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Reviewed by: Jonathan Wren (UCD School of Philosophy)
Aged 81, Jean-Luc Nancy passed away last year on 23rd of August 2021. As he remained prolific until his final months, he leaves behind a huge body of work that forms a significant contribution to philosophical, political, cultural, aesthetic and religious discourses. The Fragile Skin of the World, translated by Corey Stockwell, is a collection of essays, many of which were wrote in Nancy’s final years, that each embody the beauty of his writing, his poetic register and his philosophical flair. The essays contained centre around many of the most prominent and re-occurring themes throughout his works: finitude and finite thinking, politics, technology, the proliferation of globalized late-capitalism, the creation of the world and the exchange of sense. Additionally, the collection also includes interventions from Juan Manuel Garrido and Jean-Christophe Bailly, which provide both a counterpoint to and an extension of Nancy’s thinking on these topics.
Over the last two years, Nancy continued to provide an insightful commentary of the Covid-19 pandemic, including An All Too Human Virus (which Stockwell also contributed to the translation of) and his Libération article titled “Communovirus”. In this latter text, he considers the forms of collective effort and solidarity displayed in the early period of the pandemic in Europe as a possible juncture to a thinking of the question of the community, capable of disrupting the hyper-atomized mindset of late-capitalism. However, as Nancy warns that the omission of such a reckoning may mean that “we’ll end up at the same point” it seems interesting, now, to read the essays that make up Fragile Skin and to reflect upon the fact that the concerns that haunt and provoke their writing are those that have pre-dated and persisted through the pandemic. Though not exclusively, these seem to be the looming climate emergency, the enmeshment of technology with domination, imperialism and colonialism and the relentless exercise of forms of power, sovereignty and parochialism that perpetuate the mentalities policing our external national borders and geopolitical thinking. Under his diagnosis, these familiar concerns exemplify the forms of levelling inequalities to be overcome when Nancy, in his earlier text, calls for a “creation of the world”, entailing heterogeneous processes of struggle “for a world” which “must form the contrary of global injustice against the background of general equivalence.” Reverberating against this earlier call, Fragile Skin adds to this the suggestion that what also may be required is a temporality and a thinking of the “here and now” that enables such a creation.
As Nancy explains in the opening acknowledgements,
This book is born out of the desire to join to our worries for tomorrow a welcome for the present, by way of which we move towards tomorrow. Without this welcome, anxiety, and frenzy devastate us. [FSW: vi]
Fragile Skin is concerned precisely with this question of a finite interpretation of the “here and now”, which runs against those interpretations of the term which understand the present moment, as the dialectic exclusion of other possible “here and nows.” Rather, Nancy suggests a temporality of the “here and now” as the site of passage, a relation to the present which attests to our experience, that “time will come because time comes […] even if it all comes to nothing.” [FSW: x] The stakes of this re-evaluation are high, as he argues it is our very orientation to time which characterizes the nature of our contemporary anxieties. Pressed up against the seemingly insurmountable issues that define the unease of our present setting, Nancy suggests that it is the ghosts of our attempts to master time, which haunt us today, as he writes,
If we’re worried, disorientated, and troubled today, as indeed we are, it’s because we’ve become accustomed to the here and now perpetuating itself by excluding every possible elsewhere. Our future was right there, ready-made: a future of mastery and prosperity. And now everything is falling apart: climate, species, finance, energy, confidence, and ever the ability to calculate of which we felt so assured, and which seems doomed to exceed itself of its own accord. [FSW: x]
Pre-empting an argument that he will reiterate over the course of the essays¸ Nancy suggests that our attempts to master time, (as succession or as progress) are today disrupted by the fact that we are heading towards the point of catastrophe; and that the supposed promises which accompanied these transformations of temporality (perpetuated economic development, growth and rising living standards) are losing their ability to provide us clear view of the future. As though we are in the second act of a play, climbing towards the climactic point, it is difficult to see exactly how the form of life that we attribute to the success of this progress (the development of carbon based globalized late-capitalism) will survive beyond this horizon. Even though we already know many of the particular injustices that have been enacted in building to this point (centuries of colonial and imperial exploitation) and that the consequences of reaching certain irreversible limits will be felt (and are already been felt) in disparate and uneven ways, we seem unable to change the trajectory course of this arc. In order to address the peculiar tension and anxiety that we experience in this position, Nancy suggests that what may be required is a thinking of time, and in particular of the present, that embraces the contingency of the “here and now” as the site of the singular-plural unfolding of existence.
Of course, when Nancy reminds us “we ourselves are the time that comes” [FSW: x] such a description will recall the language deployed by Heidegger in his magnus opus. However it is important to note how the former’s descriptions also set out several key differences between his pre-occupation with “presence”. While both seek to pick apart the linear thinking of temporality that emerges from Aristotle, the key difference is that Heidegger seeks to replace our conception of “the now” with an account of time as an essential unity (housing the ecstasies of past, present an future), whereas Nancy sees these ecstasies as the singular-plural dissemination of experience. This means that the linear understanding of time is transposed through the concept of différance; each now is the singular moment that contains the plural explosion of possibilities that may come to be as time passes. On this basis, Nancy reminds us that “the time will come and without question it will be unforeseen: without the unforeseeable, nothing would come.” [FSW: x] One may even venture further with this comparison and propose that the figure of authentic temporality as discussed by Heidegger, is the one who realises that their experience is always subjected to this temporal unity. The heroine wins themselves back against their history and through reflecting upon their death as their ownmost possibility, comes to welcome their destiny [Schicksal] as their freedom. In contrast the silhouette traced by Nancy, is of the one (amongst the many) who sees the plural structure of this unity within the singularity of the present. Who recognises that their very participation (praxis) in this unity, is the condition that exposes them to the plural possibilities and contingency of the future. Nancy exceeds Heidegger, as the attempts to win one’s freedom through the reworking of time and denigration of plurality it entails, actually leaves Dasein prisoner, as authenticity is achieved through the enclosure of the future in one’s destiny. On the contrary, as will be set out further over the course of this review, Nancy’s diagnosis is that it is our efforts to master time which present a history of our attempts to close and control the passage of time. At stake in these two contrasting temporalities are two distinct attempts to give a finite interpretation of freedom.
