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Why 'Living Together'?

Introduction, Part One

Published onMar 25, 2022
Why 'Living Together'?

“Living together is an art, not a mere scientific or mechanical adjustment.”

William Pickens (1934)

As we state in our project rationale, “Beyond Social Cohesion: Global Repertoires of Living Together” (RePLITO) takes marginalized and neglected concepts and repertoires of living together as its starting point to rethink social cohesion from a ‘Southern’ perspective1. These concepts and repertoires continue to be debated and transformed within as well as beyond local, national or regional contexts. Together with our cooperation partner Off-University, we are creating a digital knowledge archive, that is, a  dynamic open-access knowledge resource which will enable easy access to the outcomes of our research activities and cooperation projects. We like to experiment with a variety of academic formats, such as multimedia conversations and collaborative publishing, in this shared space.

What do we refer to when we say ‘living together’?

A first association that may come to mind when we hear the term ‘living together’ is perhaps the physical co-presence of two or more people who share a home and live in the same household. This corresponds with the definition of the expression “to live together” as it is given in many English dictionaries, for instance: “(esp. of an unmarried couple) to dwell in the same house or flat; cohabit”. In the Indian context, one may immediately think of the ‘live-in relationship’, which is the official term for the cohabitation of an unmarried heterosexual couple deciding to live together on a long-term or permanent basis - and the couple may or may not plan to get married at a later point.

Ambient co-presence in multilocal families: living-together-apart

Beyond the (heterosexual) unmarried couple, we may associate the term ‘cohabitation’ with various other forms and constellations of families residing in one household – but then there’s also the highly interesting term ‘living-together-apart’ used, for instance, by sociologist Ravinder Kaur to describe the creative ways in which “families do their utmost to perform family over long distances, demonstrating that the family remains the primary unit of affiliation ” [Kaur 2019: 156]. Resulting from a situation in which (chosen, joint or nuclear) families often don’t live under the same roof but in multiple locations, sometimes over long periods of time or even permanently, they develop specific media practices to create a “mediated” or “ambient co-presence” [Madianou 2016], as physical proximity is no longer necessarily given in a world where geographical immobility is becoming a ‘luxury’ which many people cannot afford. This stands in sharp contrast to the displayed mobility optimism of policy-makers and advertising agents [Schneider 2015].

Living-together-apart in multilocal families.

Two images from Rizzhel Javier’s project “The Transnational Family Portrait”. Javier writes that their iPhone “allowed us to exist in each others’ lives on a daily basis” (last accessed Mar 21, 2022).

As multilocal families and the new ways of “living-together-apart” are a direct consequence of (transnational) labor migration and other forms of voluntary or forced mobility, they may serve as useful example to illustrate how the lens of living together enables a methodological approach which is sensitive to different scales and contexts.

Cohabitation in times of a global urban housing crisis

Finding a place to live together, either as a couple, family, or co-housing community, often proves to be tedious and time-consuming. The urban housing shortage and especially the lack of affordable housing is described as an ongoing global crisis, but solutions are and must be sought on local and regional levels where social relationships in neighborhoods are closely interlinked with the question of housing as well as with the way resources are allocated across different types of localities.

“Architecture of Coexistence: Building Pluralism”, ed. by Azra Akšamija (2020, architangle). The image was used for the online announcement of the book launch (last accessed Mar 21, 2022).

Biennale Architettura 2021. “How will we live together?“ The 17th International Architecture Exhibition ran from 22 May to 21 November 2021, curated by architect and scholar Hashim Sarkis. “We need a new spatial contract. In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together”, Sarkis has commented.” (last accessed Mar 21, 2022).

Speaking together in plurilingual societies

It is interesting to note that local as well as everyday levels of interaction and participation, either in post-conflict or in culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse contexts - and one should add here the important aspect of sexual and gender diversity - have also moved to the center of attention in more recent discussions in the media and in policy recommendations (i.e. by think tanks) that stress the fact that “living together in diversity” can and should be ‘cultivated’.

