Gilbert Simondon: La résolution des problèmes

La résolution des problèmes Couverture du livre La résolution des problèmes
Gilbert Simondon
Presses Universitaires de France
Paperback 25,00 €

Reviewed by: Pierluca D'Amato (Durham University)

In an age in which psychic and social spheres are heavily influenced by means of pervasive and inscrutable technologies, Gilbert Simondon’s ideas are progressively being recognised as crucial for the comprehension of the current relation between humans and technics.

Situated at the crossroad between philosophy of science, phenomenology and the study of social and developmental psychology, Simondon’s thought matured under the guidance of teachers of the calibre of Georges Canguilhem, Jean Hyppolite and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and deals with two main themes: the reflexion on the notion of individual, and the development of a theory of technics. With the publication of his doctoral theses L’Individu et sa Genèse Physico-Biologique[1] (1964) and Du Mode d’Existence des Objets Techniques (1958), Simondon’s work on these topics influenced central names of the philosophical landscape of our epoch, such as Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler, and keeps fuelling the new generations of thinkers involved in a quest for the comprehension of times thanks to the generous quantity of essays and lectures that are in the process of being published for the first time, and slowly starting to be translated from French.

The processual account that Simondon develops for the notion of individual, indeed, sets off form a critique of the hylomorphic model, the Aristotelian account of beings as composed by a form and a matter, that is defined by Simondon as a technological schema derived from a cursory consideration of technics, and whose application has significant social implications. In this framework, his theory of technics, that he calls mechanology, represents an experiment at the same time theoretical and pedagogical, that is meant to fight a double problem: the general alienation of technics from the cultural debate, and the consequent unawareness regarding the material foundation of social systems, whose status and potentialities for change are always grounded on and constrained by technical forms of mediation.

Except for the article titled La perception de longue durée, appeared in the Journal de Psychologie normale et patologique in 1969, the essays collected in La Résolution des problémes were prepared as support material for psychology courses that Simondon gave between the 1974 and 1976, in the late stage of his philosophical production, and appear for the first time published in a collection.

Ranking among the many that the philosopher has produced during his intense life of work, these essays share the same emancipatory motivation underlying the thesis on the technical object, namely that the knowledge of the technician has to become the support for a theory of machines and tools, in order to shed light on the ways in which individuals relate to the world and on the relations of which social fabrics are woven. The four essays collected in this book, in fact, can be thought of as being linked by the notion of relation, declined as the one between the individual and the object, and the one between a movement and an obstacle. These two types of relations are based on the definitions of two main concepts, namely the one of object and the one of problem.

The first essay, L’homme et l’objet, is dedicated to the relations between the individual and different types of objects, and the last one, La perception de longue durée, to the character of the objet quelconque, the any-object-whatever. The remaining two essays explore the notion of problem, one from the point of view of its possible solutions (La résolution des problémes), and the other from the point of view of the intellectual resources at work behind these operations (Invention et créativité).

This book connects the concepts of object and problem through the notion of instrumentality, by which Simondon explains how, under certain circumstances, objects can become means to solve problems, and problems, in turn, represent a way for objects and techniques to evolve.

This review will focus on addressing this set of interactions, proposing a way to read the collection through a line that crosses three major relations: the one between individuals and objects, the one between oriented movements and the obstacles to their completion, and the relation established through the instrumental mediation between objects and problems. We will then conclude by addressing the definition of philosophy that can be modelled on the latter relation.


In the first essay of the collection, the concept of object is defined in relation to the individual that perceives it. Simondon’s idea of this phenomenological relation can be summarised as follows: ‘For there to be an object, motricity is not enough, a differentiated sensorium and the combination of the data of the different senses are also necessary’ (23). For the author, objects are given as results of the integration of different perceptions, that can be carried out by individuals equipped with the appropriate cognitive system, as the one developed in adults and generally present in animals provided with complex nervous systems. On this basis, Simondon claims that ‘the object is an already complex and elevated construction, which…  characterizes a defined level of the structure or of the development of the living being’ (23).

The relation between individuals and objects varies then according to the age of the individuals and to their place in space and society and is configured on a case-by-case basis according to the relative size of the object, i.e., its order of magnitude. According to Simondon, it is precisely ‘according to orders of magnitude of the object that this relation has to be studied’ (12).

