For Jean-Luc Nancy 1940-2021

… il faut dire que la démocratie implique par essence quelque chose d’une anarchie qu’on voudrait presque dire principielle.

Jean-Luc Nancy, Démocratie finie et infinie

The french philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy died this last August 23rd. If the ideas of philosophers rarely have any direct translation into politics, or vice versa, their work, their concepts help not only to illuminate (and obfuscate) lived realities, but also create conditions for new realities.

The work of Jean-Luc Nancy has been a theoretical endeavour of this nature, and while his work will remain, his passing leaves us with one less friend or comrade in thought.

What follows are reflections, references and texts by and with Nancy, through a series of posts.

“What might a politics be that does not stem from the will to realize an essence?”[1]

The question seems at first sight odd, overly abstract, distant from the concerns, almost always declared to be urgent, of everyday political practice and militancy. The latter is programmatic: means and ends are set forth, calendars and schedules are laid out and criteria for evaluating the efficacy of the chosen means and the success or failure of reaching the ends are stipulated.

The overall aim of the programme however is to produce a collective form driven by a desire to make real some ideal (that will most likely itself become a means to some further end, with any final end – if such can be rendered meaningful – being perpetually delayed), or to quote Jean-Luc Nancy, the aim is incarnated in the will to realize an essence.

This ideal or essence may in the end become nothing more than a repetition of the same: the circulation of capital under “democracy”, technological advancement and population management, in sum, progress. In the repetition, the means of “social development” supplant the final goal (and this across the Right-Left political spectrum). Social “well-being” just is the means of its realisation.

Or, instead of ends collapsing into means, it is the means that are absorbed by the ends, in the ideal of an immediate, integrated, fused community: the nation, the people, the race – the illusory “gemeinschaft”, the myth of a community without division, separation.

Both instances cut across the Right-Left political spectrum and both feed upon and incarnate the fiction of the political community as transparent to itself and therefore as susceptible to full sovereign mastery and self-creation, or what Jean-Luc Nancy also calls immanentism.[2]

What then is a politics that does not seek to realize an essence? It is a politics freed of the myth of a community bound by a common identity, of a politics reduced to producing felicity through bio-political control, it is a politics without any foundation in truth, a politics that is rather that which creates the conditions for our living together, with each other, without ever seeking to command or oversee this living with on the grounds of some principle which lies beyond it (e.g., God, history, the nation, etc.).[3] Politics is foundationaless, and democracy as the highest expression of this politics, is anarchic.

“Democracy” is … the name of a mutation of humanity in relation to its ends … . It is not the name of the self-management of rational humanity, nor the name of a definitive truth inscribed in the heaven of Ideas. It is the name … of a humanity that finds itself exposed to the absence of every given ends – of every heaven, of every future, but not of every infinite. – Exposed, existent.[4]

The “infinite” in this instance refers to the permanent revolution that is the task of politics, or democratic politics: the task of keeping open the spheres of community life that are foreign to it and which are for their part the spheres of truth and meaning; those spheres designated by the names of “art”, “thought”, “love”, “desire” or all of the other possible designations for infinite relations.[5]

To quote Jean-Luc Nancy at length, we cite chapter four of his essay, The Truth of Democracy, entitled “A Space formed for the Infinite”:

The condition of nonequivalent affirmation [Each one-each singular “one” of one, of two, of many, of a people- is unique by virtue of a unicity or singularity that obligates infinitely and obligates itself or owes it to itself to be put into actuality, into work, or into labor. But, at the same time, strict equality is the regime where these incommensurables are shared (out). p. 25]  is political inasmuch as politics must prepare the space for it. Bur the affirmation itself is not political. lt can be almost anything you like-existential, artistic, literary, dreamy, amorous, scientific, thoughtful, leisurely, playful, friendly, gastronomic, urban, and so on: politics subsumes none of these registers; it only gives them their space and possibility.

Politics sketches out nothing more than the contour, or the many contours, of an indetermination whose opening might allow these affirmations to take place. Politics does not affirm; it accedes to the claim of affirmation. It itself does not bear “sense” or “value”; instead it makes it possible for these to find a place and for that place nor co be one where a signification is achieved, realized, and reified, a signification that might lay claim to being an accomplished figure of the political.