‘United in diversity’ is the official motto of the European Union. The city of Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU, increasingly takes pride in its pronounced linguistic diversity. Rather than a mere coexistence of many languages, however, multilingualism as the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage with more than one language in their day-to-day lives, is now seen as an ‘asset’ and promoted as the gateway to inclusiveness as well as economic success in Brussels.

The belief that fostering multilingualism is not only key for the inclusion of culturally diverse groups but also for economic development and general prosperity resonates with the UNESCO’s perspective:

“Today there is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening co-operation and attaining quality education for all, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.”

On the one hand, we can observe an emerging plurilingual paradigm, especially in postmonolingual societies that begin to see linguistic diversity as beneficial for social inclusion, stability and economic development. On the other hand, in postcolonial contexts where the legacy of the monolingual paradigm and ideological relation between nation and language can be felt until today, it is a difficult endeavour to argue against a prevailing perception that multilingualism - and in particular pre-monolingual forms of multilingualism - pose a “challenge” to social cohesion.

As journalist Pallavi Aiyar pointedly describes in her article “Asian Nations and Their Languages (2021)”:

“‘Why don’t all Indians speak Hindi?’ That question was put to me by a Chinese student at Peking University circa 2002. The girl in question was a Hindi-language scholar.

She was beginning to realize that, when it came to job prospects in India, English would be more useful to her than the language she had spent the last several years learning.

India’s dizzying multilingualism

I tried to explain India’s embrace of multilingualism. That it had 22 official languages. I talked about diversity. I spoke of the unfairness of prioritizing the tongue of some Indians over those of others.

The young woman stared at me blankly, unable to comprehend the idea that a country could be coherent in the absence of a unifying tongue.

To her, the idea that a nation requires a national language to act as a glue felt as obvious as stating that the sun was hot.

Linguistic decisions: Crucial and controversial

In fact, there is nothing obvious about the choices that different nations make when it comes to languages. The process of arriving at these decisions is often a fraught one, both crucial and controversial.

This is especially so in the context of polyphonic and geographically diverse countries like China, India and Indonesia – three large Asian nations that I have lived in.”

If scholars in the field of sociolinguistics, such as Susan Coetzee-van Rooy (2016), argue that multilingual repertoires can actually “facilitate communication that enhances the building of better relationships and a deeper understanding between people” in “emerging ‘super-diverse’ situations across the globe”2, this supports a ‘cohesion through diversity’ perspective and approach (in contrast to an “cohesion in spite of differences” perspective). However, while the social (and cultural) cohesion approach seems to focus more on community membership and a sense of unity of the respective community or society, a “living together in diversity” approach directs the attention perhaps more to a modus of coexistence and possibility to build new alliances (as it is described, for instance, in the “Mannheim Declaration on Living Together in Diversity”).

Shared habitats: living together with other species

In most cases, terms such as ‘living together’, ‘coexistence’ or ‘cohabitation refer to human beings, but the human-centric perspective is also sometimes challenged. For instance, by the project and exhibition “Cohabitation: A Manifesto for the Solidarity of Non-Humans and Humans in Urban Space” (Berlin, 2021). Drawing and expanding on Donna Haraway’s reflections on the long history of cross-species socialities (2003) and “companion species” (2007), the exhibition invited visitors to rethink

“human-non-human relations” and to take “class and gender relations as well as racism into account. Only then can we reimagine how to live together in solidarity in future urban societies.”

“Cohabitation – A Manifesto for the Solidarity of Non-Humans and Humans in Urban Space,” silent green, Berlin, 2021, installation view. Image taken from Lisa Moravecs article “How Can We Live Together?”, published in September 2021 online at: (last accessed Mar 21, 2022).

