective of communitas – communis – is synonymous with common and vulgar, and problematises the ways in which other theories of community and the collective, from which communitas derives, in the end highlight individual subjectivities. ‘We are all individuals!’ cries the crowd in unison, during Monty Python’s Life of Brian. ‘I’m not’ calls a lone voice.
This writing is the back of the tapestry (Michel Foucault).
You are a multiple of one, a collective of one – always already one.
It was the pandemic, we were in six lockdowns, and we were walking anyway within our prescribed five-kilometre radiuses. What could we do together, we asked ourselves, while walking. How could we spin our writing and thinking together? We called it Writing Walking (and ‘not-walking-writing’ too). We wanted to explore something jointly. We wanted to experience off-centred collective knowing. We wanted to examine how we really know we’re together when we’re together – as in Edith ‘Edie’ Turner’s idea of communitas as ‘togetherness itself’. Then we wanted to know how writing might show up collectively as nonfiction. Thinking communitas, we tested out how the many, the lateral, thickens into a sort of radical joy and effervescence in this space of betwixt and between.
As a group of adult learners returning to the classroom after a year of remote learning, students in History of the Essay wanted to both highlight the importance of play and underscore their purpose by naming their collective the Columbia College Chicago Elementary School. Their communitastic collaboration resulted in the creation of three short videos – inter-ludic in(ter)ventions – that served as frames for and bridges between the Walking Writers and The Symphony of Awkward during the nonfictionNOW 2021 panel.
Oh, the joy in playing with each other in the classroom and on the lawn in the evening one fall night in Grant Park. Oh, the thrill of sharing childhood memories magically merged into mercurial texts and recorded in unison. Oh, the delight in transmuting our/their communitastic unpanelling into a textual tapestry of witnessing. This weaving a with-nessing as/and transmogrification through mirth!
The concentration (of writing) as its own connection, its own communitas.*
*Still trying to understand communitas – what is it even? Kind of shocked by it (we are? Yes, we are) by its daring, the way it slides in the mouth, by how it glissades up to the idea of community (it shares the root communis from common) then slants off or even sloughs off, and becomes itself, kin, yes, but different in shape and size and intention. There is something demonstrative about communitas, a thing intended, an always-has-been reaching forward to the making of futures together inhabiting a community of practice seeing what togetherness can bring when we are together in this, that we are being/writing/living/making alongside one another, near, towards and away, making out ‘togetherness itself’.
The a-rhythms. The all-in, all-out. The tapping remixed with bird song.
You think about the fact the group is typing into a chat and you can remember nothing of what they were writing, what they wrote. What you recall is watching it all accrete. Words and phrases and ideas, one after the other. A repetition of collective intention as a joyful accumulation.
The ever-unfolding universe.
In Blush: Faces of Shame, Elspeth Probyn discusses the notion of writing shame. She describes how difficult it can be, how stressful it is to write about difficult topics, ideas, research. ‘Writing is a corporeal activity. We work ideas through our bodies; we write through our bodies hoping to get into the bodies of our readers’. A methodology that invites bodies to write in community – in communitas! – has an untapped (dare we say, latent!) potential to rekindle love for each other and the world.
Thoughts to be observed, studied, assayed.
It’s her first time back since packing up her life and leaving for a city where there’s a job still to be had in academia in this second year of the pandemic. The state borders are now open and she drives back to Melbourne to see her friends and collect her cat. She drives back through the traffic and storms to create new memories in a city that had become associated with all things sad. She drives back to gather in spaces – both virtual and IRL.
This as a way to ground yourself. Games and play to activate the inner child were really cool. Once the Symphony of Awkward began, you could really sense the communitas at work. The three things – so disparate, but together. ‘[T]he interplay of voices, narratives and insights in the lasagnification of our lives’.
A few days later, they’re now at the computer, collectively and separately.
They sit all blokey-talkback in the radio studio at RMIT with mugs and cut-up paper and snippets of audio and a loose script and banter – collaging their last years of diary research into ever-new presentations. This time, they are primed to present at the very same conference as they did a few years ago when they convened at a fancy hotel in downtown Phoenix to sing, chant, play,
and interview around all things diary. This time it’s different, but in spite of all the pandemic isolation, they know that community, or communitas,
is more than possible.
When coming to communitas, it is possible to come as a multiplicity of one.
