The Possibility of a World is a transcript of a conversation between Pierre-Philippe Jandin and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. The conversation, which broaches topics spanning philosophy, art history, ethics, politics, religion, community, the Bible, the French Revolution and beyond, exhibits the wide and almost unprecedented scope of Nancy’s writings. This journey through Nancy’s thought is guided by the careful and considered questions of Pierre-Philippe Jandin who, in playing an active role in the conversation, challenges and provokes Nancy with testing questions and comments. An important statement precedes the conversation: “in accordance with J-L Nancy’s wishes, we have attempted to preserve the spontaneity of oral discussion […]”. Owing to this, the reader finds herself standing “on the threshold” (to use Nancy’s phrase from an essay of the same name), observing a scene. This scene, or conversation, is composed of nine chapters, each devoted to a specific topic, and beginning with a question that dictates the direction of the discussion. However, unlike a well-planned interview, the charm of this conversation lies in its associative, non-linear (and not always well-explained) façons de parler.
In keeping with Nancy’s central preoccupation regarding the ontology of plurality as a fundamental ontology, what presides over the entire conversation is a concern with the need to rethink ethics in a “world [that] is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd” (28). In other words, a world that is neither harmonious nor orderly (in the sense of the Greek ‘cosmos’), but rather an irreducible plurality of worlds. Furthermore, this claim extends beyond the argument about the plurality of worlds, since what is at issue is “the plural itself as a principle”,[i] irrespective of whether it concerns politics, the thought of community, or the plurality of the Arts. These modes of plurality, and the consequent requirement to rethink ethics, preoccupy the body of this conversation.
The Possibility of the World does not—and is not intended to—introduce Nancy’s philosophy to the “novice”. Instead, it represents a journey through Nancy’s thought, with which we are already familiar. Owing to this, the book reads as though it were a director’s cut, adding another dimension to a movie or biopic. Given the broad scope of each chapter, in addition to their associative manner, I have chosen only to elaborate on the central issues evoked by each chapter, rather than reviewing chapters in their entirety.
The conversation commences with a preliminary, autobiographical chapter entitled “Formative Years”. This concerns Nancy’s childhood until his mid 20s. On this topic, Jandin begins with a provocative and ironic question:
How did you become a philosopher? Especially since you gave a lecture in 2002 at the Centre Pompidou entitled: “I Never Became a Philosopher.” What’s this non-becoming, then? (1)
I didn’t become a philosopher because I’ve always been one. All that I’ve known, or all that I’ve experienced, took place against a background that I wouldn’t call philosophical, though it’s close to it— a background of interest in the things of thought, in conceptions. (2)
The first chapter explores Nancy’s philosophical upbringing.
Nancy’s entry into the world, as Jandin puts it, unfolds in a time of turbulence. Born 1940 in the “thick of World War II” in occupied France, the young Nancy spent most of his childhood in Baden Baden, Germany, owing to his father’s work. As a young boy, Nancy recalls finding great pleasure in “meandering alone in nature” (3), but also, if not especially, in the solitude of reading, which he experienced as “a withdrawal from the rest of the world […] which was an entrance into another world” (3). In 1951, the family returned to France and the young boy entered French school in the middle of sixth grade, which he had in fact commenced already in a French lycée in Germany. He would later on join the Young Christian Students (YCS), a youth movement oriented towards leftist Catholicism, which he recounts as providing the “initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8):
As I realized much later, this was certainly the beginning of something for me, the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense [sens]. The biggest revelation that I had through this exercise was that, in a text, there is practically an infinite reserve of sense […] Basically, this is what I was trained to do: One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite. (7)
While the Catholic orientation of that movement provided the adolescent Nancy with his first encounter of biblical texts and their inexhaustible fount of sense, this encounter eventually culminated in a crisis of faith:
Suddenly the mere possibility of being in what I could think of as a relationship to God— addressing him, having to recognize myself as a sinner, having to confess, having to receive the communion of the body of Christ—all of this had completely lost any substance. (9)
Thus, while the YCS, with its religious orientation, provided the initial path to social and political advocacy, the young Nancy discovered that it was not the only path to becoming socially and politically engaged. Moreover, on account of his distancing from religion, he was increasingly drawn to philosophy. The first philosopher mentioned in this long conversation is Jacques Derrida, whose writings he came upon in 1964 (at the age of 24), and on whose philosophy he writes “I felt that something was bursting open. There was a timeliness to this thought […] A new language was trying, at least, to find itself” (14). However, even earlier on he had discovered Hegel and Heidegger (an encounter that Nancy elaborates on in “Heidegger in France”).[ii]
However, above all it was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that formed part of the aggregation that left the strongest impression on the young Nancy. Kant’s legacy, Nancy argues, is “enormous”, and far “greater than [Hegel’s]” (18). What changes with Kant is that there is no longer a distinction between the domain of pure reason and the domain of praxis, since after Kant “pure reason is itself practical, which is why it doesn’t need a critique, but rather a critique of its use” (19). Another leitmotif of Nancy’s writings was his preoccupation with the question of the relationship between the sensible and the intelligible, around which the entire Kantian critical corpus revolves (and which is referred to within Kant scholarship as “the Nature-Freedom problem”). These concerns, deemed the one thing “that had never been thought by metaphysics” (20) according to Kant writing to Marcus Herz, were centrally important to Nancy’s own writings, as evidenced (inter alia) in The Muses, Corpus, and The Ground of the Image.
As far as Nancy was concerned, challenging the distinction between pure and practical, sensible and intelligible, constituted a project originating in Kant. Such concerns inevitably move us away from the domain of the first Critique and its study into the possibility of a priori sensibility, to the domain of the third Critique, and its study into a different mode of sensibility.
