Michael Naas: Derrida à Montréal (Une pièce en trois actes)

Derrida à Montréal (Une pièce en trois actes) Book Cover Derrida à Montréal (Une pièce en trois actes)
Michael Naas
Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal
Paperback 12,00 €

Reviewed by: Yonathan Listik (University of Amsterdam)


Michael Naas’ 2019 book, Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes, is an interesting reconstruction of the three lectures Jacques Derrida gave in Montreal between 1970 and 1997. We also learn of a fourth ‘unofficial’ lecture which is presented as an appendix to the ‘official’ narrative of the three main events. Naas reconstructs the three episodes by placing them within a consistent line inside Derrida’s philosophy. According to him, even though the three lectures do not fit a purposely announced continuum, they form a common thread within Derrida’s philosophical project. This project is already evident in the first of those episodes in 1971: his presentation of “Signature Event Context” for the French Language Philosophy Association Annual Conference. It is fundamental to understand that Naas is not pointing at this instance as an original or originary source of Derrida’s philosophy. This is not an unambiguously demarcated origin but rather the first of several instances within a chronological fragment presented by Naas.

Derrida’s most significant contribution in that text is assessing John Austin’s theory of performance and its relevance to a theory of communication by arguing that it is not just an addition to the established understanding of language as a descriptive force but a challenge to the idea of description itself. Naas is clearly aware that this was perhaps Derrida’s most polemic text sparking controversy not only within the ‘opposing’ philosophical field, analytic philosophers represented by John Searle, but also within Derrida’s ‘home base’ as Naas recounts that Paul Ricœur, the keynote at the event where Derrida read his article, was uncomfortable with Derrida’s reconstruction of Austin’s theory. Even though Derrida’s occupation with an analytic philosopher such as Austin might be surprising, Naas points to Derrida’s exchange at Harvard, where the lectures that later became How to Do Things with Words took place, to argue that this was not an unconventional choice of subject. In that sense it was not an empty provocation.

Rather, Naas presents Derrida’s account of communication and language as covering most of his philosophical enterprise. Not in a manner that summarizes or contains all of the subjects Derrida will occupy himself with throughout his work nor in a sense that Derrida continually returns to that text as if it was somehow a foundational moment in his career (50). Instead, Naas’ adoption of that text as a central piece in his reconstruction of Derrida’s theory serves to demonstrate that Derrida’s arguments there could be translated into two fundamental methodological points that Naas adopts as his guidelines for assessing Derrida: performativity and iterability.

The performative aspect is evident in how Naas structures the book. He chooses to present Derrida’s interventions as acts in parallel to a theatrical play. In that way, he is not only describing Derrida’s work but also performing it to a great extent. As Georges Leroux and Ginette Michaud argue in their introductory note, he thinks towards Derrida in an act of reaching out to him. Instead of the perhaps ordinary descriptive movement of dissecting something stable, Naas offers an act of Derrida’s act: an attempt of ‘mimicking’ without copying or of tracing the movements of Derrida as its partner in a dance. The fact that, similar to Derrida’s texts analyzed by Naas, the texts in the book were originally performed in a conference have great significance in this context. Naas is very literally performing the piece Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes.

 According to Naas, Derrida’s interventions form a three act play chronologically ordered with two additional interludes and an encore where he discusses the fourth unofficial intervention. Naas argues that each of the three main interventions could be portrayed as examining one of the three concepts in Derrida’s initial talk. Despite presenting the interventions in chronological order, Naas argues that the first one (“Signature Event Context”) is centered on context, the second one (“Otobiographie de Nietzsche”) on signature and the final one (“Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement”) is associated to the event.

The iterability factor comes about in the fact that Naas is not arguing that Derrida is repeating himself in the three supposedly unrelated lectures; he is arguing that when considering Derrida’s argument about iterability, one must carefully reflect on what is being iterated in the three themes that at first sight show no communality. Naas argues that what is being iterated is Derrida’s original deconstructive impetus and, in that sense, a proper understanding of the larger piece in its three acts should provide the reader with an account of what is the deconstructive project.


The first act of Naas’s play comments on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” (hereby SEC, as Derrida refers to it) focusing on the last concept of the title. The central argument being that Derrida’s text aims directly at challenging any possible contextualization of the performative iteration. According to Naas, context is, from a Derridean perspective, not a ground that solidifies the iteration into a clear and precise address where communication takes place. It is precisely the indeterminacy that permeates any attempt of certitude. This is not merely a contingent element of the specific contexts or an empirical barrier encountered by the transition between the theory of communication and its real occurrences. According to Derrida, this is a structural condition of communication per se. In other words, in the context of communication there is neither a departure address nor an arrival point that could solidify the communicative event. The context is marked by absence rather than by presence: it is characterized more by the lack of determining factors than by their presence.

Naas argues that Derrida’s point about context passes through his assessment of the relation between speech and writing in Austin’s How to Do Things with Words since it is by first problematizing and then offering an inverse logic that Derrida deconstructs the notion of context. Naas describes this movement as a transition from placing Austin within the philosophical tradition that privileges speech over writing by thinking of writing as merely the supplement of speech, towards finding in Austin’s performative theory a breaking point to that logic. The first step is Derrida’s reference to Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and the idea that writing is marked by absence: the writer or the receiver are absent. In imitating/representing speech, writing allows for a non-synchronous timeframe opening the space for absence in communication. This absence, however, is portrayed as a temporary lack that must be supplemented. In that sense, the ‘natural’ communicative order of speech is preserved.