Democratic politics renounces giving itself a figure; it allows for a proliferation of figures-figures affirmed, invented, created, imagined, and so on. That is why the renunciation of ldentification is not a pure asceticism and why it has nothing to do with courage or virtuous abstinence, both of which would continue to be thought on the basis of resignation or loss. Democratic politics opens the space for multiple identities and for their sharing (out), but it is nor up to it to give itself a figure. That is what political courage today must learn to acknowledge.

The renunciation of every principal form of identification-whether it be borne by the image of a King, a Father, a God, a Nation, a Republic, a People, a Man, or a Humanity, or even a Democracy-does not contradict, indeed quite the contrary, the exigency of identification in the sense of the possibility for each and every one to identify him or herself (or as people like to say today “to rake up a subject position”) as having a place, a role, and a value – an inestimable value – in being together. What makes politics, what makes the “good life” by which Aristotle defines politics, is a “good” that is precisely not determined in any way, by any figure or under any concept. Not even, as a result, by the figure or the concept of the polis. For the polis is only the place from where (rather than “where”), the place from which – though without leaving it, without leaving the world that conjoins cities, nations, peoples, and states – it is possible to sketch out, to paint, to dream, to sing, to think, to feel a “good life” that measures up incommensurably to the infinite that every “good” envelops.

Democracy is not figurable. Better, it is not by essence figural. That is perhaps the only sense, in the end, that can be given to it: it overthrows the assumption of the figuration of a destiny, of a truth of the common. But it imposes the configuration of common space in a way that opens up the greatest possible proliferation of forms that the infinite can take, figures of our affirmations and declarations of our desires. What has been happening in art over the last fifty years demonstrates in a striking way just how real this exigency is. The more the democratic city renounces giving itself a figure, the more it abandons its symbols and its icons in a no doubt risky fashion, the more it witnesses the emergence of all possible aspirations toward new and unprecedented forms. Art turns every which way in an attempt to give birth to forms that it would wish to be in excess of all the forms of what is called “art,” and in excess of the very form or idea of “art.” Whether we are talking about rock or rap, electronic music, videos, computer-generated images, ragging, art installations or performance art, or else new interpretations of older forms (such as drawing or epic poetry), everything bears witness to a feverish anticipation, to a need to seize anew an existence in full transformation. If there is, as one says, a “crisis” of the novel, it is because we still have to invent a new narrative for our history, henceforth deprived of History. And if there is body art – to the point of blood, to the point of suffering – it is because our bodies desire to understand themselves differently. And the fact that this happens through every possible eccentricity or aberration is not a good enough explanation, for it also happens through every possible exigency and appeal. One must learn how to listen.

But all this poses anew the question of what the city as such must do in this regard. It is not up to it either to take responsibility for the form or the narrative or else to consider itself free of any obligation with respect to it. It is a dilemma, to be sure, that is displayed in the most distressing way by the ambiguities of “cultural politics” – ambiguities on the part of those who manage them and those who claim them. There is no easy answer, perhaps no “answer” at all. But one must set to work, and one must know that democracy is not an assumption of politics at work.[6]

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Preface”, The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, p. xl.

[2] One might be tempted to employ the term “totalitarianism” here, but Nancy’s use of “immanentism” identifies something deeper, something more foundational, in the “politics” of collective self-creation, collective poiesis, which is independent of the different kinds of modern political regimes and which they share in common: the idea of politics as producing society, and this whether it be through myth or through technological management. (Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, p. 3). See also: Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Mythe Nazi. Éditions de l’aube, 2005; Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, La fiction du politique. Christian Bourgois Éditeur, 1998.

[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, “ Démocratie finie et infinie”, in Démocratie, dans quels état? Paris : La fabrique, 2009, p. 93.

[4] Ibid., p. 94.

[5] Ibid., p. 83.

[6] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010, p 26-8.

Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy

by Elena Cué, Alejandra de Argos, 13/07/2016

What would you say are the greatest challenges that philosophical thought faces today?

In philosophy, nothing is a given. No meaning can be considered obvious. For example, it isn’t possible to talk about “man”, “society” or “science” as if these words designate well-identified realities. The challenge is precisely not to latch on to any acquired identity. For a philosopher, nothing should be taken for granted. Preconceived and established meanings must be constantly reevaluated, and new possibilities opened. 

