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”

Michael Barber: Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning

Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning Book Cover Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning
Contributions to Phenomenology, 91
Michael Barber
Hardcover 96,29 €
XV, 231

Reviewed by: Adrian Razvan Sandru (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

Michael Barber investigates Alfred Schutz’s psychological phenomenology (6) aiming at describing the possibility of emancipation from the stress of everyday life through non-pragmatic regions of meaning. Barber believes that Schutzian phenomenology has the potential of emancipation even though Schutz was weary of committing society to normative determinations and he considered reason to be merely an explanatory instrument in determining the relation between means and ends. Barber grounds the possibility of emancipation in Schutz as follows: 1) the “world of working” – the everyday life of an agent oriented toward pragmatic goals – consists of morally neutral pragmatic situations. At the center of these stands the ego agens as 0-point of all its projects and plans which it needs to master and accomplish. 2) The pragmatical relevances – i.e. the hierarchical ordering of one’s plans and projects – of the ego agens are often confronted with obstacles which may or may not be overcome. 3) The confrontation with higher-level obstacle – such as death, natural phenomena or societal restraints – leads to the ago agens developing pragmatic meta-levels of coping with obstacles and uncertainties such as “the medical industry, massive security measures, or the societal suppression of uncomfortable questions and the development of central myths” (24). Barber argues that such meta-level strategies – meant to defend lower-level pragmatic interests – may lead to pathological needs of mastering the world and exerting one’s control and manifest themselves as “domination of others” or “psychological neuroses”. 4) Relief from such pathologies can be provided by non-pragmatic regions of meaning such as literature, phantasy, dreaming, or theoretical endeavors. 5) These can however also be endangered by the pragmatic anxieties of not reaching one’s goals and thus require grounding in something more. 6) This something more would be, according to Barber, “someone else”, i.e the other embodied in the religious and humorous non-pragmatic provinces of meaning. Drawing and building on Schutz’s “On multiple realities”[1] Barber speaks of religion and humor not just as opposing the world of working but also as provinces of meaning standing in a dialectical relation to everyday life: they can free us from pragmatic anxieties, shed new light on the possibilities of everyday life, and incorporate pragmatic bodily functions essential for communication. Thus, the pragmatic and non-pragmatic are also inter-dependent. Non-pragmatic provinces resist the pragmatic in not being accomplishment-oriented but rely on the latter to manifest themselves in communicative acts.

Barber’s book aims thus not only at reconstructing Schutz’s phenomenology but also at extending it to address the possibility of emancipation. In doing so he hopes to develop an account of non-pragmatic regions of meaning which can communicate and reflect on the pragmatic but also and more importantly address current social, racial, cultural, and psychological issues. In this vein he describes religion and humor as intersubjective experiences which can bridge the conflictual differences afflicting our current society. Barber’s undertaking is remarkable in several aspects: he describes in a Schutzian manner the constitution of the natural attitude; he accepts and further develops Schutz’s extension of this natural attitude through several regions of meaning; building on this he addresses the problem of intersubjectivity in phenomenology and tries to offer several solutions to current societal issues based on it; he addresses the relevancy of religion in a secular world and gives an exhaustive account of humor and its inner workings. Given that Barber relies on Schutz to achieve this I shall first give an account of his reconstruction of the Schutzian philosophy. From this I shall move to discussing in detail the above mentioned aspects of Barber’s book. Even though I appreciate Barber’s attempt I do believe that he runs into some issues discussing the character of religion and of humor as emancipating regions of meaning. This is why I shall also give a short account of the concerns I had reading the book presented here. This shall be followed by a conclusion in which I weigh in once again on the positives and negatives of Barber’s work.

Alfred Schutz and the World of Working

As Barber explains, Schutz – being influenced by Max Weber, Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl – grounds his description of everyday life on a stream of consciousness in which present experiences are lived, future ones are anticipated and past ones are mediated by memory. He sees the formation of meaning of this stream of consciousness in a twofold fashion: first, experiences receive meaning via intentionality, i.e. by singling out experiences and reflecting on them; second, by planning in future past tense we can imagine a project, which as a goal provides meaning to any action we undertake. An important step in describing the world of working is the standardization of these meanings through culture. The standardization occurs as both general typification – concepts such as cats, dogs, trees, house etc. – and as personal typification – the ordering of our interests in hierarchical relevances (e.g. I study in order to receive a well payed job). Even though these typifications occur in culture and are thus intrinsically intersubjective – as language typification shows – they also pertain to subjective meanings as they are formed in the personal temporal unfolding of consciousness of each subject. Despite this they present a common pragmatic ground which makes communication possible. Communication and relating to others in general are also determined by our temporal and spatial state. When space and time are shared with another, subjects take part in the unfolding of each other’s stream of consciousness and influence each other’s typifications.[2] When only time is a shared determination the other is only known as a Contemporary based on typifying inferences leading to an ideal-type. Other ideal-types would be Successors and Predecessors. This kind of pre-reflective typisations constitute our social world, which Schutz holds to be dominated by pragmatic relevances, though he does not accept pragmatism as a viable description of everyday world. Instead, he relies on phenomenology and its methods: aiming objects as form of interacting; eidetic variations as determining essences; the epoché as explaining transitions from one finite region of meaning to another. The latter are not to be understood as ontological structures but as coherent domains of experience which we determine as real by inhabiting them. These regions of meaning are spelled out by a shared “cognitive style” determined by six features: 1) a tension of consciousness which is described in a Bergsonian manner as the attention to life needed at accomplishing projects; 2) the epoché as accessing a certain region of meaning; 3) a form of spontaneity which in the world of working describes the pragmatic involvement of the ego agens, i.e. the pragmatic agent engaged in its projects, in the world through bodily actions; 4) “a specific form of experiencing oneself” ( 5) which in the world of working would consist in an undivided and non-reflective subject living in the present of its projects; 5) “a specific form of sociality (as it is experienced in common sense communication)” (5); 6) and lastly temporality. Given that Barber describes the religious and humorous region of meaning by means of these attributes of the cognitive style I shall present his account of religion and humor in the same manner.