It is here that the discussion turns to art and its difference from philosophy. “I envy the artist”, Nancy admits, because they “manage to do things which are real!” while “I have a feeling that my texts are too oriented towards the conceptual”. Philosophers “are a group of people who want clarity” (21). On this point, one need only recall Descartes’ fundamental distinction between clear and distinct ideas (as opposed to obscure and confused ideas) in The Passions of the Soul. While Western metaphysics is haunted by the metaphor of light, the artist has the freedom to dwell in the shadows. “I look into the night and enter it”, Nancy quotes Bataille, “but no philosopher truly takes it upon themselves to do that because philosophers are supposed to introduce light into the world” (21). For Nancy, philosophy is not an escape from a cave towards the bright light of the Idea. Philosophy is rather a dwelling-place between light and shadow, between philosophy and poesies: it is a form of writing that encroaches upon a reality that is irreducible to the conceptual, and which, in Nancy’s words, is an ex-scription (a writing from the outside). As he remarks, “words and ideas are not only words and ideas but the circulation of the real”.
The first chapter culminates with this ethically toned remark:
Human beings no longer live in the world in the sense of Hölderlin, reprised by Heidegger, when he writes: “poetically, man dwells.” “To dwell” [habiter] means to be in the habitus, not in the habit but in the “disposition,” an active disposition. In the end, habitus is not far from ethos; what we need is an ethics of the world. This is perhaps the greatest issue of Western civilization, which has now become worldwide [mondiale], or global [globale]—to have had this will to transform the world in order to make it a human world […] This is what Heidegger meant when he introduced what we translate as “Being-in-the-world” (in-der-Welt-sein); to say that the existent, the Dasein, is essentially in the world simply means that it’s necessarily involved in the circulation of meaning or sense, which is what makes a world. (26)
Notwithstanding this Heideggerian-toned observation, Nancy ends up invoking Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature”:
The imperative is what has been given to human beings in order to make a world, in the end, this means that what’s at stake is to make or remake a world. (27)
This world, which has become an object of knowledge “is at the same time a world where human beings’ presence […] has been pushed aside” (26). We no longer live in the world as beings-in-the-world, we flee from this existential, from this mode of being, and in doing that we flee from our essence as existence.
Nancy interprets Kant’s principle of universality as the ethical obligation of each of us to remake a world, recreating it for the type of being that we ourselves are—Dasein—in order to recapitulate the question of being and our relationship to our being through this creation.
The second conversation, entitled “The World”, picks up the question of ethics and the remaking of the world in connection to one of the fundamental concerns of Nancy’s philosophy, namely the theme of plurality.[iii] Jandin begins by quoting Nancy’s argument in Corpus:
Our world is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd, the non-place of a proliferating population, “[an] endless, generalized, departure.” (28)
Today it is no longer possible to sustain thought about the world in terms of a cosmos in the Greek sense, that is, a uni-verse that is harmonious, beautiful, unified, and total. This narrative is no longer valid, not only philosophically, as Nancy remarks; it is also scientifically untenable: “today astrophysics is compelled in a way to think a plurality of worlds” (30), a multiverse rather than a universe. This thought has two repercussions: “that we no longer can retain the model of a single universe”, but additionally that:
from now on all theories of physics have to think of themselves as a construction of fictions. Moreover, in The New Scientific Spirit, Bachelard writes, in effect, that: [Instruments] are nothing but theories materialized. The phenomena they produce bear the stamp of theory throughout. […] [We] produce, we multiply new objects according to several approaches, and thus we manage to produce several worlds. It’s better to say, perhaps, in order to avoid harming the spontaneous, realistic feeling, that we produce several possibilities of worlds or even several fictions of worlds. Nevertheless, even this word, fiction, is dangerous because it could allow one to think that behind this fictional world lies the true world, when we are perhaps moving past the representation of science as an objective knowledge that comes closer to a real that exists in itself. (30)
The plurality of worlds, an expression coined by Fontenelle that Nancy appropriates as the subtitle of his essay, “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?: (conversation on the Plurality of Worlds)”,[iv] refers to plurality as ontological principle rather than as empirical ontic idea, which merely points to the diversity of our world. Referring to this essay, Jandin remarks:
[…] the multiplicity of the “arts” can’t be subsumed under the unity of a concept of “Art,” you insist on the irreducibility of plurality. It’s the world itself that’s plural, and plurality or space is, so to speak, what makes it shatter from the inside. (37)
This argument resonates with not only Nancy’s theme of the Singular Plural but also Kant’s definition of reflective judgment as opposed to a determinate judgment, as expounded in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The difference between these forms of judgment can be summarized as follows: the former is a kind of judgment for which no determinate concepts are available and which is therefore cognitively unmastered;[v] the latter, by contrast, countenances the possibility of subsuming the manifold of intuition under a unified concept or law. In a similar vein, there is no concept of Art to unify the heterogeneity of the arts, “art would thus be in default or in excess of its own concept” (The Muses, 4), which is to say that there is no principle of homogenization under which to subsume the multiplicity of worlds that we inhabit as beings-in-the-world. This is, therefore, a thesis that goes to the heart of Nancy’s ontology, while sharing firm ground with Kant’s aesthetics.[vi]
What is lost as a consequence of the fact that we “no longer [live] in a cosmos […] we no longer perceive the totality of an ordered and thus beautiful world” (29), is the loss of the image of man as derived from the idea of humanitas. On the one hand, Nancy emphasizes the great emancipatory value of the Enlightenment: it freed human beings to think for themselves, and it inaugurated the moment of the “auto”. Nevertheless, today we face a different challenge, intimated by Nancy’s claim that our world today is a place of plurality, of multitude, which consequently furnishes us with a new ethical task. At issue is no longer the imperative “to think for oneself”, but rather the requirement “to think about the multiple as dis-position, as dis-tinction” (50), that is, to think of the plural itself as a principle without neglecting the singularity and particularity of each individual. In other words, we must think of plurality not in terms of the faceless masses, but in terms of co-appearances. We must think of the multiple as the new face of humanitas.
