On Finitude and Sovereignty

by | 15 Sep 2010


A Transcription of part of a workshop held by Jean-Luc Nancy at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities as part of the Adieu Derrida series of lectures in May 2005.

Jean-Luc Nancy: There are two ways of thinking the relationship from finitude to infinitude:

One is that finitude goes out of itself and enters infinitude. One could say, roughly, this would be the Hegelian way — very roughly because as ever with Hegel, nothing is as simple as it seems. So finite being goes out of itself and is taken in infinitude.

Another way that Heidegger, I think, started to open in philosophy is to think that finitude is an opening to infinitude; that finitude is not transformed in infinitude — finitude is open to … A simple circle shows what I mean: the circle is finite being and finitude is the circle which is finite, but there is an opening and this opening as an opening is infinite. If you want, as an example but of course it is more than an example, death as the final status of being is the opening to the infinite. It is not a transformation or a way of jumping into the infinite, or of appropriating the infinite, it is the infinite as opening of finitude. And to have an opening one needs to have a finite opening, an opening without borders would no longer be an opening.

Now to Sovereignty: I would say sovereignty is the concept of opening community to itself. We know that sovereignty was invented by Bodin in order to challenge the theological or perhaps more the model of the theocratic state. The important historical point about sovereignty is that it is fundamentally an atheist concept as they understood very well not long after Bodin, when it was written that the republic of Bodin would be good for a population of atheists, which you will understand in the 17th Century meant nothing — it was impossible — there was no atheist people.

Of course Bodin says nothing like that but they understood him very well as well as some other scholars such as Machiavelli where we can find some preliminary stage of the meaning of Bodin’s sovereignty. For Machiavelli the religious state, as he writes in the Prince, has nothing to do with the Prince. The question of the Prince is the question of the self-institution of the Prince. Of course this is not already the concept of sovereignty but I quote Machiavelli because when he speaks about the religious state, he says for the religious state there is no problem. Why? Because the constitution is given from somewhere else i.e. from Heaven, God, or Church. So sovereignty was born as a concept of the self-constitution or the self-institution of the state or, one could say the self-statement of the state that is in the place of God and then of course without God. In a certain sense sovereignty is the quintessence of self. That is the self-making of the self-consciousness and autonomy of the coming body.

Then comes the question of finitude or infinity of sovereignty. Sovereignty as the concept of self-institution cannot be but infinite insofar as any self-constitution or constitution of self is necessarily infinite because the self is what is made of a coming back to itself. The self has ‘to self’ itself. You know you have the verb ‘to self’ in English (you may not know but I know, it’s the only word of English that I found by myself!). ‘To self’ was used by geneticists in the past to mean to fertilise a plant with itself. So you have the verb ‘to self’. It is an excellent verb because any self has to self itself. To be a self means to self, or said more simply, to [be a self means to] come back to itself.

Interjection: Can I ask — do you mean in the Hegelian sense — that the self has to go out of the world and then come back from the world through the negotiation of negativity?

Jean-Luc Nancy: Yes, that is exactly the question to which we’ve arrived. But of course, even to say without any world, what does self, soi or selbst mean? It means what comes to itself. But one could say ‘to come back to itself’ is a very simple structure. But if the self is not given before this coming back to itself then the coming back to itself is an infinite one, there is no end to coming back. So this is the point where the absolute autonomy of sovereignty or self is logically an infinite one, there is no end or starting point. Where does sovereignty start? This is exactly the point where the sovereignty of the people in Rousseau has its own problem. Where is the starting point of the social contract in Rousseau? Nobody knows because you have the people who are not only the people because they become the people by making the contract. So the contract is a way of coming back to the self which was not given before and this self is really the sovereign. This is the reason why it is not that easy to think of the sovereignty of the people because it is impossible to present the people as given before the making of the people. This is always the problem of ‘constitutive power’.

I think now the question of the European Constitution about which we are discussing so much in France is this question: Is the European people already given and then these people come and make the constitution or, on the contrary, is the constitution made to produce the people. This is a very interesting point. Habermas states somewhere that constitutions make the people.

Interjection: Derrida reflected on this in his essay ‘Declaration of Independence’ when he talks about the signature which authorises the declaration of the ‘free’ and ‘independent’ people of the Unites Sates. This is possibly more interesting than Habermas.