Rethinking social (and cultural) cohesion

However, when we mention our goal to rethink social cohesion within the RePLITO project, the necessity to do so should also be explained. A short answer to this complex question is that we consider social (and cultural) cohesion a normatively loaded term which continues to be primarily linked to a nationally or territorially defined community. This inevitably raises the question of boundaries and exclusivity of community concepts as well as the cultural and historical narratives that promote - or counteract - them. Furthermore, the assumed sedentism that is likely to be reproduced through a focus, and even stress, on territorial delimitation in social cohesion measurement ignores the impact of (multiple forms of) mobility on preexisting ideas, imaginations, and practices of living together, which are not necessarily tied to a permanent physical co-presence in one place or country. If we look at the prevalence of multilocal families who, thanks to the availability of digital and mobile media, practice new ways of ‘doing family’ and ‘living-together-apart’, it is important to bear in mind that a long history of repeated migrations, voluntary or forced, has already shaped the memory and lives of people and communities over many generations, notably in regions such as South Asia.

In Europe and the United States, immigration has been portrayed and discussed as a, if not the, central ‘challenge’ to social cohesion that requires specific ‘solutions’ - but exactly this could be argued to produce a notion of uninterrupted continuity and territorial boundedness of a seemingly stable and unchanged ‘host’ community which is suddenly confronted with the perceived influx of ‘culturally alien’ mobile individuals or groups that are ‘not yet integrated’. Such a view is paradigmatically expressed, for instance, by columnist Ross Douthat in his controversial opinion article for the New York Times where he wrote:

„First, as mass immigration increases diversity, it reduces social cohesion and civic trust. This is not a universal law, (…) there are counter-examples and ways to resist the trend. However, it is a finding that strongly comports with the real-world experience of Europe and America, where as cultural diversity has increased so has social distrust, elite-populist conflict, and the racial, religious and generational polarization of political parties.”

Political scientist Robert D. Putnam put it similarly in his much-discussed lecture and article, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century (2007)”:

“Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer [Putnam 2007].”

Although a much-needed perspective on structural inequalities may not be as strikingly absent in the current debate as it had been previously, when an arguably over-ethnicized and over-culturalized reading of society prevailed, the question of how to form a collective identity from ‘diversity’ to create a more ‘cohesive’ society continues to be framed as a key ‘challenge’.

As the definition given by Bertelsmann Foundation explicitly states, “social cohesion is understood as the quality of social cooperation and togetherness in a territorially delimited community”. The influential German think tank also believes that social cohesion is “measurable” and therefore created a Social Cohesion Radar (SCR) which

“is based on a broad set of indicators drawn from comparative international surveys and other data sources. It breaks down the concept of social cohesion into three domains - social relations, connectedness and focus on the common good”.

In view of what has been perceived as an increasing social and political polarization, especially during the Covid-19 crisis, many who urgently appealed to uphold cohesion in Germany, as well as in other nation-states, also seemed to take for granted that social and cultural cohesion provides a stable basis for democracy. However, as the country studies undertaken for Bertelsmann Foundation’s “Asian Radar” suggest, the assumed interdependence between “cohesion” and “democracy” can be questioned, as “strong bonds and cohesion withing a group can lend itself to authoritarian structures and exploitation of power [Croissant/Walkenhorst 2021:16]”.

Or is it rather the fear of “disruption” and a primary focus on “stability” (irrespective of the political system) which motivates the desperate search for remedies and cures to this miraculous binding substance which is regularly named as “glue” or “cement” in public discussions on social and cultural cohesion? A look into the findings of an online poll on social cohesion in “The Pandemic Age”, conducted by the global market research and public opinion specialist IPSOS, seems to confirm this view. Two of the key findings presented in this IPSOS study are:

“Only 6 of 27 countries are net positive in Social
Cohesion – China, Saudi Arabia, Australia, India,
Malaysia and Sweden.

The remaining countries are all net negative, with
the most decidedly negative including Japan,
South Korea, Poland, France and Belgium.”

IPSOS deduces from these findings that “Social Cohesion is under assault globally”:

“Almost twice as many global citizens are
‘weak’ than ‘solid’ in their sense of social cohesion.