Derrida challenges this perspective by arguing that the absence in writing is not a contingent element but rather its very condition. Naas explains that the fact that writing must be ‘readable’ makes absence a constitutive factor of writing. Writing is for some absent other but, moreover, it is also the limit of my intentionality. Using a concept that he explores elsewhere (“Miracle and machine: Jacques Derrida and the two sources of religion, science, and the media”), Naas argues that writing is like a machine for Derrida since it keeps working in the absence of the original impetus. Besides the obvious absence of the reader in a written communication, Derrida argues that the writer is also absent in the act of making their writing readable: their presence and intentionality are relevant but not conditions of its communicative force.

Derrida then reverts this logic back to what is allegedly the ‘original’ logic of speech (43). According to him, this logic of absence is not exclusive to writing but permeates communication as a whole since even the spoken word needs to remain ‘readable’ without the presence of both the speaker and the listener. In order for language to work, it must have some ‘durability’ as Naas points with his emphasis on the concept of restance. Language is only understandable if it could be understandable in all possible contexts. Naas reconstructs this fundamental step by referring to Plato’s Pharmacy in order to demonstrate how this deconstructive movement is consistent in Derrida’s work. It fundamentally amounts to Derrida’s suspicion of a metaphysics of presence.

Naas goes great lengths to explain Derrida’s argument by emphasizing that he is not arguing that absence is a necessary condition of communication, as if to argue that it is exclusively in the context of the absence of determining factors that communication is possible. That is, Derrida is not making a normative argument in defense of emptying out the communicative act towards anonymity and transparency. Instead, as Naas clearly illustrates, Derrida’s argument is that such anonymity and transparency is impossible precisely because despite any possible content one might be able to associate to context, it will remain invariably permeated by an absence. Derrida is opposing the possibility of a fully charged context where in the absence of any ambiguity, one would reach a transparent communicative act (71). Derrida demonstrates that such interference-free communication is supposedly achieved not by the clearing of the context but rather by overcharging it.

Naas notices he does this by referencing McLuhan, which, as Naas argues, is a clear reference to the context of Derrida’s speech in Canada. Still, it is Toronto and not the same French speaking Canada of his speech. By pointing to this perhaps anecdotal fact, Naas is performing a deconstructive act: remarking a context that is not the exact context, staging the marginalia of the act to show its importance.  

Moreover, Naas demonstrates the power of Derrida’s argument by translating it into its fundamental principles: in order for something to be communicable, it must work beyond its context. A communication that is absolutely grounded on its contexts would not communicate anything, so in every instance of communication the context must be invariably extrapolated (42). The presence of contextual elements is always permeated by some elements of absence. In that way, Naas successfully demonstrates how Derrida challenges the metaphysics of presence.

Here lies the strength of Naas reconstruction: with this argument, Derrida, unlike many of his critics argue, is not dismissing intention—he is merely arguing that it is not the governing force in language. In the same way that Derrida’s arguments about absence do not entail the disappearance of presence, intention does not provide us with a fundamental and defining context. But this does not mean that it is irrelevant. To large extent, this is the power of the deconstructive movement that Naas captures with precision. Naas explains this to be the meaning of Derrida’s argument: that language must be iterable, it must make reference to the already known while being the singular event of communication, i.e., communicating a new sense (61). In order for a performative to work, it must make reference to codes already established beyond its context and, in that sense, it is a citation of a previous iteration that is taken out of context. Both in the theatre or in ‘real life’, when a couple gets married, they must use (or at least reference) the appropriate code. The possibility of extrapolating the context, inherent to any citation, is not marginal to the force of language but its very ground.

This is the point of connection that Naas finds between Derrida and Austin. Despite the fact that Derrida finds problematic arguments in Austin and, if we consider Austin’s ‘heirs’ to legitimately represent his philosophical project, the reverse is also true: Derrida and Austin are both committed to opposing the ‘descriptive illusion’ that language exists as a manner of referencing things rather than doing things (52). In other words, they are both concerned with the power/force or language not with its truth values.

Still, Naas argues that Derrida tries to overcome Austin’s reliance on the context via his assessment of the role that intentions play in Austin’s theory. More specifically, Austin’s dismissal of infelicities (Naas uses the French word for failures, which is also the word for chess, ‘échecs’) which is to a great extent evident in his attempt to secure the source of every speech act. Derrida, on the other hand, adopts failure and indeterminacy as his model. For Naas, more important than who is right or how they disagree, this difference is crucial for understanding Derrida’s philosophy. The possibility of failure is not a marginal possibility of the successful instance, it is what grounds the possibility of success. In the same manner that writing is not the shadow of speech, failure is not the negative of success but its structural condition.

Naas wants to show that the structural condition of absence (failure, parasitology…) are the central marks of Derrida’s deconstructive project. In doing that, he is able to point at a fundamental principle in Derrida’s philosophy. Naas is not reducing it to one fundamental principle that is reproduced in different instances. Instead, he is showing the invariable iterability of the deconstructive project: precisely the impossibility of ever reducing it to one individual context that securely grounds it beyond any other movements. Naas’ piece is not an ‘pure’ enactment of Derrida’s theory. In a more daring argument, but perhaps consistent with Derrida’s project, he is showing that even Derrida himself is unable to purely perform his project considering that the three acts are not one consistent exposure of a systematic theory. It is only their iteration in Naas, in their removal from their original context, that they become a unified piece. In themselves, the three acts somewhat ‘fail’ to connect to each other, they are only parasitic of each other.

Intermission I

Naas dedicates the intermission to the controversy between Derrida and Searle. He reconstructs some of the general argument and fundamentally blames Searle for the aggressiveness that marked the debate. This is somewhat ironic considering that it seems to resort to the same problematic quest for the source as Derrida opposes in Austin. Regardless of ‘who started it’, there is reverbing dispute over Austin’s heritage. This dispute fundamentally boils down less to the proper interpretation and application of Austin’s theory but, more importantly, to the power to speak on his behalf: who is entitled to sign in Austin’s name or whose is the proper citation/iteration of Austin’s performance. In other words, it is a dispute over the force of speech not its descriptive power. In that sense, Naas demonstrates the relevancy of performative speech theory to understand this dispute. He is clearly picking a side here but the final verdict on whose theory is more loyal to Austin is only established later. As in any proper theater piece, he is only showing the gun that is going to be fired in the third act.