Infants, for example, intervene clumsily on what surrounds them because they relate to an object that is perceived as greater than them, a “complex and constant”, enduring world of objects that is somehow difficult to handle. With the growth of individuals, their relationships with people and objects change, and the world appears gradually smaller. During their growth, in fact, a new psycho-social “situation” (20), that Simondon defines as the instance of the acquisition of a system of objects (21), comes to describe the novel point of view assumed by individuals in relation to the world. From this more mature point of view, objects appear richer, as consisting of multiple dimensions and offering different possible uses. Occupying a new psycho-social situation as a novel point of view, individuals assume a new perspective on the material world and re-situate themselves in relation to it.

The development that leads to this change in perspective causes somatic and mental changes. The latter are produced not only by the individual’s biological growth, but also by the culture-induced classification of objects. The individual doesn’t change point of view and perspective exclusively because of its status of development then, but also because of the web of relations of which he is part, as an object among other objects. Once the individual reaches the psychosocial situation of the adult, the world of objects doesn’t appear as a unicum anymore, nor as a “fixed system”, but as a system composed by interconnected and mobile parts whose alteration can disclose useful energy (24).

When the individual reaches the psychosocial situation that corresponds to a renewed point of view, he assumes a new perspective over this world of objects, and the latter appears as composed of a series of objects culturally classified among which he can orient himself and on which he can intervene. The possibility of acting on the world is dependent on the proportions between the individual and the objects that surround him, that ‘varies according to the distance that separates them’ (12). The distance of which Simondon is speaking can be shortened by technology, whose mediatory character allows to access “distant” magnitudes and to intervene on the infinitesimally small or big. For this reason, the first essay will conclude by establishing the importance of technical mediation in the discourse on the relation between men and the object.

Simondon’s world of objects is then characterised a system of related magnitudes, whose relation to individuals is disciplined by cultural frameworks and alterable by the use of instruments. In his perspective, the greater the difference between the sizes of the individual and of the object, the greater is the role of tools that support the observation or the manipulation of the latter. The individual himself is an object among others whose perspective is influenced by the status of the system of relations of which it is part.

The second half of L’homme et l’objet is devoted to the consideration of the principal types of objects and to the perceptive relation with the extremely small or extremely big ones. In his classification, Simondon reserves a special place to tools, defined here as objects related to the definite actions that they allow, included the acquisition of information. With this characterization on the background, the author specifies that ‘technics are not necessarily a reconstruction of the natural through materials or different assemblages [and that] they can consist in an interweaving of natural objects of different categories’ (23). The possibility to encounter or produce couplings among different types of objects is connected to an interesting rethinking of the primacy of the solid in the general reflection on matter. On this topic, Simondon claims that objects can comport different states of matter and even include voids. Indeed, he explains, objects are not always “full”, and ‘an object may not be everywhere materialized and have real or apparent voids. The real void is a space without function in the object. The apparent void is a medium of transmission’ (23).

The discourse on transmission media and apparent voids brings about the notion of milieu, characterised as an object of a special class. According to Simondon, what he defines as “enveloping objects” have the property to influence the reciprocal relations of the objects that they contain, and can easily go unnoticed, “become invisible”, despite the importance of their effect on what they contain. The author specifies that the milieu is an object too, specifically because ‘it intervenes in the phenomenon. The position of the object is part of the object because it designates its potential energy’ (24).  According to this view, the surroundings of an object not only act on the individual, influencing his perspective, but determine the state of the object itself, that “appears” because of the stability of its conditions. It is this stability, although relative because ‘situated between two orders of magnitude unstable or metastable’ (24), that makes possible to speak about objects in general. In Simondon’s account then, the milieu represents one of the most relevant parts of the coordinate reference system that shapes the relation between individuals and objects, and determines various effects of constancy, but also clichés and stereotypes, which influence the perception of objects.

Objects can appear to be near or far, and be perceived as familiar, rare or extraneous.  According to the author, the “proximity” of a type of object grows proportionally to its degree of circulation among individuals and causes variations in society (29-32). For Simondon, the “extraneity” of an object is directly connected to the ideology on which a society is shaped and reflects the consequence of the division of work. Indeed, the degrees of extraneity of a type of object correspond to specific modes of production and to the distance between the figures of the user, the producer and the designer. The various relations between these figures produce three cultural models, that Simondon shapes on “different degrees of extraneity”: style and tradition are the ones in which the user has a relationship only with the designer or with the producer, while consumerism is the pole of the relation in which the user doesn’t have any relation with the other two figures. The last model, representing the opposite pole on the scale, is designated as the anthropological one, in which the three figures are all related.