Jean-Luc Nancy: You’re right. And the whole problematic of the signature for Derrida is kind of an equivalent of the self. But now, back to sovereignty…

If sovereignty has to be real sovereignty and has to have real power it needs to make an end to this endless process. It needs to come from infinity to finitude. Then the question becomes one where the finitude of sovereignty is taken as precisely ‘something’, given at the point or place where it was nothing or nobody. The subject is given. If we think again of Rousseau, the ‘people’ is given. When the ‘people’ calls itself, for example, the French people, then you have a constitution. The French people state that “…” etc.

About 15 years ago, some people in Corsica wanted the French constitution to state ‘French people’ and the ‘Corsican people’. It was a huge problem: how could one people, the French people, state for another people within the same constitution? Of course there were other not so theoretical problems!

Is a constitution possible for many people together? What does that mean? This is interesting because, in a way, this is precisely the case of law. If a constitution is made for more than one people what is the name of the constitutional common entity? I don’t know. But for now I can say that the way of ending the infinite process of self-constitution is a way of taking some ‘thing’, some subject (not in the subjective meaning of subject but in the sense of supositum in the middle ages — something posited there, like the ‘state’, the ‘people’, the ‘chief’) and for the infinite to be literally precipitated in it. Precisely at this time it stops being infinite.

This is certainly the problem of sovereignty in Schmitt although I think Schmitt understood very well the necessity of sovereign power as one of suspending the law because the power of suspending the law is necessarily a power which has to be presupposed to any legal power. It is the power of suspending law, or to use Schmitt’s exact terms: the power to decide the state of exception, which is the power of interrupting the endless process. And in a certain way it is impossible to escape the necessity of interrupting this process. This is the question for Schmitt and the reason why Schmitt was so close to the Nazis and was able to write a text with the title “The Führer Protects the Law”. I am neither excusing Schmitt nor demonstrating that Nazi logic is the cool logic of sovereignty, but seriously I want to indicate that perhaps the whole problem of the various figures of totalitarianism has been the problem of the modern sovereign state, as the state after monarchal figures, which became unable to make an end to its own process of self-constitution. Then the figure of any kind of making-an-end was able to appear as a solution to the problem. This means that we either have to totally abandon any concept and problematic of sovereignty or to think differently about sovereignty.

This has been a point of discussion between Derrida and me – Derrida preferred to abandon sovereignty and to consider that the whole logic of sovereignty cannot be anything but the precipitation of the infinite in finitude. And as you understood, finitude not as an opening but as closing. This is the question of the figure and of identity – why was the figure or identity of Hitler, Mussolini and others so important? Because this was the way of closing the process – Hitler was a finite figure. This is important because I think many people often content themselves with the idea that Hitler was a terrible man, a mad man, an ugly man etc. But they miss precisely the main point that Hitler was a finite figure. I think “finish” or “finishing” translates the French word “finition” as used in the context of the finish of a garment as well as the final finish of a building i.e. the very end.

Interjection: You say Hitler is the figure of the finish, can you make a major distinction between that and say, President Bush or Mr Blair who is about to become again prime minister? How would you make a distinction in this kind of analysis between what you call a totalitarian and a formally non-totalitarian state?

Jean-Luc Nancy: I think there are many nuances but of course Bush is not exactly the same as an incorporated figure like Hitler where there is no gap between Adolph Hitler-and-self and what Adolph Hitler incorporates. There is, more or less, a gap between Bush himself and the People of America, the American dream, American Democracy etc. This is precisely a question of ‘finishing’. I don’t know about Blair.

Interjection: But logically in the structure of sovereignty as you present it, and I think it is a very brilliant analysis, you always have to have a finishing. Because in every instance, for sovereignty to come again in the world it must, as it were, stop that infinite process and turn it into a finitude. So at every point you need a Chef d’Etat, you need either the King or Le Pape. In other words, what you’re saying is that there may be a difference in the actual finishing but logically the structure has to remain the same.

Jean-Luc Nancy: This for me is a very important and problematic point because, yes, you need a point of finishing. The question is if this finishing is something given and totally finished or still an opening.