The divergence between these two ontological undertakings is revealed further in ‘A Time to Come without Past or Future’, where Nancy weaves a narrative of how this sense of time grew with the West and how it has been exported around the globe. He suggests that our “sense of immobility or of hesitating suspension” is brought about by a focus on “’presentism’” which “has a theoretical meaning (the affirmation of the exclusive existence of the present) and a practical meaning”, exemplified in the call to “‘…focus on the present [as] the rest is out of our control’.” [FSW: 1] Referencing Aristotle, Nancy suggests that such an inheritance is symptomatic of a linear and teleological conception of history “linked to progress” concerned with “perfecting techniques with a view to a better life.” [FSW: 2] Against this, Nancy sets out his intentions to cultivate a sense of the present as the gift, as a site of withdrawal that constitutes of the passage of time. He explains this,
[I]s not a matter of installing oneself in the present. Its gift is not the gift of any kind of stance —of a stanza, of stability, of a stele. Perhaps it even steals away as it gives, and (like the present) essentially steals away in the coming of its own succession. In succeeding itself, it passes, and in passing it opens itself to succeed once more. It comes by losing itself; it receives itself as that which cannot be anticipated, like all coming. In a word, it is not a future. The future is a present represented as a certain or possible. [FSW: 2]
Following this passage, Nancy references Derrida for the first time in the book as he appeals to the descriptions of the “to-come” (as in democracy or justice “to-come”) to explain how the present is suspended between the interplay of presence and absence. Seeming to accord with Derrida, the present is always pregnant, it is always “pre-senting.” The present “does not come out of the possible” or the “impossible either: it is not, and in not being it exposes us to an absence, which will only give us a fugitive present in its approach and its coming about.” [FSW: 3]
This point is explained further in ‘Accident and Season’ where Nancy, suggests that an overreliance on the form of time as “succession”, has come to drown out the different temporal experiences that are explored in psychology, art and literature whereby “succession has allowed itself to be composed with the present […] only with difficulty.” [FSW: 69] Rephrasing the ontological stakes of his meditation on the present he writes, “within this final horizon, the present could only exacerbate the character of non-being that it had always had.” [FSW: 69-70] In order to set up the playful distinction that this essay centres on, Nancy draws a parallel with Aristotle’s usage of the term “accident” to characterise the present that “does not belong to the essence of time” which “consists precisely in not having a present, in being nothing but the dissipation of being-present.” [FSW: 70] Against this Nancy invites a thinking of the “seasonality” of the present which amounts to re-evaluating the logic of presencing that makes each moment a “now”. He writes, “presence is always a coming into presence […] When we say that someone ‘has presence’, we’re not speaking of something static, but of a dynamics of approach of imminence, of the encounter.” [FSW: 75] He links this to both Heidegger’s Anwesen and Derrida’s differance, as a counterpoint to the “chronophagic time of a strict causality, of progression, of capitalization, and of calculation.” [FSW: 75] In contrast to the rigidity of the present as accident, Nancy muses the contingency of the season which “designates the time in which an event […] takes on its flavour […] Always already […] in the process of being transformed – in the process of coming to pass.” [FSW: 78] These ontological reflections have important political significance, as Nancy believes it is our inability to think this “coming to pass” of time that paralyses us today. Our pretensions to the mastery of time have brought us into an age in which our predictions spell out catastrophe; they “predict programmed futures” which as “predicted” are “thus present before being so.” [FSW: 3] These predictions do not so much as spell out the future to come, but by projecting a future “now”, actually rebound back on the present, afflicting our condition. For example, when we, “forecast the exhaustion of non-renewable energy” it “is no longer to come” as “[w]hat is foreshadowed has already happened, and encumbers what is to come instead of opening it.” [FSW: 79] In contrast a thinking of the seasonality of the present may help us to look to the future differently and to see the opportunity that contingency brings, “to see” and “not to discern contours and distances” but “experience the faint allure of approach that is not yet determined.” [FSW: 79]
Returning to the essay ‘A Time to Come”, it is here that Nancy presents the main body of his historical analysis concerning temporality. As he looks back to the early history of the West, ancient Greece and Rome, he asserts his entropic commitment that,
The world is an emergence: not only does it emerge from the non-world, but it ceaselessly emerges to itself, from energy to deflagration, from gatherings to explosions […] What precedes has never seen the coming of what follows. The space-time of the world – indeed, of plural worlds – is at bottom nothing but an emergence, one that is infinitely more ancient than antiquity. [FSW: 4]
The difference he states between western antiquity and the ancient cultures of Russia, China and the Islamic world, is that these “civilizations envelop time in a permeance” whereas western thought “sought to master succession.” [FSW: 7] In particular in Rome, Nancy suggests, this idea of succession is transformed into the idea of progression, through a sense of enterprise as the “edification and elaboration of the work.” [FSW: 7] His argument relies on an interpretation of the imperial ambitions of Rome, which relied upon an understanding of time that identified it with the progressive expansion of the empire; a work that consists in it’s own production, its successive annexation of local and regional cultures. Nancy further suggests that this thinking of expansion through time draws upon Greek concepts, such as autonomy, in such a way that it “entirely detaches it from the local and popular identity, and opens it to an enterprise that for the first time merits, on its own scale, the name ‘globalization’.” [FSW: 8] He continues, “Rome collapsed beneath its own weight: beneath the weight of its own incapacity to locate the sense of its enterprise.” [FSW: 8] As the empire expanded, and as increasing issues emerged around the centralization of Rome’s administration, the conceptual apparatus it relied upon in order to centre and evaluate the efforts of its own project became harder to determine.