Cognitive Style of Religion

The first attribute of the cognitive style addressed by Barber is the tension of consciousness. Barber associates religion with Bergon’s pure memory as release from the tension of everyday life (10; Bergson, 1950). The tension of consciousness is loosened in religion as believers turn over the control over their lives to a transcendent and establish the latter as the absolute value of their system of relevances. By doing this, a certain objective order is ascribed to the world, through which everything is part of a higher order plan.[3] This, the unconditioned objective order which does not blame failure, helps the ego agens cope with the possibility of not achieving its goals. This in turn helps the ego agens have a more relaxed attitude towards its plans and help it better achieve them, without being plagued by anxieties of failure. Thus, the leaping into a non-pragmatic region of meaning can shed new light on the pragmatic and improve one’s engagement in the world by providing relief from the anxieties of the world of working. The transition from one region of meaning to another is achieved via a certain form of epoché. This transition functions in a Husserlian way by opening up new regions of meaning. In religion this is achieved through sacred spaces, times, and rituals. These isolate the individual from everyday life and inscribe one in a religious appresentative state: “the religious epoché displaces one from straightforward engagement with the world, reorients one’s system of coordinates, and alters one’s relevance scheme” (p12). One can however further engage the world both in a pragmatic and in a religious way. Both manners of involvement require a certain spontaneity of the individual. The involvement in the world of working is thought as being purposive, namely determined by the possibility of achieving goals. The assessment of this possibility and the non-reflective involvement of the ego agens rely on the typisation of past actions. Through the passive representation of accomplished past actions the pragmatic subject determines a certain goal as possible. This possibility is embodied in the sentence “I can do that again”. This determines the possibility of any goal starting from the ego agens as the 0-point of every action. In religion, the story differs. In this region of meaning, the transcendent is set as the ultimate goal, independent from us. This relativizes any other pragmatic goal and makes it lower-order. Such relativizing process may soothe personal anxieties regarding the possibility of pragmatic failure. Liberation however requires that we relate properly to the transcendent. The proper way proposed by Barber is absolute giving over to the transcendent which strips the ego agens of its characteristic as 0-point of all action. This stands in close relation to the fourth attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of experiencing one’s self. In the world of working one understands oneself as the unity of his involvement in the world and as the “0-point of one’s spatiotemporal and social coordinates” (13). In religion one sees one’s entire history as the appresentation of the transcendent. As such one does not see oneself as the sole conductor of one’s life. As such, one’s involvement in the world is relieved from anxiety as one understands failures not as absolute but as inscribed in a certain purposiveness. This departure from an egocentrical world view reflects itself in the fifth attribute – sociability – too. Just as in phantasy one can enter religion alone or with others. Religious experience accentuates though sociability as the temporality of religion allows for the “socializing” with predecessors in a ritual time. The same ritual aspect of religion weakens the self-oriented typifications and strengthens other-oriented ones. As such “religion engenders social responsibility for the others” (14). As it was shown, the temporality of religion also differs from the one of the world of working. In religion time presents a non-linear character in which passed events or moments may be re-actualized as actually present and not just as memories. This allows for a multivectorial time which provides relief from the linear and future-oriented time of the world of working.

These six attributes show how each aspect of everyday life can be reinterpreted in religion in such a manner that the pragmatic is made relative. Paradoxically, exactly this relativizing of the pragmatic reinforces the pragmatic possibility of the ego agens: not afflicted by anxieties, one can better accomplish one’s projects. This overarching pragmatic view can however raise certain questions. These will be addressed in the section to follow.

Intrinsic and Imposed Relevances

As explained shortly above, everyday life is mainly constituted by the pragmatic engagement in the world. This engagement relies on typisations and passive synthesis which standardize behaviors and actions improving the efficacy of pragmatic agency. Based on such standardized action, the ego agens determines the possibility of a future action based on past successful ones and concludes “I can do it again”. By inhabiting the world of working in this way it also posits itself as the 0-point of its actions. Starting from its spatio-temporal and societal coordinates the pragmatic self determines which plans and projects it can accomplish. The plans and projects are in their turn conditioned by one’s intrinsic relevance system: what one wishes to attain. However, the ego agens is also confronted with imposed relevances and obstacles. The confrontation between imposed and intrinsic relevances can give rise to the meta-strategies at mastering the world. These consist in converting the imposed relevances into intrinsic ones manifested as plans and projects which the ego agens carries out. The degree of imposed relevances can however bring about a conflict in the ego agens, which can lead, according to Barber and Schutz, to pathologies such as anxiety or depression: “it is this collision of intrinsic relevances and imposed relevances that prompts us to turn to non-pragmatic finite provinces of meaning like religion and humor” (47). It seems that non-pragmatic regions of meaning are responses to an increased level of anxiety determined by higher-order imposed relevances which cannot be overcome in a pragmatic way: non-pragmatic regions provide relief as the subject renounces control and ceases to act pragmatically. This may relativize the relevance of the pragmatic self and allow for a more relaxed repositioning of the subject in the world-of-working. This description however also presents some difficulties. The starting point in discussing religion and the transcendent is clearly the religious community regarded from a pragmatic standpoint. One gets the feeling, from the beginning of the book, that this entire involvement in religion only occurs because one is stressed and needs relief. The danger of this is to drag the non-pragmatic into the pragmatic as a kind of Feuerbachian response to finitude. Given that Barber states at times that the pragmatic subject re-identifies and sees itself as a new self from the point view of religion, I do not think that he thinks that religion is purely a non-pragmatic tool for the pragmatic. Nevertheless, one does get the feeling that this danger – which is announced in the beginning by Barber – is not dealt enough with and is also not overcome by the communicative dialectics, which Barber proposes as answer to the relation between the pragmatic and the non-pragmatic. The dialectic of communication states that religion not only opposes pragmatic provinces but also makes use of them as communicatory tools. This however does not answer my concern regarding the reduction of religion to pragmatics. A more plausible answer might be the fundamental aspect of the non-pragmatic region of religion explained by Barber as the absolute entrusting of oneself to the transcendent. This absolute entrusting would then eliminate the danger of reduction: even though one is lead to religion by pragmatically induced anxiety, the absolute entrusting ensures that one does not return to the region of pragmatics in the same manner and that therefore one’s relation to the transcendent is not pragmatically determined. Even though this makes clearer how religion interacts with the pragmatic region of meaning without being absorbed in it, it still doesn’t resolve all issues of the religious province of meaning. In the same context of mastering the world Barber says: “we address imposed relevances through all sorts of approaches, from ignoring them, suppressing them, or even developing central myths about the superiority of our own social group” (8.) Here, Barber explains how the pragmatic integrity of a pragmatic community can be defended by mastering strategies relying on a central myth, which can reinforce the mastering identity of said community. Barber does not explain in my opinion how religion avoids acting as a central myth and as such as acting as a hyper-mastering strategy, even when the subjects give themselves completely over to a transcendent. It seems that these issues need be addressed given that we are confronted time and time again with religious fanatism and discrimination. It seems all the more stranger that he does not discuss in detail such issues as he does address it in the case of humor. Barber acknowledges that religion may be seen in a negative way but chooses not to go into detail in this matter. Instead, he states that he deals with an ideal understanding of religion and does point to the necessity of religion being in contact to the theoretical region of meaning for constant revision. I believe that he does not address such issues in depth because he chooses to speak of religion in a universal manner, without differentiating too much between multiple forms of religion. Barber attempts to resolve the problematic of religious variety by ascribing a generic “transcendent” as religious object and appresentation as religious process. In addition to this, he provides several examples of rituals from different religions which match this description. I believe that this is not enough in order to resolve the above mentioned issue and moreover restrains Barber to a generic discourse, which cannot address very specific topics. Furthermore, this generic discourse also neglects the variety of “transcendences” present in different religions. This is for me the overarching problem with Barber’s analysis of religion. One gets the feeling that all forms of religion are constituted by a pragmatic response to an obstacle which relies on a ritualistic process in the name of an absolute power. As such, one could argue that non-pragmatic provinces are constituted by pragmatic ones and for the sake of pragmatic improvement: “Paradoxically, leaping into a province of meaning, in which pragmatic relevances no longer govern, may in some cases be the most pragmatic way of dealing with the difficult-to-control dangers jeopardizing lower-level projects and relevances” (25). This circularity might be problematic as the non-pragmatic provinces would be essentially pragmatically oriented and as such instrumentalized (the other included).