Extending the discussion of plurality and the plurality of worlds, the third chapter is devoted to the notion of community as a politically active force of resistance. Jandin begins by asking Nancy to clarify the notion of community “by differentiating it from related notions, such as, for example, crowds, which inspired Baudelaire and sparked Benjamin’s thought, or masses, classes, and the multitude” (51). Having addressed the notion of crowd, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of mass:
[It is] a word that we’ve almost forgotten about today, although it used to be very present, perhaps after the postwar period, the adjective “working” frequently accompanied it: the “working mass”, an expression that was used in a positive way, by people who were involved in the social conflict. (55)
Whereas the notion of mass has been made redundant on account of our having “given up on a certain vocabulary of struggle”, the idea of a political community remains, although it instead appears under new “modified” names. Taking the place of “mass”, Nancy argues, are notions such as Rancière’s “no part” (sans part), suggesting a political alternative: a possibility of a world in which “there’s no politics unless the ‘no part’ manifest themselves in a movement in order to claim or demand their right to have a part” (58). Thus, while the class struggle in the Marxist sense is obsolete—both in language and in praxis—in Rancière’s thought (which Nancy sees as Marxist critique within Marxism itself) we may hope for “a new distribution of the sensible”,[vii] that is, for a Dissensus (disagreement). What we lack today, indeed what is lost, as Nancy points out, is the self-interpretation of society in terms of a conflict. And notwithstanding the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Marxist vocabulary is obsolete. We no longer hear about class struggle and exploitation. Instead we are caught in the mechanism of Capitalism, which provides the language of self-interpretation. This language is that of consumption and accumulation: of consensus rather than dissensus.
In these circumstances, there is no longer any distance between the crowd and Capitalist logic. Since the “good life” is now given in term of consumption there is no longer any conflict or resistance. Thus, as Jandin notes, in our culture “the workers themselves produce the objects that they must acquire in order to live the ideal life” (59). What is lost, nevertheless, is the distance necessary for developing a critical attitude: the distance between the subject and agents of power, which Foucault elucidates by identifying the prisoner’s with the guard’s gaze, bespeaking the loss of distance between the subject and the ideology of power, which is now internalized. This marks the wholesale loss of dissensus. Nancy names this situation the “rehomenization of society”, explaining through this phrase that we are facing a new kind of (so-called) equality, whereby everyone is equal before the ideal of consumption, understood as the newfangled ‘Highest Good’.
In a society that values large numbers (and large number of objects) we see how the logic of “accumulation for accumulation sake” operates. Today everything is commodified: art, nature, universities—even the human being. The chapter concludes pessimistically: if the word ‘emancipation’ comes from Roman law, an emancipated slave becomes a free man:
[Today], on the other hand, it’s perhaps no longer possible to think about an absolutely emancipated human being […] And we’re dealing with a question that’s come up before: Who? We don’t know who we emancipate—we say it’s man, but actually, since we don’t know who man is, we don’t know who we emancipate . . . (65)
The fourth chapter, entitled “People and Democracy”, centers upon the notion of “people”. This chapter recently received critical attention in the collection of essays What is a People? (Columbia University Press, 2016), addressing the ambiguity surrounding this notion, in particular whether it is one of “political emancipation” or whether it has become a notion akin to “a group of words like ‘republic’ or ‘secularism’ whose meanings have evolved to serve to maintain the order.”[viii] To demonstrate ambivalence towards this notion the conversation begins with an anecdote that Nancy recounts of giving a talk on the notion of “people” at a conference in Cerisy, dedicated to Jacques Derrida, entitled “Democracy to Come”. After finishing his paper, Derrida approached Nancy and said to him: “I would’ve said everything you said, but not with the word ‘people’”, to which Nancy replied, “Ok then, but give me another word”. He answered, “I don’t know but it’s not ‘people’”. What Derrida expressed, Nancy tells Jandin, “through this discomfort, the discomfort of our current philosophical situation, was this: At certain moments, we lack the appropriate words” (67). Derrida’s reaction demonstrates his suspicion regarding this notion, even though there is no better word to use in its place. This is not merely a linguistic or discursive failure but rather attests to a certain reality that this notion embodies as an “indication of something that exists, that must exist” (70).
Whereas “the people” are something that must exist, it is at the same time not given, for the construction of a “people” depends on an act of self-declaration, that is, a constituting speech act. In other words, a “people” can only become a political community in this act of self-constitution. Here, then, we can see the emancipatory value of the term in acts such as the one that constituted the “French people” during the Revolution. This act of self-declaration was unprecedented:
I don’t think the French people had ever declared itself as such before through anyone; the king declared himself “King of France” and by the same token all of his subjects were subsumed under or assumed by the royal declaration. The institution of the “sovereign people,” which is not an empty expression, will probably give rise to dangerous political problems. But the “sovereign people” is perhaps first the fact that the people must be able to make a self-declaration, without any superior authority to declare it or institute it as such. (71)
It was in this self-declaration of the French people (at that time of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the Citizen) that the Revolution began. Henceforth, the discussion turned to the question of the possibility of singularity within the plurality that the notion “people” connotes, as well as an interesting discussion on the implications of the notion of “people” in a culture, whereby what furnishes the tone is a concern with political correctness.
The fifth chapter deals with the question of political affects, which Nancy briefly touched upon in the third chapter. This chapter is governed by questions such as: “do political affects exit?” and if so “what are they?”, and “Why must there be something from the affective realm in order for political life to be possible?”. From the outset, Nancy dismisses what might have been the obvious answer to the first question, namely that political affects are essentially fear and terror, which one would normally associate with power relations. However, these affects, Nancy argues, are insufficient to “ensure the durability of a government”. Rather, the contrary is true: force must exhibit a sense of amiability so that one can trust the sovereign. This ensures a persistent, uninterrupted flow of power. This argument is supported by historical examples such as the case of Louis XV who was named “the beloved” or the image of the King as a Father, someone who takes care of a family, “the Patriarch”, looking after his subjects/children. But even if (as Machiavelli’s example makes explicit) one encounters the “virtuous appearance” of the prince, as Nancy rightly notes, “someone who has a cruel or perverse personality must be careful to present themself in a certain way” (87).
