Being-with: Farewell, Jean-Luc Nancy

by | 8 Sep 2021

“Are feelings finite?” This was a question Jean-Luc Nancy asked me as we travelled in a taxi from Heathrow to Central London in the summer of 2005. I had just welcomed Jean-Luc and his wife Hélène Sagan at the airport. They were among the extraordinary gathering of philosophers, including Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Drucilla Cornell, J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Rancière, and Gayatri Spivak, convened by Costas Douzinas at Birkbeck as part of the Adieu Derrida series of lectures. For me, having spent several years reading Nancy’s work during my doctoral studies, he was the main event. Costas was typically generous in inviting students and colleagues at Birkbeck to send Nancy questions in advance of a seminar that would focus on Nancy’s work during his visit. Greeting him at the airport was something I felt compelled to do having heard of his precarious health. I was expecting a fragile man who might need help with his luggage. The person I encountered was elegantly dressed in his characteristic black fedora, striding with purpose, and happy carrying his own bag.

That summer I was meeting Nancy for the first time with all the doubts of a student who had read his work closely but was unsure of whether I really understood what he was getting at. This is why the question about feelings has stayed with me. His opening was disarming and invited thinking together: “I have been wondering, Stewart, are feelings finite?”. The question had never previously crossed my mind. But I had read enough of Nancy to think that a problem of finitude, of limits, must involve sharing and exposure, a being-with. ‘One cannot be alone being alone’, I recalled from Nancy’s “The Inoperative Community”. Extrapolating from this, I replied, “a feeling would be exposed at its edges to the feelings that precede and follows it”. “Ah, yes, that is what I have been thinking too”, said Nancy. This broke the ice. Conversations over the following days flowed easily. His seminar at Birkbeck was over-subscribed with attendees sitting on windowsills and the floor. He generously answered questions with patience and care; the formal discussion at his seminar ended after four hours, but only because we were asked to vacate the room for Birkbeck’s evening teaching to get underway.

The feeling of sadness on the death of Jean-Luc Nancy on 23rd August 2021 is accompanied by the sense that more than any other philosopher I am aware of, his thinking was concerned with mortality as a problem of sociality. He relentlessly pursued the question of the meaning of finitude and death for politics, but also from a very personal series of reflections. Nancy’s own heart gave out around 1989, and he received a heart transplant. As he wrote in the deeply evocative essay “L’Intru”(“The Intruder”, 2000), his own heart had become an intruder (4). This was no less the case with the new heart which his body would relentlessly try to reject; a process that required immunosuppressants that would lead to a long-running struggle with cancer.  Claire Denis’s exquisite film of the same name, L’Intru, draws on Nancy’s essay to examine the European border, the outsider, and postcolonial fratricide. The haunting emptiness of the protagonist’s heart in Denis’s film – his heart transplant and quest for his lost son, mirrors the impossibility of solitude and the violent conditions of sociality.  The essay and the film intensify the impossibility of solitude, and the violence of a relentlessly acquisitive European culture.

Surviving the intruder that was his own heart became, for Nancy, a decision for doctors who would decide on whom would receive the scarce donor organ. As he wrote in “L’Intru”:

Why me? Why survive, generally speaking?  What does it mean to “survive”? Is it even a suitable term? In what respect is the length of one’s life a good? I am fifty years old at this point: but fifty years old is young only with reference to the population of a developed country at the end of the twentieth century. Dying at the age of fifty was in no way scandalous only two or three centuries ago. Why today does the word “scandalous” come to mind in this context? Why, and how, is there no longer for us – we of the “developed countries” of the year 2000 – a “right” [juste] time to die (scarcely before the age of eighty; and will not this age continue to increase)? (5)   

Of course, every death is an absolute loss for loved ones and friends of the deceased. But reading this passage in 2021 in the context of a global Covid-19 pandemic brings to mind the scandalous hording of vaccines in what is called the “developed world”. Not only must the whole British, Canadian, and U.S population be vaccinated first, this must be possible thrice over! Despite the World Health Organisation’s COVAX scheme to distribute vaccines to low income countries, vast numbers of vaccines are horded by wealthy nations. This is the auto-immune condition of the west as more virulent and immune-resistant variants of the virus will emerge from unvaccinated populations, rendering the thrice-over vaccinations redundant. This pandemic has also occasioned the exodus of wealthy inhabitants of cities like London and New York to their country houses. Their work and structures of accumulation are hardly disrupted thanks to technologies whose modes of production are themselves the conditions for zoonotic diseases which have increased because of human mastery over “nature” (I write these words on a train as I return to London from the CLC 2021 in Dundee and observe the denuded and monocultured landscape that is the British countryside).

*

Nancy’s thinking on the political emerged at the limits of philosophy and art and was centred on the importance of distinguishing between la politique and le politique: politics (as an ontic concern with this or that measure or policy) and the political (an ontological concern with the condition of being together). In Retreating the Political (1997), a collection of essays written with Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy plays with the symptoms of the ‘retreat’ of the political into everyday taken-for-granted notions of social organisation, and asserts the need for a more philosophical ‘retreatment’ of the condition of being in community (see Illan rua Wall, CLT). The task of this rethinking was one he undertook by attending to the finitude of being and the limits of political community.

Although our death is the thing that is most properly ours (in the sense that no one can die our death), we do not experience our own death. The finitude of being is experienced by being in community, that is, through exposure to the death of others. Natality and mortality – the book-ends of existence – are not experienced as such by the being whose life it is. Nancy’s thinking on existence presented an ontology where being was at once singular-plural (Being Singular Plural, 2000). The singularity of each one manifests a problem of finitude that could only be thought and experienced, at its limits, by being in common, by being with, being together. Being towards death which is the condition of all life is thus experienced in community. This is not to say that Nancy’s philosophy was communitarian. In his influential essay “The Inoperative Community” (1985) he warned of the dangers of community as a ‘work of death’. The examples of such deathly community included the totalitarianism of fascism and Communism, and the rituals of sacrifice demanded in the name of nation, people, or religion.