In the final sections of the essay, Nancy expands these points to look at the legacy that Christianity and capitalism cast over the West. Firstly, “Christianity at once diverts and galvanizes the energetic, achievement-orientated drive that the Roman mutation bore.” [FSW: 9] During the 14th century turn toward Protestantism the conceptual foundations for the development of capitalism crystallize, “technique, domination, and wealth arise” culminating in “the systematic development of” the principle of “investment.” [FSW: 10] Nancy suggests that the notion of investment is the extreme radicalisation of the same impulse towards time, as its meaning “is to surround, to envelop (to ‘vest’) a specific object in order to appropriate it.” [FSW: 10] From here, Christianity spills into capitalism as, the dominance of investment, “transforms social relations, to the point of dragging the greatest number into misery, reserving for an ever small majority an ever more insolent and powerful opulence.” Additionally, “it transforms the relations of subsistence between man and the rest of the world into a paralysis of such a nature that subsistence exhausts itself within it.” [FSW: 10-11] Nancy concludes, “what exhausts itself is the West itself […] this might be what is happening to us right now.” [FSW: 11] He suggests that “the investment underpinning the entire ensemble has begun to collapse” [FSW: 12] arguing that the “horizon of an endless expansion of technique and domination […] ends up in a complete self-exhaustion.” [FSW: 12] As the West cultivates the principle of investment, through transforming time as succession into progress, to enterprise and finally into investment and wealth, then we reach the point at which the logic of this transformation of temporality undercuts itself, as the pursuit of these ends prevents the future that we seek and we find ourselves unable to break from the temporal chain that spells out the catastrophe looming.
Nancy closes this essay, quoting the passage referenced earlier from the Creation of the World, in this context adding his thesis concerning temporality: a finite rethinking of the present which is open to the singular-plural contingent partage of existence. He muses,
Here, now, I am employed, used, called upon, exploited, enjoyed by an infinite that is neither a subject nor a scheme – that thus has nothing in store for me and makes no profit from me – but that is my very existence, […] this body, these words, […] are here now exposed, dedicated, abandoned to the infinitely more than themselves. [FSW: 15]
Echoing the calls presented in his other works this thinking of the present implies a thinking of freedom as existence which is both “a praxis and an ethos, a lived and living disposition that in a sense we are already familiar without even knowing.” [FSW: 15] Nancy’s approach to a finite interpretation of the present attempts to walk a tricky tightrope between acknowledging our inability to master the passage of time but which yet also retains an important active element, in which our experience of the present actively participates in the coming of the future. In proposing this he rejects existentialist accounts that claim the subject constantly projects themselves into the future, instead suggesting that the for of exposure which constitutes the passage of time, infinitely surpasses the category of subjectivity as the I is opened to the singular plurality of existence; it is therefore fundamentally un-masterable.
There are links in Nancy’s vocabulary here of being “employed”, “exploited” and “enjoyed” which link the discussion of finite temporality to his work on the nature of technology, or what he elsewhere refers to as “eco-technology.” This is the subject of the second full essay in the collection, ‘From Ontology to Technology’, where the focus switches slightly as Nancy traces the concept of automation through antiquity, Plato and Aristotle in particular, seeking to tie the history of western philosophy to this term, writing that “philosophy after automation would be nothing more than the fulfilment of philosophy.” [FSW: 25] What began as the endeavour to locate and perfect human autonomy, ends where,
[P]olitics becomes the self-regulation of an assemblage that slowly begins to transcend people […] the supposed autonomy of the Western subject finds itself challenged and overtaken by the autonomy of the technical and economic complex born of the development of techno-scientific and techno-economic mastery. [FSW: 25]
Nancy’s observation here is that many western democracies, which claim the liberal and enlightenment ideals as their foundations, are locked into a technological-economic complex, which despite being faced with insurmountable challenges, are unable to imagine an alternative. He suggests, these political philosophies which were intended to champion the autonomy of the individual and rational thought, are now cemented into a system predicated on the freedom of the market, which promised to enhance individual liberty but now holds a pervasive form of control over their lives. Though undoubtably Nancy may here invoke Marx in his critique of technological capitalism, he also suggests that the critique of autonomy stretches beyond the specific shape of the economy. He writes “this programme sometimes takes on the tint of ‘communism’ and sometimes of ‘social democracy’; it can make itself ‘anarcho-libertarian or indeed ultra-neoliberal; it can just as easily become national-conservative.” Rather, “what is at stake in all these forms […] is the consummation of a reasonably calculated well-being. Blind confidence in a certain know-how, a knowing-how-to-bring-oneself-about – as a self.” [FSW:26] For Nancy it is philosophy’s insistence on the thinking of subjectivity, as an autonomously operating being, that leads to the present relationship with technology, where the tools that were meant to increase human freedom, now call freedom into question.
Therefore the culmination of the essay proposes a rethinking of the relationship between technology, seen as the instrumental use and application of human autonomy to a more passive and malleable nature. Nancy explains,
Man is therefore the animal to whom nature gives the possibility of knowledge with a view to bringing about works that are prescribed neither by nature itself, nor by a virtuous disposition. […] This possibility arises from nature – from phusis […] Phusis gives man the capacity to go beyond merely doing what falls within the purview of phusis. In other words, the nature of man carries within it something that exceeds nature. [FSW: 31-2]
The point here that Nancy draws out is a refinement of his notion of eco-technology, with the specific emphasis being that “technique cannot be opposed to nature — indeed, it can only manifest itself as distorting or destroying nature from the standpoint of its natural provenance.” [FSW: 32] This does not amount to the mere collapsing of the distinction between the human and the natural, but rather to the fact that nature, as eco-technological contains its own surpassing and it’s own limits to be exceeded.  Therefore, the attempt to oppose nature and technology as something so clear as a binary distinction is problematic from the get go, firstly because to a degree, indeed the former is the condition of the latter (the artificial cannot be extracted from the natural) but secondly, that the latter emerges out of the former in a disclosive manner; our technological capacities are a gift precisely because nature does not pre-determine these capacities – this is what we traditionally understand as human ingenuity. Nancy explains that this means “nature, as the accomplishment of self by and through itself, escapes itself (and does in and of itself), steps outside of its own image” imposing us with “an allonomy that turns out to be more originary than autonomy.” [FSW: 36] Our pretension to technological liberation, to the mastery of natural and biological limitations, and autonomy turn out to be undermined by a thinking of nature which is itself technological; the dialectic of the technical and the natural will not hold in Nancy’s thought, “the real is as technical as the technical is real.” [FSW: 40]
Towards the close of the essay, Nancy returns to the political and ethical implications of his inquiry, calling for a “thought […] capable of subtracting itself from this framework” which “entrusts itself to a sense delivered from reasons and ends, exiting from nihilism by” acknowledging “the fundamental incompleteness of sense, of the world, and of existence.” [FSW: 42-3] Although this links the conversation concerning technology with the concept of world, it is not until the final two essays that we are introduced to Nancy’s references to the title of this collection. His usage of the term the “fragile skin” is interesting, firstly because it marks a novel way for him to describe his concept of world, one which as metaphorical, helps us to understand the complex interplay of interiority and exteriority in which our experience of the world consists. Like the largest organ of the human body, in our experience of the world, “everything that encounters my skin encounters me […] without my skin I would not encounter anything.” [FSW: 89] Additionally, neither does it “assure a function inside of an autonomous system” but rather “exposes […] this autonomy to all possible outsides.” [FSW: 88] Secondly, his appeal to the “fragile skin” of the world also helps to relate the discussion to his project to develop a materialist ontology, as set out in his earlier work Corpus. The world is not here to be considered in terms of a phenomenological concept, which risks being abstracted from the material; but rather the very site of the “effraction” of sense, of finite bodily experience which as Ian James describes, “discloses a world […] not in a return to itself, in a gathering of its own identity and self-identity, but in a movement of dispersal, of dissemination or passage.”