(…) Given the turmoil created by the pandemic, it is
concerning that we have such a low level of social
cohesion globally going into a period where significant
challenges will emerge with any recovery.”

It thus seems that the current knowledge production on social and cultural cohesion is centrally concerned with 1) the idea of measurement of a quantifiable quality or lack thereof, and 2) with the search for solutions to increase social cohesion and, thereby, ensure social peace, economic development, and political stability.

‘Living together’ as an analytical lens

However, if we accept the thought that we do live in an age of dramatic and unprecedented changes, it seems also relevant to ask how not only institutions or think thanks, but multiple social actors around the world and on different scales - ranging from local to transregional or global levels - perceive these shifts and how they respond to them. What are the ideas, histories, and practices they turn to, or revive, to imagine communal life anew and to (re-)create bonds of mutual trust, recognition, and attachment?

Do they think of and strive for communities of solidarity as bounded, territorially delimited, and exclusive entities - or rather as temporary or long-standing relationships that are open, ever-changing and, potentially, transcending spaces?

Hence, our focus is more on the imagination, creativity and agency in contexts where people are already ‘doing work’ and actively searching for ways to respond to the multiple ‘challenges’, ‘crises’ and ‘changes’ they are experiencing. By no means can we assume that living together is a neutral or undefined term. Also, the majority of us are likely to associate it with a peaceful or successful form of coexistence, not necessarily with a situation in which individuals or communities live together in hostility or indifference. Or, as Jacques Derrida put it:

“’(L)ive together’ one must, and one must do so well, one might as well do so. (…) One cannot not ‘live together’ even if one does not know how or with whom, with God, with gods, men, animals, with one’s own, with one’s close ones, neighbors, family, or friends, with one’s fellow citizens or countrymen, but also with the most distant strangers, with one’s enemies, with oneself, with one’s contemporaries, with those who are no longer so or will never be so (…) [Derrida 2013:23f.] .”

Understood and applied not in a prescriptive sense but as an analytical lens, living together enables a methodological approach which is sensitive to different scales and contexts – local, intra-regional, national, regional, global - while at the same time supporting a ‘nested perspective’, as all scales are interlinked.

“lumbung is the Indonesian word for a communal rice-barn, where the surplus harvest is stored for the benefit of the community.

lumbung is the concrete practice adopted on the path towards documenta fifteen in 2022 and beyond. Here, lumbung is to be understood as a kind of pooled collective resource based on the principle of communality. This will combine ideas, knowledge, human resources, funding and other shareable resources and will build on specific values, rituals and organizational principles. (…) Interdisciplinary approaches are essential to this process. As activities and spaces emerge, social relationships and transactions dovetail — eventually taking public form in a slow and organic development so as to ‘live in and with society’ (last accessed Mar 21, 2022).”

Of course, there are also other interesting uses of the term living together that inspire us, most famously perhaps with reference to Roland Barthes and his explorations of so-called idiorhythmic life forms, that is, social connections which can protect the individual’s need for tranquility and contemplation - not only in isolated places such as early hermit communities, medieval monastic societies, or modern sanatoriums, for instance, but also in contemporary and crowded cities. Drawing on social science, cultural studies approaches and on literature - as probably most novels address the question of ‘how to live together’ in one way or the other -, Barthes and many who felt inspired by him explore the possibility of creating a community capable of including both - collective rules and individual rhythms, habits, and preferences [Stene-Johansen, Refsum and Schimanski 2018].

Image taken from a ppt presentation (author unknown) in the framework of the 2014 English Association Conference (last accessed Mar 21, 2022).

If living (well) together can indeed be seen as an art, as the famous quote by William Pickens above suggests, this idea sits well with most of the contributions to our collection which demonstrate an impressive range of thoughts and actions that individual actors or collectives exert in view of structural inequalities and increased sociopolitical polarization in India. Nonetheless, living together in inequality can also aggravate a situation in which marginalized communities are further excluded, if the common objective is not to (re-)create bonds of mutual trust and recognition, but rather, to stabilize unequal power relations.

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