However, despite the intimate connection between sovereignty and affect, in the era of the modern state we witness the disappearance of affect:
To return to the topic of the modern State, one can say that, on the one hand, it’s forced to constitute itself outside of the affective realm of religion if it wants to claim its full independence, which would come to be called sovereignty, but on the other hand, it would still be forced to seek to qualify itself affectively in several ways and at several moments. (79)
Apart from the historical analysis of the dynamic between Church and state, it is noteworthy that, for Nancy, the question of affectivity holds an ontological significance, particularly in pertaining to the being-with of each of us. The connection between the singularities in this plural “body politic”, the community, is formulated in terms of touch (toucher), which is one of the fundamental concepts in Nancy’s philosophy. Marie-Eve Morin argues that touch is “somewhat equivalent to rapport or sense. That is, it names what happens between singularities, right at the extra of the partes extra partes”, rather than the merging of singularities into a unified whole.
Contra both the common-sense and philosophical understanding of touch as the sense of proximity (by opposition to the senses of sight, smell and hearing, which can sense at a distance), Nancy insists that in touching, what is touched always remains outside of what touches it, so that the law of touch is not so much proximity as separation.
The sixth part of the conversation, entitled “Politics and Religion”, is a shorter discussion on the difficult question of how the philosophical, the religious and the political interconnect. The discussion revolves around two axes: first, the implication of taking a theological term and using it in a non-theological context, and second, the question of the sacred.
Nancy addresses the first part of the question by making a reference to Gérard Granel’s essay Far from Substance: Whither and to What Point? (Essay on the Ontological Kenosis of Thought Since Kant). There, the Christian notion of “kenosis” (which appears in Paul) is given “an ontological index that is no longer theological” (96). Nancy recalls approaching Granel:
I remember asking him back then: What’s this about? Can we leave the theological behind? Today, very briefly, and as a start, I’d say we can’t. When we speak about “secularization” […] what are we talking about? Is it the complete transfer of the same content but in another context? If one takes a fish and puts it in a dry place, it can no longer live. Is it a metaphorical displacement? But then what does metaphor signify if one takes an element out of religion, it may no longer have a sense. If one extracts “kenosis”6 from its context, as Gérard Granel suggested, is there any sense in speaking about God “being emptied” of its deity in order to become a man outside of Christ, who was precisely this god who joined humanity completely? More simply, can one hold on to the term kenosis outside the context of creation and incarnation? (98)
Addressing the second part of the question, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of sacrifice and its relation to the sacred. Christianity, in its beginning was considered by many to be a philosophy, he claims. However, unlike philosophy or other religious groups it had a “relationship to a higher power and a higher ability to receive the complaints and the offerings of man at the same time, that is, a power that belonged to a logic of sacrifice in one way or another. Is this not what’s at stake in Christianity, which is perhaps the sacrifice that puts an end to all sacrifices, in the words of René Girard?” Nancy sees a connection between sacrifice and the “sacred” defined in The Ground of the Image as what “signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off”.[ix] If the sacred is what is set aside and cut off, how do we bond with it? Nancy’s answer is through sacrifice:
One attempt to form a bond with the sacred occurs in sacrifice, which as a matter of fact does belong to religion, in one form or another. Where sacrifice ceases, so does religion. And that is the point where, on the contrary, distinction and the preservation of a distance and a “sacred” distinction begin.[x]
However, if religion must involve a relationship to the sacred then Christianity is a “completely desacralized religion, which in a sense has been understood by modern society because it’s secular.” (100) But questions that remain are these: Can we be satisfied with desacralizing in this way? Is Christian behavior tenable as something that completely abstains from any relationship with the sacred? Given our over-scientific technological world:
one hardly sees how humankind could simply go back to the sacred now […] Perhaps the very grasping of what we call technology, reason, rationality, and so on will be transformed, but if this is the case, I don’t think that it will be in order to go back to some form of the sacred. (101)
In the seventh chapter the conversation turns to the question of art, a concern at the core of Nancy’s philosophy. While previously claiming to envy the artist who has the freedom to transcend the sensible/intelligible dichotomy, Nancy now turns to address the ontological implications of art, which he explored extensively in The Muses. Nancy begins by arguing that art presents us with a domain privileged for being able to reveal the “ontological range of what we’re after”, provided that we insist on the “heterogeneous multiplicity of the registers or regimes of the sensible” (112).[xi] But before exploring the theme of plurality, and the plurality of the senses, the discussion turns to the situation of art today, where by “today” Nancy means “a time in which the notion of art is no longer connected with the notion of cosmos or the notion of polis” (103) but is instead concerned with what is commonly referred to as “the crisis in art”. Nancy begins by exploring the historical background to this crisis (a crisis that we can perhaps simply call ‘modern art’) and the conditions leading up to it:
The decomposition, if not the rotting or certain disrepair or disassembling of something that was held to be a cosmic and cosmetic order until our time, or perhaps until the so-called “world” wars […]. This good and beautiful order, as it was thought about from the perspective of Europe or the United States, usually presented itself in the form of the nation-state. Besides, at the time of World War I, this order of the City […] began to crumble. (104)
However, despite the historical circumstances leading to a crisis in art, it is with Hegel that the idea of the “end of art” was introduced into philosophical discourse:
Here we can’t avoid returning to Hegel, to whom one always attributes the phrase that suggests art is dead or over, but whose actual words are that art is “a thing of the past.” With this expression, Hegel wanted to say that art as a representation of the truth, as the bearer of the representation of a general layout, was over, and I think he was spot on. (104)
Nancy here evinces agreement with Hegel’s thesis that art “is a thing of the past” insofar as art is no longer a representation of truth. Moreover, for Nancy art’s power is not in its mimetic function at all. Rather, art “consists [in] the gesture of taking sensation to a particular intensity” (104). This is not to say that art is merely about intensifying sensations, but instead that art first and foremost has to do with the discovery that our sensibility does not merely serve epistemological purposes—the sensible component in the acquisition of knowledge and cognition—but rather we can use our sensibility and our senses in ways that exceed cognition and induce pleasure. On this point, as Nancy remarks: “Once a man starts playing with his voice, not just speaking, perhaps already singing, we are no longer in the realm of phenomenology” (114). It is here where sensibility departs from its cognitive function—from its contribution to the cognition of an object, as Kant would have put it in the third Critique. Owing to this, the path to discovering a different aspect of sensibility is opened. Thus, in this respect the “end of art” designates both an end of an era, but at the same time the dawning of a new way of thinking about art, which is no longer committed to mimetic purposes, such as it had been since Plato’s Republic, but is rather (in Nancy’s words in The Muses) a “teckhne of existence”.[xii] For Nancy, while art has lost its representational function, it simultaneously gained ontological power: “like being, art presents itself as a surprise. It makes something visible without reproducing anything that would exist previously”.[xiii]
Nancy employs Focillon’s distinction between form and sign to argue that in modern art, color and sound function like “form” (which, one could add, was a fundamental category to aesthetic thinking since Kant’s third Critique). These, in being forms, signify only themselves, as opposed to being signs that “[signify] something else”. Thus, in departing from its representational vocation, art is freed to explore its own medium, and to make visible its own materiality. To this end, art “[makes] sound be heard for itself as it is being produced” (108), and “[does] color for color’s sake”, a paradigmatic example of the latter being, as Nancy notes, Yves Klein’s Blue (108).