How can a philosopher teach a society to think this way when it is as anxious as ours is for answers and truths that it can cling to?

It is precisely this impatience that can be a trap. In one sense, impatience is right: there is no reason to wait, and the conditions for a decent life can be demanded at any time. On the other hand, there are obscure and complex questions to which emphatic or “radical” answers, as we like to say, can be dangerous. The recent Brexit is a good example: the vote has just taken place, and its supporters have already become nervous and begun to question it. Or Podemos, which started off very strong but has quickly lost strength instead of gaining it. Furthermore, the current complexity is the result of opposing “impatiences”: the one felt by those who are excluded and the impatience of those who fear exclusion (the middle class); the impatience of people seeking refuge and the impatience of those who fear being overrun by refugees; and the impatience of those who miss how things were in the past vis-à-vis those who want to accelerate the arrival of the future. 

At present it’s much more difficult to set a course than it was at the time of the workers’ struggles or the end of dictatorships. How did Franco’s dictatorship last so long when many people were against it? Because it was a time of societal transformation and transformation of the European economies, and in turn these transformed the conditions that would prepare the end of the dictatorship. Why are the European Socialisms and Communisms in crisis? Because their motors are too old. We have to find new ways for a new state of affairs in which techniques, powers and expectations have transformed slowly. And in fact, this is what needs to be made understood: a patience that is active rather than passive. An impatient patience and a patient impatience.

You have written often about terrorism, especially after the grave attacks in France. What is your opinion on this subject?

This terrorism is the combined effect of two forces: that of the change in Western dominance and of the assertion of Islam, which has seen its equilibrium destroyed by colonization and the end of the Ottoman Empire. This terrorism reveals an extreme situation created by the very strong contradiction between the Western model of development and wellbeing, and the reality of existence in countries that feel marginalized, and where the upper classes or casts preserve the enormous differences in terms of wealth and status.  

At the same time, the West is weak in its own strength. It doesn’t believe in its own civilization any more, it is preoccupied with its own technique and sees how capitalism grows without lessening differences in standards of living, while no Socialist economy has been able to last long (the Soviet economy was a State capitalism). In fact, there is no “West” anymore, and instead there are techno-economic poles of power whose visible heads are the United States of America and the Non-United States of Asia, but whose possessions and actions are found almost everywhere, and wherever there are resources to be exploited. Europe no longer has a consistency of its own, and it is subjected to this division of world powers.

And globalization…

Therefore globalization provokes explosions, tragedies and social and cultural collapses of all kinds. For five centuries we believed that utopias were achievable, and we have believed in their vanity. Now we have to think differently, and reflect on our place in the world. This will take a very long time… centuries, forcibly… But societies have always shown that they are able to overcome considerable challenges.

What are you referring to when you talk about the “surprise of liberty” Do you believe that we are free, or not?

Liberty is not a faculty we possess, or a right that we have at our disposal. Liberty resides in the fact that our existence is not programmed, and must find its own path. However, it has to do so as existence in a world that has conditions and limits. We are not free if that means “to be able to do what one wants” and “be independent of everything” because we depend on a lot of things, and most times our “will” consists only of propensities, hopes and yearnings that come from somewhere else. Understanding this and what that means is the beginning of liberation. And that is why liberty surprises us, because we discover that there is something other than what we thought was obvious.

For example: I become ill and cannot do my job, but I can see my state as an experience; the experience of not being in charge of all of my decisions, or of my preferences. Sometimes the ailing “give lessons” to those who are in good health.

Could you explain how suffering is an opportunity to broaden liberty?

That’s not what I am saying… and above all I’m not saying that it is an “opportunity”. Suffering is not a favorable occasion, it’s a reason to rebel, and especially to look for how to rebel, in the best of cases. In other words, to what end? Surely the aim is to not suffer more, but even that must be defined. For a long time, that goal was grounded in the word “Communism” or “Socialism”. But these concepts were never truly developed, except for in the Soviet form, and that form failed. 

Why did it fail?