On the basis of this classification, Simondon describes the current situation of technology, in which the arrangement of the relations between objects is such that things are submitted to a process of premature obsolescence, and in which the possibility to intervene on the configuration of objects is being denied by design choices that favour disposables and their endless production and consumption (32-34).

Beyond all the possible configurations of this network of relations, and all the kinds of particular objects that he classifies, Simondon posits what he calls the any-object-whatever. This notion describes the most generic object, that however has a peculiar characteristic: ‘Th[is] object is, first of all and existentially, supposed to be another organism or product or announcement of an organism, or even a group of organisms’ (57).

This idea is considered more in depth in the last essay, that consists in a detailed exposition of experiments with vision that should provide evidence for this thesis through an illustration of what Simondon calls the organism-effect. Such conception is grounded on the claim that ‘the perception of the object bears on a functional real enhanced and pre-marked by a signage’ (58). This means that objects appear because the perceiver, as agent, has a functional relation with its surrounding, and that the objects that appear to him are already filtered by his own physiological needs.

Because of this filtering function, the object is perceived on a background that Simondon describes as continuous and unlimited, because not fractioned by the selective attention of the perceiver. This background, he adds, ‘has an ecological sense, it is a texture’ (58), and ‘the texture is a characteristic of the milieu… [or better still] it is the support, the milieu’ (59).

Since the triple relation between the perceiver, the morphology of the object and this texture allows the object to be grasped, Simondon defines the milieu as a “perceptive mediator” between subject and object. This texture is defined as a microstructure, a multilevel code whose internal differences provide the basis for the action that is taking place on them and exert a regulatory function on it. According to the author, form and texture are two extreme orders of magnitude coexisting on the same perceptive field, the middle term of which is the structure. Different microstructures can produce the exact same form, so that a form is said to be the global result of a texture, i.e., a level of perceptual approximation.

With the series of experiments illustrated in the last essay of the collection, La perception de longue durée, Simondon argues that perception is always biased, and that this bias characterizes the any-object-whatever as an organism.

The experiments illustrated in the article concern prolonged observations of objects and rotating surfaces projected on a screen. According to Simondon, the optic effects generated by long periods of fixation should testify that perception is modelled on organisms, be them friends, partners, prays, food or foes.

This essay, however, has at least two problems: the first is that the study focuses only on the sense of sight, when, as shown, Simondon believed that to have an object is necessary to integrate data from different senses. Moreover, this research does not appear to be scientifically rigorous because, by admission of the author himself: ‘it would be advisable to multiply the observations, to operate with the participation of various subjects, and … by involving subjects that ignore the true nature and the real movement of the object’ (289). This issue is connected to the second problem of the essay: Simondon’s formula tends to project the quality of being an organism onto the object, while the organism-effect takes place not because the any-object-whatever is an organism, but because the perceiver is. Long durations entail the prolongation of the natural intersaccadic periods of fixation, and the effects Simondon describes can be the result of ocular drift and microtremors: it is not the object that moves then, but the eye, and because of its constitution.

Besides of these issues, the idea underlying the series of tests conducted by Simondon can be summarised as follows: ‘It may be thought that, just as there are stimuli-signals, studied by ethology, there exist archetypes and types providing to perception in critical condition its hypotheses’ (334). According to Simondon then, the illusory movement of the images resulting from long periods of fixation is a manifestation of the archetypes that orient perception. As a consequence, the idea that the any-object-whatever is an organism, means that there is an inclination of perception to expect to find organisms, and this because perception serves action, as in the case of the search for food or in the attempt to avoid predators, facilitating the survival of the living being.

Problems and Solutions

Survival is the result of a constant practice of problem-solving.

In the essay that gives the name to the collection, Simondon defines problems as follows: ‘a problem exists as soon as a finalized conduct encounters an obstacle to its realization’ (61), and problems can be classified on the basis of the kind of operations required to overcome these obstacles or avoid harmful stimuli. These operations are the result of a “change of strategy” of sorts, that can be performed as the result of blind attempts in different directions, in view of a plan and recurring to some sort of mediation, be it material or symbolic.