Following this tendency, the titular essay Nancy presents the disruptive features of this thinking of the world for any traditional concept of autonomy. His proposal of the skin of the world, is an attempt to oppose any hard binary between freedom and necessity, between an independently acting sphere and a mechanically determined background. The point is that freedom is experienced as the freedom of the world, not as something which is a characteristic possessed by a certain being in the world but as “the world” as “everything that passes between us […] everything that happens to us, everything that becomes of our contacts, our gazes, our breaths, our movements.” [FSW: 91] Through a rethinking of freedom as the freedom of existence, Nancy wants to assert the practical significance of this understanding of freedom, as he writes,
As long as it is ours, it is the act of an infinite emergence that is to itself all of its sense and all the sense there is: a sense that incessantly goes from skin to skin, that is itself never enveloped by anything. [FSW: 91-2]
It is a reiteration of Nancy’s strong claim that freedom is always relational, not only in the sense that it is necessarily reciprocal or mutually granted but rather that freedom is always only experience as a gift of our existence and it’s singular plural givenness. Any attempt to consider it otherwise risks losing this understanding, as the intricate plurality of the world is contracted.
This metaphor of the fragile skin carries over into the final essay, ‘Taking on Board (Of the World and of Singularity)’ where Nancy writes metaphorically of the sea and of the coasts, in order to invite such a re-thinking of the singular plurality of worldly existence. Similar to the way in which he wants us to think of the passage of the present, he also invites us to ask a similar form of question against the thinking of our national boundaries. Nancy contrasts the language of borders, “where the edge hardens and the limit closes” [FSW: 108] against the idea of “the shore […] the place one leaves from, the place one reaches […] a place that is not exactly limit or edge […] but passage.” [FSW: 106] Although he also discusses the obvious geological reality that our shores are always changing, subject to the processes of erosion and sedimentation which carve our coastlines, neither does he want to imply that the shore is a pure indifference, which draws no boundary and which envelops both shore and sea within a more amorphous overarching concept without distinction. Instead the fact that the shore serves as both the place of departure and arrival, seeks to enthuse the kind of boundary that it presents with a sense of wonder at the difference between one’s homeland and the foreign lands beyond it. Undoubtably, the language Nancy employs here has significant political connotations bringing to mind the inherent complexity involved with the conception of national borders and boundaries. In one sense Nancy’s intervention seems to be critical of the “Fortress Europe” stance taken by many nations in response to the so called migrant crisis, invoking a more basic anthropological assumption that “we have always wanted to depart and to cross over.” [FSW: 108] However at the same time, it is also of crucial significance that we remember that difference and distinction is also vitally important. Russia’s ongoing horrific invasion of Ukraine also reminds us of the importance of national identity for democratic politics; and of the sheer disregard for the people shown by the imperialist political powers seeking to expand or consolidate their influence.
Overall Fragile Skin constitutes a significant collection of Nancy’s work because its assemblage exposes the inherent link between his well known work on the struggle for the creation of the world and his critique of temporality. The motif of “passage” remains a key cornerstone throughout, whether this is applied to the here and now, or the border of a nation state, the stress of the term is important for comprehending Nancy’s interplay of identity and difference, how the experience of the limit is also that which exposes us to one another and incessantly to the in-common. Furthermore, there is a unique temporality to this experience of “passage” which may be useful to recall today. In the essay, ‘Right here in the Present’ Nancy positions his reflections philosophically in relation to other thinkers (perhaps amongst others Arendt, Foucault and Ranciere). He criticises how such accounts may, “so as to remain dynamic while mistrusting revolution” privilege “beginnings: the force and grace of the uprising, insurrection, the moment of indignation, the revolt that evaporates just as it risks being overturned.” [FSW: 64] His point here is that alongside the presentism that has arisen in philosophy, thinkers that criticise the present and the vulgar conception of time as a series of “nows” may still be trapped inside a form of thinking the present by projecting politics as a moment (which is notably not now) of sudden eruption or rupture. In contrast Nancy’s emphasis on the present, reflects the fact that the world and the stakes of this world, as Bailly has noted, have “little to do with the glimmering of a consumed past or with that of a dawn distended by an exuberant promise.” Rather, the strength and relevance of Nancy’s thought is that “what he continually sought to bring about […] was above all in the closest proximity to the present, in the low light of what the days delivered to him.” Of this, “he fully assumed his responsibility as a philosopher in the city.”