The eighth part of the conversation is devoted to an elaboration of a distinction Nancy drew between “the present” and “presence” in After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes. Jandin begins by placing the topic in context:
[You] distinguish between two senses of the present: the present as it’s been criticized in the “metaphysics of presence” (being present to oneself, etc.) and the present that should be taken into account more seriously in the sense of what is ephemeral, in the words of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer you cite. In other words, has the moment come for carrying out a displacement of our thought, from a problem of time to a problem of space? (119)
J.-L.N.: Yes, a problem of space as in spacing, which may also be the spacing of time, which even our own Western tradition knows very well.
Nancy uses the term “spacing” to designate the act of the original unfolding of space as the site of the moment of the event. It is an original unfolding of spatiality that is exposed only temporally. In Corpus, Nancy describes this space as “a space which is more properly spacious than spatial, what could also be called a place”. Prior to any ontic, empirical space, it is the “ontological clearing” (lichtung) in the words of Heidegger, wherein Being is made patent. Following Heidegger’s critique on the metaphysics of presence, and the stasis, permanency and immovability associated with the thinking of being in terms of a substance, Nancy thinks being in the active transitive sense ascribed to it by Heidegger. As such being itself, presence, is always in movement which cannot be suspended:
All of us have in mind these lines from Lamartine: “O time, suspend your flight, and you, auspicious hours / Suspend your sequence on: / Let’s savor the rapid, evanescent delight / of beauty’s finest hour” — words pronounced by the woman whom the poet loves.3 It’s the request that the flow of time be interrupted, if you like, and this interruption is not a cut or an absence of continuity, but the suspension of the continuity through which it can present itself to itself. The female lover implores for the suspension of time, for spacing instead of the haste of successive moments, which end up nullifying the present moment. (119)
The suspension of continuity that the lover implores is a request to be in the present, to seize the “now”, to cherish the moment and freeze it just for a second so as to “be” in it. But this wish is of course in vain. Just as “time flies”, being is always in movement. In “Laughter, Presence” Nancy addresses the painter who paints the woman he desires, but this is “the painting of her disappearance or of her disappearing”.[xiv] If it is possible to long to paint her, it is because she has “appeared”—but “so rarely”, and “so quickly fled”. Ontologically coming and going, into presence and out of presence, is one and the same movement.
In Basic Problems, Heidegger reads a fragment of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander addressing movement in terms of the “arrival and departure” of Being: the “transition from coming and going” into presence. If the standing of Being in the Open is temporal rather than static or permanent then what emerges into presence is at the same time in the movement of departing from presence. This is the temporality of Dasein as opposed to the two other types of entity Heidegger defines in Being and Time that have a different existence in time:
But in this metaphysics, presence is actually considered to be something thrown on the shores of the river of time and that remains there in a sort of abandoned immobility. This is what Heidegger calls Vorhandenheit, that is, “Being-present-at-hand” [être-la-place-devant], a dense, motionless, silent, insignificant thing, to be differentiated from something “ready-to-hand” [sous-la-main] that is available for the activity or project of an existent, or what Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit. But one could say just as well that presence in this sense, even with the distinction between the two nuances, is not present at all or is present only for the existent that has it at its disposal. (120)
For Dasein, “one can understand presence in a completely different way as being intimately connected to manifestation or appearance, as we were saying, in the same sense as when one says that someone has a “presence” or that certain actors have a particular “presence,” which means the exact opposite of a thing’s presence. In this case, this presence is a “coming” (one “comes into the presence of”), an “appearing.” (120)
In the concluding chapter “Nihilism and Joy”, Nancy returns to the theme of affects. However, at issue are not political affects but affects that Nancy defines “as an affirmation of a sense of existence”. Jandin introduces the topic by questioning:
Our—final?—question is about nihilism and joy. Can one hear in “the possibility of a world,” the expression that seals our interview, an interrogation into the hope of exiting out of nihilism, which would mean being done with this world that’s ending and which has an affective tone of, in the words of Günther Anders, both hopelessness and the desire for revolution?1 Could one consider a world of joy—I’m aware of the Christian connotation of this expression—in the sense in which you write that “ there is not much joy in the human of humanism”? Must the “retracing” of the limits of the political leave room for the opening of spheres where joy would be possible? (127)
Jandin’s definition of nihilism in terms of the absence of joy appeals to Nancy (“I like this question’s position, which I’ve never thought about”). However, the latter attributes the “disappearance of joy”, and the “loss of enthusiasm – sacrificial, ecstatic, mystical […] [that] was present in all the mystery religions that existed up until Rome” (128) to the influence of Stoicism and Epicureanism, which [privilege] logos at the expense of Eros (128). Against the prominence of logos, Nancy claims, Christianity appeared with the theme of joy, particularly through participation in the divine, thereby fulfilling a need that was sought. In the modern world since the eighteenth century, Christian joy has been usurped by the idea of “happiness’, which Saint-Just, among the ideologues of the French Revolution (and an advocate of the Reign of Terror), declared as “a new idea in Europe”.