The easiest example of the first modality of problem-solving involves a change in the original direction of a movement. The new direction can be found accidentally and chosen after a random series of unsuccessful trials that increase the chance of not encountering the obstacle again. Simondon shows that this type of conduct is already observable in organisms that are not able to perceive stimuli at a distance, that don’t possess a spatial memory, and in which the motor function is predominant on the sensory one (67).

A more complex way to solve a problem involves the production of a “plan” and requires memory and the capacity to perceive from a distance. Differentiated from the previous by the neurophysiological capacities of the individuals, the presence of acquired habits and hereditary behavioural schemes (77), this kind of conduct presupposes the perception of an actual object instead of isolated uncomfortable sensations (69). The solution of labyrinths by laboratory mice represents a good example of this second type of strategy because mice possess both the capacity to perform a cognitive synthesis of stimuli coming from different senses and the ability to memorise simple information.

The learning process of the subjects of these tests is defined as the gradual limitation of errors, which is complemented by the memorisation of specific spatial relations, and their characterisation as either useful or unattractive. What the mice learn is therefore a new pattern of relations. At this level of complexity, the “plan” is nothing more than the memory of this pattern: ‘”what the rat learns is the labyrinth itself”, that is to say spatial relationships, a topography that had to be sought … learning is not about movements, but about spatial relationships’ (79).

Other problems ‘involve the preparation of instruments’ (88), and necessitate a more complex nervous system, as it is the case of monkeys and humans.

The usage of complex tools is crucially related to their preparation and improvement, and implies the identification of non-urgent needs. Conservation and reparation of the tools derive from this capability of the users, whose activities include the search for materials and the use of other tools in order to produce the ones desired. The conservation of the means of production represents another practice that has direct social implications, because it generates what Simondon describes as the social filters that new inventions must overcome in order to see the light. This highlights the fact that the conditions of the birth of technical objects are not only environmental, but also socio-economical.

La résolution des problèmes focuses then on the consideration of the process of invention, the analysis of which can be found, with more details, also in the third essay of the collection, Invention et créativité.

An invention can be defined as the creation of a group whose elements are in a functional relation, and the sum of which results in a function or a number of functions available to the user (105). The elements of this functional unity, the “organs” of an invention, are arranged and chosen so that ‘there is not necessarily one organ per function or one function per organ’ (105), and their assemblage derives from the articulation of a ‘plurality of tensions towards the fulfilment of functions thanks to the state created by their simultaneous fulfilment’ (100).

The equilibrium between these tensions is reached through a process constituted by three phases: a syncretic phase, an analytic one and a synthetic one. The scheme theorised by Simondon applies to the most complex objects, and is exemplifiable by the invention of industrial machines, which ‘is characterised by … a syncretism, that consist in the act of amalgamating, of blending functional parts, an analysis of the functions and of the structure of the objects, and a synthesis acting as a multifunctional combination of the structures’ (160).

Indeed, the syncretic phase can be described as the act of putting together elements that may lack functional and structural separation, and whose defective assembly makes the object impossible to be industrialised and difficult to automatize. In order to overcome the drawbacks of the initial configuration of the machine, to improve its effects, and/or to produce a new effect, the device must go through an analytic phase, in which the functions of the object are considered separately, and their functions dissociated. This leads to a reshuffle of structures and functions (147) that can be performed also to solve problems belonging to the internal milieu of the object. Problems of this sort can be risen by the fact that one of the components has been transformed by evolution, and because ‘The introduction of a new element affects the way of being of the totality, but must conform to the new laws of the totality resulting’ (105).

Leaving behind ‘a new arrangement of objects or the production of a movement that wasn’t existing before’ (131), the solution of a problem trough instrumental mediation brings about something new, qualifying as a not completely reversible activity that entails a genuine progress.


Theoretical problems or obstacles that cannot be solved by resorting to a material basis to manipulate can be approached through a different “strategy”, that involves the use of symbols.

Very interestingly, part of Invention et créativité is dedicated to the consideration of the process of invention in Greek philosophy. In Simondon’s view, the monism of the primordial element selected by Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes represents the syncretic phase of the early western philosophical invention, whilst the dualistic doctrine of Plato assumes the character of an analytic phase. The synthetic moment of invention in Greek philosophy is instead represented by Aristotle’s philosophy, who, in Simondon’s view, ‘replaced the Platonic opposition between the Idea and the object with the asymmetrical coupling of form and matter, which constitutes the whole universe’ (201). According to the author then, it is possible to apply these schemes to the rest of the history of philosophy, parsing it in a dialectic taxonomy that echoes the Hegelian one.