This is perhaps the most political section of the play. It follows an interlude where Naas clearly establishes that the dispute between Derrida and Searle is much more political than philosophical. He ends the intermission with a provocation of his own by requesting that people stop passing notes because the second act is about to start. This is a clear and very direct reference to what is presented as a very weak objection by Searle to Derrida. And he begins the second act with an epigraph by Derrida on the importance of lies, false reality and illusion as part of real life as much as everything that might be ordinarily considered more ‘real’. Again, this movement has several layers. As mentioned, it is another poke that Naas is throwing while he is on the roll, but it is also a change in tone since in this chapter Naas will discuss Derrida’s ‘possibly’ and its political power. More specifically, the power to declare something real via Derrida’s assessment of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, the reality of all the ‘fictitious’ elements within that declaration and their performative power of establishing reality.

The chapter is dedicated to “Otobiographie de Nietzsche” from 1979 where Derrida discusses the notion of autonomy via the notion of autobiography. Naas highlights Derrida’s performance here by elaborating on the purposeful ‘glitch’ in his title. The prefix oto- references the Greek word for ear and is the homonym of auto-. This is something that remains unnoticeable unless one is either very attentive (considering that the speaker also pronounces it in a way that allows such perception) or if one is reading rather the hearing (using one’s ears) the text. Naas highlights that with this small detail Derrida conveys two main messages. Firstly, the importance of the text in the assessment of language. And secondly, but in direct line with the first point, that the notion of selfhood (auto-) as presented in any account of oneself, such as an autobiography, must invariably pass through textualization, to the possibility of presenting selfhood in a manner that is ‘readable’ by some other. In that sense, the other’s ear (oto-) is a crucial element of any account of selfhood.

The notion of signature plays a fundamental role here because it is the mark of such autonomous act of self-recognition and awareness. Naas argues that his political reading is not a stretch from Derrida’s text on personal autonomy since the version of the text presented in Montreal is ‘missing’ a fundamental section dedicated precisely to independence declarations. Before properly assessing the content of the chapter and the important role the missing section plays in it, it is fundamental to draw attention to Naas’ use of deconstruction as a methodological tool in his assessment of Derrida’s deconstructive project. Taking into account the structure he established in the previous act, one should not ignore the fact that Naas employs a text that was not given in Montreal. In fact, the absent text plays a fundamental role in the account of the context he is trying to establish in the chapter. Naas is clearly performing Derrida’s theory in his engagement with it. The play of Derrida in Montreal is not confined to the context of Montreal, it invariably entangled with its other iterations, with the possibility of the absent, with everything that occurs beyond the three acts. In the same way that Derrida’s theory is not bound by his acts, Naas acts out of his title to provide us with performance of a Derridean moment.

Naas demonstrate the importance of the performative in Derrida’s assessment by highlighting the point in Derrida’s account of the Declaration of Independence where he points to the fact that god merely serves to establish that which is already the case. In the Declaration, the text argues that the rights established there are natural god-given rights, so god serves as the ultimate ‘signature’ of the new status; but if they were in fact natural, they would not need god to declare them in the first place (98). The declaration is precisely the performative act of establishing that which is already the case: of securing it with an ultimate signature.

Naas points to the fact that what appears as a descriptive act, is in fact a performative. This relation between the constative and the prescriptive refers back to the epigraph: America does not exist in an autonomous manner; it is not absolutely real since it must be declared in a manner that naturalizes it. In very simple terms, does the Declaration of Independence merely state the ‘facts on the ground’ or does it make a claim: does it come after or before the independence? Naas points to the fact that for Derrida it is both. The declaration invents that which is already the case. It performs as if it was real, therefore making it real.

Intermission II

Once again Naas begins his intermission with a provocation to Searle. This time it is even more explicit by referencing Derrida’s comment in Limited Inc that if Searle was present in Montreal during his reading of SEC he would pass him a note asking him to pay attention to the most important part. Naas’ choice must be assessed from within his arguments in the previous section. What could be the motivation for Naas’ constant provocation? One would be surprised if Searle took the time to read Derrida’s comment in its original iteration, so it would be all the more surprising if he reads Naas’. Perhaps to a lesser extent it is still valid to assume that Naas’ book will not be widely read within the analytical field, (i.e., Searle’s scholarship) so what is the gain in constantly provoking him? If one ignores the balance of power and the hegemony of analytic philosophy, one could even present it as cruel mocking or beating him after he is already down, but this is evidently not the case. This is precisely the point: in behaving as if there was a fight, Naas is declaring war on an enemy that deems him irrelevant. The simple fact that analytic philosophy is able to erase its counterpart merely by ignoring it demonstrates the force of speech. Moreover, Naas demonstrates it by employing the absence of speech which further reinforces Derrida’s argument. By engaging with Searle, who is alive and capable of responding, Naas is inventing a reality where his philosophy has as much claim as Searle’s.

