Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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Jean-Luc Nancy has disclosed significant political and social dimensions to the general project of deconstructing Western philosophy. Existence does not precede essence, according to Nancy; existence is without essence, and it is therefore impossible both to represent existence and to exist alone. Being is always ’being in common’. The task of philosophy consists in rethinking the commonality of being without relying on any prior conception of identity, unity or wholeness. ’Being in common’ means that nothing – no substance, no identifiable trait– is held in common. The absence of a common substance or spiritual identity does not then generate a command to make up for this lack by means of socially useful work. As the exposure of each singularity to its ungrounded commonality, ’being in common’ is the always surprising ’fact’ upon which all of Nancy’s investigations into philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis and political phenomena are oriented.
As a professor of philosophy at the University of Human Sciences in Strasbourg, Jean-Luc Nancy remains on the periphery of contemporary academic philosophy in France. The proximity of Strasbourg to Germany is reflected in many aspects of his work. Not only has Nancy translated seminal texts of German philosophy and literary theory, his writings constantly engage those post-Kantian German thinkers – Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger – who declare, each in his own way, that philosophy has come to an end. Both his critical commentaries on philosophical texts and his attempts to rethink the terms in which political and social philosophy are cast take their point of departure from what Heidegger called ’the end of philosophy’. This phrase means, for Nancy, that the resources of representation have been exhausted: philosophy can no longer claim to bring the essence of a phenomenon into view on the basis of a unified subject of any sort. Since philosophy has come to an end, and since it cannot be simply overcome, there is no choice but to repeat the history of philosophy. There are two ways to undertake this repetition: either ignore the end of philosophy and proceed to rework previous philosophical positions, or expose philosophy to its end and thus develop a ’finite’ thought of community, sharing, meaning, freedom – to name a few of the topics Nancy has explored in detail. By re-examining these topics from the perspective of what Jacques Derrida has called the ’closure of metaphysics’, Nancy has made a significant contribution to the general project of deconstructing the history of Western metaphysics.
Nancy’s readings of philosophical texts closely match those of Derrida. What distinguishes his writings from other versions of ’deconstruction’ (see Deconstruction) is his decision to rethink certain topics often associated with existentialism (see Existentialism). By reconsidering such topics as existence, abandonment, embodiment, freedom, community and communism on the basis of a more rigorous reading of Hegel and Heidegger than any of the existentialists could claim, Nancy has been able to disclose significant political and social dimensions to the project of deconstruction. His attempts to rethink these terms are all oriented on one ’fact’: existence is without essence. Nancy does not proclaim, as does Sartre, that ‘existence precedes essence’ but that existence precedes, exceeds and succeeds itself, for existence is sheer non-coincidence with itself. From its inception, philosophy has interpreted the ’fact’ that existence precedes itself by representing it in terms of a subject that underlies and is thus prior to its various attributes and accidents. Even when the subject is viewed as an ideal or as an incomplete project, the basic structure of ’infinite’ and thus ’onto-theological’ thought remains intact: the subject grounds itself in its prior or future essence. The ’finite thought’ Nancy proposes never proceeds beyond the ’fact’ that existence is without essence and without ground. Forever receding from representation, existence consists in an exposure to the groundlessness of being.
One of the most innovative aspects of Nancy’s work is the way in which it brings the existential analysis of Being and Time into conjunction with Heidegger’s late reflections on Ereignis (’event of appropriation’) (see Heidegger, M. §5). Nancy presents being (être) not as the essence of things or the ground of phenomena but as a ’free’ and ’generous’ event: being takes place as existence. Since existence cannot support itself, it can never be alone or on its own. ’Being in common’ thus defines ’finite’ existence. No one participates in anything when existence takes part in, or ’shares’ being. Existence can even be understood as co-exposure to the absence of anything held in common as long as this absence is not then represented as something communal or ’socially useful’ work could seek to repair. If ’being in common’, which Nancy associates with ’the political’ as opposed to ’politics’, is represented in terms of a programme for securing what society lacks, it – and therefore the ’political’ – are destroyed. Drawing on Kant’s thesis of radical evil, Nancy presents the destruction of ’being in common’ in L’Expérience de la liberté (1988b) (The Experience of Freedom, 1993) as ’wickedness’.
Many of Nancy’s later writings explore the bodily character of ’being in common’. Thought itself is presented as bodily: to think (penser) is not simply to weigh (peser) various options but to be weighed down. The kind of thinking that takes its point of departure from the ’fact’ that existence cannot be represented is indistinguishable from touching, for, according to Nancy, to touch and to be touched are two modes of being at the limit of representation. Nancy thus counters the Kantian conception of thought as spontaneity with a ’passive’ thinking whose ’passion’ consists in an exposure to an always antecedent sense. Sens (’sense’, ’meaning’), according to Nancy, precedes and exceeds all signification; it cannot be grasped, granted, discovered or produced. As long as the body is the locus of sense, it cannot be securely located, only absolved, shared, and parcelled out: ’There is no whole, no totality of the body – but its absolute separation and sharing out. There is no such thing as the body. There is no body’ (1993b: 207). All of Nancy’s explorations of the political and social dimensions of deconstruction assign themselves the same task as his writings on ’the body’: they gesture toward what allows for and what destroys ’being in common’.
Fenves, Peter. Nancy, Jean-Luc (1940–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DE019-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/nancy-jean-luc-1940/v-1.
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