That analysis has not been done yet, or not sufficiently. Instead of looking deeper into that question, communists are happy to just deplore the dirty capitalism that has supplanted any idea of a fair society with that of consumer freedom. They complain about injustice, but they don´t know where justice is found. For example, we often hear talk today about a universal minimum wage. It seems like a fair and good idea, but it is also a very dangerous idea that would contribute to keeping many people at that minimum. The truth is that nowadays, in order to invent, first we must think. And we must scream as well. Brexit was an outcry by those who have been treated with contempt by the ruling class in Europe. We have to listen to that outcry. But what should we understand from it? That is what remains to be seen.

In your book The Deconstruction of Christianity, you talk about religion in today’s world. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

It isn´t about breaking, or annihilating, but about taking apart or de-structuring an edifice to show what it is made of. Now, Christianity is not made of religion. It was made from a profound mutation of Mediterranean humanity when it needed to emerge from the Ancient World, a world of limits, a finite world, and what we could even call de-finition. Everywhere there were gods with precise functions, rules to comply with, models to imitate and fixed horizons. At some point, that all crumbled. Undoubtedly, with the Roman Empire we saw the first “globalization” – when there was a departure from closed territories and fixed conditions (such as “free man vs. slave”). So then a desire for the infinite, and the promise of infinity began. This attainment produced a change in civilization, culture and society gave rise to the great adventures of the modern world, with all of their risks. 

And with this deconstruction of Christianity, what specific conclusions have you come to?

The first conclusion is the most important: the profound transformation of the culture that occurred with the arrival of Christianity was the departure from religion as idolatry, as superstition, towards a cosmo-vision with an infinite horizon. The universal, the “whole” of Christian catholicity means, above all, the unlimited: no more idols, and instead an open infinity. So there is also energy for enterprise: we can and we must transform ourselves, and transform the world, infinitely. Christianity has materialized itself as humanism, as capitalism and as technical progress. This all becomes problematic and obscure, but we are always looking towards infinity. And religion as a collective point of reference has disappeared from the West.

The second conclusion is just the opposite: if Christianity took on the imposing religious form that it has had for centuries, it is because the certainties and references on which it is based are always desirable and highly desired. Then there are those who appropriate these references to construct meaning, as an instrument of power, an ideal of beauty or of the gratification of thought, and those who (and strangely, they are sometimes the same) seek representations, images and legends they can deliver themselves to. Atheism is unable to resolve many doubts. And that’s a shame, because religion as assurance is a lack of liberty, except for mystics and great spiritual men who have, on the other hand, helped many religions evolve as well.    

To end, let’s talk about art. In what ways do you think that the meaning of “contemporary art” is different from traditional art?

Traditional art was linked to the possibility of the representation of truth – a religious, political or heroic truth, or a truth of perception, sensation or feeling. The modern world sees truth as an infinite process of searching. There aren´t stable and accessible figures or forms anymore, not even in what art has been able to produces in terms of forms we call abstract or colors without precise forms (Rothko, Newman, Pollock). A whole culture is being invented where the very meaning of “art” is becoming more obscure, precisely because it is no longer about representing given truths.

What would it mean?

The meaning of “art” is, in a way, necessarily enigmatic and elusive, because it does not allow itself to be formulated by language. Think about music: with twelve-tone music, serial music, electronica, jazz, rock and mixes of tonal and atonal music, our panorama of sound has changed considerably (as has our visual landscape, but sound has a stronger sensual penetration; think of electrification, techno, rap, slam, etc.). We look for new sensibilities, and that has its risks, of course. We search for what sensibilities and what enigmas of the senses are becoming “ours”.

An interview with Jean-Luc Nancy for chilean television, by Cristián Warnken (in french and spanish).

We close with a brief selection (in translation) from an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy by the Lundi matin collective (30/08/2021) and a video recorded interview for the film, Notre Monde (2013) by Thomas Lacoste.

LM: Your latest book is called “Que faire?/What is to be done?” You say that this question arose with Kant and then Lenin on the eve of a revolution. As if, deep down, it was the sign of a theoretical impotence but that it would nevertheless herald changes, beginnings. Do you think that today we are on the eve of a new revolution? According to you, are there things to do, forms to find, so that the shudder of revolt that can be perceived between the lines of history unfolds more widely?

