Jean-Luc Nancy: May 68

We close our overly brief and modest sharing of the work of Jean-Luc Nancy with an interview (in translation) that he gave to Carole Dely, for the journal Sens publique on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of france’s May 68.

68, without end. Exchanges with Jean-Luc Nancy

Carole Dely – May 68 is often presented as one of the most important social movements in French history, which was both a students and workers movement, accompanied by a frenzy of discussions and debates in universities, factories, theatres, the street, in reaction against the power in place, traditional society, the capitalist economy, and with the desire for a radical transformation of life and the world … Is that how you would summarise things? Did you take part in the events of 1968?

Jean-Luc Nancy – No, I would not summarise them like this, quite simply because I am incapable of attempting such a summary: it would require the skill of an historian that I am very far from having. The fact of having lived 68 gives little advantage over anyone who rather observed it than lived it and subsequently reconstructed its history. Such a phenomenon cannot be dominated at the time, or at least cannot be dominated. It is certain, moreover, that I experienced it in different ways, depending on the time and somewhat depending on the place (I was mainly in Strasbourg and not very much in Paris). There were times when I felt more carried away by the “social movement” as you say (reforms or necessary changes), others when the political aspect dominated (extreme left against communist and/or socialist left ), others when the anarchist festivity dominated (the euphoria of suspension, even the paralysis of all operations …). But what has remained most striking to me is this: with a few friends, in Strasbourg (where 68 had been preceded for two years by a few brilliant actions of the Situationists), we were very quickly above all sensitive to a profound distancing from all modes of action and reflection: neither direct intervention, nor reformist militancy (not to say “revolutionary”, since a proper revolutionary slogan never emerged – that is to say, aiming at a seizure of power) should prevail for us. Even by occasionally participating in such and such an action (especially of the order of a “happening”, one might say) we were fully aware that the stake was not there. It was not about new means of struggle. It was even necessary to avoid aiming too much at objectives: for example, founding a “critical university”, which was very exciting, seemed to us to be a mistake. It was not necessary to found anything, or to found anything anew. All such gestures had to be kept at a distance. On the other hand, the stake was not to rejoice in a kind of nihilist anarchism and to watch all the certainties and all the institutions tremble without however worrying about either actually ruining them or replacing them, no, the challenge was to take the measure of a change that the event brought to light: an entire world of certainties, institutions, structures and benchmarks revealed that it was in convulsion; no longer in a curable “crisis” – as Husserl might have thought of the “crisis of European sciences” – but in a convulsion of agony or metamorphosis such that nothing of the outcome could and should not be anticipated. The anticipation, the project, was precisely what had to give way for a time in order for us to learn another way of singing history: no longer a story of which we are the subjects, but a story that surprises us and carries us away.

It also meant: no longer a truth to come, a future truth, the object of an intention and a will, but a truth in the present, the truth which is beyond the project (which undoubtedly founds it, but which it cannot satisfy); something like an affirmation of being in the world despite all the plans to build or give birth to a sense of the world.

In this, 68 was “metaphysical” or “spiritual” much more than social, political, cultural or whatever you like. Of course, it was all that too: but at the bottom of the affair, the incandescence proper to this moment was this mutation, the putting in abeyance of an aim of meaning which defined nothing less than western civilization.

You might think I’m delusional, or at least indulging in hyperbole and exageration. Not at all: I maintain that it is exactly something of this order which was given to us by the event then. All of the elements of crisis and reform that were involved, all of the revolutionary or subversive expectations, only led to a crucible where everything, in the last instance, melted in a completely different flame. Without this, it is not possible to understand the extraordinary festive outburst and the profusion of discoveries: in them, 68 signalled something other than crisis and criticism. This something else is what we have been trying to name ever since – confirmation that it is indeed an unnamed …

Carole Dely – The story you just told is a testimony, you spoke in the past tense. At the same time, here you are, as a philosopher, rethinking the heart of the phenomenon as you have lived it and continue to feel it, forty years later – I want to say in presence [pré-sence], presuming that Jean-Luc Nancy in 1968 hadn’t sharpened this word yet. So concerning the “mutation” that you refer to, setting aside a reflective subject of its history and its progress, without thinking that you are delusional, I wonder if you are thinking of something that has taken place, or well, that takes place, continues to take place. Was this mutation in progress before 1968?

