The Weight of Our History

by | 14 Dec 2015

This is the long version of an essay that was first published on November 20, 2015 in L’humanité.

Translation by Philippe Theophanidis with the help of Marie-Ève Morin and Marc James Léger.


Portrait of Jean-Luc (Jean Luc) Nancy 11/09/2015 ©Vincent MULLER/Opale/Leemage

Portrait of Jean-Luc Nancy 11/09/2015
©Vincent MULLER/Opale/Leemage

We would rather remain silent. In the face of the horror and emotion. In the face of the effects of proximity – since what happened in Paris has been happening constantly and for a long time in Bombay, Beyrouth, Kaboul, New York, Madrid, Casablanca, Algiers, Amman, Karachi, Tunis, Mossoul, etc. etc. In the face of the misery of our indignation (justified but hollow) or of our protestations ( “One should…” ” One only has to…”) — and the gravity of perspectives (control, retaliation…).

We would rather remain silent also because of the acute consciousness that takes hold of us as soon as we imagine the inextricable complexity of the origins, causes, and progression of ostensibly entangled processes, themselves caught in the global conjuncture of massive economical and geopolitical confrontations. From the point of view of reflection, the situation doesn’t call for a simple ”One only has to…”.

Yet, for those very reasons, we ought to try to speak. Not only because emotion demands it, but also and especially because the strength [puissance] of this emotion stands for something else than the scale of the attacks. This scale is nonetheless noteworthy — all this coordination, the choice of time and location, tell something of the long work that went into preliminary planning. But there is more to it: it’s the scale of a long sequence that started 25 years ago (to keep within the limits of the immediately perceptible) in the Algeria of the 1990s with the foundation of the G.I.A. [Armed Islamic Group]. Twenty-five years, a generation, this is not merely a symbolic calculation. It means that a process is deploying itself, that a maturation is taking place, that an experience becomes characteristic. Outlines, tonalities, dispositions are being set. Nothing permanent nor definitive, of course, but nonetheless a certain configuration or at least a kind of turn, the energy of an inflexion, even of an impulsion.

The evening of November 13, 2015 in Paris is loaded with a force that makes this energy manifest. It is also why this energy appears to involve the perspective either of a decisive turn or of the beginning of a new generation: 25 years in front of us to reach another stage or to cross another threshold. Many of those who were gunned down in this massacre were barely over 25 years of age. Deceased or wounded, they enter in this threatening obscurity.

The force at stake here does not stem, in what constitutes it essentially, from the resources of what is called “fundamentalism” or “fanaticism”. Certainly, active, vindictive and aggressive fundamentalism — be it Islamic (Sunni or Shiite), Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu (even exceptionally Buddhist) — characterizes for a significant part the last 25 years. But how can one ignore the fact that this fundamentalism is a response to what can be called the economical fundamentalism inaugurated at the end of the bipolar separation and the extension of a “globalization” that had already been identified and named almost two generations ago (McLuhan’s “global village” dates back to 1967)? How not to notice also the haste in which the experience of totalitarianisms was erased? As if representative democracy, along with technical and social progress, could adequately respond to the concerns raised a long time ago by modern nihilism, as well as by the civilizational “discontent” mentioned by Freud in 1930?

Liberal fundamentalism affirms the fundamental characteristic of a law presumed to be natural regarding unlimited competitive production, equally unlimited technical expansion and above all the reduction of any other kind of rights (a reduction that also tends to be unlimited), especially political rights and above all rights that claim to regulate the natural law according to the specific requirements of a country, of a people, and of a form of shared existence [existence commune]. The State said to be “of law” [État de droit] represents in a paradoxical way a political form deprived of horizon and consistency, at once necessary and running out of life. Our productive and naturalistic humanism is dissolving, opening the door to demons: inhuman, super-human, all too human…

Religious fundamentalism cannot be limited to the observance of a given doctrine and immutable rites, without interferences from the socio-political context. When it wants to be active in this context, it presents a double postulate. On the one hand, it is about finding the power of a mystical foundation. On the other hand, it is a question of allowing this force to coexist alongside technical and economic interests in order to participate in their network of power. The most eloquent symptom of this undertaking is the adaptation of the banking system to Islamic law – and reciprocally. Another symptom is the war of religions. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which marked the awakening of a political Islam, also brought onto this terrain the major division internal to Islam. As with those of ancient Europe, the wars of religions respond to social and political confrontations. If one were to simplify, one could say that the actual conflicts in Middle East – aside from the one tied to Israel — all stem from the failure or the corruption of the allegedly progressive attempts of the postcolonial revolutions (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria).

This post-colonization was at times hampered, and at times highjacked by the interests of the ex-colonizers as well as by the power relationship between the ex-colonialized. To this context was added an economic situation troubled by an increase in energy demands and by the transformation of the monetary and financial system. In other words, since two or three generations the world configuration is involved in a major transformation of which the troubles agitating the Middle Eastern and European spaces are but one aspect. The others are located in the transformation of Asia and Latin America. For those reasons, fanaticism is able to recruit beyond the space that one too often restricts to the “Arab-Muslim” world.

As for the Mediterranean Muslim world, and here again at the cost of an oversimplification, it must be recognized that the Shia-Sunni opposition (which encompass the difference between Persian and Arabic culture as well) translates into an important difference in the configuration of the relationship between religion and society. The model of a complete religious impregnation of existence, culture and rights claimed by Sunni fundamentalism remains partially foreign to the spirit of Shia messianism (that being said, without forgetting the actual behaviour of the Iranian State). This is not without consequences for the relationship with European and American countries.

This all too broad outline merely suggest the considerable weight of the facts that a lucid reflection must face. Indeed, this weight is precisely what triggers fanaticisms that are as violent and short-sighted as those we are currently witnessing. It is when a world comes undone that follies are exacerbated. It is within mutations that lethal possibilities stem forth. The Spanish Inquisition or the fanaticisms of the Protestant Reformation, as many others (starting with those of the first Christianism or Christianisms) are probably always correlated to such critical situations, be they social or existential.

This renewed gravity and exasperation certainly do not work in favour of any resolution. At the very least we can and we must acknowledge the fact that we are not simply facing the sudden outburst of some barbaric event that would have randomly befallen us, as if from some unknown sky. We are facing a historical condition, a condition of our history — that of an “Occident” transformed into a world machine frightened by its own speed.

It would be too easy to condemn this history, just as it would be to try to justify it. But we cannot not ask ourselves whether it is possible to save this history from the deadlock it has now reached — be it a nihilistic, capitalistic, or Islamist one, or all of these at the same time.

Speaking about the sack of Rome by Alaric, while he was in Hippo where Roman refugees where flowing, Augustine said: “from the flesh that is being oppressed, the spirit must rise”.1premitur caro, liquescat spiritus” Sermon 296, 6 (PL 38: 1355). Where to find the spirit today?

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    premitur caro, liquescat spiritus” Sermon 296, 6 (PL 38: 1355).


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