JLN: I am more and more tempted to see in revolutions – all of them – phenomena of technical development in the broadest sense of the word: banking technique, commerce, bourgeoisie (with other techniques, maritime, manufacturing, military) – industrial technique , democracy, class struggle – finally, electricity (delay of Russia) + Soviets (theoretical political advance immediately bypassed … this is one of Lenin’s “good choices” …) – and we can continue with China and a non-negligible part of colonial liberations. There was no authentic “revolution” (here we are!). But there have been powerful socio-technical changes. What created and then developed the “bourgs” [town, castle and/or market town]? Here is the only real question, on the real revolution …

The shudder of revolt you speak of, first we must note its link with modern history (and pre-modern, no doubt, if we think of the slave revolts at the end of pre-Greek empires, then in Rome where movements of the plebs also took place, then peasant revolts from the 13th to the 16th centuries). But the global expression/becoming of revolt (communisms, socialisms, colonial liberations) seems to have hijacked the movement: there are indeed revolts here and there, but above all there seem to be various forms of evasion rather than confrontation – mafias, parallel circuits, mixtures between desire for identity and manipulation of this desire itself mixed with the revolt of poverty and misfortune. We are very far from being able to proclaim “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!” “. The most flagrant injustice is tirelessly denounced by cohorts of intellectuals and religious figures, but they do not resonate with the voices of peoples … On the contrary, we have what we call “populisms”.

And the tremor of European countries – what is it really? Is it not for the most part that of a middle class irritated by the fact that it can no longer profit from calm and comfortable progress? This is a middle class excited by an average discourse – socio-psycho-ideo-logical – which feeds on denunciations of everything (State, politics, progress, regression, fashion, consumption, enjoyment, urbanisation, concrete, pharmacy, illiteracy, etc., etc. …) Since we criticise everything, it is no wonder that criticism becomes the first consumer product.

LM: In a recent interview, you said that thought no longer has a space of its own, that the university is no longer the adequate space for the development of thought and that we should therefore look for another place. You reject the notion of community in favour of something you call “the commune”. What do you mean by “commune” and why did you abandon the concept of “community”?

JLN: I abandoned the word “community” because it keeps raising misunderstandings or over-understandings (you can see them both ways). I had received it from Bataille and Bailly, but it suddenly became more and more dubious – and therefore also a sometimes just and sometimes also dubious protest. What matters to me is that the common is ontologically present in the individual. There is no individuation without communication, communisation, whatever you like. This is an indispensable axiom. Talking about “the commune” (I forget where I did it) must have been a means of, 1) keeping the “com”, 2) of paying homage to that of Paris (which however does not constitute a political model, but tells a very beautiful story), 3) to designate an established place, the network of communications between all minds, desires, the expectations of our world which knows itself to be so deprived of “common good” … which is to say also of “particular good” …

LM: Autonomy is often presented as the only serious alternative when looking for another way of doing politics. However, you make an interesting critique of autonomy or rather self-sufficiency on the basis of the idea that nothing is determined from itself: neither inert matter, nor the subject. So self-sufficiency can only be a problem because “life does not proceed from self-certainty”. Does this mean that the ideal of autonomy must be exceeded? How? Simply just by an ontology of what goes beyond the self (the “melee of bodies, desires, local lands [terroirs], languages, tastes, etc.”)?

JLN: By an ontology if you want which ceases to deal with “being” [noun] and which puts forward “being” [verb], every form of existence, like that which is, while “being” is not. All the same, that is the lesson of Heidegger (to which he himself was unfaithful). To be then, the verb, the verb alone, to be amounts to existing and to exist is from the outset outside oneself: “self” means outside oneself; because “self” is an objective case (like “you”, “other”, “him”). The subject matter is “I” and “I” only takes place in and as a word – addressed, of course. There is no “autonomy” possible, Spinoza saw it. The only “self” is the whole, its “substance”, everything and nothing … the whole and the infinite … But a heteronomy (it would be more coherent to say “allonomy”): not a dependence but an essential relation to the non-self, the outside, the immeasurable, the untouchable …

Our problem is that God is not dead enough. Nietzsche said: The shadow of Buddha remains for a thousand years in front of his cave after his death. There are still too many shadows or shadows of God: knowledge, power, man, autonomy …

The Ill Will collective has published an eloquent piece in memory of Jean-Luc Nancy, by Adrian Wohlleben.

The European Graduate School maintains an excellent video archive of Jean-Luc Nancy’s lectures. See here. Jean-Luc Nancy’s personal website can be found here.

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