When creating the conditions in which communitas can thrive, where individuality gives way to community and an intimate liminality is collectively experienced, we may turn to methods such as oversharing, choralling, queering, and musicking. Communitas is not a noun that typically doubles as a verb, but our creative and research practices thrive in the doing, so the temptation to verbify communitas is real. To communitas might give rise to a living list of communi-tasks, some of which emerge from reflecting here on our process of essaying communitas. Of course, there’s a paradox in being systematic, in that communitas according to (some) definitions relies on a lack of structure. We may presume to bring verby thinking to communitas – hence to communitas – but we can only pop ‘how’ in front of that phrase with tongues firmly in cheeks.
Writing together is again a form of play, of collective new thoughts unfurling together in real time, visible.
To see and be seen.
A collective portrait, a moment in time, the poetics of prompts reveals the breath.
To be with each other first.
And she, methodologically speaking, slips between the recording booth and an adjacent storeroom to appear in her designated squares. She types silently into the chat, then grabs her matching mug for the talkback (mugging it – see what she did there?)
She is, as ever, double-dipping, greedy, moonlighting with the walking writers, doodling with the diarologists. This communitas business, ‘communitas’ itself a word first heard in that room in Phoenix Arizona, dropped by a sociologist at nonfictioNOW 2018 alongside you, and you, and you, and the frisson around whatever that tantalising word meant and then the announcement, Aotearoa, New Zealand for the next conference.
When you started teaching you thought it was all about imparting information, then you realised that you learn with every part of you, especially the emotions.
Find that spark again, with others.
After more than thirty years of teaching, I/you realise that rather than striving to ‘create community in the classroom’ – nominalised, romanticised pedagogical achievement – I/you have always been more interested in alchemizing communitas – transmuting any ‘straight’ learning scenario via the magical collective discovery-emergence of ‘togetherness itself’.
You loved the games as a collection of moments running (walking, crawling) counter to the ever-forward momentum of the lesson plan.
For people who are experimenting with language, punctuation is a crucial way to convey the right meaning. A lot has been said about the decline of punctuation. How it’s not used much anyway (by the ‘younger generation’) but it still has its place. (Would anyone humour us if we dropped an emoji here?)
How much enthusiasm you had for not only your own writing, but for listening to the writing of the other students.
It’s so hard not to use clichés.
You share a moment/memory of a time when you were a kid and felt a newly discovered sense of accomplishment and/or empowerment. Relay for an audience a moment when you felt you were in a creative relationship/community as a child. The idea here is to focus more on the process of the creative connection rather than the product.
Willingness to give and receive, to bend and blur, celebrating life in communitas, all learning.
Enforced productivity sounds different. If it were typing emails, it would be ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. Bumble B. Not this. This was like intermittent rain on a pond. Nuts falling from a tree to the ground. Patter of feet/hooves on the ground.
Sometimes you wonder why we have to explain having fun together.
Doesn’t it just exist in and of itself, for its own sake? You have lost the ability to really let yourself go. Everything must have a purpose and an outcome. You are trained that way, aren’t you? So, then, perhaps the ways and practices of communitas in/as classroom allow you to untrain, to unschool, to unfurl.
Donna Haraway has said, ‘I think I work by addition and not subtraction’. This commitment to thinking through addition (or multiplicity), and the rigour that Haraway brings to it interests you greatly.
Collective energy gathering pace as it comes together – here we are; hear we are.
Layered trickling of voices unedited at the end – that’s the magic of collaboration – something happens in the doing of it. Subverting each other’s writing – hard to make meaning in a conventional way – and why would we want to? What’s the point?
The doing of it, the being en chorale, really moving. What was the silence like? The sound of the keyboard – it’s all we’ve got – it’s all we want – we can do so much with so little when we’re doing something/anything together.
There was a fly buzzing around wanting to join in.
Are we having fun yet?
A game within the writing and performing of games within the writing and performing of communitas.
You love this, you really do – we are here – we are now – asking your body what feels good.
Wild way to start
doing it in situ
all happening at once
confluence of everythings
engagement with the unfurled
the unfurling good
Learning to fly together.
What is your favourite punctuation?
How do we love?
Communitas = dancing talking laughing playing.
You wish this is going to come true.
You want things to happen in the margins.
Together we are together.
You feel in communitas, with the Walking/Writers, you know what’s coming and appreciate the calm water they’re creating into which our work will soon throw a pebble. The Columbia College Chicago Elementary School kids skim their rocks across both.
When listening to the typing becomes its own meditation, you start noticing more of what’s available on the screen: the symmetry of white earbud cords, bottom left, top right. She gives good shelfie. A solitary Post-it note on the wall. You watch the mirroring of hands showing us thinking: you thinking with them; their hospital bracelet reminds you of his accident which was not revealed until we were through. The body and the body in writing; the body as always-ever involved when/as: we write. The voices in polyphony, the commonality of the overlap of voicings.