This is exactly the topic explored in the intermission: the dispute between Derrida and Searle via the angle of the latter’s refusal to even be considered within the context of the dispute. Searle pretends as if it did not happen. Naas demonstrates this by highlighting that, when the texts were collected in 1990, Searle did not allow his reply to be part of it. This refusal by Sarl (the way Derrida, in another beautiful provocation, refers to Searle and his colleagues using the French word for company) is most evident in the copyright mark signed by Searle. Naas does not occupy himself with refuting Searle’s arguments. Instead, he shows that speech act theory should not be concerned with refuting arguments. In other words, the discussion should not surround the precision or imprecision of the arguments but rather their force: whether what they are doing is consistent with Austin’s opposition to the descriptive illusion. In that sense, in refusing to debate, to operate with language and engage in the game, Searle proves to be disloyal to Austin even if he adheres to some notion of precision. Derrida does the exact opposite.


This chapter is dedicated to “Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement” from 1997. Once again, one must pay attention to the epigraph to find the connections Naas is trying to draw. This chapter uses two quotations by Derrida as epigraphs. The first arguing that the question whether something happens or not was the main issue in SEC and the second arguing that the question of the event is the main question of the performative. The chapter is mostly dedicated to connecting the two statements but, before diving in, it is important to emphasize the connection to the intermission here: how to determine whether the dispute really took place? If there was ever such a thing as a conflict over a philosophical claim or if it was just two parallel lines that never met? Or, in more direct terms, did Derrida do something with his text or did he not: did he manage to perform/invent an event or not? Moreover, even if it is possible to do something with words, is it possible to comment on that which one does, using words to state that which one does with them? This is the tension present in a possible distinction between the two readings in Derrida’s title. What does it mean to say the event? Does it mean saying something about the event or does it mean making the event by saying it?

Going into the chapter, Naas begins by stating that this was an improvised intervention by Derrida. And without directly connecting it, since no connection is needed for such obvious parallel, he summarizes Derrida’s definition of event as: that which is unpredictable, which cannot be ordered or expected (117). At the same time, Naas highlights that in Derrida’s  treatment of the event, or more specifically, in his question about the possibility of the event, there is a certain acceptance that is always already presupposed: a preliminary ‘yes’ before any actual engagement. In other words, one finds oneself already within the event by the sheer existence of its possibility. Naas highlights that this ‘yes’ makes the event (122). It is not an engagement that provides any information, it is the adventure into the possibility of something happening. So, in that sense, it is neither of the realm of the performative nor of the constative since it has neither inventive force nor descriptive information. It escapes the declarative act previously explored.

Naas assesses how this ‘possible impossibility’ is consistent with Derrida’s deconstructive project as a whole. On the one hand, the event must be unpredictable and therefore escape language, on the other hand, it fits a certain code. According to Naas this is an expansion of the logics in SEC into the overall field of linguistics interactions. This implicit acceptance of the occurrence of a communicative act invites both the unpredictable and the code (124). Each event is one instance of an iterable act, it is both unique, and therefore unrepeatable, and, in being readable, dependent both on possibilities of referring to previous codes and serving as reference for future iterations.

Naas refers back to Derrida’s biographer, Benoît Peeters, to tie this logic back to Derrida’s loyalty to Austin. As mentioned before, this lecture was not a prepared text, it is Derrida’s attempt to perform his philosophy: to turn his speech into an event. He is coherently philosophizing by performing his claims. An improvised speech by Derrida on philosophy is unpredictable at the same time that it operates within a certain code. It is not as if he was asked to comment on nanotechnology or microbiology, on which he might have had something to say, but it would certainly be more surprising (especially that he would be invited to comment on them at an official event). Derrida is a philosopher and as such comments on notions such as the event or language at events dedicated to philosophy. At the same time that his talk is certainly unique and unrepeatable it refers to previous interactions (as is the point of Naas’ book). It becomes a textual reference not only as a published text but, more importantly, as a textual corpus whose logic can be reproduced as Naas evidently demonstrates by actually reproducing/reconstructing it in his texts both in terms of actual arguments but also in its performative methodology.

With this Naas demonstrates that the notion of ‘possibly’ (my translation of the French ‘peut-etre’) is the fundamental category for understanding the event. Derrida’s investigation of the event is concerned with the possibility of something occurring. Again, not with the ‘descriptive illusion’ of determining the truth value of the event, whether it occurs or not, but with the performative force of making it happen. The way the event is acted out: this threshold between its possibility and impossibility.


Naas calls the encore “the cocoon (a signature of the self)”. In this section he will comment on the ‘bonus’ act given by Derrida in Montreal. An unofficial talk given the day after the text explored in the previous chapter. This, Naas tells the reader, was not an event he witnessed nor an event that is registered. It was a reading of “Un ver à soie” in its draft form. With these final words, the curtains fall and reveal everything; it reveals that there is nothing to reveal, nothing hidden from the eyesight. Derrida’s performance is not a magic trick where at the end he pulls the cloth and shows the rabbit, there are no surprises or last-minute revelations, all there is this cocoon of the performative to wrap oneself around.


In his postface, Leroux contextualizes Derrida’s lectures in the Quebecois philosophical scene. Along with Michaud’s and his introduction and preliminary remarks, they create the scenario for Naas’ intervention. Naas’ performance, his piece in three acts, has a deeper meaning than merely reconstructing Derrida’s philosophy where the enactment serves merely as a pedagogical tool. The enacting gains importance under the circumstances that it is being presented. In the most direct and blatant manner, it is a book written in French in Canada by an USA American (as a South American, I feel the need for more precision than using merely American or North American). The choice of French is not trivial in this context. There is the obvious nationalistic Quebecois dispute but on a deeper level, as presented in the surrounding texts, there is a dispute over the philosophical legacy of Quebec. As the field becomes more hegemonically analytic and Anglo-Saxon, the choice of doing French philosophy in French must be understood as laying a claim over a disputed territory. Maybe not a declaration of independence like the one assessed in the second act but perhaps a declaration of war. Hence making the possible radio-silence response of the other side even more significant.

