Commonality and Difference

I started using the terms ‘commonality’ and ‘difference’ a few years ago when writing this paper on asexuality. I didn’t really have a substantive theory of what I meant by them and, in retrospect, this is the one thing I don’t like about a paper I’m otherwise quite proud of. I introduce the two phrases in order to make sense of a really intriguing feature of the asexual community, a phrase I have problems with but have yet to find a better expression, which became clear to me once I started my fieldwork. In spite of the apparent commonality expressed through the ‘umbrella definition’ of an asexual as ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction’, it was nonetheless the case that there were a diverse range of labels circulating amongst people who identified as such which were used to articulate the differences between them. What really fascinated me at the time was the sense that this articulation of difference was not in spite of the commonality but rather relied upon it as a precondition. The commonality was constituted through converging experiences of ‘not being sexual enough’ and it was this shared repudiation which brought them to asexual discussion spaces where, in turn, the possibility for discussion led to the elaboration of different forms of ‘not being sexual enough’ and differing histories of having this pathologised by local reference groups.

After writing this paper the terms ‘commonality’ and ‘difference’ stuck in my mind but they still weren’t concepts in any meaningful sense. As I’ve progressed with my work on asexuality, exactly what I mean by these has become slightly clearer. In my biographical analysis of asexual experience I’ve argued that, in spite of the substantive heterogeneity, there is a common structure to experience which sheds light on broader issues of normativity and identity in late modernity:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

I think this model has broader scope than people who identify as asexual. I’m working on a chapter (with Tom Brock) and a paper in which I’m trying, in different ways, to unpack this claim. But what I’m still unsatisfied with is my understanding of how what at (1) is constituted as a difference can be reconstituted as a commonality at (4). I can see how I could theorise this from a symbolic interactionist perspective but, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, this isn’t something I want to pursue. So instead I want to think about commonality and difference in relational realist terms. At the root of what I’m arguing is a claim about the relation between the I and the We at  distinct points in time. If we take (1) to (4) above as a transition from T1 to T4 then two processes take place: P forms new relations outside the local normative environment and those relations became the ‘We’ to which P’s ‘I’ is orientated.

So in this sense commonality and difference are relational properties. At T1 P stands as an I in relation to a We which, implicitly and explicitly, renders P’s characteristic X problematic. This unfolds interactively as P acts in ways which provokes stigmatising reactions from this reference group. It also unfolds intra-actively as P deliberates about the ways in which they perceive themselves to be different from their reference group. Their efforts to bridge the interactive and intra-active through dialogical means concretises this difference, as their attempts to externalise internal conversation simply provokes a more direct version of the situationally specific censure they’ve met in everyday interaction: e.g. “don’t be silly, you’ve just not me the right person yet” or “you should go to a doctor and get your hormones checked out”. What I’m trying to articulate is an understanding of commonality and difference which sees this as a relational property obtaining between I and We but one which is dialogically instantiated. Between P and Px there are always an indefinite array of differences but, in keeping(ish) with symbolic interactionism, this difference has to be rendered salient. It’s through interaction and intra-action that a potential difference becomes a real difference, as the relational property obtaining between the I and the We comes to be concretised into something which matters to the I. The difference is always there in potentia but it’s only when it becomes salient in this way that the characteristic of the relation (the difference between P and Px) begins to exercise a causal power over P. It’s when the potential difference is ‘activated’ that it comes to structure the relation between P and Px. Conversely with a commonality. I’m not sure how clear this is to anyone reading because this is the first time I’ve managed to articulate this (and I’ve been trying for a while).

But in the upcoming paper I’m trying to use this with the data from my asexuality research in order to flesh out the concepts here, as a basis for extending the approach to other areas. In the paper Tom Brock and I have been writing over the summer, we’ve argue that it’s important to consider demonstrations (in the case of our paper the November student protests) as spatialised events through which are generative of solidarity on the basis of shared participation. I can roughly make sense of this in terms of the approach above, with the event being a site where commonality can be constituted through shared political activity.

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