Even more interesting than this classificatory exercise, however, is the fact that philosophy is considered as ‘a mode of thought capable of real inventions, in the manner of technical thought’ (203), and therefore essentially as a way to solve problems. This definition of the nature of philosophy can be shared or not: what is perhaps more important, is to consider it in relation to what Simondon omits. Among all the possible strategies considered by the author, in fact, solving problems through the creation of new problems has been remarkably left out. Thinking of hungry rats and mazes, for example, makes evident that all sorts of traps have been designed to solve the problem of infestation through the production of a new problem, a very difficult one to solve for the rat.

The nature of these kinds of solutions, that at the same time are also problems, forces us to re-consider Simondon’s conception of philosophy: the idea that the discipline is an inventive one is definitely acceptable, even though the condition of this invention should be debated, but the qualification of philosophy as a problem-solving technique can be quite limiting.

Unlike Simondon, Gilles Deleuze was well aware of this issue: he believed that philosophy is the art of fabricating concepts, but also that these can be created only as ‘a function of problems’ (1991, 2). According to Deleuze, problems are not simply found, they have to be posed, and raised in order to allow the invention of concepts. From this point of view, the creation of problems assumes a certain kind of primacy over their solution. This conception is explicit in a passage of Deleuze’s Bergsonism (1988), in which the philosopher quotes Bergson’s La Pensée et le Mouvant (1934), and with which is probably appropriate to conclude this review of La Résolution des Problèmes:

True Freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute problems themselves. And this “semi-divine” power entails the disappearance of false problems as much as the creative upsurge of true ones. “The truth is that in philosophy and even elsewhere it is a question of finding the problem and consequently of positing it, even more than of solving it … its solution may remain hidden and, so to speak, covered up; The only thing left to do is to uncover it. But stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing (1988, 15).


[1] First part of the major theses, later published in its entirety as L’individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Iinformation (1989).

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Couverture du livre The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, Pierre-Philippe Jandin, translated by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press

Reviewed by: Rona Cohen (Tel Aviv University)

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)

Nancy replies:

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.

Morin continues:

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).

[iv] Ibid.

[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”

Françoise Dastur: Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident, Les Belles Lettres, 2018

Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident Couverture du livre Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident
Encre Marine
Françoise Dastur
Les Belles Lettres
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Jean Wahl: Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings Couverture du livre Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Jean Wahl
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by:  Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)


‘Packaged as Meat, Frenchman Jean Wahl Flees Nazi Captors in Dramatic Escape’. So reads the 1942 newspaper headline reporting one of the more sensational escapades in the philosopher’s life (6–7, n. 15). Jean Wahl is one of a number of neglected existentialist thinkers who were opponents or victims of the Nazi régime. Philosophers in this tenuous position could no longer (if they ever had) regard their philosophy as separable from the concrete life that made it possible and otherwise informed it. For this reason, the editors’ thoroughly researched introductory essay, drawing on unpublished biographical material, is one of the most valuable features of the collection under review. After the Vichy Statute that excluded Jews from teaching, as the essay explains, Wahl continued to lead seminars from his hotel room on rue des Beaux-Arts. On the day that the area was seized by the Gestapo, Wahl, who was reading Heidegger with a small group of students, is reported to have quipped, ‘If the Gestapo comes, it will not hurt to say that we are studying Heidegger. The Nazis at one time thought highly of him.’ (4).

The memorable newspaper headline refers to Wahl’s eventually successful attempt to escape from occupied France in a ‘butcher cart’, ‘wrapped in the same kind of cloth that wrapped the sides of meat’ (Green cited on 6). This earthy image of the philosopher, the archetype of consciousness and reflective thought, packaged up as inanimate, unthinking flesh is astonishing and suggestive. It may even express the quintessence of the human condition. Is there not a sense in which to be ‘packaged as meat’ is simply to be human?