This possibly failed declaration of war reverberates Derrida’s argument about the importance of failure in success. One could even say that in not responding, SARL is doing Derrida a favor: proving his point. It is showing exactly the importance of impotence in understanding the performative force of language. Naas’ text places us exactly at the verge of the unpredictability of the event: it can either be ignored as his tradition has continuously been hence showing the importance of the performative force of speech acts or it can successfully stoke a debate and actually accomplish that which it aims at first glance. Either way, one finds oneself at the preliminary ‘yes’ described in his last act since something has already happened: in both cases Naas has undoubtedly done something with his words.

Gilles Deleuze: Letters and Other Texts, Semiotext(e), 2020

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Jean-Luc Nancy: Derrida, suppléments, Éditions Galilée, 2019

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Lode Lauwaert: Marquis de Sade and Continental Philosophy, Edinburgh University Press, 2019

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Jacques Derrida: La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976), Seuil, 2019

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Claude Romano: Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie

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Reviewed by: Grazia Grasso (University of Geneva)

Heureux qui comme Ulysse…

L’œuvre de Claude Romano qui vient de paraître chez Gallimard, consacré au thème de l’« être soi-même », est également « une autre histoire de la philosophie », comme il le dit dans le sous-titre ; à l’intention d’un large public, l’Auteur n’oublie pas la nécessité de définir les concepts philosophiques avec rigueur ; il ne s’adresse pas aux spécialistes, mais à quiconque s’est posé la question, dans quelques moments de sa vie, sur la signification d’être soi-même. Non pas, cependant, la question du sens de la vie en général, mais de sa propre existence particulière, de la direction qu’on lui a donnée, ou qu’elle-même a prise, comme souvent il arrive, sans qu’un choix vraiment conscient soit intervenu. Lorsque le bonheur que la société pousse à chercher dans un certain nombre de biens s’avère transitoire et illusoire, on se demande à qui l’on pourrait s’adresser afin qu’il soit plus durable et stable ; quelle attitude adopter : la première, qui émerge de cette œuvre, comme il est recommandé d’ailleurs dans la majeure partie des philosophies face aux illusionnes, c’est certainement celle de se détacher, de prendre de la distance par rapport au monde extérieur, et surtout à ses propres émotiones et illusions  ;  cette distance prise, il est nécessaire de chercher ce qui nous convient le mieux, mais sur la base de la connaissance de notre être personnel plus authentique, que l’Auteur indique comme notre « ipséité ». Dans cette recherche l’Auteur parcourt toute la philosophie occidentale, des classiques grecs à l’existentialisme, non sans quelques références aux philosophies de l’extrême orient, comme la doctrine zen, en passant par le concept de « nonchalance » en vogue à la Renaissance. Le mythe qui illustre bien le sujet est incarné par la figure emblématique d’Ulysse qui, ayant conclu la partie héroïque de sa vie, après avoir tout perdu, se présente comme « personne » devant Polyphème et regagne une identité propre seulement avec son retour à Ithaque. L’Auteur ne néglige pas de traiter le problème de la vérification de cette acquise authenticité qui,  si elle reste privée d’ancrage, ne devient qu’autoréférentielle et assujettie ainsi à de nouvelles erreurs et illusions. Après avoir introduit le thème d’Ulysse dans l’avant-propos, Claude Romano va cependant bien au-delà du schéma classique plotinien de l’exitus et du reditus qui a inspiré Augustin aussi bien que la théologie chrétienne, et dont l’ancrage est de nature divine.

Cette aspiration de l’homme à une « authenticité personnelle », à l’origine réservée à un nombre limité d’aristocrates, est devenue un phénomène de masse seulement en mai ’68 . Elle a finalement échappé au cercle restreint des penseurs, artistes, dirigeants politiques et ecclésiastiques, et s’est, pour ainsi dire, démocratisée. Cette étude est la première à en avoir cherché les racines les plus profondes – philosophiques, religieuses et esthétiques – et les origines les plus lointaines. Le rejet du mouvement de ’68 de vivre selon l’hypocrisie des coutumes, exigence déjà individuée par Rousseau, n’a pas trouvé qu’une réponse fragile et décevante chez les philosophes de l’existentialisme, dont l’Auteur expose et analyse tous les principaux courants de pensée, sans préjugés d’école philosophique ou d’orientation religieuse.

Rousseau, ou La révolution de l’authenticité qui donne le titre au premier des dix-sept chapitres du livre, est le philosophe qui le premier pose comme but primordial de l’homme d’être inconditionnellement soi-même et de lutter contre toute puissance d’oppression et d’aliénation ; car les regards des autres pèsent sur nous et nous réduisent en esclavage, préfigurant ainsi les célèbres analyses de Sartre. Critère de vérité n’est pas l’évidence, mais la sincérité du cœur, l’authenticité, la conviction subjective : l’idée d’une vérité purement subjective prend ainsi la place de celle objective et universelle ; cette distinction sera reprise, parmi d’autres, par Kierkegaard et Heidegger.

Après l’introduction, l’avant-propos et le chapitre sur la révolution de l’authenticité, la première partie de l’ouvrage porte le titre La vérité personnelle : sources antiques et tardo-antiques. Dans cette partie, composée des chapitres II-VI, l’Auteur trace une histoire du concept d’authenticité à partir du portrait qu’Aristote fourni du magnanime, première figure d’une vérité en personne et non en paroles, d’une vérité en actes et dans la vie elle-même. L’une des vertus principales du magnanime aristotélique est en effet l’être authekastos, c’est-à-dire sincère, franc, littéralement l’homme qui est lui-même et à qui la sincérité confère de l’estime et du respect de soi-même, condition de tout comportement vertueux. Le magnanime exerce cette qualité fondamentale d’une manière si naturelle et simple qu’elle lui donne une grâce et une distinction toute particulière : il n’aspire qu’à triompher dans l’ordre de la vertu négligeant ainsi soi-même.