However, at the center of the discussion is Jandin’s evocation of the notion of jouissance (French for ‘enjoyment’ and ‘orgasm’, respectively), which Nancy addressed in both his essay on Lacan L’« il y a » du rapport sexuel, as well as in Dis-Enclosure. Jouissance , the Lacanian term for negative affects which store a possibility of enjoyment, affects which consist of both pleasure and pain, and are “beyond the pleasure principle, embody the separation between instinct and drive, and between procreation and pleasure (132). Once sexuality is dissociated from the aim of reproduction, once it is determined by the logic of the drive and its modes of representation rather than biologically driven, satisfaction is achieved through multiple fragmented erogenous multiple zones.
Just as in Freud, for whom the sexual drive, which although originally attaching itself to one of the somatic functions of the body can then exceed this function (e.g., the voice that is used for singing rather than for talking, the suckling of the breast in order to eat but shortly after, the suckling of the breast for pleasure, “sensual sucking”),[xv] Nancy similarly points to the dissociation between reproduction and pleasure, between life and what goes beyond it, to the intimate connection between jouissance and the death drive. As he remarks: “jouissance is how life shows that the desire to live, which is perhaps life itself very simply, goes far beyond the desire to go on living” (133).
[i] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 2.
[ii] Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger in France, trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
[iii] See Jean- Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University, 2000), “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in Jean- Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).
[v] An expression Rodolphe Gasché uses in The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.
[vi] For more on this point, see Ross, Alison. The Aesthetic Paths of Philosophy: Presentation in Kant, Heidegger, Lacoue‐Labarthe, and Nancy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.
[vii] Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Afterword by Slavoj Žižek. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.
[viii] Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, et al., What Is a People?, trans. Jody Gladding (Columbia University Press, 2016), vii.
[ix] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
[x] Ibid., 1.
[xi] For more on this point see “Why Are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
[xii] Ibid., 38.
[xiii] Peter Gratton, Marie-Eve Morin (eds), The Nancy Dictionary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 27.
[xiv] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Bryne (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
[xv] On this point see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 17: “The crucial point is that simultaneous with the feeding function’s achievement of satisfaction in nourishment, a sexual process begins to appear. Parallel with feeding there is a stimulation of lips and tongue by modeled on the function, so that between the two, it is at first barely possible to distinguish a difference”
Through the last decade, it was de rigueur for most reviews of the new books devoted to Merleau-Ponty’s thought to chronicle his late but increasing accession to the status of a canonical philosopher. Such books showed us how much we had to learn from Merleau-Ponty, how the distinctions he made were potent for philosophy, and how they helped us organize the tradition that preceded him, especially the relations between empiricism and intellectualism. In that view, Merleau-Ponty was in the process of becoming a great philosopher because it had become obvious that philosophical questions had been addressed in his work in ways so definitive that engaging with such questions made engaging with his work indispensable. One had to know Merleau-Ponty if they were to talk of embodiment, of the phenomenological reduction, of the relations of hermeneutics and metaphysics etc. In such cases, the value of reading Merleau-Ponty was dependent on the value of doing philosophy.
Whitmoyer’s new book may be taken as a signal that such a process of canonization has been complete, and that we’re now moving to a further phase: to speak like Heidegger, not only are we interested in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, we are now also interested in his “unthought.” This is a shift because one’s thought is interesting because of the reader’s interest in those things discussed by the author. An author’s unthought, on the contrary, is interesting insofar as the author is him or herself the object of interest. With this move comes a metaphilosophical line of questioning addressed to Merleau-Ponty: it is not just Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to philosophy that motivates our reading of his works, but rather, it is his meta-philosophy itself. We now care about Merleau-Ponty’s views so much that we are even considering changing our notion of what philosophy is or should be in order to follow him. A second moment of canonization indeed, where the order of priority between the philosophical project and our attachment to one philosopher becomes reversed. This is a tendency exemplified by Whitmoyer’s book for in spite of a very thorough understanding and knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical position and argument, Whitmoyer chooses to focus on what he regards as Merleau-Ponty’s implicit but fundamental critique of the philosophical project, his implicit reappraisal of the “tasks of thinking.”
Whitmoyer chronicles Merleau-Ponty’s “Philosophy of Ontological Lateness,” but this expression, taken from the title, contains two zones of ambiguity, one surrounding the proper sense of “of” and the other the proper sense of “ontological.” As a result, one may have a philosophical or a metaphilosophical reading of the title. As I suggested above, Whitmoyer emphasizes the latter.
In the first, philosophical, reading, it is not Whitmoyer’s concern to describe Merleau-Ponty’s account of “ontological lateness” if by this we mean some sort of phenomenon, group of phenomena, or even a certain region of being meant to account for the cases in which being or the beings are, in some sense or other, late. In this reading, ontological lateness is not Merleau-Ponty’s topic, but rather, it is his metaphilosophical approach, and a universalisable structure. Secondly, what is so ontological about this lateness? For Whitmoyer, again, it is not a matter of the discipline of ontology being late. It is, rather, that lateness has something ontological to it. On the basis of such a sense of “of” and of “ontological,” one could reformulate Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s view in this one claim: “being is lateness.” This needs clarification, but as I will try to show, this is entirely sound, indeed a helpful formulation for Merleau-Ponty’s most complex set of ideas. And there is reason to believe that this portrays Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty too. But, as I mentioned earlier, Whitmoyer’s interest is metaphilosophical: it is a matter of knowing what the task of philosophy is or ought to be.
