A Question on Community

Michael Onsando
4 October ,2016

There is community everywhere. You have your social media community, work community, school community et cetera. And these communal areas have certain codes. Some rules are spoken, most are unspoken but generally people know what to do (which is, needless to say, also organized by all kinds of problems like race, class and gender). And so not knowing identifies one as an other. Perhaps this is why questions are such a violence. Questions call knowledge into question. The act of asking a question itself becomes a question. So a question like “Could I search your bag?” requires the response “You should know people.”

A form of power, then is the power to be assumed of knowledge. And to hold power with grace is often to allow yourself to be asked questions. To allow for questions. But because power is thought of as a place of knowledge there’s only so many times one can “not know” the answer to a question.

Given that there is a limit on the lack of knowledge then – it becomes easier to control the ways in which questions are asked. To control the questions is to control power. One way to control questions, of course, is fear. So if say, a dead businessman or maybe just a couple of bruised journalists will do the work of staving off unwanted questions – then that is what it takes.

And it makes sense, because a properly timed question can often do a lot of damage. A properly timed question with an audience more still.

This is why bodies end up being very important. And this is why the aesthetic is a heavy point of politic. How bodies present themselves gives history. This we know and we have touted around as career advice – dress for the position you want. How you present yourself determines how you are seen. But clothes are only one part of how your body presents itself. Hair, nails, skin, scars, fat, bones are all involved in this presentation. And when it comes to moulding oneself to a set standard just how far is liposuction from cutting nails? This is not a tirade against any form of grooming (which many who have met me would be convinced that I am deeply involved in). Rather to think about the ways in which we are recognized and ordered.

Because, as earlier said – to belong is a mixture of knowing and being known. Bodies that are known often need to be matched with their questions. Bodies that fail to match their questions are heavily pushed back to the place where they have achieved the right questions. “Why would you do that? You’re a man.” “But surely that’s not feminine at all, young lady!”

The thing is a body whose set of questions is known is manageable. It is now simple enough to figure out what spaces to put that body in, how to mould it. So it’s clear how, then, that carefree bodies are a problem – especially if you’re trying to run a form of authoritarian meritocracy. When questions start showing up from the wrong bodies – then they start showing up in the wrong spaces, they cease to be bodies.


They begin to gain personhood.


Suddenly it is not that simple to think of them as bodies. The process of questioning involves the ability to feel, analyse, understand the reasons behind that feeling and vocalizing. A rational path that is difficult to think of in abstract terms as bodies anymore. In asking, the act of asking itself – there is power. Questioning power becomes a question of power. Questioning power gives power to the questioner.


“We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”


Which brings us back to questions being a violence.

Because only bodies that present themselves in certain ways are awarded the esteem of personhood from which questions must be asked then only certain bodies gather the power through questions. Of course, this becomes one of those self serving traps that can only be escaped by unimagining the cage. To see oneself through this lens is to find reasons not to ask questions “I am a man – I cannot be curious about this.” And it is in these ways that we chose our brands of ignorance. Not in the way that refuses to see the flip side of the knowledge we possess (which is still another way to pick a form of ignorance) – but in closing curiosities for abstract reasons.

But questions are not limited currency. And because all our cages are of our own design – there is always someone with the question that leads one down the path of unimagining their own cage.

But not everyone wants to be free – or rather not everyone has imagined freedom in the same way. And no one is ever really sure if they chose the right form of freedom. So in many ways, to ask the question is to shake at something that is yet to be fully formed – the violence. Especially when the source of the question itself is not open to question.

And why?

If knowledge is power (gadget boy said it so it must be true) and questions are the key to knowledge how do we give each other spaces if communal spaces do not condone questioning? If, instead, we continue to be controlled by respectability. If “don’t ask” continues to be the mantra? And, if community doesn’t give power to its members – then what’s the point?


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