(20MIN READ) Inspired by a stamp from his grandfather’s collection, Torben Koerschkes unpacks his thinking on the notion of community. He does so in dialogue with philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant and his book Poetics of Relation, in which Glissant develops notions of community that are opposed to totalitarian ones. Specific focus is put on the relationship between community and territory. Totalitarian communities identify with a concrete, inhabited territory and attempt to inscribe themselves linearly into this territory through monomyths. The territory of detotalized communities, on the other hand, always remains unfulfilled. It is the never reachable paradise – Utopia? Fata Morgana? – that keeps the community in movement.

An island appears in the distance, unsigned or oversigned. Its name is Avalon.

On Community, Myth, and Territory

Earlier this year I found a stamp in my grandfather’s stamp collection. It was one of four postage stamps published for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Turkey’s Mapping Commission.1 It shows a black airplane from above. The airplane is flying over a hilly landscape, depicted in green, that is wild and disordered. Behind the airplane, by contrast, a trail of mapped terrain stretches out. Within this trail the hilly landscape is depicted by symbols: red lines that indicate the differences in height and black lines that indicate borders. The landscape is surveyed, calibrated, and parceled. Technological progress—represented by the airplane—is understood as making this surveying especially efficient.

     The Mapping Commission was founded in 1895. Its founding coincided with the Armenian massacre in the years 1894 to 1896, during which between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians were killed by the Ottoman regime and its allies.2 I cannot help but see the plane on the stamp as a warplane imposing an order in which an inside is clearly distinguishable from an outside—the community within the border drawn from others outside it—and every shading has given way to a line.

    The recorded landscape that the airplane leaves behind relates to a specific idea of community and its connection to a territory, one developed by the writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant. His use of the term community is very broad and open and overlaps with the concept of culture, but it starts with a group of people sharing a locality.3 Ideas of nations and nationalities, but also formulations like “the West” represent the greatest scale at which this term can work. In his book Poetics of Relation, Glissant formulates such ideas of community that can be opposed to totalitarian4 or fixed conceptions of community. In Glissant's conception, a totalitarian community identifies with a concrete, inhabited territory. It claims “a lineage inscribed in” that territory.5 The commemorative postage stamp—which is also part of a nation’s communication—can be read as a condensed image of such a relationship of a totalitarian community to a territory. In war, the goal is to control the terrain being fought over. Here, as in many other cases, the map is a tool of control. It provides orientation and makes a community’s territory manifest. Recording the landscape and reducing it to lines, symbols, and colored fields, can be part of a totalitarian act when it is, for example, used as an argument for the killing of thousands of people. Mapping a landscape in this way subjects and declares, attributes and regulates, and suggests facts in relation to an actual landscape that are really cultural and political determinations, with consequences for both identity politics and administrative policy.

Totalitarian ideas of community go hand in hand with the idea of a ‘founding myth.’ In such a community, fictions that would otherwise wander through the centuries are instrumentalized to connect an idea of that community with a specific territory. As Glissant points out:

    “The main role of the founding myths is to consecrate the presence of a community in a territory, by attaching, through legitimate filiation, this presence, this present time, to a Genesis, to a creation of the world.”6

    Through an artificial demarcation, the founding myth legitimizes who can belong to the community and who cannot. This demarcation produces dissociation from everyone who (and everything that) does not fit in the narrative of the myth. Maps are therefore necessary to frame the territory in the service of such narratives and the exclusion they demand and, in turn, establish the territory as the legal territory of the community. According to the literary and media scholar Joseph Vogl, this process leads to “symbolic reshapings (or clumping)”7: myths are reshaped into stringent narratives, one-dimensional arguments (for example to legitimize the “filiation” of a community) rather than open-ended, wandering tales. These “symbolic reshapings” are expressed in concepts such as blood bond, nation, race, or people. Vogl further argues that a fixed idea of community can be subjected to a “logic of results” which “presupposes solutions.”8 In this logic of results, “one always knows more or less what this nebulous German people is, that is supposed to become a nation.”9 This knowledge is, according to Vogl, justified mythologically, culturally, or biologically through the founding myth, epic, or family tree.10 Or, to consider the same issue from Glissant’s point of view, one could say that the story is being told backward: from the presupposed solution, or the fixed idea of a community, to the act of its creation.11 If the solution is already there, it is primarily a matter of lending a reality to this solution, this initial idea.12

Some say the name Avalon derives from the French "aval" (below), suggesting that the fairy city is in the subterranean world.13 Others depict the island in Glastonbury.14 And yet others, right in the Mediterranean Sea, close to Messina.