(She was taken by surprise by a risqué interlude which she had to mute while her daughter was listening/watching. The voices of blokey talkback hosts – played by queer women – interspersed with methodological reflections on the part of creative practitioners.)
An exquisite corpse of communitas. (Ah. This must be the fun bit.) But how do the different parts relate to one another: the (over-)sharing, the vocalities from within and without? Is it that, methodologically speaking, each part is putting groups of people into conversation in innovative, spontaneous, or deliberately artificial ways in order to make new meaning or draw new connections? Is it that some of the motifs that wind through are about why we write, how we write, and with which tools?
You keep coming back to the theme of oversharing. Who says whether something is too much (is this ADDitional font too much or not enough?) Is this repetition/excess/SHOUTINESS too much or not enough? Who is the arbiter of tastefulness and decorum? Who says what is ‘too much’? Is it based upon too much information?
Too much empty space?
Too much silence?
Too much connection?
Too much joy?
Too much laughing till our bodies ache?
Too much (encouragement to) let(ting) ourselves go?
How do we really know (sense) we are together when we are together, as in ‘togetherness itself’ (repetition, a bit much?), and how does that togetherness evince itself? Is it simply through experiencing togetherness enacted in our work, and togetherness discussing the work, and that input is welcomed (even from the chat you typed into as you engaged with this polyphony)? Is it just the delicious, secret, sensual feeling of passing notes? The desire, the body feeling things it doesn’t often get to feel. Writing, together.
She was worried about her voice being lost.
They like that part of it – tired of their own voice/s.
There is a gap here and (so) you might write in it. You want to write in stage directions. She takes a sip of water. She holds a kitchen timer. He exits. She exits. They exit one by one until only pensive __________ with her birdsong remains. Narnia for one. The rolling step stool. And memories, and playing Chatterbox, and Hangman in masks, and playing paper planes, and silly buggers, and learning to swim, and how the body teaches us, and NASA, and a shaky liquorice hand, and he smiles without teeth. It’s the kind of smile he smiles when he means it.
And she does something at the top of her lungs in the crowded farmers’ market.
Eye movements and small mouth movements.
Our ticking clock faces.
Stillness and motion and faint birdsong as we tap out our vanishing texts.
A deep breath and a pair of spectacles adjusted. A small smile, a sideways glance.
The endless touching: hand to face, hand to mouth, to lips, to collar.
A vehicle reversing bleep bleep.
A neck itched, an eye rubbed, a chin rested, a head scratched, an attitude held, a flow entered, a lip bitten.
Our sensibilities complement each other well and we manage to maintain harmony despite the many decisions that need to be made when working on a complex piece of writing together. Given that our combined performances contained so many kinds of text – performance, video, songs, comedy (and so on), it’s challenging to create writing which can encompass all these elements and still make sense to somebody who knows nothing about us or our project(s).
You first arrived here in a forest in Greece when you participated in a workshop with the Abramović Institute. You walked in a line with twelve others on a thin dirt path amongst trees and tortoises. You took six steps in four hours. When you got back to Melbourne, you found a small group of walker-writers. Then you went into ‘lockdown’. Out of sheer joy, desperation, and elation you joined a slightly bigger group to ‘present’ at a conference in the spirit of communitas. The walking expanded into other fields, mostly online, and you enjoyed this multidisciplinary change. With this new group you wrote and edited and read and read and made this piece of writing. In this document your focus was the bits about play; because as you grow, you’re keener to find the fun in things, especially when they might be serious things. This is your way of
Meanwhile new projects hurtling themselves futureward.
Meanwhile, a posse of un-walking writers, walk-shopping in ZOOM storyboards for Bus Projects and finding it good.
Meanwhile, three Symphonettes of Awkward, endlessly re-inventive, making sonic diary entries and daily votive neologisms and bad, bad (terrible) puns to keep ourselves roundly amused.
And now (meanwhile) the conference is on and now it’s off and now the conference is off(line) and now (meanwhile meanwhile) the conference is Antipodeans-only and now the conference is on(line) Hopin – it’ll be great, just like a real conference – even with breakout rooms, and live q & a, and keynotes of note, only without the Tex-Mex and margaritas, the jetlag or the joy.
Meanwhile, we endeavour to be amused enough through the endless covidity of shutdowns and lockdowns.
Meanwhile = Good Enough.
What mouths do when we concentrate. How much you hate yours.
Light and not light.
Portholes for ________.
Shadows for ________.
You disappear into your black background, just a head and a throat visible against a black wall.
A door shuts.
And your hair. And your haircuts, and how _________’s red lipstick matches the top beneath her pink cardigan, and _______’s lime-green t-shirt tells us we did have a summer.