Cognitive Style of Humor

Barber relies on the incongruity theory to describe the intentionality of humor as a non-linear, disturbed one. He argues more precisely that intentionality does not attain its goal as the result of a certain comical event is unexpected: humor breaks away from the expectations of everyday life and does so with a flexibility which allows for laughter. This phenomenological description is, as Barber argues, universal for all humor related phenomena. He also states that the incongruity theory underlines the other two major humor description models: the superiority and the relief theory. In the first case it is argued that one finds something to be funny only as one adopts a superiority stance over that something. In the second description, humor is described as relief of built up tension. Barber argues that in both cases incongruity is first required. The definition of humor is completed later on (151) by two criteria: the first one is that the experience must be enjoyable and it leads to the second, namely that the person experiences the scenario as laughable. I do not know in what degree this really adds to the definition of humor. Incongruity is a powerful argument, but the laughability of humor somehow seems tautological. This concern is resolved later in the book (177) where Barber further explains what laughter and enjoyment actually stand for. Humor detaches itself from the world of working as it has no practical value, instead it only pertains to the enjoyment of incongruities without any other goal. Due to these characteristics it relaxes the restrictions of everyday life by showing that pragmatic relevances can be viewed from another, i.e. comical, perspective. Furthermore, it also has a cathartic function allowing for the venting of tensions in a – ideally – benign way. These last two aspects of humor pertain to the relaxation of the tension of consciousness. Furthermore, incongruities are not rationally interpreted in humor. Instead, they are processed in passive syntheses which surprise the subject with their speed of development. They pertain thus to a certain loosening of the control of the subject and therefore to a loosened tension of consciousness. The transition to these humorous region of meaning is again achieved through an epoché, in this case a comical one. The comical epoché makes apparent the intersubjective nature of humor “perhaps because the humorous province of meaning usually relies on companions, including comedians, who invite others to leap with them into the province” (182). I believe this is one of the most important distinctions to religion. While religion affords a solitary connection with the transcendent and a leap into its region of meaning, humor is conditioned by the immanent other, who has the role of inviting.[4] In short, the transition to the humorous region of meaning relies on the invitation – mediated by body or language cues or specially designated times and spaces such as comedy clubs – of another. The leap in humor often happens in hindsight, when laughter occurs and incongruity is processed in reflection. The enjoyment of this incongruity is the form of the third attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of spontaneity. Thus, humor relaxes spontaneity as disinterested and purposeless enjoyment. When this enjoyment or when the joke is not fully dedicated to the incongruity and for its own sake then the humorous region of meaning is not achieved. When this is though achieved, one’s experience of oneself – the fourth attribute – changes. The humorous self is a split self as it leaves the pragmatic region in which it is an undivided self, focused on the task at hand and often resorting to formerly developed patterns of behavior. Splitting the self occurs as the comical reveals hidden unconscious actions (such as weird bodily movements) and reorganizes one’s relation to one’s self. This, is explained by Barber through Helmuth Plessner (1970) who calls humans eccentric: “rooted in a body and yet able to take a perspective from outside itself upon itself” (198). Thus, while the pragmatic self thrives in predictability, the humorous self is directed towards incongruity and interruption which diversifies perspective. All this equips humor with a certain flexibility which not only loosens the tension of consciousness and helps the ego agens but also allows for reflection and reassessment of societal conditions. This of course also shapes one’s sociability. The experience of sociability can range from intimacy to aggression. However, when one respects the structure of humor, as Barber argues, humor normally tends towards intimacy, in which a comical community is built and which allows for a flexible ascription of roles: each one of the members can be the joker or the listener. In this community, trust plays an interesting and important role, namely it both determines the possibility of humor – without trust one might be insulted – and is itself determined by humor – trust that is met with trust is also reinforced by humor. The last attribute of the humorous province of meaning is its temporality. Just like phantasy, dreaming, or religion, humor does not deal with objects fixed in time. Instead, it brings a sort of temporal flexibility: it can slow down time, it can rearrange the temporality of a situation by re-assessing it from the viewpoint of incongruity (after the punch-line one reassess a certain temporal process as leading toward the comical climax). However, unlike religion, humor cannot reverse time and it cannot make something past or future present.

Face-to-face Humor

Barber gives an exhaustive account of humor contrasting Schutz’s view with other concurrent theories. The remarkably interesting aspect of the analysis of this region of meaning is its interracial and intercultural potential, as Barber explains it. Intersubjectivity is closely related to the humorous epoché: the very accessing of humor is determined by cues given by another. After the epoché is reached one’s expectations are shattered by the passive synthesis of events developing at a surprising speed. This incongruity re-shapes perspectives bringing to light hidden aspects of experience. Furthermore, as explained above, the very humorous style of an individual is influenced by the passive absorption of different humorous styles from different individuals. This also involves an interracial sensibility to humor: through associative absorbing, a situation – which could otherwise present interracial tensions – can be understood in a more relaxed and comical way. Barber further develops this thought stating that humor can reveal hidden cultural determinations of our behavior, submitting them in a comical way to a reflective process, which could loosen sociocultural preconceptions. This aspect of Barber’s book is interesting insofar as it deals with sensitive social issues through the agency of a more relaxed environment prone to intersubjecivity. Here, however, the idealistic manner of treating different regions of meaning is also felt. Barber often speaks of his African-American friend who through humor makes Barber conscious of his cultural background. This in turn helps Barber better understand himself and relate to his friend. Intercultural or interracial jokes and humor can however also turn into clichés and/or discriminatory typifications, which mediated by humor may appear benign. In the case of humor, Barber does see the danger of racism and discrimination and addresses it in chapter 7.4. Based on Schutz he argues that humor is also the medium of discriminatory typifications of closed groups through which they denigrate the Stranger. As a solution he offers a face-to-face humor, namely a humor based on interpersonal relationships. Face to face, says Barber, the subjects are constantly confronted with each other. This regulates humor insofar as the face-to-face situation forces both teller as well as listener to measure each other’s responses and exchange perspectives. He develops on this with examples of his already mentioned African-American friend. He states that his jokes make Barber aware of cultural differences as well give him insight in the oppression experienced by the African-American community. This opens the way for interracial communication. This account is indeed an interesting alternative to intercultural and interracial approaches but it does have, in my opinion, a weak spot. It remains ideal as it speaks of already friendly relationships in which respect is presupposed. Furthermore, it offers as example the jokes of a person which is described by Barber as kind and always willing to breach racial barriers (166). Based on this, it seems to me that the kindness of the joke teller and his disposition and respect to the other build the basis for non-racist jokes and not the face-to-face situation. The same can be said about another requirement of intersubjective comical community, namely trust. If trust is part of humor from the outset,[5] then humor between parties in tension would not be possible. Furthermore, it strengthens the worry, that Barber bases his analyses of humor on examples of humor within an established relationship of friendship. This question would be answered, if one accepts a common, universal, and underlying trust between all people which can be reinforced by humor and thus improving interracial relations. There is however no argument for such a trust in Barber’s book and its mere presupposition would be problematic.