L’Auteur ensuite décrit la magnanimité stoïque par rapport à l’aristotélique. L’idéal stoïque y est opposé à l’autonomie précaire du magnanime aristotélique, il consiste dans une maîtrise parfaite de soi, qui détache le sage des événements extérieurs. La stabilité du stoïque est liée à la nouvelle équivalence entre la vertu et le bonheur, sous l’influence d’un principe d’inspiration cynique. La magnanimité devient alors méprise du monde ; à la nonchalance et à la détente aristotéliques succède une présence constante à soi-même et une tension d’esprit continuelle sur soi-même et sur sa vie ; le bonheur est donc le fruit de ce travail sur soi et d’une ascèse : c’est-à-dire d’une stricte discipline non plus accessible seulement à un cercle restreint de sages, comme chez Aristote. Par rapport à l’être soi-même le magnanime cultive une complète sincérité car il ne dissimule rien : il est dans la vérité et dans la lumière ; un exemple d’un tel sage nous est offert par Marc Aurèle qui, dès son enfance était surnommé Verissimus. En philosophie, annote l’Auteur, il faudra attendre Rousseau, Kant et les pensées de l’authenticité pour retrouver des accents comparables. Après avoir complété le cadre de l’antiquité classique avec la pensée sur l’être soi-même de Cicéron, Quintilien et Fronton, l’Auteur examine la pensée chrétienne d’Ambroise et Augustin.

Ambroise soumet la rhétorique et la philosophie païennes à l’autorité des Écritures, en s’appuyant sur la conviction que les philosophes païens ont puisé, pour tracer le portait de leurs vertus, directement dans l’Ancien Testament, et il propose des exemples tirés des figures de Job, David, ou encore Abraham ; il ne s’agit donc pas tant de détourner des concepts païens vers une direction chrétienne, que de leur restituer leur sens d’origine. Ambroise définit l’idéal de sagesse en termes stoïciens : le but de toute vie éthique est d’arriver à vaincre les troubles de l’âme ; le modèle de cette tranquillité d’âme devient Abraham, obéissant sans se rebeller aux ordres de Dieu, avec une fermeté non différente de celle du stoïcisme. L’évêque de Milan donne aussi la première place à l’humilité et à la charité ; à la sincérité du stoïcien succède ainsi la simplicité chrétienne, vertu par excellence de Job et don de la grâce.

Avec Augustin la question de la vérité, qui avait été posée en termes généraux par Ambroise, est transposée sur le terrain des existences individuelles, et revêt ainsi le sens d’une vraie question existentielle. « Faire la vérité », comme le dit Augustin, consiste en premier lieu à cesser de nous flatter, à rompre avec l’amour propre et idolâtre de nous-même et à accepter de nous considérer dans notre nudité et notre misère ; et donc à confesser qu’on est pécheur et, par-là, à renoncer à l’orgueil, avec l’acte d’humilité de confesser nos péchés, acte par lequel l’homme se reconnaît faillible et reconnaît Dieu comme l’unique Bien. Pour devenir nous-même nous devons nous tourner vers Dieu. Nous sommes dans la vérité grâce à la confession à Dieu de nos péchés qui opère une transformation, où chacun peut expérimenter, pour ainsi dire, une sorte de seconde naissance. Cette conception trouve sa source dans le néo-platonisme, doctrine philosophique dont Augustin était imbibé avant sa conversion et son baptême et, notamment, dans la notion plotinienne de conversion, selon laquelle chaque être doit faire retour à la source d’où il procède ; cette conversion vers un Dieu qui n’est plus un être impersonnel, permet à l’homme de révéler en lui l’image de son créateur et de devenir par-là, authentiquement, celui qu’il est ; en se tournant vers Dieu l’homme reçoit de lui une illumination, de sorte que toutes ses œuvres en sont transformées ; il acquiert une stabilité existentielle car il réalise une pleine unité avec lui-même, sur le modèle de la simplicité divine, grâce au fait d’avoir retrouvé son centre de gravité, et donc son repos, en Dieu. C’est par la confiance en Dieu que chacun devient « lui-même » par excellence, ipse, comme Augustin le désigne.

Dans la deuxième partie intitulée L’être soi-même en tant que grâce, style et naturel à la Renaissance, composée des chapitres VII-X, l’Auteur introduit l’idée de « ipséité » en tant que grâce dans le sens mondain du terme, soutenue par Castiglione dans son Livre du Courtisan, grand succès dans les cours de la Renaissance italienne. Le courtisan de Castiglione incarne bien l’idéal renaissant de l’ « homme universel » par excellence, susceptible d’exceller dans tous les domaines avec une liberté nonchalante, car elle est le fruit de son détachement ; la qualité principale du courtisan doit être la grâce, qui harmonise son être intérieur et extérieur et lui permet de s’accorder avec soi-même, et par conséquence aux autres. La grâce reconduit l’homme à être soi véritablement, à une forme d’équilibre spirituel et existentiel ; elle est définie par l’auteur italien comme sprezzatura, expression de l’italien antique que Montaigne traduira avec nonchalance, et qui est opposé au studio, c’est à dire à l’application, au zèle ; la grâce est ainsi le contraire de l’affectation. Claudio Romano passe ensuite à appliquer le concept de grâce à l’art, où il correspond à l’aisance, à la facilité, à la simplicité et spontanéité du geste, enfin au style, qui ne peut pas être le produit direct d’une volonté. Voici la conception de l’ipséité : être soi, c’est ne rien faire pour l’être. L’Auteur procède alors à un intéressant excursus dans l’art de la Renaissance, en identifiant chez Raphaël et Titien de véritables exemples de style authentique.