Interjection: How would this opening look like in relation to sovereignty?

Jean-Luc Nancy: This is the problem. This is precisely the reason why I have [drawn] this circle. For democracy it looks like a hole and this is a way to come to the theory and description of democracy by Lefort. Lefort precisely opposes any kind of possibility to present sovereignty as itself. He argues that democracy is the logic of the empty place of the self-presentation of the community itself. Precisely at this point, what Lefort opens for me is the question of whether it is possible to take a community around a hole and to have the courage to sustain the emptiness of the hole. There are friends of Lefort who say that to be a democrat is to support or withstand the emptiness of the central place. According to a line of Michelet, “the French revolution leaves no monument but the empty place of the chant de marche”. This is the question of how to deal with the empty place. I cannot stay with Lefort because the relationship with emptiness for Lefort is taken in a more psychoanalytical way from Lacan — that the emptiness is the emptiness of the imaginary and the democratic people stay in the symbolic realm and the real is precisely the emptiness. Well, I understand that but precisely politics needs a bridge from the symbolic to the real through some imaginary realm.

Finally, I wonder if we don’t need then to separate 1) the relationship of the common being to a certain kind of figure of presence of the common self and 2) the relationship [of the common being] to the emptiness as such. I would say that the first relationship would be the political relation but totally separated from sovereignty and all this theological background. What would be the other relationship? Perhaps an aesthetic, religious, poetic or a ‘thinking’ one. The political should not have to exercise its sovereignty on the other level for then, perhaps, comes again the model of empire. In empire there is a political regime with many different communities practising their own way of relating themselves to emptiness. It is easy to see what I say now because the emptiness remains the emptiness of the being-in-common. And the risk is still there of filling the emptiness even with the minimum of figures we need to have the political link. It is interesting that the French Republic is the only democracy without any kind of figure[-head]. To gain a small figure[-head], one was made in the 19th century with the name Marianne. I don’t know the exact story but it was a name taken to name the imaginary woman wearing the bonnet of the liberated Roman slaves and which the French revolutionaries also sometimes wore. Perhaps you know this figure, as in the painting “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix. We still have Marianne on stamps and there is a Marianne in every house. And every five or ten years the model of Marianne changes, the last one being a woman from the TV. The previous one was Laetitia Casta [a french supermodel] which is very interesting because precisely this is not interesting and I’m not saying anything against Laetitia Casta. Once I gave an interview on this subject for an Italian journal at about the time Laetitia was taken up as the model of Marianne. The interview was published with a couple of photos and because they couldn’t find a picture of Laetitia as Marianne they took a photo of her naked on all fours as an illustration of the French Republic!

Interjection: Can I ask you to connect what you were saying about the empty place of sovereignty and Lefort to your arguments about sovereignty needing to be nothing, in particular, in the context of mondialisation and ecotechnics which you have described in “Sense Of The World” and also on the your essay on the Gulf War 1991.

Jean-Luc Nancy: How to think of emptiness neither as pure negativity nor as a dialectical negativity. Once again this is a question which goes through many fields in contemporary thinking: how to think of negativity which could be positively negative. If you want, when I say sovereignty taken as some ‘thing’, some substance or sovereignty as pure emptiness then I could say this is perhaps a question of negativity – as neither a thing nor nothing but the possibility to open to a world of things. Then perhaps negativity as ‘the thing itself’ as Hegel says, is something we can take as in French through the word rien. It is strange in French we have the word rien meaning nothing although rien comes from the Latin res. So at the starting point rien did mean something but a very little thing. Today in French it is possible to say, for example, un petit rien, a little nothing is still something. Or you can say un rien sépare ceci de cela, there is nothing between this and that — once again a little nothing but there is a separation so there is something between them. This is interesting because it belongs only to the genus of French.

Interjection: In English they say ‘sweet nothings’.

Jean-Luc Nancy: That’s nice!

This text has been transcribed by Gilbert Leung and all inaccuracies are the responsibility of the transcriber. Jean-Luc Nancy expressly bears no responsibility for the text but has consented to its free distribution.


  1. Thank you very much for sharing this!
    Any more from that workshop?

    • I’m afraid that’s all I have transcribed.


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