In conclusion I think that Barber’s handling of humor is more interesting and appealing than his expose on religion. I think the problem with his analysis of religion lies within the fact that he analyses religion as a unitary and uniform concept: he reduces a variety of religions to a system of relevances and a relationship to the transcendent which strips his analysis of specificity and in depth analysis of religious phenomena. On the other hand, humor is treated in its entirety as it is looked at on its own. A further advantage of humor in this book is that it is more universal than religion. Religions each have their own set of rituals and dogmas which I do not think can be reduced to some sort of universal set of relevances. On the other hand, humor is described as flexible and adaptable to each situation. Furthermore, each one of us can relate to a comical phenomenon and as such, humor is universal. I regret not being able to discuss other interesting themes of Barber’s book such as Schutz’s view on passive synthesis and the constitution of the natural attitude, the dialectical nature of the collective and the individual in religion, the relation between the reflexive and the pragmatic self in the world of working and its relation to death, etc. Unfortunately, due to lack of space I had to focus on the main goals of Barber’s book: explaining humor and religion as emancipating regions of meaning. As I have stated, I think the analysis of humor is more precise and clear. Nevertheless, both topics shed light on the possibilities of alternate solutions to intercultural, interracial and psychological issues. This makes Barber’s book worthy to read.


Schutz, Alfred. 1962. On multiple realities. In The problem of social reality, ed. M. Natanson, 207–259. Vol. 1 of Collected Papers. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Plessner, Helmuth. 1970. Laughing and crying: A study of the limits of human behavior. Trans. J.S. Churchill and M. Grene. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Bergson, Henri. 1950. Matter and memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. London/New York: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd./The Macmillan Company.

[1] Barber does not only discuss “On multiple realities”. He provides a detailed historical development of Schutz’ thought. Unfortunately, I am not able to go into detail concerning this historical account due to space restrictions. This aspect of Barber’s book would be nevertheless of great interest for any Schutzian scholar.

[2] This is important in Barber’s account of face-to-face humor.

[3] Barber explains this relation to the transcendent in a Husserlian way, namely by means of appresentation: symbols function as appresentative loci for the divine.

[4] One can of course re-live a past comical event by oneself, but this would also be intersubjective in nature as humor is often associative and reflected in connection to the humorous style of another. Barber refers here to a “passive absorbtion” of other humorous styles which shape the humor region of meaning in an intersubjective manner.

[5] As shown above.

Brian W. Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, David M. Goodman (Eds.): Unconscious Incarnations, Routledge, 2018

Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives on the Body Book Cover Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives on the Body
Psychology and the Other
Brian W. Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, David M. Goodman (Eds.):
Paperback £32.99

Justin Sands: Reasoning from Faith: Fundamental Theology in Merold Westphal’s Philosophy of Religion, Indiana University Press, 2017

Reasoning from Faith: Fundamental Theology in Merold Westphal’s Philosophy of Religion Book Cover Reasoning from Faith: Fundamental Theology in Merold Westphal’s Philosophy of Religion
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
Justin Sands
Indiana University Press
Paperback $35.00

Richard Schaeffler: Phänomenologie der Religion: Grundzüge ihrer Fragestellungen, Alber Verlag, 2018

Phänomenologie der Religion: Grundzüge ihrer Fragestellungen Book Cover Phänomenologie der Religion: Grundzüge ihrer Fragestellungen
Richard Schaeffler
Alber Verlag
Paperback 34,00 €

Adam Y. Wells (Ed.): Phenomenologies of Scripture

Phenomenologies of Scripture Book Cover Phenomenologies of Scripture
Wells, Adam Y., editor
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Reviewed by: Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

To consider the phenomenology of scripture is a challenging task, not only because it wades into religion, a subject area preloaded with emotions and identities, but because it wades into the tension between theological readings and scientific/historical readings of scriptural texts. The essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, edited by Adam Y. Wells, seek to apply the unofficial model of phenomenology, “back to the things themselves,” to the study of scripture. Specifically, the application of phenomenology in this collection of essays aims “to shift the center of biblical studies from science to scripture itself.” (1) Wells states that “the phenomenology of scripture must begin with a radical openness to scripture, rigorously avoiding the temptation to declare at the outset what scripture can or must mean.” (7)

At first appearance, this sounds simple enough. Rather than prejudge what a scriptural passage means, we are open to the passage showing its meaning to us. However, a phenomenological openness to scripture is complicated—particularly the question of what we are bracketing off in our epoché. There are two challenges facing the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture. One, how can any text, especially religious scripture, be understood apart from its social-historical context. Two, how can scripture be read without preconceptions about the truth of the religion itself? On the first challenge, to consider the text itself outside of its social context is artificial and perhaps prejudicial. There is a temptation within religion to consider scripture as having arrived inspired, if not dictated, by a divine source rather than from a social-historical context. It would be hypocritical to bracket off the social-historical context without also bracketing off the assumption that the text is the “Word of God” and thus outside of any worldly context. Scripture, even if divinely inspired, is a set of particular words in particular languages written down at particular times and places. To make sense of the gospel and epistles requires that we not bracket off consideration of ancient Greek language and Hellenistic cultural understandings if we are to make sense of the frequent allegories and word usages.

On the second, more profound challenge, a phenomenology of scripture must be open to the text itself without preconceived notions about the truth claims of the religion to which it belongs. Phenomenology does mean going back to the text itself, but one’s worldview cannot help but inform interpretation of the text’s meaning. There is frequently a prejudgment either for or against religion in the reading of any scriptural passage. The authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture are justifiably cautious about a scientific/historical approach to scripture because that methodology has at times been accompanied by prejudgments that religious beliefs are false. Unfortunately, several of these authors fail to apply the epoché equally, and accompanying their approach to scripture is a prejudgment that religious belief is true. Whether one has the belief that a religion is true or the belief that it is false, either belief will restrict one’s interpretation of what a scriptural passage can mean. A phenomenology of scripture must first and foremost cast off any prejudgments in favor of or against religion. A good phenomenologist considering a religious text would read a passage without requisitioning it to serve a premeditated agenda. He or she would openly consider both the text of the passage and the religious claims that inform the passage and the religious claims that are informed by the passage. Plus, the phenomenologist would offer insights to the text that are not restricted to those who already believe or already disbelieve. It is self-evident that hostility toward religion prejudices one’s reading of scripture, but it seems at cross-purposes with a phenomenology of scripture to declare at the outset that the bible fits within the doctrine of the church. Despite this, several authors in this book do just that.