This metaphilosophical concern relies on a different reading of the title: in that reading, Merleau-Ponty provides or motivates a discussion about the lateness of ontology over being, in much the same vein as Hegel claims that philosophy is always late. In that line of argument, ontology is—and ought to remain—late before her object, and the metaphilosophical view Whitmoyer attributes to Merleau-Ponty could be formulated thus: “the task of philosophy is to refrain from foreclosing being.” The opposition between closing in advance (or foreclosing) and the lateness of ontology becomes dramatized as the opposition of what Whitmoyer calls “cruel thought” (the thought that has dominated the history of philosophy, obsessed with totalizing views) and what he calls “the philosophy of ontological lateness.” This opposition, as the notion of “cruel thought” suggests, should also be understood as normative: not only is Whitmoyer concerned with the place of philosophy (a topic that has become more and more discussed in Merleau-Ponty studies), he is concerned with philosophy’s value, its virtues and duties (something much newer).
Unsurprisingly, Whitmoyer seems committed to both the philosophical and the metaphilosophical-normative view, the first whereby “being is lateness” and the second, whereby philosophy must remain “late.” He focuses on the latter however, leaving some obscurity on the relations he sees as holding between them. We shall return to this. Once the metaphilosophical focus of the book is thus established, many reading difficulties become ironed out. Let me now propose a brief linear reconstruction of Whitmoyer’s argument.
In part 1, Whitmoyer begins by setting out the metaphilosophical project he attributes to Merleau-Ponty in terms of his later writings and their emphasis on interrogation. Before addressing the notion of interrogation on its own terms, it can be approached negatively: if philosophy is essentially interrogation, it is also, essentially, open and infinite. In Whitmoyer’s reading, this notion of interrogation encapsulates Merleau-Ponty’s polemical stance towards the Cartesian tradition which regards certainty as the end of philosophy (in both senses of “end”). Unlike “cruel thought,” which violates its object by reducing it to a function of thought, interrogation attunes itself or even submits itself to the world it observes, and thereby, it follows it. We have here an initial notion of lateness as following, and an intimation of the normative implications of this lateness: the lateness of philosophy expresses the priority of the world over it. This, it could be added (although Whitmoyer leaves it aside), is widely illustrated in Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Bolshevism as abusive application of theory to practice in the Adventures of the Dialectic. On this basis, Whitmoyer engages in a game of variations around this notion of cruelty: the objectivism of Descartes is cruel because it seeks objectification, but the transcendental idealism of Kant and Husserl’s Ideen I, is, if not cruel, at least “claustrophobic,” because it reduces the embodied subject to the transcendental confined ego. Yet, Whitmoyer regards Merleau-Ponty as committed to transcendental idealism, since “Merleau-Ponty’s critical stance with respect to realism requires that we include him in the tradition of transcendental thought” (52). This is a highly controversial claim, not least because Merleau-Ponty’s entire Phenomenology of Perception is busy preventing such non sequiturs by suggesting that there is indeed a way between intellectualism and realism; in other words, that the mutual exclusion that forces one to choose for either side is misguided. However, such a statement only serves to make Whitmoyer’s work all the harder, and therefore, it make things more interesting: how can Merleau-Ponty’s own putative brand of transcendental idealism avoid the charge of claustrophobia? In spite of such a mispronouncement, Whitmoyer remains a keen reader of Merleau-Ponty, and the subsequent sophistication he attributes to Merleau-Ponty’s so-called idealism shows it to be idealism in name only, for it becomes replaced, in terms Whitmoyer doesn’t use, to a form of metaphysical hermeneutics in which the center of apparition is not the ego but unmotivated and infinite meaning-making. But meaning, as Merleau-Ponty repeats constantly, is never complete, and so such a position reopens what was foreclosed by transcendental idealism, and allows Merleau-Ponty to evade cruel thought.
In part II, Whitmoyer initiates a move from a negative notion of ontological lateness provided in Part I (whereby ontological lateness” is defined in contradistinction to “cruel thought”), to a positive one. This move is motivated by the problem of idealism alluded to above, and by the search for a solution of the hermeneutic kind. As such, it is also a move to the Phenomenology of Perception, in which the possibility to avoid idealism and realism is the philosophical center. Here, ontological lateness becomes characterized as the lateness of becoming to being (82): sense is not the result of thought, but it is a dynamic, temporal act: sense is the same as making-sense. It is endless, and therefore constantly incomplete: its horizon is full meaning, a complete sense of self-identity (being), but its structure is purely dynamic (becoming): it is always held back from this self-identity, it shies before it, it is late over it. Note how this doesn’t suggest that being—this that we are late over—is something that is; but rather, being is a fantasy of becoming, and lateness is simply the self-experience of being as failing, the experience that this fantasy is indeed an unattainable fantasy.
In part III, Whitmoyer gathers his findings. This is where the axiological undertones that motivated the metaphilosophical-normative approach become more overt. The abandonment of cruel thought, he suggests, is motivated by a concern for freedom, for love, and for non-religious “faith.” Thereby, the advent of ontological lateness constitutes a eulogy for a philosophy motivated in epistemological terms. This approach naturally leads into an extensive discussion of Nancy’s Noli Me Tangere, in which, also, indeterminacy is the ground of ethics.