One of the ways in which an idea is given reality, that is, materialized and translated into actions, is through the appropriation of signs: by creating a logo, a flag, or a hymn, a certain meaning is associated with a certain color, sound, or gesture. It is to code identity. A territory is occupied by inscribing a founding myth, epic, or family tree into its landscape, in other words, a certain meaning is given to that landscape. The same is true for the landscape left behind by the airplane on the postage stamp: by reducing it to lines and associating a certain community with this mapped terrain, the landscape is transformed into a sign and appropriated. With this in mind, we can complement the analysis of Glissant and Vogl with a deeper investigation of poetics, such as those developed by the writer and activist Franco “Bifo” Berardi.

    According to Berardi, the task of poetry is to liberate signs from their established semantic contexts. In Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, he describes poetics as a process of experimentation in which semiotic systems and patterns are remixed:

    “When humans exchange words in the social space, they presume that their words have established meanings and produce predictable effects. However, we are also able to utter words that break the established relation between signifier and signified, and open new possibilities of interpretation, new horizons of meaning.”15

    If fixed ideas of community implicate an aggressive occupation of signs, can “established relations” be broken by approaching them poetically? Can such a poetic approach dismantle what Glissant calls ‘totalitarianism’? What would a poetic relationship between community, myth, and territory look like? How can we imagine a community with a subversive connection to a landscape, one that is more open and ambiguous, one that is in the making? Can we imagine forms of coexistence that favor, rather than limit the complexity of the world and its terrains?

    Once the signs (such as those of a nation) have been occupied, the unity that every people and every nation supposedly represents is no longer open for debate. It is established de facto through the rewriting of history into a linear narrative that instrumentalizes the landscape, for example, by means of lines and symbols on maps. Vogl calls such acts of creating a reality for an already fixed idea “programs for realization”16 and in so doing points to a technical, mechanical dimension that leaves no room for deviation and unpredictability. At the same time, Berardi writes that it is the “predictable effects” that are relied on and one could argue that this predictability guarantees security for those who are included; it is a matter of programmatically actualizing what was previously claimed to be real in order to afterwards defend it. In this process, the landscape, which in its infinite ambiguity cannot be defined, is pinned down and rendered concrete. It is reduced to a single story. The postage stamp distills such a program for realization.

According to legend, Morgain or Morgant or Morgan Le Fay17, sister or niece of King Arthur, nursed her wounded brother or cousin on the island of Avalon18, which is depicted as unreachable by man.

In contrast to the totalitarian capture of landscape, the relation between detotalized ideas of community and a landscape remains open—just like the community itself is kept in movement by the quest for a never-reachable paradise. We see an example of the detotalized idea of territory depicted on a map in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark:

When the crew in Carroll’s story receives the map, they are pleased:

    “He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
‘What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?’
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
‘They are merely conventional signs!’”19

    This map does not pin down, it does not occupy. In fact it seems pretty useless. But the map’s label clearly indicates it as an “Ocean-Chart,” a map of the sea. It thus asks: can the sea possibly be a territory for the detotalized community? And can the obliteration of signs be a thing that is itself mapped?

    In various texts Glissant distinguishes between the Caribbean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.20 The former is open and diffracts, it is a sea of transit and passage. It is a place of the unforeseeable, that is, uncontrollable emergence of Creole21 realities22. Typologically speaking, the Caribbean Sea can be described as a sea punctuated by islands—an archipelago. The Mediterranean, by contrast, is a sea surrounded by land; a basin that collects and concentrates. Glissant describes the Mediterranean as a sea that “bend[s] men’s thoughts towards ideas of sameness and unity.”23 Glissant's poetic linking of the Mediterranean with totalitarian ideas about community is demonstrated with frightening bluntness by the actions of Frontex on behalf of the European Union since 2014. Within this system, it is obvious that thousands of people are never to be included in the program for realization that is “Europe”; there is no room for them.

