Nomadic Thinking

by | 16 Sep 2010

This presentation is a few notes on a question. The question being: What does it mean to say: the free space of thinking? As my title suggests, I would like to relate the free space of thinking to what one might simply call nomadic thinking. To this end, I will draw upon Deleuze and Guattari’s Nomadology and, in addition, the work of Jean-Luc Nancy in order to effect a kind of cross-fertilisation. What I will try to present is the following: first, an impossibly brief conspectus of Nancy’s ideas on freedom, space, and what it means to think; second, a brief remark on the relevance of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad war machine; and finally, an all too hasty conclusion that will affirm the necessity to think critique in terms of a critical agency or, what amounts to the same thing, a warring subjectivity.

To begin, what does Nancy mean by freedom? In his seminal book The Experience of Freedom (Stanford University Press 1994), Nancy does not construct a theory of freedom. Instead, he deconstructs freedom, points to aporias that plague its very conception, while always, in the end, abandoning it, letting it go, releasing it from the bonds of signification as far as he can, given the constraints of writing. Nancy focuses on how freedom always evades being pigeon-holed, how it always slips beyond the clasp of any conceptualisation, which is why freedom is precisely free in and for itself. If we were to push Nancy to give us his conception of freedom, his answer would be to say, without a hint of irony, that freedom is, quite simply, not conceived.

Now both thinking and space enter into the picture as a relation to freedom. When speaking of space, this is not understood in terms of a cartesian res extensa—a geometrical, measurable thing—but what Nancy calls ‘spaciosity’ or simply a spacing. Such a spacing comes before any notion of space itself, and is described by Nancy as the gift of spatio-temporality. This does not mean that space is offered to freedom, but that freedom offers itself space as a gift thereby giving space to itself, a space that is the immesurable spacing out of singularities in the world and as world. The experience of freedom, of being free, means being exposed to this open space that freedom gives itself, it is an open space that allows existence as such to take place. Out of the abyss of freedom, existence self-initiates, and it is in this sense that freedom is the ground of ontology, in other words, freedom is the being of being.

To say that freedom is the being of being also means that freedom is the leap into existence in which existence is discovered as such, and this discovery is what Nancy further calls thinking. Freedom comes before thinking, because it is freedom that gives  thinking. This giving—which again takes the form of a gift, that is to say, an absolute prodigality that gives without  counting—gives to thinking, quite simply, something to think about. Tying things together, one could say that this something that freedom gives to thinking is nothing but itself, that is to say, the gift of a space for thinking.

When, in everyday language, one says “I need space to think” or “give me some space to think”, this usually means: I need distance from the situation or place I am in precisely in order to think. Now, on an ontological level, the free space of thinking means that thinking is already distanced from itself, a distancing that does not mark out a terrain or territory of thinking in which a specific paradigm or school of thought can lay its foundations and build its temples, but rather, to adopt now the idiomatics of Deleuze and Guattari, this distancing amounts to the deterritorialisation of the space of thinking. Deleuze and Guattari’s nomads do not passively inhabit the smooth space of the open steppe or desert, they make their habitat, which expands out in all directions. The nomads freely add steppe to steppe and desert to desert, making space for themselves, allowing their open space to grow along vectors of deterritorialisation, vectors that trace the mobile limits of deterritorialised space. Likewise, the free space of thinking can be seen as the realm of the nomadic thinker, giving him or herself space to think at the limit of this very space dispensed by freedom. Nomadic thinking is therefore thinking at or on the limit of freedom, which by definition has no limits, and which, to use another expression of Deleuze and Guattari, turns the nomadic thinker into a “war machine” on a direct collision course with the static, ossified, and institutionalised thought that one could associate with the state appartus.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the state apparatus is a principle of organization that distributes territory to individuals, marking out borders, erecting boundaries, and creating spaces of interiority. It is a principle of sovereignty and control. In contrast, the nomad war machine is a principle of movement and becoming, a principle of exteriority indifferent to the boundaries laid down by the state apparatus. From the perspective of the state, the war machine is violent and destructive, but on its own terms it is simply in a process of continual movement. For this reason, the nomad war machine does not make war its aim. It is essentially in a state of war because it collides with the constituted state apparatus; or as Deleuze and Guattari write in their Nomadology, “[w]ar is neither the condition nor the object of the war machine, but necessarily accompanies it or completes it.”

It is essential to bear in mind that Deleuze and Guattari also recognise the importance of not limiting this idea simply to the nomad. It can also apply, they say, to ideas in general, science, art, anything that takes up a line of creativity. Nomadic thinking can thus be seen as the free space of creative thinking, a mode of creativity that is equally a mode of struggle and resistance.

What is the relevance to law? Well, as a mode of resistance, nomadic thinking comes up against the state apparatus constituted by law. The city or state does not need to be surrounded by a brick wall to delineate inside from outside because the law (constitutional law, public international law, etc) performs this task to great effect. To think nomadically implies an inevitable collision with or into law, like a river collides into, and eventually erodes or undermines, its banks. I am therefore tempted to risk saying that nomadic thinking is nothing less than the ontological pre-condition for radical forms of legal critique.

To conclude: the nomadic thinker is one who traces the contours of the free space of thinking and whose subjectivity is, for necessary structural reasons, in a state of war-like struggle. This struggle is not a purely intellectual exercise where one engages in  critique with nothing more at stake than, say, a purely formal vision of the greater good.  Instead, one could say, in a manner faintly reminiscent of Carl Schmitt, that what is at stake is the nomadic thinker’s very life, that is to say, the ethos, integrity and creativity of the free space of thinking.

This is an abridged version of a paper delivered at the 2010 Critical Legal Conference.

1 Comment

  1. I am working on a paper for the National Conference in Higher Education in Prison. I am writing and presenting as an inmate first, and a scholar second and I appreciate you work here. I am trying to determine if an affirmative ethic, or nomadic school could even be feasible or honest within the institutional walls of a prison.


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