Montaigne, continue l’Auteur, a sécularisé la notion de repos en Dieu d’Augustin ; il reprend ce concept dont l’exemple est l’assiette souple et aisée du chevalier, qui devient l’assiette de l’existence : c’est une assiette naturelle, qui se situe à l’opposé du rigide contrôle de soi des stoïciens, mais également différent du repos trop statique d’Augustin ; elle ne représente plus chez lui une qualité du courtisan, comme la grâce pour Castiglione, mais de l’homme en général. Montaigne appelle cette grâce, libérée de toute cérémonie et qu’il identifie à la simplicité et la vérité : le naturel ; et il propose Socrate comme modèle de simplicité de style dans les discours rapportés par Platon, dans lesquels s’exprime la simplicité de son être. Même si la simplicité de Montaigne présente souvent des nuances évangéliques, la source de son inspiration n’est pas la religion. C’est la question de l’unité avec soi qui prime chez Montaigne, et qui seule nous procure une assiette dans l’existence ; l’ipséité devient alors une forme de fidélité à soi et aux autres. La franchise s’exprime dans la liberté ; Claude Romano remarque combien cette union de nonchalance et de liberté chez Montaigne présente d’analogies avec la culture zen. Dans son fameux exemple de l’archer la tentative de contrôler consciemment le geste s’avère un obstacle au bon déroulement de l’action, tandis que le fait de laisser faire le corps se montre plus efficace.

Dans la troisième partie, Le déclin du naturel et l’essor de l’authenticité, chapitres XI-XVI, Claude Romano explique comment, à l’époque baroque, le naturel décline et la dissimulation devient alors un utile instrument d’auto-défense pour pouvoir survivre à la cour ; faudrait-il donc considérer licite toute sorte de dissimulation ? Le théâtre devient l’occupation préférée, appréciée aussi par Gracian, pour qui le paraître constitue l’être véritable et l’ostentation prend la place de la grâce chez Castiglione ; Gracian, jésuite casuiste, finit par plaider souvent pour le relativisme moral ; il sera apprécié par Nietzsche, pour qui les qualités d’acteur sont les caractéristiques des hommes de pouvoir. Dès le XVIIe siècle Gracian suscitera la violente réaction des jansénistes et, plus tard, celle de Rousseau.

Le jansénisme, avec son exigence de retour à l’orthodoxie, occupe une place importante dans l’œuvre de Claude Romano, car il fait action de démystification ; sa rigueur intransigeante va s’opposer au pragmatisme jésuite, finissant par gagner une large partie de France ; il va diffuser toute une sensibilité qui n’est plus favorable à la grande scène baroque et au théâtre. La vie intérieure prend la place du lustre et de l’ostentation. Fausseté et déguisement ne sont que tromperie pour Pascal ; la société humaine et ses institutions temporelles représentent la fausseté des vertus humaines et le jansénisme, selon la doctrine augustinienne des deux amours, demande de « haïr » soi-même pour aimer Dieu ; plusieurs traits la rapprochent du calvinisme. L’Auteur décrit ainsi, avec un soin tout particulier, les liens avec le jansénisme et les spécificités de la pensée de La Rochefoucault et de Mme de Lafayette.

Claude Romano ne quitte pas l’Âge classique sans avoir réfléchi à la contribution de Descartes qui propose sa propre conception de la magnanimité, appelée « générosité », dans des nuances néo-stoïciennes, surtout, avec son cogito ergo sum, qui traite du « moi ». Toutefois, ce sera seulement Locke qui fera de ce self l’objet d’une expérience interne qui n’est pas différente de celle des sens et qui ouvre la porte à toutes les égologies.

Rousseau considère que le guide et la source de toute bonté pour l’homme sont liés au problème de l’authenticité, qui se manifeste comme sentiment et témoignage intérieurs de sa propre conscience : idées chères au calvinisme ; la franchise et la totale transparence sont également une idée stoïque. Rousseau reprend ainsi les argumentations de Castellion et de Bayle sur le primat et l’obéissance à la conscience, et la peine pour ceux qui ne l’écoutent pas est le péché. C’est intéressant de remarquer comment pour Claude Romano cette attitude du philosophe genevois, qui n’hésite pas à dénoncer la fausseté de la société, peut être rapprochée en quelque sorte de celle du jansénisme ; toutefois, ajoutons-nous, la conviction que la malice de l’homme soit le fruit d’un système politique inique et d’une oppression économique, plutôt que la conséquence du péché originel n’est ni janséniste ni calviniste. Rousseau, remarque notre Auteur, est ici très proche du néo-protestantisme libéral qui se développe à Genève avec Turrettini, Vernet ou Vernes. Rousseau accuse la société d’hypocrisie et de mensonge, de conformisme et d’aliénation, où l’homme finit pour abdiquer à son être propre et, comme ce le sera pour Sartre, les regards que les uns portent sur les autres sont déjà servitude ; il conclut que l’essence de l’authenticité, et donc de la liberté, consiste dans l’autodétermination en vertu de laquelle chacun n’obéit plus qu’à la loi de sa conscience. La condition externe de cette liberté individuelle dépend d’un contrat social qui rétablit l’égalité des droits entre les citoyens. L’Auteur met en évidence les aspects utopiques et les contradictions de la pensée de Rousseau, mais il souligne aussi que l’authenticité de son paradigme a triomphé dans la philosophie moderne, au point de supplanter définitivement d’autres conceptions de la vérité personnelle.

L’Auteur s’emploie alors à exposer les pensées de Marivaux, Schiller et Kleist ; ces auteurs s’accordent dans la tentative de définir la naturalité du comportement humain faisant recours parfois à la grâce du geste involontaire et harmonieux, parfois « au se laisser aller » de la marionnette ou de l’animal. Il consacre enfin les derniers amples chapitres à l’exister en vérité de Kierkegaard et à l’authenticité radicale de Heidegger.