    Adopting Glissant’s ‘Caribbean’ mode of thinking, one that takes after islands and passages, rather than basins and edges, enables one to imagine a different kind of community––not totalitarian, but complex and irreducible, and unwedded to a hard territory. Its founding myth is not a monomyth, not roots, but rather a rhizomatic network based on encounters. In that sense, there is no final idea or ‘answer’ to the question of what the community is; Vogl’s ‘logic of results’ does not apply.

One possible interpretation of the name Morgain states that it comes from the Welsh “morgen” and means sea-born. But it is also possible that this is not true.24

In their Conversational Art25 the artist duo Antje Eske and Kurd Alsleben often spoke of Antwortnot26. Antwortnot occurs when someone doubts their own position and understands they need others to think further: “You are alone and you cannot do it alone.”27 Unlike the logic of a program for realization, Antwortnot means that there is not yet an answer, that the answer is still open for debate––the program, then, wouldn’t know what to realize. Antwortnot is a driving force in an exchange, in joining a conversation, in coming together. It encompasses the beginning of a movement toward an Other, as well as the breaking open of fixed positions. It could be an attempt to keep the connection between community, myth, and landscape open, and to assemble with others, again and again, around this open linkage. If there is no longer an Antwortnot, that is, everything is clear and explained, then one perhaps moves toward the moment of totalization, toward the monomyth. The detotalized community, however, stays with an Antwortnot.

Avalon: flickering on the horizon, interwoven with the image of Morgain Le Fay. But they are hardly graspable, and the question of who Morgain is remains unanswered.

In Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, the medievalist Lucy Allen Paton traces descriptions of the figure of Morgain Le Fay from the earliest mentions, around 1148. Paton discovers that Morgain Le Fay

    “is beautiful, has the power of shape-shifting, and understands the healing art, all of which attributes belong directly to her fairy kind; but of the true other-world fay it could not be said that she had learned mathematics, i.e., astrology.”28

    According to Paton “we find no one theme”29 connected to Morgain Le Fay but rather many, sometimes contradictory characteristics. These uncertainties in the myth of Morgain Le Fay correspond well to Vogl's demand that “[d]esigns for community must constantly be cleansed of the ideas of totality that they themselves create.”30 The signified must constantly be freed of the signifier. Vogl's claim, and its consequences for thinking through community and territory, is especially pertinent given that Morgain Le Fay is the source of the name of an always unfulfilled territory: the optical phenomenon known as a fata morgana.

    Fata morgana is the Italian translation of the name Morgain Le Fay. The name is also possibly connected to a famous mirage close to Messina.31 But, recalling Glissant’s models of the sea, we can also think of the fata morgana as an attempt to detotalize the Mediterranean, by placing an unreachable island in the middle of that basin. Like the fata morgana, Morgain embodies in-betweenness. She cannot be fixed to one story, one kind of being, one lineage. Her island—Avalon—is present in various interpretations of the legend of King Arthur, but is not really tangible, an uncertain paradise. Does this make it a potential territory for the detotalized community?

    The detotalized community cannot pin down either myths or grounds, cannot go from terra to territōrium. Thus, the possibility of constructing an identity through fixation and security is denied. The connection of a detotalized community with a landscape remains temporary, shifting, and patchy. Such a community’s goal is not the perfection of a community as a totalitarian whole. Like a fata morgana, the territory of the detotalized community vanishes shortly before it can be occupied. A great ambivalence lies between the hope that seafarers experience on seeing the long-yearned-for island, which first comes closer and then disappears––a deceived hope––and the island’s refusal to be appropriated by the totalitarian.

The writer Benedict Wells says of the fata morgana: “You see what you have to see.”32 In Wells’ statement, we can read a warning of the danger of forming or imagining a community, of being blind to its inherent mechanisms of exclusion, power structures, and claims to finality and totality, a blindness that can, in turn, lead to the legitimization of supremacy and oppression. But at the same time the fata morgana is an illusion; it is a territory impossible to sign and defend. Morgain Le Fay and the isle of Avalon metaphorically point to this ambivalence, to this unreachable promise. Their story—as Paton shows—has many layers, beginnings, and open ends.