Back in the summer of 2005 when we met, a major political discussion in Europe concerned whether member states of the EU would ratify a Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. The French referendum on ratification took place on 29th May, 2005, just a few weeks after Nancy was in London. We discussed this over dinner at Pizza Paradiso on Store Street – the legendary, though now sadly defunct, restaurant where generations of Birkbeck staff and students have entertained visitors, celebrated PhD vivas, and put the world right. Nancy’s desire that night was to summon Derrida’s ghost. He was lamenting the loss of Derrida’s counsel when thinking through this crisis of the European spirit which Paul Valéry had signalled nearly a century earlier (See Valéry 1957; Derrida 1992; and discussion in Motha 2012). The potential European Constitution also presented a problem of finitude – that is, of the ends and limits of European civilisation and community. What, Nancy wondered, would Derrida have said about an EU Constitution? While increasing the intensity of constitutional integration in the EU was not without difficulties, it was anti-immigrant sentiments, and the “threat” of Turkey becoming a member of the EU that drove the French and Dutch citizens to reject the proposed treaty. These referenda spelled the end of this form of political and legal unification in Europe for the time being. The European integration process presented the problem that Nancy termed ‘ecotechnics’ (see generally, Illan rua Wall, CLT): that capitalist globalisation erodes confidence in post-national institutions that suffer a crisis of legitimacy, while also generating an inward-looking reaction manifested in xenophobia and resurgent nationalism.

*

My reflections here touch on a tiny fragment of Jean-Luc Nancy’s immense oeuvre. Others, including authors and readers of this blog, will have their own accounts to give of how he has shaped their thinking and work. What he proposed consistently was a commitment to being-with as a form of being political which resisted the fraternal sacrifice, celebration, and excesses of ‘real communism’, republicanism, and fascism. In this commitment he was a philosopher who confronted the problem of thinking community in the post WWII period in which he lived and worked. Nancy’s essay, “Church, State, Resistance” (CSR) which originated as his plenary lecture at the Critical Legal Conference in Kent Law School in 2005, later published in a Special Issue of the Journal of Law and Society (2007) and recently in CLT (2021), introduces us to the centrality of autonomy and heteronomy for encountering what resists in being-with. The sense that autonomy consists in an individual or political form ‘giving oneself one’s own law’ is troubled by law and politics containing the force of affect as heteronomy. The secular and autonomous state, for instance, is sustained by the civil religions of patriotic fervour, laicité, and nationalism:

If autonomy resists heteronomy through all representations of democracy, by contrast, heteronomy resists autonomy with the force of affect. The affect is essentially heteronomous, and perhaps we should even say that affect is heteronomy. (CSR, § VIII)

What resists the tendency of both religious and secular authorities which fall over the force of affect is being-with. This is because affect resists being fully accomplished as “hypostasis, configuration, institution or legislation”. But is this force of affect enough to survive the catastrophic condition that Nancy so aptly characterised in “L’Intru”:

Man becomes what he is: the most terrifying and troubling technician, as Sophocles designated him twenty-five centuries ago. He who de-natures and re-fashions nature; he who re-creates creation; he who brings it out of nothing, and, perhaps, returns it to nothing. He who is capable of the origin and the end. (13)

In the face of ecological catastrophes, I have been exploring whether the classical opposition between nomos/physis (law/nature) can be subjected to the same undoing that Nancy visited upon autonomy and heteronomy. Indeed, does nomos/physis, respectively, manifest an analogous normative structure and conceit of mastery as autonomy and heteronomy? (for more about Nancy and Law, see Gilbert Leung in CLT)  The purported autonomy of nomos, and the heteronomy of physis is a difference that collapses at the frontier of their being-with. More about autonomy/heteronomy is for another occasion, but an occasion, no doubt, when I will summon a ghost by asking, ‘what would Jean-Luc say’?

For it is with you, dear Jean-Luc, that I will continue to think!

Professor Stewart Motha is Executive Dean of the School of Law, Birkbeck.

References

  • Denis, C (director) (2004) FILM: L’Intru.
  • Derrida, J (1992) The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).
  • Leung, G (2012) ”Law: Jean-Luc Nancy”, Critical Legal Thinking.
  • Motha, S (2012) “The Debt Crisis as Crisis of Democracy” (2012) 8:3 Journal of Law, Culture and Humanities pp. 390–397.
  • Nancy, J-L (1991) The Inoperative Community Trans. by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)
  • Nancy, J-L (2000) Being Singular Plural trans. Robert Richardson and Anne O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University Press)
  • Nancy, J-L (2002) ”L’Intru”. Trans. Susan Hanson (2002) 2:3 The New Centennial Review pp. 1-14.
  • Nancy, J-L (2007) “Church, State, Resistance” trans. Véronique Voruz and Colin Perrin, 34:1 Journal of Law and Society pp. 3-13 .
  • Wall, I r (2013) “Politics and the Political: Notes on the Thought of Jean-Luc Nancy” Critical Legal Thinking.
  • Wall, I r (2013) “Eco-Technics: Notes on the Thought of Jean-Luc Nancy”, Critical Legal Thinking.
  • Valéry, P (1957) La Crise de l’esprit, Note (ou L’Européen), in Essais quasi politiques, Oeures (Paris: Gallimard, la Pl.iade), translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews as “The European” in History and Politics: The Collected Works of Paul Valéry (New York: Bollingen, 1962).

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