Several of the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture interpret the book’s task differently than how I have and are carving out a distinctly Christian phenomenology. Several of them make a solid case for such a methodology. Robyn Horner says, “A phenomenological reading is an attempt to bring to light; it should only bring a light to bear on a text in order to show what is given there.” (115) What is given in scripture is a message to the Christian community, so she also says, “I read here, as one who listens to the text in the context of the Christian community.” (115) Whether or not one agrees with that combination, Horner is phenomenologically consistent within her prejudgment of Christian truth by bracketing off prejudgments about the text’s meaning after accepting its Christian context. In her analysis of the gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Horner talks about the experience of Jesus within herself during reading the passage. There is a connection between reading of scripture and religious experience, and Horner is correct that religious phenomena are not to be a priori excluded as a possibility. (119) Her position is that religious phenomena described in scripture ultimately are to be explained theologically but that this still requires discrimination and discernment. (119-120)

Horner’s essay raises the question of whether, if we are to get the meaning out of the text, the reading of scripture is necessarily a religious or devotional act. It is legitimate to ask whether a purely neutral and objective reading of a scriptural text possible or even desirable. Jean-Louis Chrétien thinks not. (140-141) He argues that we are touched by certain passages in a characteristic way when they are powerful enough to speak to us, explaining that “The failures of a weak man before miniscule difficulties of everyday life do not move me in the same way as the shipwrecks of a strong man in great trials.” (128) Chrétien likens Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as a drama of “the manifestation and the revelation of evil as evil by means of the interdict pronounced by the law.” (131) The law in question is the Jewish Torah, and its role in the emerging Christian faith is a thorny theological issue for Paul. Any reading of Paul’s words in Romans must acknowledge that Paul’s words are an expression of one side within a theological dispute. The drama of the dispute can touch us either as neutral onlookers or as people invested in the outcome of the dispute, but these are decidedly different dramas. Chrétien states that the passage he analyzes in Romans is heavy with stakes of great consequence for the comprehension of Christian existence and that this is why he believes a purely neutral and objective approach is insufficient. This is true if we are invested in the dispute, not simply as Christians, but as Christians who believe that Paul’s position on the issue of Jewish law is relevant to our Christian existence. This certainly describes Chrétien’s position, and it informs his reading of Paul.

Horner and Chrétien apply phenomenology within the sphere of Christian hermeneutics with the aim of deepening the understanding of the meaning of Christianity. There is nothing wrong with such legitimate applications of the phenomenological method as long as the parameters are made clear. Phenomenologies of Scripture could be clearer on this point—that the essays are Christian phenomenology of Christian scripture. No viewpoints of phenomenologies of, for example, Buddhist or Islamic scriptures are offered, and Jewish scriptures are discussed only in terms of their inclusion in and relevance to the Christian faith. Also, what the book and its essays do not adequately address is the difference between a phenomenology of text and a phenomenology of God. This problem is seen clearly in Emmanuel Housset’s essay on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (159-178) in which he focuses on the religious experience of God, and his phenomenological openness to the text is in service of that aim. He is completely honest about that, opening his essay with the following: “As a matter of methodological principle, an authentic phenomenology of religious experience should not place conditions on the manifestation of God, but should understand him only from his Word.” (159) One could take umbrage at these assumptions of God and scripture as violating phenomenology, but Housset correctly discerns that the common ground between phenomenology and scriptural study is humility: “phenomenology requires humble submission to the phenomena as they give themselves, endeavoring with the most possible rigor to avoid all theoretical or speculative bias.” (160) Like Chrétien, Housset stresses the importance of letting a passage affect you. For Housset, this affect is achieved through confrontation; but for Housset, the confrontation of one’s will is less with the text than it is with God. Housset’s position makes sense in that knowing someone, god or human, requires a confrontation that cannot be achieved through a detached viewpoint. This leads to the question of whether, in approaching any text, our confrontation is with the text or with its author. If one prejudges Christian scripture as being delivered by God, then it is easy to understand that ultimately the confrontation is with God and the aim is to be transfigured by the encounter. (161) Outside of this assumption and aim, it is less clear, and it remains an important question for the phenomenology of any text. Housset’s interesting mention of Heidegger’s idea of attunement to a text deserved a wider discussion.

That we are dealing with a specifically Christian phenomenology can be seen in Kevin Hart’s close analysis of the text Luke 15:11-32, which is commonly known as the story of the prodigal son. Hart’s phenomenological analysis of the parable is extensive and detailed but is largely a legal analysis of inheritance relations between the father and his sons. Hart is aware that the parable in Luke is not intended to be history—it is a story intended to teach a moral lesson—and the analysis of the parable needs to reflect that. Along that line of inquiry, Hart makes the good point that the narratives for both sons are unfinished because the story is a “parable of decision, one that offers eidetic possibilities that, structured according to a narrative, indicate that we should be more like the father than like either son.” (99) Hart has an agenda in his analysis, because he believes the parable shows that it has an agenda, which is to get readers to move from a worldly way of thinking to a divine one. He is honest about that agenda, acknowledging that Luke 15:11-32 has no revelatory claim on the nonbeliever, but for the believer, the Holy Spirit speaks through the text. (102) In this distinction, Hart confirms the concern I expressed earlier that a phenomenology of scripture offer insights into the text that are not restricted to those who already believe. For Hart, that means that the parable can be read strictly as a historical text by the nonbeliever, but although believers can learn a great deal from what the historians say about the text, historical reason is not sufficient in telling them what the text means. Hart argues that phenomenology makes no judgment about the rights and wrongs of belief or nonbelief and is neutral with respect to an individual’s choice to pass from nonbelief to belief in reading a scriptural text. (102-103) This seems an appropriate stance for phenomenology in general. Hart’s next step is to delineate what a Christian phenomenology could look like, using Jesus as an example. Jesus performs a phenomenological reduction in his telling of parables, Hart says, bracketing off everyday life and its worldly logic in order to lead the listener to a deeper place of divine logic. This “parable as the reduction from ‘world’ to ‘kingdom,’” strips the listener of worldly humanness and by means of this reduction tells us something of God who is pure love outside of all categories and rules. (103-105) This formula may not convince the nonbeliever, but, as Hart points out, phenomenology is neutral to each individual’s decision. I take this to be the boundary between a general phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology—that the latter can carve out this interpretive space with an additional reduction that brackets off the scientific/historical stance toward scripture. As Hart observes: “Where the historical-critical method forbids any passage from scripture to creed, phenomenology allows us to recognize that one vital element of the creed, the incarnation of God, is transcendentally supposed by Jesus’s relating of a parable of the kingdom.” (108)