    Following Vogl and Glissant, we can distinguish between two ideas of community: those that are fixed and totalitarian and those that are unfulfilled and detotalized. In the first, its members identify with a specific, concrete, and inhabited territory, one that is sought out and conquered.33 In the second, what defines the community for its members always remains open—their territory is ideal but unclaimed. Could Avalon, Morgain Le Fay, and the fata morgana provide adequate images for opening up a poetic relationship of community and territory? Do they open up a space in which the signified can be freed of the signifier? Can Avalon be a poetic territory? As a single island, alone rather than embedded in an archipelago, Avalon is a very specific, delimited, almost exemplarily fixed territory. It is detotalized only by being embedded again and again in uncertainties that are geographic as well as historical and mythic. Its location and meaning remain ever negotiable as does the story of the enchantress Morgain Le Fay. They both are flickering images that must be further liberated from established narratives so that they do not become encrusted or ossified. Morgain Le Fay, who as a fata morgana spreads hope and fear in equal measure, must remain ambiguous. Avalon’s potential as a poetic territory lies in its constant re-signification through the tale of Morgain Le Fay. But how can we continue to think about detotalized communities from this point forward? This question is given urgency by the alternatives: an aggressive reduction of the world to one-dimensional meanings and a suppression of the many possible coexistences beyond territorial bigotry.

    The unfulfilled community is not a community in the same sense as the fulfilled one, just as a fata morgana is not an island like Sicily. Shouldn’t the unfulfilled community be described rather as a process, as an action, as making community? I make community, we make community. Only as a not-yet34 can community be conceived as a poetic structure that has to be constantly reinterpreted, constantly liberated from its occupation. Berardi describes the work of the poet as follows:

    “Like the schizo, the poet does not respect the conventional limits of the relation between the signifier and the signified, and reveals the infinitude of the process of meaning-making (signification).”35

    Morgain Le Fay and Avalon serve as examples of the crutches required for a negotiation of community and territory, with the knowledge that this negotiation cannot be completed. If the postage stamp from my grandfather’s collection illustrates the act of drawing up a border of the Ottoman regime and distills a program for realization, the myth of Morgain Le Fay and Avalon distills a process for contingency––an open and ambiguous relation of a community to a landscape, one that is always in the making.

The island disappears again.


1︎︎︎  The Mapping Commission was the precursor of the General Directorate of Mapping.

2︎︎︎ (accessed July 27, 2022).

3︎︎︎  As Glissant’s German translator Beate Thill writes, Glissant develops his ideas starting from the landscape. (Glissant 2013, p. 71)

4︎︎︎     Following Glissant and Joseph Vogl, I speak of totalitarian ideas of community and detotalized ideas of      community. The terms derive from their writings on communities, though they do not use them in direct sequence with the term community. Glissant usually distinguishes between „atavistic cultures“ and „composite cultures“ (Glissant 2020, p. 10) and Vogl speaks of a "de-totalization of forms of encounter" (Vogl 2003, p. 7)

5︎︎︎ Glissant 2010, p. 13

6︎︎︎ Glissant 2020, p. 39

7︎︎︎ Vogl 2003, p. 1

8︎︎︎ Ibid., p. 2

9︎︎︎ Ibid.

10︎︎︎ Ibid., p. 1

11︎︎︎ Glissant 2010, p. 47

12︎︎︎ Vogl 2003, p. 2

13︎︎︎ Paton 1903, pp. 40–41 n. 2, quoting a note in Francisque Michel’s edition of Floriant et Florete.

14︎︎︎  Ibid., p. 32 and p. 35.

15︎︎︎  Berardi 2018, p. 19.

16︎︎︎  Vogl 2003, p. 2

17︎︎︎  Paton 1903, p. 27

18︎︎︎  Ibid., p. 33

19︎︎︎  Carroll, quoted Cornell University digital library: (accessed July 25, 2022)

20︎︎︎  Glissant 2010, p. 33 or Glissant 2020, p. 5

21︎︎︎  For Glissant, creolization is the coming together of different cultural elements that are regarded as equals. The process of creolization is unforeseeable and in that respect differs from a mere mixing, which, in the case of the hybridization of plants, for example, can be calculated. (Glissant 2020, p. 7ff.)

22︎︎︎  Glissant 2020, p. 7ff.