A polyphony of girlhood voices once trapped within locked receptacles.
And can she just say how much she loves your artworks? The ones on the walls, she means, in your homes. The decor of your Zoomlife, your Zoomlifestyles. Can she just say how much she loves the glimpse of your cat’s tail, your bandaged wrist, your vintage vest and bow tie?
Hard to have fun without a methodology of fun (ha ha). Does (dies… fun dies) it really need a methodology? What’s methodology got-to-do got-to-do with it? (Lalala) Can’t you just say, ‘let’s play?’ ‘Let’s have some fun?’
In our house nobody can decide on the kind of play they want so we end up playing ‘no-thing’.
Nothing is the ultimate play.
Even at rest, thinking, typing, we are in constant motion. Hands, eyebrows, the bitten lip, the flick of eyes in sideway glances. Always distractible even while we believe we are impassive. Inscrutable.
I forgot to portal to another moment.
And we were off.
In an embodied sense.
How time doesn’t ‘pass’ as much as accrue. How the past is always the present.
You want to say again, have you said it before? How do we remember our childhood games? The hands, where they go. The arms, how they fold over our heads. What to do with the paper, where to slide the coins, the flick of fingers. How to clap, how to laugh. The tick-tock ache in our pelvises.
Is this it?
The message of communitas is more important than ever.
The collectivity we have established (
we, the writers of this text) is radically egalitarian and non-hierarchical. It too is a kind of feminist insistence that there is a way of working within the academy in multiple or by addition. That our collective always includes people of varying ages and varying career-stage is also significant. That the drafts are worked up in Google docs without constant attribution of whose words belong to whom is, too.
This text is not a template for how to do the thing we say we are doing so much as an ode to the desire to do it in the first place. An ode to the wish for egalitarian, open, breathable spaces such as these. ‘[P]utting oneself into a space of deliberate uncertainty’.
This creative project feels like a moment to invite people to do and make something together, through ‘playful ways of knowing and embodiment, feeling and intuition as they encounter art’ (Rendle-Short). If we think of communitas unfolding as felt experience, and ‘a kind of flowerbed ready, waiting’ (Turner), how might the many, the lateral, and the collective show up in the sphere of arts and writing? We played in communitastic spaces housed in the chat of an online conference presentation, a Google doc, three projects coming together to create a fourth experience – the experience of weaving them together – in an online panel. We have proposed a multiplicity of interdisciplinary spaces in which participants play with communitasing. The proposition addressed is of imminent possibility, enacting means and methods for generating collective joy. We have come to take great pleasure and comfort in this space of collectivity and multiplicity. Of this decentred ‘I’ and complex ‘we’. Of the weft and weave of the many-that-is-one and vice versa.
We are convinced by it and committed to it.
To be continued.
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- Ellis, Melody, Andy Jackson, Tina Stefanou, Peta Murray, Khalid Warsame (2020), ‘On the holding of spaces for essaying into’, Cordite Poetry Review.
- Esposito, Roberto (1998/2009), Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, trans. Timothy C. Campbell, Redwood City: Stanford University Press.
- Foucault, Michel and Claude Bonnefoy (2013), Speech begins after death, P. Artières (ed), trans. R. Bononno, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
- Gale, Ken and Jonathan Wyatt (2017), ‘Working at the wonder: collaborative writing as method of inquiry’, Qualitative Inquiry 23 (5), 355–6.
- Haraway, Donna (2022), ‘Transcript: Donna Haraway on Staying with the trouble [ENCORE] /269’, For the Wild, 19 January.
- The Life of Brian (1979), Wrs. Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Terry Gillian, dir. Terry Jones, UK: HandMade Films.
- Murray, Peta and Francesca Rendle-Short (2021), ‘Kin-as-ethics: experiments in un/authorised queer essay practice’, Sydney Review of Books.
- Probyn, Elspeth (2005), Blush: Faces of Shame, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press
- Rendle-Short, Francesca (2021), ‘Finding communitas: encounter, unfolding, and creative writing’, TEXT: Journal of writing and writing courses, 25(2):1–19.
- Rendle-Short, Francesca (2023), ‘Communitas’, in Wardle, D, van Loon, J, Taylor, S, Rendle-Short, F, Murray, P and Carlin, D (eds), A-Z of creative writing methods, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 46–8.
- Taylor, Stayci, Kim Munro and Peta Murray (2019), ‘Advanced diarology: mortification, materiality and meaning-making’, TEXT 23 (Special 57), 1–21.
- Turner, Edith (2012), Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy, London: Palgrave Macmillan.