Susan Bernstein: The Other Synaesthesia, SUNY Press, 2023

The Other Synaesthesia Book Cover The Other Synaesthesia
SUNY series, Literature . . . in Theory
Susan Bernstein
SUNY Press
2023
Paperback
146

Marie-Eve Morin: Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being

Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being: At the Limits of Phenomenology Book Cover Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being: At the Limits of Phenomenology
New Perspectives in Ontology
Marie-Eve Morin
Edinburgh University Press
2022
Ebook (PDF) £85.00
216

Reviewed by: Vanessa Ossino

Marie-Eve Morin’s comparative study of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy focuses on two objectives: First, it compares Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s stances on the nature of the relation between “sense” and “being” which includes a lengthy analysis of their methods as well as an elaborate inquiry of their respective ontological framework. Secondly, Morin responds to “the new realist critique of post-Kantian philosophy, according to which all post-Kantian thinkers in the phenomenological tradition would remain unable to think an outside worthy of the name.” (183)

Right from the beginning, it becomes apparent that the study is of relevance to the broader field of phenomenology, and promises nuanced insights into still pressing questions posed by new realists and post-phenomenologists. One of those questions being: To what extent is phenomenology able to speak of an »outside« which is not suspected of being a correlation of consciousness? Another challenge posed to phenomenology by the aforementioned philosophical strains is concerned with the claim that phenomenology narrows »sense« into »being« and vice versa. This is assumed in particular by ‘traditional phenomenologists’ with whom Morin mainly means Edmund Husserl and the early Martin Heidegger. Through her engagement with new realism and phenomenology, Morin frames her study in-between two antithetical stances:

(1) The premise that sense and being are divided along the lines of a »subjective inside« and an »objective outside« (new realism).

(2) The premise that being is a function of meaning, which reduces it to the limits of sense (Husserl and Heidegger of Sein und Zeit).

The risk to which phenomenology allegedly exposes itself is that “by reducing fact to sense, phenomenology abandons pure otherness or brute factuality, in order to arrogate to itself the right to speak” (12). By bringing Derrida’s critique of the phenomenological method into play, Morin places her focus in a still gaping wound of phenomenology, which is located at the border-crossings of phenomenology and ontology. In the words of Derrida:

„We pass from phenomenology to ontology (in the non-Husserlian sense) when we silently question the direction of the upsurge of naked factuality and cease to consider the fact in its phenomenological function. Then the latter can no longer be exhausted and reduced to its sense by the work of phenomenology, even were it pursued ad infinitum.” (Derrida 1989, Edmund Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’: An Introduction, p. 151-2, trans. mod. by Morin)

The logic by which phenomenology gets challenged here is as follows: If, for those phenomenologists that remain in the Kantian tradition, the limits of consciousness are the limits of what can be given, then transcendental subjectivity must be seen as the universe of possible sense and thus as possible being in its givenness.

Through this perspective of questioning, Morin inscribes herself in the discourse on phenomenology’s correlationism. The latter can be described as the view that subjectivity and objectivity cannot be understood or analysed apart from one another because both are always already intertwined or internally related. It is the view that we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking (theory) and being (reality) and never to either in isolation from or independently of the other. (Zahavi 2016: The end of what? Phenomenology vs. speculative realism, in: International Journal of Philosophical Studies, p. 294).

In the words of Morin, the question that she confronts through her engagement with speculative realist states as follows: „How to speak of an outside that is inscribed in the inside as absolute outside without falling into too much modesty or too much presumption?” (3) Taking this question as guidance, Morin turns to Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s respective philosophies, that in her view provide promising approaches responding to the posed questions.

As for Merleau-Ponty, Morin rightly hints at his radicalization of the paradoxical relation between being and sense, which does not allow being to be limited to sense, but much rather points to a Being within which sense is entailed. Nancy’s ontology of sense on the other hand is not situated within the theoretical realm of phenomenology, even though he is still concerned with a philosophy of experience. Both thinkers share an engaged interest in the torsion between inside and outside, which manifests in their “displacement of the metaphysics of presence toward a thinking of the ‘subject’ as non-presence-to-self, as a co-existence with the world and with others prior to the division between subject and object […].” (15) In other words, both philosophers share the effort to think sense and being beyond a rigid subjective consciousness, without losing the focus on experience altogether.