23︎︎︎  Ibid., p. 5

24︎︎︎  Paton 1903, p. 9

25︎︎︎  Eske and Alsleben have organized conversational roundtables over many years, for example as part of their 2010 solo exhibition Conversational Art at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. In 2018 and 2019, I frequently participated in the roundtables and had many conversations with the two.

26︎︎︎  Literally translated, Antwortnot means being in need of an answer, but Eske and Alsleben use it to describe a very urgent condition.

27︎︎︎  Körschkes 2018, p. 68.

28︎︎︎  Paton 1903, p. 43

29︎︎︎  Ibid., p. 8

30︎︎︎  Vogl 2003, p. 1

31︎︎︎  Paton 1903, p. 251

32︎︎︎  Hielscher 2022.

33︎︎︎  Glissant 2010, p. 20

34︎︎︎  On Ernst Bloch’s concept of the not-yet, see Misha Kakabadze's contribution Concrete Utopia Today in the first issue of Utopian Thinking. (Accessed July 25, 2022).

35︎︎︎  Berardi 2018, p. 20


fig.1︎︎︎ Image by the author.

fig.2︎︎︎ P. J. Mode collection of persuasive cartography, #8548. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Accessed July 25, 2022.


Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” 2018. Breathing: Chaos and Poetry. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).

Carroll, Lewis. 1891. The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits. Macmillan. Cornell University digital library: Accessed July 25, 2022.

Glissant, Édouard. 2010. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Originally published in French in 1990.

———. 2013. Kultur und Identität: Ansätze zu einer Poetik der Vielheit. Translated by Beate Thill. Heidelberg: Wunderhorn. Originally published in French in 1996.

———. 2020. Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity. Translated by Celia Britton. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. Originally published in French in 1996.

Hielscher, Matze. 2022. Hotel Matze. Mit Vergnügen, with Benedict Wells, March 2022, Accessed July 25, 2022.

Körschkes, Torben. 2018. Konversationsräume: Interviews. Hamburg. Accessed July 25, 2022.

Kluge, Alexander. 2012. Was ist ein Rhizom? (O que é um Rizoma: Legendado) Alexander Kluge e Joseph Vogl. YouTube, Alexander Kluge in conversation with Joseph Vogl. November 5, 2012, Accessed July 25, 2022.

Löw, Martina / Knoblauch, Hubert. 2021. Raumfiguren, Raumkulturen und die Refiguration von Räumen. In: Martina Löw, Volkan Sayman, Jona Schwerer, Hannah Wolf (Ed.). 2021. Am Ende der Globalisierung. Über die Refiguration von Räumen. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Özdamar, Emine Sevgi. 1992. Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei, hat zwei Türen, aus einer kam ich rein, aus der anderen ging ich raus. Frankfurt am Main, Wien: Büchergilde Gutenberg.

Paton, Lucy Allen. 1903. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance. Boston: Ginn. Accessed July 25, 2022.

Vogl, Joseph. 1994. Gemeinschaften: Positionen zu einer Philosophie des Politischen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

———. 2003. De-totalized Forms of Encounter. Translated by Matthew Gaskins and Eric Anglès. An Architektur, no. 10, pp. 1–8. Edited by Oliver Clemens, Jesko Fezer, Kim Förster, Anke Hagemann, Sabine Horlitz, Sabine Kühnast, and Andreas Müller. Accessed July 30, 2022.


Special thanks to Jörg Stollmann, Anke Haarmann, Ina Römling and Frieder Bohaumilitzky + Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson and Georgia Kareola for editing.


Torben Körschkes is part of the design and research collective HEFT, which explores questions of socio-political spaces. He studied design at Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen and HFBK Hamburg, where he completed his MFA on contemporary salons in 2018. Current grants and residencies include Hamburger Zukunftsstipendium (2021), Elbkulturfonds (2020), Bibliothek Andreas Züst (2019). He is currently working towards a PhD on the relationship between complexity and community at TU Berlin and works as a research assistant and lecturer at the Center for Design Research at HAW Hamburg.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Season 2: Autumn/Winter 2022 – Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson – Contributors: Damian Borovsky, Olly Bromham, Camila Chebez, Shreya De Souza, Torben Koerschkes, Max Kuwertz, Christopher Michael, Liminal Vision, Zach Whitworth, Rue Yi – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Design: Clint Soren, dolor~puritan, Ghikhan – Published: October 2022