Bailly, Jean-Christophe, ‘Même l’ouvert Se Referme – Sur La Disparition de Jean-Luc Nancy’, AOC, 30 August 2021 <https://aoc.media/critique/2021/08/29/meme-louvert-se-referme-sur-la-disparition-de-jean-luc-nancy>
Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988)
Hörl, Erich, ‘The Artificial Intelligence of Sense – The History of Sense and Technology after Jean-Luc Nancy (By Way of Gilbert Simondon)’, trans. by Arne De Boever, Parrhesia, 17 (2013), 11–24
James, Ian, The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006)
Nancy, Jean-Luc, ‘Communovirus’, Liberation, 24 March 2020 <https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2020/03/24/communovirus_1782922/> [accessed 5 February 2022]
———, Corpus, trans. by Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008)
———, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. by Francois; Raffoul and David Pettigrew (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007)
———, The Experience of Freedom, trans. by Bridget McDonald (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993)
———, The Fragile Skin of the World, trans. by Corey Stockwell (Cambridge: Polity, 2021)
———, The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, trans. by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017)
 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fragile Skin of the World, trans. by Corey Stockwell (Cambridge: Polity, 2021). References to this text given in the main body in the following format [FSW: pg no].
 “…sinon nous nous retrouverons au même point ». See Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Communovirus’, Liberation, 24 March 2020 <https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2020/03/24/communovirus_1782922/> [accessed 5 February 2022].
 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. by Francois; Raffoul and David Pettigrew (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007). P. 54
 When in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the process of pointing to the “the now that is”, he explores how each time this pointing occurs, the now that is pointed to is no longer; it is a “now that has been.” It takes a double negation (Hegel claims, first from “the now that is” to the “now that has been” and secondly, from “the now that has been” to the “now that is”) which he claims highlights that the very act of gesturing to present is not “something immediate and simple, but a movement which contains various moments.” See G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). P. 63. It is this staccato thinking of the present that Nancy is here picking apart, against a “now” which needs to receive its truth from the process of an exclusion, a play on the binary of being and non-being, he suggests a thinking of the here and now as the site of passage.
 Interestingly there may a double meaning of the term passage here which gets lost in the English translation of the term, something akin to Nancy’s usage of the word partage, to mean both a sharing and dividing of the sens of the world. The concerns of the book are the “passage” of time and this word can be utilized in two distinct senses which might be useful to think about here, firstly the notion that time passes or the “passage of time” (passage du temps) but secondly, also understanding time as the “passage”, as in the space through which one can move, (i.e. the corridor, the alleyway) or access a new location. Nancy’s appeal to the word “passage” to refer to the present moment, speaks to the temporal and spatial transformation that he wishes to pursue in this collection of essays. Against understanding the “here and now” as a isolated moment in a line of succession, Nancy wants to invite a thinking of the “here and now” as the opening , or site of passage between what we designate as the past and the future.
 Nancy notes, “Heidegger never stopped thinking […] something of ‘freedom’” he “was the first to take the measure of the radical insufficiency of our “freedoms” to think and open existence as freedom. But on the other hand, he still thought of “the free,” up to a certain point at least, in the terms and in the tones of “destiny” and “sovereignty.” See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, trans. by Bridget McDonald (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993). p. 166
 As is known Nancy always maintained a distance between his usage “to-come” and Derrida’s appeal to the messianism of the West. In an interview Pierre-Phillippe Jandin, Nancy explains that he is concerned “whether this is always an intellectual exercise that’s feasible for the people constituting a certain elite.” Additionally, Nancy suggests certain differences between his and Heidegger’s usage of the term “surprise”, suggesting that his remarks overload “this notion too heavily, perhaps to the point making it sort of appeal, to make something come to pass [faire advenir], which can be something dangerous.” In both these critical points Nancy seems to be clear to carve out his own position regarding our orientation to the future “to-come.” Whilst he embraces the contingency of the term “surprise”, for instance when he talks about the “surprise of liberty”, he rejects the attempts to turn it into something quasi-religious, which he believes messianism also risks. In order to remain useful, Nancy seeks to establish a more practical openness to the contingency of the future. See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, trans. by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017). P.101 & 125.
 The point is that we live an age in which the sens of the world is given technologically, post what could be called the event [Ereignis] to technology. See Erich Hörl, ‘The Artificial Intelligence of Sense – The History of Sense and Technology after Jean-Luc Nancy (By Way of Gilbert Simondon)’, trans. by Arne De Boever, Parrhesia, 17 (2013), 11–24. As Nancy phrases this in Corpus “our world is the world of the “technical,” a world whose cosmos, nature, gods, entire system, is, in its inner joints, exposed as “technical”: the world of an ecotechnical. The ecotechnical functions with technical apparatuses, to which our every part is connected.” Nancy, Corpus, trans. by Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). p. 89.
 Nancy, Corpus. p. 24.
 Ian James, The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006). p. 132
 Jean-Christophe Bailly, ‘Même l’ouvert Se Referme – Sur La Disparition de Jean-Luc Nancy’, AOC, 30 August 2021 <https://aoc.media/critique/2021/08/29/meme-louvert-se-referme-sur-la-disparition-de-jean-luc-nancy>.
Reviewed by: Daniel Neumann (Universität Klagenfurt)
In Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität, Andreas Beinsteiner sets out to reconceive Heidegger’s central term “Being” as mediality. The overarching goal of the book is twofold: giving a coherent interpretation of the meaning of Being throughout Heidegger’s oeuvre, as well as contributing to the foundational thought of media studies. In doing so, Beinsteiner takes a cue from Dieter Mersch, whose concept of “negative mediality” is based on the assumption that what constitutes the mediality of media has yet to be philosophically elucidated. The “manifest justification deficit of the media concept” (Mersch 2015, 19) could be remedied, Beinsteiner argues, with Heidegger’s thinking of Being. Thirty-seven years before Marshall McLuhan famously pronounced that “the medium is the message”, shifting the focus on the elusive role the medium itself plays in the process of mediation, Heidegger had similarly discovered the constitutive withdrawal of Being itself in the unconcealment of beings (205). The role of mediality is thereby expanded beyond that of media in the strict sense. By looking at Heidegger’s philosophy, Beinsteiner suggests that the way we experience digital media, but also art and technology in the broader sense, has to be grasped from how we experience anything at all, in other words, how we come to experience the Being of beings. As he makes clear in later chapters of his book, Beinsteiner is convinced that Heidegger does not just speak to the fundamental mediality of our being in the world, but also to specific modern forms of mediality of technology, such as autonomously operating machines. The aim of the book is of philosophical and media theoretical interest not just because it aims at laying the groundwork for a concept of mediality, based on a close reading of Heidegger’s philosophy up to his later years, but also because this reading promises an integrated account of mediality, comprising its fundamental and specific aspects equally.