Pour le philosophe danois la vérité devient l’appropriation, l’intériorité et la subjectivité : la seule vérité sur laquelle une existence puisse se bâtir est celle que l’existant peut faire sienne ; ce n’est pas la vérité en soi et anonyme. La perspective de Kierkegaard est celle chrétienne d’une imitatio Christi ; il veut se rapprocher existentiellement de son idéal, en devenant un témoin de la vérité : car Christ est la vérité non comme une somme de propositions ou de concepts, mais comme une vie. On peut relever ici l’influence de Luther qui a souligné le caractère « subjectif » de la vérité du christianisme, en faisant de la sola fides le principe autour duquel se développe toute l’existence chrétienne ; mais Luther a été aussi, pour Kierkegaard celui qui a fait de la Réforme une institution, en trahissant le christianisme. Claude Romano explique ensuite la distinction des trois possibilités d’existence chez Kierkegaard :  l’existence esthétique, sous le signe de l’infinie possibilité et d’une vie sous un masque ; ensuite la vie éthique, symbolisée par l’engagement du mariage ; et enfin l’existence religieuse, selon le modèle du Christ. Dans le premier stade l’individu est enfermé dans une solitude désespérée qui présente des aspects « démoniaques » : il multiplie les conquêtes car il est incapable d’amour. Le stade éthique est représenté par la transformation de la fugacité de l’attrait pour une femme ou un homme dans un engagement éternel ; la valeur éthique de ce stade dépend d’un choix ferme et personnel, car la volonté est éveillée à soi-même et donne lieu à la personne morale. Dans le stade religieux l’homme est seul face à Dieu ; c’est la foi que lui permet, dans la crainte, dans le tremblement et dans l’angoisse de faire le saut vers la lumière : l’exemple est Abraham ; la subjectivité s’ouvre vers un Autre, elle trouve hors de soi un nouveau point d’appui : la vérité n’est plus à disposition du sujet. L’Auteur observe enfin que, pour Kierkegaard, le rapport avec Dieu est une relation personnelle, de seul à Seul : la foule déresponsabilise ; chacun doit donc éviter de se mêler aux autres, si non avec prudence.

Pour Heidegger enfin, l’angoisse de la solitude du Dasein devient l’équivalent d’un « solipsisme ». À Heidegger l’Auteur consacre autant de place qu’à Kierkegaard ; il observe immédiatement l’analogie de la pensée de Heidegger sur l’ « On », qui indique l’être impersonnel, avec la société des masques de Rousseau ; mais cet « On »  ne renvoie pas à la collectivité ou à la société humaine, mais à une manière d’être du Dasein, l’existant, lui-même ; l’aliénation, qui ne survient pas de l’extérieur mais du Dasein lui-même ne dérive pas d’une intention de tromper de manière volontaire, car la tentation de dissimulation et de déformation sont structurelles. Le Dasein s’aliène dans la foule pour échapper à l’angoisse existentielle et pour ne pas prendre de décision ; il s’appuie et se perd ainsi dans le « On » conformiste. L’être soi-même n’est qu’une modalité d’être du Dasein, comme l’est le Dasein perdu dans le « On » ; ainsi une structure triadique est créée : la différence entre les deux modalités du Dasein consiste dans le fait que dans le cas où il prend une décision, la modification dans son existence est produite de manière personnelle, par l’ipse et par conséquent elle est authentique ; dans le cas du « On » elle est produite de manière impersonnelle et inauthentique. Seulement face à l’angoisse de la mort le Dasein est finalement authentique, car il est seul.  Le concept de vérité de Heidegger devient alors, pour la première fois, radicalement subjectif, mais privé de tout contenu, car il est reconduit à une manière d’être, à la différence de Rousseau où le contenu consiste dans la sincérité envers soi-même, et de Kierkegaard, où le contenu est la foi. Chez Heidegger finalement c’est la volonté du Dasein de vouloir sa propre authenticité qui lui confère constance et fermeté ; ce sera ce rôle de la volonté qui permettra de mettre sa pensée au service de l’idéologie nazie.

Dans son court épilogue l’Auteur résume la question de l’adéquation à soi-même ou de l’être véritablement soi-même, qui n’est traitée que marginalement par la philosophie contemporaine, en deux tendances : dans la première, dont le stoïcisme est l’emblème, l’accord avec soi-même est réalisé par le moyen de la raison et de la maîtrise des passions de manière rigide ; dans la seconde, l’accord est obtenu par un mixte de contrôle et de laisser-aller négligent.

Dans l’apostille finale Claude Romano propose une sorte de monographie dans laquelle il suggère une série de pistes de réflexion et recherche au sujet du naturel ; par exemple : « Est-il possible de chercher à être naturel ? N’y aurait-il pas dans cet effort une contradiction avec la spontanéité liée à l’idée de naturel ? ».

En conclusion, le travail de Claude Romano est imposant et touche à une question peu traitée jusqu’à présent ; son style facilement accessible et ses descriptions claires le rendent un instrument indispensable pour tous ceux qui désirent lire ou relire l’histoire de la pensée occidentale concernant la recherche de l’authenticité.

Heureux qui comme Ulysse…

Paul Ricoeur: Politique, économie et société: Ecrits et conférences 4, Seuil, 2019

Politique, économie et société: Ecrits et conférences 4 Book Cover Politique, économie et société: Ecrits et conférences 4
Paul Ricoeur
Paperback 23.00 €

Gilbert Simondon: La résolution des problèmes

La résolution des problèmes Book Cover 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 Book Cover 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

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