Jeffrey Bloechel makes a similar distinction between a general scientific/historical phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology. His approach is to respond to Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou’s analysis of Paul’s epistles. Bloechel argues that neither Agamben nor Badiou addresses Paul as a theologian but instead as a source for conceptions of human freedom from containment within the political order. (144) Agamben and Badiou take into account only the structure, not the content, which leaves them with a reading devoid of everything Paul the author cares about and wants to communicate. In particular, Agamben and Badiou ignore Paul’s desire for there to be a community of faith united in the life of the spirit. (148) Because Agamben and Badiou conscript passages of Paul’s epistles in service of their own hermeneutical agenda, they miss the author Paul’s clear purpose in writing what he did. Bloechel argues that Paul’s central interest in his writings can emerge when we avoid the temptation to think of them first of all as political texts and attend instead to the imagery he uses of the community as a body, imagery that calls us to a conversion of our basic attitudes about and orientation to the world. (151) As nonbelievers, Bloechel says, Agamben and Badiou reduce the Christian message of Jesus to “only a single, momentous event, and not necessarily a unique one.” (156) What this shows, I think, is that regardless of whether Christianity is true, the Christian believer desevers the event of Jesus from the historical background and gives it significance in history, morality, and personal eschatology. Therefore, the meaning of Christian scripture has to be understood from within that mood of belief. Otherwise, our analysis discounts both the authors and the audience of scripture, without whom the enterprise of writing and reading have no meaning.

Jean-Yves Lacoste’s analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, the Sermon on the Mount, is a theological exegesis. Lacoste seeks to understand what Jesus’s words in the sermon show us about Jesus’s place in Judaism given his claims about Jewish law. (66) Lacoste applies the phenomenological method by bracketing off the assumption of Jesus as Messiah in reading the pericope. It is naively tempting, Lacoste says, to assume Jesus’s authoritative teaching on the Jewish law in the sermon is an assertion of messianic fulfillment, but Jesus never refers to himself as Messiah. (68) With this epoché, we can try better to understand Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and to be perfect as God is perfect. Lacoste’s Christian phenomenology informs his analysis of the “difficult logic” of the sermon. (86) His analysis comes full circle in leading him back to the conclusion that “the horizon opened by the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are perceptible only by the one who sees those commandments fulfilled in the person of the man who comes from God— the Son— and probably in him.” (84)

The remaining two essays lacked critical force. Robert Sokolowski does not focus on a particular passage but on the general importance of words. Words spoken about something introduce the thing to us, he says; they bring it to mind. (22) Writing differs from speech in that the speaker can be absent. (24) But there is a tangible speaker of the scriptures, and that is the Church. The Church as the speaker of the scriptures means the scriptures are not detached and isolated but are epitomized in the Church. (26-27) This need to understand the Church’s place as speaker of scripture is why Sokolowski rejects purely historical approaches to scripture, which incline one “to think, first, that scripture trumps tradition and, second, that history trumps scripture.” (37) Sokolowski does not give us a phenomenology, even a Christian one, but a doctrinal lesson about the importance of scripture as God’s Word. The contribution by Jean-Luc Marion is a lecture that discusses the nature of the gift. This lecture is not as lucid and insightful as Marion’s other papers on the phenomenology of the gift and givenness, and I was disappointed given his other excellent work on this subject. His essay’s connection with the book’s theme is the discussion of the story of Abraham’s confirmation (Genesis 22). Marion’s interpretation of the story is strained in his attempt to fit it into his larger philosophical concerns and is not as compelling as Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story in Fear and Trembling.

Having discussed the essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, I now turn to the two responses to those essays in the book. One is by Dale B. Martin, whose main issue with the essays is the authors’ lack of acknowledgment of interpretive agency. The reader is the interpreter of the text, and Martin takes Marion and Sokolowski to task for eclipsing the agency of the interpreter with their predetermined “this is the way things are” arguments. (191-192) I agree with Martin that most of the essays in this book hold that it is the words that do the work. This sounds good at first until you realize that it leaves out both the authors and the readers. It is a mistake if phenomenology assumes that “phenomena and words and texts simply have their meaning in themselves and just present that to us [and that] readers are passive receptors, not agents in meaning-making.” (192) Martin argues that just as objects are for us as they are interpreted by us and other human beings (emphasis his), texts cannot speak for themselves; they must be interpreted by us. Rather than putting the agency in scripture, Martin says, we need to put the agency where it belongs—with us human beings. (194) Martin praises Horner and Chrétien for giving appropriate attention to the agency of the reader as interpreter and maker of meaning and including in their phenomenology that the meaning of a text arrives only from the interpretive activities of the readers. (195-196) This is important, Martin says, because “we can have different meanings of the text, and many of them, all at the same time, interpreting differently for different ends and needs.” (196) Again, I heartily agree. If a text is designated as an object that tells us what it means, then it is not alive for readers and is more useful for the suppression of ideas than for generating and communicating them.

The other response is by Walter Brueggemann who proposes the approach to scripture of probing the thickness of the text to go beyond the obvious meaning. (180) In seeking to understand a text, he says, we are seeking to understand the culture that surrounded it and gave birth to it. To be open to this understanding, we must avoid what Brueggemann calls “totalism.” Brueggemann rebukes three types of totalism: church doctrine that occupied scripture to its own advantage and reduced biblical narrative to propositions that could become a test of membership; enlightenment rationality that has “largely explained away what is interesting, compelling, and embarrassing in the text”; and late capitalism’s reduction of narrative to medical prescriptions promising quick technical fixes to all human problems. (182) Brueggemann’s prescription to cure totalism is not to read scripture from the place of religious orthodoxy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of ecclesiastical certitude or from the place of the modernist academy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of reducing religion to a human sociopsychological projection. (186) When we move beyond the thinness of the conventional expectations of totalism, we dwell in thickness—the deeply coded cultural articulations and performances that are understood only by insiders. The reader must take up residence in the text and wait there, listening beyond what is given in the letter of the text. In thickness we can consider and accept interpretations of text that are clearly not acceptable in the surface observations of totalisms. For example, Brueggemann mentions the current interest, by both church and modern interpreters, to explain away the violence in the Bible, but the violence clearly belongs in the narrative because it is part of the cultural understanding of the culture from which the Bible emerged. We need to follow the story, not explain it away. Another example is being able to recognize messianic time in texts, meaning that the reading of the text is not settled in the present tense that is authorized by totalism but is instead always open to new possibilities. Being open to the possibilities in thickness are, Brueggemann says, a courageous response to today’s hurried productive society that does not want to dwell in any way that requires waiting because all meanings are known ahead of time. (181)

Maybe not all phenomenologies are courageous countercultural acts, as Brueggemann implies, but Phenomenologies of Scripture is going against the grain. The essays in the book are of more value to scholars of biblical interpretation than to those outside that discipline, but both biblical scholars and phenomenologists will find valuable approaches and ideas in these essays.


Wells, Adam Y., ed. 2017. Phenomenologies of Scripture. New York: Fordham University Press.