In the first two thirds of the book, Beinsteiner develops this idea vis-à-vis central concepts found in Heidegger’s works, such as presence, event and equipment. In Sein und Zeit, the interested involvement which unveils Being as equipment (Zeug), putting me in a pragmatic mode in which I use this equipment without thinking about its significance, is conceived as a paradigmatic case of mediality. It is not just my existence, being oriented around the care of the being that I am, which mediates the concernful handling of equipment. It is also the equipment as concrete artifact that helps to shape my access to the world. Thus, “contrary to the dominant anti-hermeneutical reading of Heidegger in media studies” (33), artifacts play a central role in the constitution of mediality and the mediation of sense. Mediality here is shown to depend on an interplay of our pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) for equipment to even be recognized as such (a requirement that Beinsteiner shows to be based on Heidegger’s understanding of Platonic ideas) as well as the material artifact, in which understanding, purpose and craftsmanship have coagulated into a being which mediates our access to the world in different ways. Here, basic Heideggerian terminology such as availableness (Zuhandenheit) and occurrentness (Vorhandenheit) are coherently interpreted as modes of mediality. While the scope of the meaning of being in Sein und Zeit seems to follow the paradigm of the availability of being-as-equipment, in later writings Heidegger thinks of the meaning of Being as taking on historical proportions: the meaning of Being concerns historicity, instead of the temporality of an individual existence (51). Yet across the Kehre, mediality retains its central significance for how Heidegger thinks Being. Thus, Beinsteiner argues for a continuity and an expansion between Heidegger’s earlier and later writings, instead of a break, based on the interpretation of Being as mediality.
Throughout the book, a consistent vocabulary is developed to capture this continuity. The early Heidegger’s concern with the meaning of finite existence is conceived by Beinsteiner as the “existential-hermeneutical as” (existentialhermeneutisches als). The “as”, that Being appears as is hermeneutically motivated, following the existential structure of existence. In other words, how we grasp Being, e.g. via equipment, language and mood, is a matter of the constitution of Dasein’s being in the world. In later Heidegger, the way Being discloses the world is still a question of the “as” of Being. But to account for the historical dimension of Heidegger’s questioning, Beinsteiner now speaks of Being appearing as “regimes of accessibility” (Zugänglichkeitsregime), which imply an unavoidable reduction of the ambiguity of Being, i.e. mediality. The regime (or paradigm) of accessibility is what pre-selects the way in which Being is perceived (vernommen). Just as the manners of being (Seinsarten) in Sein und Zeit are shown to be forms of mediality, the historical regimes of Being (roughly, physis in Antiquity, creation in Medieval Times and subjective representation beginning in Modernity) turn out to be forms in which Being is collectively understood. Through this synthetical reading of early and later Heidegger, Beinsteiner is able to demonstrate a basic selectivity of mediality, which spans the understanding of individual being, Being as a whole as well as the selectivity of accessibility to Being itself (65).
The latter aspect is especially important as Heidegger’s interest is not just in discussing the multivalence of Being in existential or historical terms, but more fundamentally in showing that the way Being can be grasped, perceived and understood, is irreducible to any one meaning. According to Beinsteiner, Heidegger comes closest to the idea of Being as mediality when discussing Being in terms of immediacy and mediatedness:
“What is first present in all gathers everything isolated together into a single presence and mediates to each thing its appearing. Immediate allpresence is the mediator for everything mediated, that is, for the mediate. The immediate is itself never something mediate; on the other hand, the immediate, strictly speaking, is the mediation, that is, the mediatedness of the mediated, because it renders the mediated possible in its essence.” (Heidegger 2000, 84).
“Das in allem zuvor Gegenwärtige [d.h. die physis, AB] versammelt alles Vereinzelte in die eine Anwesenheit und vermittelt Jeglichem das Erscheinen. Die unmittelbare Allgegenwart ist die Mittlerin für alles Vermittelte und d.h. für das Mittelbare. Das Unmittelbare [die physis] ist selbst nie ein Mittelbares, wohl dagegen ist das Unmittelbare, streng genommen, die Vermittelung, d.h. die Mittelbarkeit des Mittelbaren, weil sie dieses in seinem Wesen ermöglicht.” (cited in Beinsteiner, 76f)
In opening and selecting our access to the world, Being (or mediality) takes on the double role of immediate allpresence and mediation. Being is immediate, insofar as everything we perceive is necessarily a manner of it. Yet Being is mediation, since it is never grasped in itself, but only in a certain way. Being is immediate mediation or mediated immediacy. From this, Beinsteiner concludes that “nothing is immediate, except for mediality” (77), while also conceding that grasping this “accessibility of accessibility” confronts us with a fundamental difficulty in thinking about the unconcealment of Being.
Yet neither for Heidegger nor Beinsteiner does this constitute a purely epistemological issue. One of the challenges in interpreting Heidegger lies exactly in characterizing the meaning of Being itself, and the role of the philosopher in taking up this meaning. Beinsteiner’s approach is to grasp this as a fundamentally ethical question: to be sensitive to the irreducible meaning of Being and to become aware of the historical and philosophical contingency of a specific regime of accessibility is to increase one’s own freedom, whereas to insist on an established form of mediality without even realizing its ontological antecedents is to become less free. While this may be characterized as the individual’s share in the exercise of freedom, equally important for Beinsteiner’s interpretation is the fact the specific regime of mediality precedes individual thinking and understanding. Taking up the idea of thrownness (Geworfenheit), Beinsteiner deems this the “ek-sistential disempowerment” (ek-sistentiale Depotenzierung) of human beings. In other words, the fact that we are always already participating in the modes of Being of a certain regime cannot be overcome by philosophical reflection. The “thinking of Being” will not lead to a supreme position from where all its meanings unfold in a cohesive picture. No matter how many ways of Being’s mediality are grasped, neither any one of them, nor their totality, amounts to a grasping of Being itself.