The question is at the centre of the main theme of this collection of essays: the relationship between transcendence and the concrete. In the volume’s final essay, Wahl explains his and his contemporaries’ preference for the word ‘existence’ over the more archaic ‘soul’:

it is because the soul was too often considered to be a permanent substance, was too clearly separated from the body, too clearly separated from the world. The union of soul and body, of soul and world—this is what is meant by the idea of existence. (267)

As the editors point out, Wahl was ‘a sensitive and insightful reader’ and interpreter of the work of his contemporaries (2). Notably, he promoted in France German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers (24–5), but his own philosophical voice can be heard in the engagements with other thinkers’ work that are presented in this collection (2). Wahl’s extensive engagement with Jaspers is of particular interest (chs. 6 & 7).

The volume partially reprints ‘The Problem of Choice: Existence and Transcendence in Jaspers’s Philosophy’ (Chapter 6), in which Wahl engages in detail with Jaspers’s complex philosophical system, focusing on those aspects which are of most relevance to his own thinking and which matter to him the most. He begins with the important observation that ‘Jaspers’s philosophy is both the negation of every system and the affirmation that a system is necessary for the intensity of the life of the mind.’ (134) Jaspers’s thought, as Wahl sees it, is based on two propositions, the first of which forms the basis for the second, even as the two propositions oppose and strive to negate one another. Wahl thus makes sense of an otherwise puzzling feature of Jaspers’s work: the tension between its apparently systematic form and its profoundly anti-systematic content. ‘There is…a struggle,’ Wahl says, ‘between philosophy and the form of the system; it always stands outside of the system and breaks it.’ (136)

Wahl’s essay on Jaspers shows just how thoroughly this collection has been edited. References are given to the German edition of Jaspers’s three-volume Philosophy and also, where possible, to E. B. Ashton’s English translation (134, n. 4). The editors also provide an English translation of Wahl’s French translations of Jaspers’s German, which can differ significantly from the published English translations of Jaspers. They also helpfully correct apparent errors in Wahl’s references. However, sections III and IV of the Jaspers essay (‘Transcendence’ and ‘The World of Ciphers’) have been cut ‘for reasons of length’ (147, n. 46). This is unfortunate, because these are the sections that are of most relevance to the theme of the volume as a whole. In these excised sections, Wahl sets out some of the formulas used by Jaspers to articulate the relationship between ‘transcendence’, which is ineffable, and the essentially ambiguous and unstable ‘ciphers’ in which, for Jaspers, transcendence is embodied in the world of concrete experience. In the conclusion to the essay, Wahl holds up Jaspers’s ‘cipher of failure’ as a major link between Jaspers’s theory and some of his own deepest philosophical concerns. But, for Wahl’s explanation of that theory (which is located in the excised section IV), the reader must look elsewhere (147 n. 46). The editorial decision to omit these two sections of Wahl’s text left this reader with the sense that the editors have at times focussed on details at the expense of the broader picture.

‘Subjectivity and Transcendence’ (ch. 7), offering a valuable transcript of the December 4, 1937 session of the Société Française de Philosophie, shows Wahl in living dialogue with some of the most important philosophers of the day. We hear Wahl’s philosophy emerging out of conversations with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Levinas and others—either in person or by letter. Of particular interest are the lengthy transcribed conversation between Wahl and his friend, Gabriel Marcel and Wahl’s insightful articulation of a particular reservation he has about Jaspers’s thought. On the latter, Wahl states:

it is a general theory of philosophies, it is the work of an observer of philosophies, it is not the act of a philosopher himself choosing his symbol, his cipher [chiffre]. Or, if it is such an act, it loses its general value and is no longer a theory of philosophies in general. (164)

While Wahl acknowledges the importance of Jaspers’s work, for the reason given above, he regards it as ‘no longer necessary to place his philosophy within the same framework as the others’ (164). Rather than being ‘one of the most serious reproaches one could make against Jaspers’s theory’, this is a profound insight into the distinctive nature of his philosophy (164). For what could ‘a general theory of philosophies’ be, if not itself philosophy? And is this not precisely the most authentic kind of philosophy that we need, as opposed to the unreflective choice of a particular cipher, made in ignorance of the fact that ciphers are what are being chosen or even (our inescapable rootedness in traditions notwithstanding) that there is a choice to make? As Jaspers says in his letter to Wahl (on a different point), ‘what you designate as dangers is exactly what I would like to achieve, at least as I conceive it’ (191).

Overall, Transcendence and the Concrete makes an important contribution to the study of the life and thought of Jean Wahl and his contemporaries. Its transcript of the 1937 session and detailed biographical essay will be of particular value to scholars and students working in the field.