Michael Barber: Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning, Springer, 2017

Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning Book Cover Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning
Contributions To Phenomenology, Volume 91
Michael Barber
Springer International Publishing
Hardcover 96,29 €
XV, 231

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, Fordham University Press, 2017

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, and Pierre-Philippe Jandin, Translated by Travis Holloway, and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00

Kevin Hart: Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, Bloomsbury, 2017

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry Book Cover Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry
Kevin Hart
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50

Sarah Hammerschlag: Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion

Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion Book Cover Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion
Sarah Hammerschlag
Columbia University Press
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Esteban J. Beltrán Ulate (Universidad of Costa Rica)

Sarah Hammerschlag en su obra Broken Tablets: Levinas Derrida and Literary Afterlife of Religion, editada por Columbia University Press, incursiona en el terreno de los estudios religiosos a partir de dos importantes referentes: Emmanuel Levinas y Jacques Derrida. El orden de la presente exposición será mediado por la estructura misma de la obra, esbozando una serie de consideraciones capitulares y finiquitando con breves consideraciones generales. El texto se compone de las siguientes secciones: Preface (0), What must a Jewish thinker be (1), Levinas, Literature and the run of the world (2), Between the Jew and writing (3), To lose one’s head: Literature and the democracy to come (4), Literature and the political-theological remains (5), Epilogue: There is not a pin to choose between us (6).

La sección Preface (0) nos enfrenta al objetivo del estudio: comprender la lectura de Derrida de la obra de Levinas y a la vez atender al significado de una lectura conjunta de Levinas y Derrida en el marco de los estudios de la religión. En Derrida son múltiples los ecos y reverberancias de la obra levinasiana, no solo como comentador e intérprete sino incluso como deformador. La obra de Sarah apunta a un recorrido de esos momentos cruciales en los que la traza de sus diálogos permite una lectura de categorías como religión y literatura. En este apartado se señalan tanto las diferencias como las consonancias de los autores y se explicita al lector el marco de referencia de la obra, aportando nuevos insumos para los estudios en filosofía de la religión.

El primer capítulo, What must a Jewish thinker be (1), procura una diferenciación entre la religión y la literatura, a partir de las proximidades de ambos autores, considerando sus implicaciones políticas. El corazón del capítulo y en general del libro se enfrenta a la pregunta: ¿cómo debe ser un pensador judío?

El apartado desarrolla los puntos de inicio del pensamiento de los autores -Levinas con el judaísmo y Derrida con la Literatura- así como el sentido en el cual ambos pensadores formulan su identidad judía. Hammerschlag despliega una descripción de diferentes aspectos abordados por Derrida en múltiples textos, en los que realiza tanto un interpretación de las tesis levinasianas (noción de paternidad, idea del tercero) como una re-lectura de los relatos de la tradición judía (sacrificio de Isaac). Para Derrida la literatura está ineludiblemente atada a los textos religiosos de la comunidad abrahámica. Posteriormente se desarrolla una dimensión particular de la ironía, como herramienta que mantiene y da sentido a la comunidad.

Las conexiones históricas entre Derrida y Levinas se presentan a lo largo del apartado, desde sus primeros encuentros hasta el proceso de madurez de “Violencia y metafísica”, prestando atención a “momentos/palabra” de resonancia, como Dieu. Aunado a esto la autora describe algunos pasajes donde se perfila el carácter de ironía, haciendo referencia a ciertos textos. En un apartado posterior se presenta un abordaje de la noción de Decir (Dire) en Levinas, y sus resonancias en Derrida, especialmente en la relación del acto de habla como manifestación de la relación del cara-a-cara (face-to-face).

Las proximidades entre los autores se descubren en el análisis de la significación de Husserl en Investigaciones Lógicas, así como en las relaciones entre Religión y Literatura, tema que es asumido de manera distinta por ambos filósofos. La autora hace mención puntal de los aspectos que llevan a Derrida a desarrollar un trabajo a partir de las fisuras de la obra levinasiana, construyendo así una filosofía desde la ruptura con la filosofía de Levinas, pero, a la vez, reconociéndolo como su fuente de inspiración. Como expresa Hammerschlag: “For Derrida this is indeed the promise of literature and the obligation that Derrida took up as a mens of expressing his fidelity to Levinas” (p. 34). El capítulo finaliza con el reconocimiento del legado de ambos autores que, más allá incluso del nivel filosófico y político, resuena a partir de las categorías de religión y literatura.

El capítulo, Levinas, Literature and the run of the world (2), se inclina por la contextualización, atendiendo a la postura de Levinas respecto a la Literatura. Inicia con una detallada descripción de la situación judía intelectual en Francia a comienzos del siglo XX, y marca el modo en que tanto Levinas como Derrida son herederos de ese contexto. Respecto a los inicios de Levinas en el contexto académico francés se refiere la relación con Kojève, con Wahl, así como su papel en la introducción de la fenomenología de Heidegger y Husserl en la esfera francesa. La autora encamina al lector por las principales fuentes de influencia y de contrastación literaria con las que interactuó Levinas, y a su vez como estas colaboraron en el diseño de la noción de ser judío.

Para Hammerschlag la sensibilidad en cuanto a la relación entre Filosofía, Religión y Literatura en Levinas se evidencia a partir del ensayo De l’évasion (1930). Afirma que: “The essay thus presents literature and religion as accomplices in this narrative of failed escape” (45). De igual manera encuentra momentos de encuentro entre literatura y religión en los textos del período de guerra -cerca de 1946- que posteriormente serán profundizados (en lo que respecta a la noción de metáfora) en los años 60`s durante su participación en Jean Wahl`s Collége Philosophique.

La autora hace una delicada mención al contexto literario que circula en las principales revistas con aportaciones de pensadores emergentes y en auge en el contexto de entreguerras, bajo el análisis de la esencia de la literatura y su relación con la filosofía, la ética y la política; los nombres de Sartre, Proust, Blanchot, Bataille, Heidegger serán constantes en estas relaciones y discrepancias con la mirada de Levinas. Se finaliza el capítulo haciendo una referencia a las cercanías del filósofo lituano con el movimiento personalista de Emmanuel Mounier, así como con los interlocutores de tradición católica, tales como Marcel, Jamkélévitch, Maritain, Minkowski.

El tercer capítulo, Between the Jew and writing (3), presenta la posición de Derrida sobre la literatura. Se inicia indicando el carácter inductivo que logra Ricoeur en Derrida para su introducción en la obra levinasiana, específicamente a partir de Totalité e Infini. El concepto de diferencia será la primera reflexión que Derrida asumirá en medio del estudio de la obra de Levinas.

La autora desarrolla el itinerario intelectual de Derrida, desde sus cercanías con Ricoeur, hasta el desarrollo de sus textos de la mano de las lecturas de la obra levinasiana, así como su acercamiento a la obra husserliana. La noción de misterio desarrollada por Marcel será un eje temático que asumirá Derrida en su crítica. En la obra se presenta la auto-caracterización que Derrida emite sobre su relación con lo griego y lo judío.