As is the rule with all good books in the history of philosophy, it is where Whitmoyer is at his most interesting that he is also at his most controversial. His reading of Merleau-Ponty is accurate and deep, but what makes it original is its tone, which is normative. In a post-enlightenment world in which we have become hypnotized by the notion of singularity, many scholars have considered Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body as containing the promise for a systematic basis to an ethics of the other, of care or of respect. As a result, we have witnessed a number of more or less ventriloquistic attempts at drawing an ethics from a body of work notoriously suspicious of normative arguments. In this context, Whitmoyer’s book will be of interest to any of the many scholars interested in making Merleau-Ponty formulate the ethics he never did formulate. Whitmoyer’s assumption here is that ontological lateness is elaborated out of a normative concern for evading cruel thought. The motivations for this are left vague, and indeed, Whitmoyer doesn’t seem to think that such motivations need providing: “cruel” thought should be avoided, for presumably obvious reasons (the hint is perhaps in the name). Let’s look at Whitmoyer’s notion of cruel thought, therefore, to see if we can draw from the aversion to cruelty, a positive, ethical ground. Cruel thought, Whitmoyer argues, is a violation of the integrity of its objects (it objectifies, and denies them their mystery, indeterminacy, and becoming). It is also, of course, hubris. He writes: “What is required for this love is not knowledge in the sense outlined above—not clarity, distinctness, and apodicticity—but pistis… the faith we demonstrate when we no longer take ‘knowing’ as our subject, when we let others—[Proust’s] Albertine, being—withdraw.” (3) The presumed motivation to evade pure thought therefore, should be something like respect (as non-intrusion), humility and love. Whitmoyer suggests that “Merleau-Ponty wishes to overcome the fear, jealousy and paranoia that motivate cruel thought and to re-think the sense of philia at stake in philosophia” (3). The decision to close the book with a discussion not of Merleau-Ponty but of Nancy’s Noli me Tangere should serves to confirm this. This is an interesting strategy, but to this reviewer, it seems misguided both philosophically and strategically. Indeed, if I am correct about this, it might even reflect onto the initial decision to place the stake of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in a question about the “tasks of philosophy” that is, a question about metaphilosophical normativity.
Here are the strategic worries: first, this is an approach that weakens Merleau-Ponty’s position. This may not be a concern for those who are interested in his “unthought” as they don’t need any further reasons to follow Merleau-Ponty. But to the others, it does: it detaches Merleau-Ponty from this tradition, it removes him from the context that makes his work meaningful and in my view, justified. Isn’t there a stronger rationale for reading Merleau-Ponty in his own claims that he’s dealing with the overcoming of the stalemate between empiricism and idealism for example? Or that he’s dealing with a stable account of the inherence of the so-called subjective and objective poles? Or body and soul? Secondly, and consequently, this commits Whitmoyer to too much: for example, it commits him to having to explain and trace this non-philosophical (or as yet non-philosophical) normative motivation at the root of Merleau-Ponty’s project, and it commits him to justifying Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysics in terms of value and not truth. But what the text gives us, is rather a Merleau-Ponty motivating his work with traditional questions, and his ontology of incompleteness as the result of fearless, unprejudiced and amoral focus for truth. Indeed, Whitmoyer seems to maintain a muted and ambiguous line of thinking in which the value of releasing philosophy from cruel thought is motivated in terms of truth. He writes: “The philosophy of ontological lateness, finally, is not an attempt to make sense of being, if we understand by that fusing and coinciding with it, but to make sense of the manner in which the sense of this becoming is constantly working itself out, to think through the fact that human inquiry, including the project of philosophy itself, is circumscribed by its immersion in the Strom, and that therefore what it seeks remains at a distance.” (150-151) This is both importantly insightful and ambiguous: insightful, because it is true that the object of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is not being as an object but being as a mode of “working itself out.” Ambiguous, because in Whitmoyer’s view, this is different form “making sense of being” whereby for Merleau-Ponty it is exactly the same: being is the same as this “working out.” We may see therefore how this false distinction between “being” and the “working out” of being leads Whitmoyer to read Merleau-Ponty as driven by concerns others than theoretical, to the point that he returns to the problem by asking: “But is there not something profoundly pessimistic in a philosophy that bids us to give up on completing the tasks of thinking? … These kinds of questions however, again, are only asked from the point of view of thought that began with a presupposed ideal of finality. On the contrary, for Merleau-Ponty, a philosophy of lateness is optimistic precisely because it does not seek closure.” (166). But who asked for optimism? Who thought that optimism could redeem a philosophy that would indeed divert us from our theoretical concerns? Isn’t this already assuming that our motivation for doing philosophy is normative? Furthermore, why need that move to the normative, when Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy entirely satisfies the traditional requirements of philosophy as theory? For who says that the discovery of the openness as the fundamental structure of being is not a discovery?
The philosophical worry becomes visible therefore: Whitmoyer is correct that Merleau-Ponty distances himself from the ideal of “knowledge” as objectivity. The fact that he discovers that this yields an ontology of being, and that this leads retroactively into a formulation of philosophy as seeking not knowledge (the truth of objects) but understanding (which is the truth of meanings) is correct and important, but it is the result, not the motive. Even more, the confrontation of the ideal of understanding against the ideal of knowledge is crucial, indeed, it could very well be the core of the current crisis in philosophy, where the opposition between the so-called “Analytic” and “Continental” approaches to philosophy may arguably boil down to a confrontation between these ideals. As such, siding with the ideal of understanding, which is definitely what Merleau-Ponty does, is a normative move indeed, and it is metaphilosophical too, but it is emphatically not a departure from an epistemic ideal towards the ideal of respect. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty never hesitated to submit values to the test of truth (the long polemic with Sartre in the letters as well as in the end of the Adventures of the Dialectic and the preface to Signs among many other passages, should count as a glaring examples of this). Finally, implicitly attributing the values of respect and humility to Merleau-Ponty runs the risk of trivializing his thought. For Merleau-Ponty, they may be virtues worth having, but not for moral reasons. On the contrary, they are themselves motivated by the philosophical urge to avoid deceptions, for objectification is undesirable as a fallacy well before it is morally wrong: cruel thought doesn’t portray the world as it is, it is false well before it is wrong.
Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s texts, especially the texts from the Forties to the mid-Fifties, is reliable and often deep and insightful. His grasp of the Merleau-Pontian vision of a hermeneutic metaphysics and its connections with openness and becoming offers far-reaching systematic perspectives. His metaphilosophical and normativist reading, although open to the criticisms I have tried to outline here, is original and potent, and its purported weaknesses don’t affect the accuracy of his readings of the texts. Perhaps such an idiosyncratic decision was the cost of motivating and initiating a new kind of discussion around the ethics one could draw from Merleau-Ponty’s work. In that context, it offers a new, original and systematic way to pose the question. Whether this question is Merleau-Ponty’s own or his reader’s will soon become an academic distinction, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly becomes what he himself calls, a “classic.”