Instead, Beinsteiner takes Heidegger’s thinking of the event as the paradigmatic case in which the sensitivity for Being’s irreducible and abyssal meaning is articulated. Since his discussion is mostly restricted to the works published in his lifetime, Heidegger’s thinking of the event is considered only cursorily. Yet what matters to Beinsteiner’s approach is that the event is what brings us closest to the contingency of the being we perceive. To understand the event (the happening of Being) as event means refocusing thinking from one’s immediate engagement with ontic things towards that which makes this engagement possible. Grasping the fact that Being happens enables us to realize the openness in which we stand as reasonable (vernünftig or vernehmend) beings. The exercise of freedom, according to this interpretation, is this movement or “stepping back”, as Heidegger calls it in his Beiträge zur Philosophie, which decenters our place in the world and which simultaneously makes thinkable our taking place in the world, which is inseparable from Being, taking on a specific meaning. Beinsteiner connects this exercise of freedom with Heidegger’s terminology of comportment (Verhaltenheit) and releasement (Gelassenheit), the latter taking the place of the former in the writings after the Second World War (145). The two terms express a somewhat different attitude towards abyssal Being, Verhaltenheit insinuates a timidity and hesitation, while Gelassenheit seems to emphasize a receptive and patient attitude. The semantics get plausibly streamlined so that in Beinsteiner’s interpretation, both terms are shown to attempt to think the necessary selectiveness of our access to the world.
In Heidegger’s own writings, the thinking of the event is often, though not always in a clear way, connected to the mediality of language. Language is what lets things be, it enables the meaningful grasping of things. In this sense, Beinsteiner speaks of the “as-like structure” (alshafte Struktur) of language. In speaking and hearing language, something can be thought, perceived or grasped as something. Language is medium of sense as well as mediality, because in using language we are not merely participating in a specific regime of accessibility, but we are shaping and changing its mechanism of selectivity. Thus, a poem might make us see a statue in a completely new way and Descartes, in writing a meditation about the nature of his mind, helps to create and stabilize subjectivity, making possible a new understanding of our being in the world which becomes our representation. These examples are to suggest that the thinking of Being in Heidegger doubtlessly relies on language as a key paradigm of mediality, though it certainly is not exclusively a philosophy of language. In arguing that Heidegger strives to critically examine and question the meaning of a regime of accessibility by broadening the scope (Spielraum) of how we understand the meaning of being (169), Beinsteiner seems to concur with the emphasis on language without clearly separating the mediality of language from Being as mediality. The “politics of reinterpretation” (172) that Heidegger is said to put into motion presumably operates on different levels of mediality.
This equivocality might be due to the interpretative decision underlying the whole book, which is to understand Being as mediality. The expression of the “mediality of Being” used above is thus not wholly accurate, as it is not Being itself which mediates our access to the world but mediality in its stead. Beinsteiner speaks of a “forgetting of mediality” (Medialitätsvergessenheit) instead of a Seinsvergessenheit, and a “history of mediality” (Medialitätsgeschichte) instead of a Seinsgeschichte to indicate the shift his interpretation operates. Yet it seems to me that the reconfiguration of the ontological difference between Being/beings (Sein/Seiendes) as Medialität/Seiendes is not fully reflected upon. The notion that all beings refer to mediality has different implications than their referral to Being: beings are of Being, in the sense that Being ontologically comprises what beings are, whether this be in a more general, immediate or truer fashion. One of the momentous assumptions of Sein und Zeit was the idea that what is most proper to beings, their being (or Being) itself, has yet to be fully grasped. There is an intimate connection between Being and beings, which might be compared to the relationship between presence (Anwesenheit) und present things (Anwesendes), bearing in mind that presence for Heidegger is merely one way to understand Being temporally. But there is no such relationship, ontological or otherwise, between mediality and beings. Rather, when we understand the specific form of beings as due to an underlying mediality, this necessarily turns these beings themselves into media of this mediality and thus narrows their ontological meaning. While a being might be considered a unity in many ways (following Aristotles’ famous dictum of being as pollachos legomenon), a being that is the medium of mediality is already designated to present something as something else.
Possibly to avert such difficulties, Beinsteiner does not build his interpretation on the ontological difference of Being and beings, but instead suggests speaking of “a difference between mediality and the phenomenal” (42). While this solves the issue of the missing affinity between mediality and what it discloses, it raises another problem because it seemingly restricts phenomenality to what is made available by mediality, whereas in Heidegger there is a sense in which Being itself, even though it does not manifest itself in an ontic way, has a phenomenal quality as well. An essential aspect of the experience of the event consists in Being, in order to disclose beings, withdrawing itself. This withdrawal of Being, as Beinsteiner shows as well, is not something purely negative, but a concealment which can be experienced as such (198). Instead of a simple absence, concealment draws our attention to the fact that there is concealing. But when Beinsteiner quotes Heidegger in insisting that this concealment is one of the characteristics of artworks (200), an aesthetic or phenomenal quality is evidently involved. If it is thus correct to speak of a phenomenality of concealment, then what conceals itself (i.e. mediality in Beinsteiner’s interpretation) cannot be clearly distinguished from the phenomenal. It seems to me that this aesthetic aspect of withdrawal hinges on the intrinsic affinity between Being and beings, which is abandoned when replacing Being with mediality.
Would the situation have been different if mediality was not understood as replacing Being but instead as the way that Being discloses itself to us, in other words, if it was a matter of the mediality of Being? This would have added another conceptual layer between Being and beings, one in which Being would be grasped as itself in a concrete form. But this would turn Being into an absolute entity, existing beside beings. The strength of Heidegger’s philosophy, and one which is amply expounded in the book, is to resist hypostasizing either Being or beings as absolute, and instead implicating them in what Beinsteiner calls a constant “hermeneutical oscillation” (155ff). With Dieter Mersch, one could say that the question is not how Being is mediated, or how something can appear as something else, but instead how the “as” itself comes to be (Mersch 2015, 20). This in turn means that mediality, the “as itself”, is foundational, in the sense that it enables the appearance of something as something, but that it remains concealed, or rather, that it can only be noticed in the seamless way in which it operates ontic unconcealment.