En la ruta de Derrida tendrá en común con Levinas, por un lado, los encuentros con la obra de Heidegger y Blanchot; y por otro, serán reconocidas las invocaciones a la literatura de Nietzsche (algo a lo que Levinas no era fiel). Las críticas y reinterpretaciones de Zarathustra por parte de Derrida serán expuestas por la autora, teniendo en mente las trazas de la mirada levinasiana. Categorías como metáfora y escatología estarán difuminadas en algunos momentos del proyecto de Derrida. En este sentido, señala que: “Eschatology is thus rethought through an alternative metaphor, not through la croix but throuhg le creux” (p. 90). Se expone la influencia de la obra de Mallarmé en Derrida cerca de 1960, por medio de Edmond Jabès.

Hammerschlag reconoce que en el texto Ellipses es donde se perfila de manera temprana la relación entre religión y literatura por parte de Derrida, de igual manera expone como por medio de la relación de Levinas con la tradición judía articula la dicotomía entre literatura y religión. Es notorio, dada la descripción de la autora del texto, como Derrida bebiendo de la fuente de Levinas procura nuevas ramificaciones en su pensamiento, a partir de la noción de libertad.

La lectura de Difícil Libertad por parte de Derrida, será fundamental en la re-investigación de su identidad judía. En este momento se presenta un interesante retrato a propósito de las diferencias entre los contextos judíos de ambos autores y de su situación entre-guerra y post-guerra. El capítulo finaliza retornando al momento del encuentro entre Levinas y Derrida en el marco del Coloquio de Intelectuales Judíos de lengua francesa, y exponiendo las tesis ético-políticas expuestas por Levinas y sus subsecuentes resonancias en Derrida.

En el capítulo To lose one’s head: Literature and the democracy to come (4), se analizan las repercusiones de la imbrincación entre el pensamiento de Levinas y el de Derrida. Inicia exponiendo ideas a propósito de las tesis de Derrida en un seminario titulado “Literature and Truth” en 1968, así como las líneas de su obra asumidas por los intérpretes de la obra derrideana. Para Hammerschlag la tarea llevada a cabo en el capítulo es mostrar cómo Derrida establece la literatura como un componente necesario y, a su vez, cómo por medio de la literatura se ejercen operaciones políticas relacionadas a la religión.

Es a partir de las lecturas de la obra de Levinas que Derrida formula sus propias categorías de trabajo. El apartado hace una transición de la lectura poética de Levinas a la lectura política a partir de una visión ética. Se afirma que: “Levinas describes the voice of the prophet, the escatological voice as the voice that interrupts history, that refuses to wait, that insists on a justice independent from teleology” (p. 123). Por su parte, se presenta la noción de “autoinmunidad” de Derrida, en contraste con las tesis de Levinas expuestas en Other wise than being. La autora también refiere la distinción entre la dicotomía del discurso científico (ciencia y medicina) y el disruptivo (profético y poético) por parte de Levinas en Other wise than being y por parte de Derrida en Faith and Knowledge.

A lo largo del apartado se sigue evidenciando el contraste entre las diversas categorías que se hallan en los autores, recargando tintas en la noción de religión, y explicando con gran detalle el carácter derrideano que se extiende más allá de la mirada levinasiana de lo “sacro” y “santo” a partir de la teorización que deviene de su reflexión desde la categoría de “marrano”. Con gran elocuencia Hammerschlag dice: “Levinas provides a kind of curriculum vitae in order to situate his work. Derrida, in contrast, introduces the reference to the Marrano to complicate the relation between his autobiography and his writings” (p.130).

El capítulo vuelve a dar un giro hacia lo político y se examina la mirada de Levinas a propósito del sioniosmo y la situación con Palestina, así como las reflexiones en orden a “el tercero” y “el otro” en el marco de la justicia. Por su parte se retoma la categoría de Derrida denominada como “Principio de Diseminación”. El apartado finaliza con la posición de Derrida a propósito de la mirada reflexiva de la noción de secreto -literatura del secreto- y la concepción de perdón -literatura del perdón-, ilustrando con fuentes como Kafka o relatos del Bereshit (Abraham, Noe). Frente a las concepciones de autores que apelan a retornar al sitio del misterio teológico o al modelo de religión como irrupción mesiánica de lo político, Derrida propone volver a la literatura. Como manifiesta la autora: “Derrida proposes literature as inheriting from all these traditions, but in a form that divest itself of authority, originality, exclusivity, or primacy” (p.150). Con gran astucia concluye elaborando una discusión respecto a la literatura y su carácter no-revolucionario, en contraposición a la soberanía de lo autónomo: una reflexión política abierta.

El capítulo quinto, Literature and the political-theological remains (5), se ubica en las implicaciones del modelo derrideano de teología política. La autora pone en discusión el proyecto de pensar la literatura como un legado religioso que debe ser necesariamente parte del imaginario dentro de un contexto democrático. En este sentido: “Literature can show us the opacity of the subject but without the necessity of invoking transcendence” (p. 157). El apartado presenta las críticas de Judith Butler respecto a las tesis tanto de Levinas como de Derrida, desde una lectura religiosa-política, lo que permite al lector contrastar a ambos autores y reconocer sus límites desde una lectura de un tercero (en este caso de Butler).

El apartado desarrolla una reflexión a propósito de la religión y la posibilidad de la literatura a partir de un diálogo entre Derrida y diversos autores, como Patocka, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire y Nietzsche, teniendo como categorías de discusión el cristianismo y el relato de Abraham e Isaac (sacrificio). Se expone también la relación entre literatura y terror, con la injerencia de Blanchot y Paulhan para acompasar las tesis de Derrida.

El capítulo finaliza retomando las nociones de literatura y secreto, una lectura a cuatro manos (Derrida y Levinas), reconociendo las distancias y cercanías de los autores, repensando el carácter pedagógico de la literatura que es capaz de exponer y ocultar el secreto por medio del lenguaje; así: “Literature would thus teach us to see language itself as simultaneously exposure and masking, yet it would also teach us how to recognize its features at play and how to reread religious text in light of them” (p. 177).

En la última sección intitulada Epilogue: There is not a pin to choose between us (6) la autora juega con diversos elementos de la literatura derrideana para colocar al lector frente a una pregunta que le inquieta retrospectivamente a la elaboración del libro y que, a su vez, enfrenta al lector con el mismo problema: “the last word” (p. 189).

Sarah Hammerschlag en su obra nos pone frente a un tejido de textos, cuyas fuentes rebosan de sentido. El delicado tratamiento de las fuentes y la elocuente mediación en las relaciones posibilitan el goce en los estudiosos que buscan ahondar en las cercanías y distancias entre Levinas y Derrida. Más allá de las discusiones y diálogos a propósito de los autores, se expone la literatura religiosa y su praxis por medio del actuar en el mundo. Las aberturas del tejido elaborado por la Profesora Hammerschlag llevan al lector constantemente a detener la lectura y re-pensar las categorías enfrentándose permanentemente al texto. En el libro son muchas las voces, el tratamiento discursivo resulta ser como un oleaje constante reventando en la costa de la conciencia del lector, avivando la llama del secreto y el misterio.