Jean-Luc Nancy – Yes, I think you understand me: what concerns me took place in 1968 as an acute symptom, but continues to take place but not certainly as something symptomatic, but as the result, rather, of many signs, questions, and concerns of our time. Thus, a very heavy political deficit since 1968 – in a sort of double bind where a discrediting of the political exercise itself is accompanied by a busy search for new forms of action (associative, participatory, local, minoritarian …), at the same time as there is a no less active return of state intervention (in the face of financial disorders, the new oil crisis) and urgent appeals to international law … – as well as all the forms taken by research and artistic experiences, at the same time as an evident wear and tear of the very forms of supposed “modernity”, of its “creation” or of its “revelations”. And it had started before: in fact, it was my generation (say, the one that left secondary school between 56 and 58) that first experienced a kind of vacuum effect: where our elders thought they were strong in a resistance to totalitarianism, with the organisation of Europe and in a progressivism with a more or less socialist horizon, we began to experience a lack of speech or thought. Then there was – precisely around 68 – the extraordinary effervescence of philosophical and artistic thought that we know and in which we happily recognised a new impetus. But at the same time, this impetus indicated, in many ways, an elsewhere – elsewhere in relation to History, to Humanism, to democratic and legal certainties, to the general consistency of Western “rationalism” (or if you want, to what was then often gathered under the word “metaphysics”, not without haste, but that does not matter here).

I think I can sum it up as follows: yes, it was the Reason inherited from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Kant and Hegel (and therefore also from Marx) that it became essential to touch upon. The more or less deaf demand of which I speak and of which 68 was the symptom is this: how to grasp the “Enlightenment” (since this term is the most emblematic)? For example: why and in what sense to call for a “new Enlightenment”, as Derrida did? In other words, how to reopen Reason further, higher, further ahead? But at the same time, the technical and capitalist rationality of indefinite ends and market equivalence indifferent to injustices and exploitation has not ceased to expand everywhere, poorly supported by a legal rationality which strives to refine the “rights of the man”, which does not cease to relegate to a later moment the question of this “man” itself. This is what it is all about: remaking a Reason for ourselves – when on all sides, it doesn’t seem possible to do better than to find a reason (of warlike, Mafia-like, financial and polluting violence …).

Carole Dely – In your book Vérité de la démocratie (Galileo, 2008), you state that 68 posed again the question of democracy and you write straight away that there is no inheritance from 68. I questioned myself about this, in addition to the fact that we had just titled this dossier of Sens public, “The legacy of May 68”. I wondered if you would talk about the heritage of the French Revolution for example, say of the Enlightenment, which you just did here. Jacques Derrida often insisted precisely on the importance of the inheritance, on its respect, its betrayal by fidelity, “we are heirs through and through”. I have the impression that this thought, one would say of a subject as master and possessor of its heritage, is not from 68, as if the thinker of deconstruction … But I venture, perhaps?

Jean-Luc Nancy – I certainly do not have the same relationship as Jacques Derrida to the idea of ??”heritage”. If we want to do a bit of biography, I would say that he had several inheritances which he received with the fidelity of the heir who knows that he receives a deposit and must keep it and make it bear fruit. He had an Algerian heritage, a Jewish heritage and a French heritage: each highlighted as “heritage” precisely by its difference and its proximity to the others. I am the heir of a single heritage, so massive and settled – French, Catholic, from the “upper middle class” (therefore less popular than Jacques Derrida’s) – that it becomes indistinct or non-apparent as a legacy. I do not feel that I am the custodian of a transmission: I have rather tended to deviate from what was agreed upon for my “class”, at least in terms of programmed behaviours. But neither marginality nor deviance: I think that for me as for Jacques Derrida, intellectual work is most often a divergence, a break with a certain image of “heritage”.

But let us forget the biography, let us return to 68. By denying that there is an “inheritance” of 68, I wanted to deny that there was a “death”, without which there is no inheritance. There were no deaths because nothing stopped (except, of course, the “events” as they called them then). It all only started in 68: everything, that is to say the prodromes or early symptoms of a change in civilization. I do not hesitate to put it that way because it is more than a change of “society” or “culture” or “thought”. We sensed then (but not in the mode of anticipation, of the future, no, in the unqualifiable mode of an apprehension of the present as breaking with the course of things) that the world was changing. The world: the network of possible circulations of meaning. Once again, the course of things: 68 meant that the course of things was no longer “running”, was no longer following its course. Something no longer follows the course, the trajectory: that of history, that of progress, that of humanity emancipated, rational and master of its own destiny. 68 dimly felt that the “grand narrative” (as Lyotard would later say) of progressive, democratic, rational and reasonable humanism no longer had before it a continuous and clear path. On the contrary, it was engorged, barred, deviated or in reflux. 68 thus had the intelligence or the intuition to understand that the heavy upheavals of the two wars and of “totalitarianisms” had not been unfortunate accidents or crises from which one emerged by resuming the course of humanism, of this humanism, if you prefer.

That’s why I do not see a problem of inheritance here. For the rest, what you say about Derrida seems to me, even as a hypothesis quickly dismissed as you do, quite hazardous. I don’t have a text in mind, but I am sure that for him the inscription in the tradition – the transmission, the relay, the passage – did not imply any “mastery” by I do not know what “subject”. I only see a false trail here, or else I would have to be shown texts.[1] You also say yourself that he speaks of “betrayal by fidelity” to the heritage: this means that a fidelity to the deepest element, the most buried sometimes also, of a tradition can imply a betrayal to its most visible and accepted forms. For example: what is loyalty to communism? … I’m not answering, I think you understand me very well!