The last third of the book deals with the specific forms mediality takes on, and the role of media in the usual sense of the word. These issues are tackled by Beinsteiner’s interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, in which a dominant form of mediality threatens to permanently bar alternative accesses to phenomenality. In this approach, two things seem especially remarkable. Firstly, Beinsteiner forcefully argues for the idea that Heidegger’s thinking of technology is one of artefacts, not an abstract philosopher’s critique of the contemporary world, making an empirical turn against Heidegger unnecessary (237). Secondly, the different forms of “phenomenological artifacts”, comprising not just technological objects but also artworks, are seamlessly integrated into the idea of Being as mediality. Beinsteiner suggests that equipment and the artwork are two paradigmatic artifacts which refer to the maximum concealment (as technological Gestell) and unconcealment (as event) of mediality. In other words, these artifacts exist on a continuum of concealment, as it were, which either question and broaden the regime of accessibility, or by contrast, insist in it, naturalizing the criteria of accessibility to the point where they almost seem without alternative.
This latter stage is reached with technology when the handling of technological objects becomes more and more a manner of maintenance. With fully automated, interoperative machines, the scope of possible meanings diminishes in the face of efficient, planned and unceasing repetition. Beinsteiner emphasizes that this is not meant as a scathing critique, nor as a call to simpler times in which the relationship between techne and physis was less determined, but that it merely follows the logic of increased insistence within a specific regime of accessibility. While the whole argument of the book mostly focuses on Heidegger’s own writing, at this point a sideways glance to other contemporary theories of technology would have been interesting. Gilbert Simondon, in his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (originally published in 1958) offers for instance a much more positive account of the relationship between man and automated machine, which is not merely one of maintenance but of engineering. More to the point of Heidegger, Simondon also constructs a genealogy of technical objects stretching back as far as animist theories. But in Simondon, increased levels of technological ingenuity are described as enabling more creativity and openness, based on the knowledge of the modes of existence of these technological objects. Thus, the complex inner workings of an automated machine present not merely a closed system to the outside observer, but an intricate set of ideas which have taken on a fixed form that can be amended and emended through playful experimentation. This creativity that is manifest in the complexity of the machine is not found in Heidegger. On the other hand, Heidegger’s philosophy of technology could be construed as a lifelong struggle with the “technological condition” of his own thinking, for instance as an underlying technological bias dating back as far as Sein und Zeit, where the world is disclosed in the form of technical or pragmatic affordances (Hörl 2008, 651f).
Some of the ambivalences in Heidegger’s view of the role of technology are conveyed by Beinsteiner’s concepts of the hermeneutics of the user and designer, respectively. Technological objects always entertain a complex relationship to their surrounding sense. They are not abstract functions, but first of all projected ideas. In their objective form, they are subject to the sense the user, as a hermeneutical creature makes, of them, just as their design is not merely the application of a form on matter, but an Entwurf and Zuwurf in which the possibility of unexpected discovery appears (246). In this sense, there is a Simondonian quality to Heidegger’s technological thinking. Outside the realm of subservience, technological artifacts may thus gain relevance in the play with accessibility.
In the last chapter, Beinsteiner draws some consequences from the fact that humans are constitutively related to media strictly speaking and to mediality broadly speaking. This exteriority, which is tied back to the basic condition of ek-sistence, is distinguished from concepts in which technology is understood as the extension of an interiority, like Ernst Kapps’s thesis of technology as organ projection. The argument Beinsteiner makes is that Heidegger does not think technology as an anthropological feature: technology will never determine what humans are, or vice versa, as it is just one part of a broader regime of accessibility which is always open to variability through language (283). This variability of language is also at play when Heidegger’s writing process is deemed a “media-philosophical strategy” (289) which mediates the volatile movement of thinking and the crystallization of thought in letters.
It is not just in this work-biographical self-attribution (Wege, nicht Werke is the epigram of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe) that Beinsteiner follows Heidegger. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that the defense of the coherence of the thesis of Being as mediality coincides with the defense of Heidegger’s philosophy itself. But in arguing for Heidegger’s continuous effort to hold open and question existing regimes of accessibility, the mediality elucidated by the interpretation appears much more uniform than Heidegger’s own term of Being, which, as Dasein or event, signifies quite different forms of mediality. It would have been thinkable, for instance, to distinguish mediality as disclosedness and as unconcealment, relative to the ontological framework in which mediality operates. I also disagree with Beinsteiner’s negative assessment of “critical Heidegger studies”, which historicize Heideggerian terminology, thus going against Heidegger’s own semantic intentions (173). On the next page, Beinsteiner warns that, for it not to seem dogmatic and authoritative, one has to follow closely Heidegger’s own “expanding reinterpretation” of metaphysical concepts to liberate and transform thinking (174). Thus, while Heidegger is granted maximum semantic freedom, reading him seems to require abstaining from calling his semantics into question. From this hermeneutical attitude also follows that the historicity of Being, i.e. mediality, remains elusive. In other words, the regime of accessibility is always already in place and we may increase our freedom by thinking its very mediality, but this remains an exercise of reason, not a media archaeology. Yet it would have been possible to grasp Heidegger’s thinking of mediality, especially as it relates to media in the strict sense, in a more empirical way, that is by consulting the invention and distribution of machines. Likewise, paradigm changes in artworks, for instance from figural to more abstract paintings, emphasizing the creative act rather than reproducing ontic features, might have played a role in describing the artwork as an event showing us the limits of our selectivity of accessibility. But the fact that Beinsteiner chose to follow Heidegger closely instead results in a very consistent interpretation, one which is able to convincingly incorporate ideas and terminology from early to late Heidegger.
Thus, the book succeeds in what it set out to do: providing a coherent interpretation of “Being” as mediality, which is shown to be of central importance for concrete media such as artworks, equipment and interoperative machines. Through this careful and thorough reading, Beinsteiner also exposes the limits of a mediality according to Heidegger, thereby laying out premises for media ontologies to come.
Heidegger, Martin. 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. Translated by Keith Hoeller. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
Hörl, Erich. 2008. “Die offene Maschine. Heidegger, Günther und Simondon über die technologische Bedingung.” MLN 123(3): 632-655.
Mersch, Dieter. 2015. “Wozu Medienphilosophie? Eine programmatische Einleitung.” Internationales Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie 1(1): 13-48.