Carole Dely – You write in the same book that the market equivalence of capitalism has produced a regime of generalised equivalence in democratic societies, in the mode that “everything has a value” [“tout se vaut”]. We must safeguard the part of the “without-value, because without any measurable value”, creation, love, thought, everything that carries a desire; and against the slogan “everything is political” of 68, you say that it is up to politics to preserve this space without investing it. One fear we may have today is that everything ultimately depends on financial capitalism, which has become the game of a tiny number of people in the world and almost uncontrollable (the subprime crisis escaped all prediction). Between the greater acuity of thought that has arisen since 68 – the year of the young Jacques Derrida’s New York lecture, “The Ends of Man” – and the increasingly dark turn of events, the gap seems impressive. Without looking for a historical movement, we would like to find meaning in it, to be able to face it through thought …

Jean-Luc Nancy – I wouldn’t want to say that capitalism “has produced … a regime … in democratic societies”: precisely not! I would like to make it understood that capitalism and democracy are in a certain respect linked in so far as they refer together to the possibility of “everything has a value”, which has its source in a general equivalence for which the exchange of commodities includes also the exchange of labour forces and/or means of production between individuals in principle equivalent with each other and in practice ordered to and by the exploitation and domination of one another. Even the less obvious exploitation of the relative autonomy of financial operations only proffers a more devious version of the same, more fragile perhaps also, but no less formidable.

Now I think that this ensemble – the equivalence of individuals, lives, of things indefinitely convertible into cash and above all (because in a sense everything has been converted into cash ever since there was money) always already converted into money (works of art already purchased, listed, invested;  landscapes, water, air, sun as well …), against a background of the levelling of every moment, every form, every burst of meaning that would escape the equivalence – I think, therefore, that it has been the “choice” (without deliberation or decision) of an entire civilisation. And we are now pushed to the wall: this civilisation is destroying itself in its own exploitation of men, nature and what for lack of any better term, I would call the “infinite”, not to say “the divine”.

It is no coincidence that Christianity appeared and unfolded (preceded and followed in this, in several respects, by the other two figures of monotheism) as a gloriously holy face of equivalence: all equal, all brothers, neither Greeks, nor Jews, neither free men nor slaves, neither men nor women – but in a sense that had to be: each one unique, each one as an absolute singular exception. If Christianity has co-deployed itself so well with capitalism, and even to the point of losing its soul – as is very well the case – it is because of this very intriguing reversibility of two equivalences: that of capital and that of salvation.

I’m not trying to untangle this knot. I only want to say: what proceeded from an essential choice, or if you prefer from a dominant inclination taking hold of the humanity in the West – and that, since from “pre-capitalism” – cannot be reversed or diverted except as the effect of another inclination and another choice. We certainly cannot “choose” as subjects of free will (another appearance built to accompany equivalence), but we can try to understand how an involuntary “choice” commands us, and a “choice” which however cannot be deflected, shifted, overthrown by another. We once thought we could open a new path of history – baptised “socialism”: the mistake was to believe that we had before us possible plans and references for guidance. But today it is incumbent upon us to know that we are without plans and without references, but despite everything called to incline differently … Of course, you are right, between 68 and 80 (where we took this as the title for the Cerisy-la-Salle colloquium, Lacoue-Labarthe and I) we still thought, albeit in a complex way, already worried and already detached from a “sense of history”, that the ends of man could be, if not a watchword, at least still something like an “orientation”. Since then every scheme of any kind of “orientation” has faded, along with the scheme of “West”. The blanketing, by a new distribution and sharing of exploitation, effects a redistribution of the world in which it is no longer “the ends” that are scrambled and volatilised, but “man”. The question of “humanism” was already present in 1968 – it was also often poorly received as a question. We did not want to know that “humanism” cuts man off from infinity. Today we know it. It is not a knowledge against “man”: it is a knowledge which opens up every broad interrogation on what “man”, not “signifies”, nor “is”, nor “represents”, but calls forth. Towards what does “man” call? Or towards whom? Towards a “man” again, perhaps, but how, under what conditions, according to what infinite openness?

June-July 2008

[1] This passage in Echographies invalidates in effect the hypothesis: “Heritage or inheritance is what I can’t appropriate, it is that which accrues to me and for which I am responsible, which has fallen to me as my lot, but over which I have no absolute right. I inherit something that I must also transmit: shocking or not, there is no right of property over inheritance. That’s the paradox. I am always the tenant of an inheritance. Its trustee, its witness, or its relay … I can’t appropriate any heritage without remainder. Beginning with language …” (Jacques Derrida, Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of television: Filmed Interviews. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002, p. 112).

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