The well-structured introduction offers a plausible guide to the oftentimes in-transparent and enigmatic realms of Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s ideas, promising a profound analysis of the different thought patterns as well as their respective ontologies, which touch on the same object and yet approach it from different angles.

The study is divided into three parts: Body (I), Thing (II) and Being (III), with each part being divided into three chapters. The first chapter always thematizes Merleau-Ponty’s stance on the notion in question, the second chapter respectively concerns Nancy’s stance and the third chapter brings the two philosophers into dialogue. This structure succeeds in guiding the reader carefully through the different thought realms of Merleau-Ponty and Nancy, leading to a two folded incline in Morin’s argumentative fashion, in that each part includes an interim conclusion, with all three interim conclusions building up to a final conclusion.

In what follows I will outline Morin’s inquiry in accordance with the mentioned structure. I will do this in a rather detailed fashion in order to engage thoroughly with Morin’s argumentation.

Part I – Body

The first part addresses Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s respective conceptions of embodied existence and puts them into dialogue through distinguishing them in accordance with the conceptual pair of »unity« versus »dislocation«.

Chapter 1

In this chapter, Morin puts Merleau-Ponty’s well-known contention with René Descartes in relation to an underexposed perspective, which argues that Merleau-Ponty is driven by a “desire to find the premise of his own theory in Descartes” (see Morin 47 footnote 1, citing Isabel Thomas-Foigel 2011: ‘Merleau-Ponty: De la perspective au chiasme, la rigueur épistémique d’une analogie’, Chiasmi International 13, p. 387, Morin’s translation). In stating that Merleau-Ponty finds in Descartes the necessary tools to overcome the cartesian dualism, Morin’s begins her inquiry into Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the lived-body in an unusual but daring fashion.

Early on in the chapter Morin emphasizes that Merleau-Ponty’s main interest in Descartes lies at the heart of the imminent tension between Descartes’ »philosophy of the understanding« and his »philosophy of existence«, between »reflection« and the »unreflected« (31). Morin argues that Merleau-Ponty criticizes Descartes for excluding the lived experience of the unity of body and soul from his notion of nature as extension. Thereby, Descartes states that our lived experience cannot teach us anything more than what our understanding of it offers to us. It is in the periphery of Descartes’ philosophy of understanding and reflection that Merleau-Ponty thus finds his guidance into a field of truth that is concerned with the “obscure sphere of unreflected existence” (30, cited in a note from Merleau-Ponty autumn 1957, Morin’s translation). This »sphere of unreflected existence« is located at the – for Descartes – confused unified experience of two different substances: body and soul. And yet, this unified experience has a certain clarity in itself, one which ‘renders unintelligible’ once it is disentangled through analytical thought, as Merleau-Ponty points out. Therefore, he argues that the lived experience of the »unity of the body and the soul« offers us a certain intelligibility of the opaque realm of an unreflected existence, to which analytical thought can never account for sufficiently. Descartes’ sixth meditation, in which he states that “nature also teaches me […] that I am not merely present in my body […] but that I am very closely joined and […] intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit” (Descartes 1996: Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 56), reveals in the eyes of Merleau-Ponty that “there is something before and after the ‘series of reasons’, and this something is called ‘existence’.” (32)

Thus, Morin highlights that Merleau-Ponty’s own method develops through a circular reading of Descartes, in that he takes the sixth meditation with its emphasis on the unreflected unity of body and soul as remaining valid in the face of the second meditation, in which the cogito is elaborated. Followingly, the unreflected unity still holds accountable throughout a certain reflection, one that Merleau-Ponty calls »radical reflection« in contrast to the ‘intellectualist’ philosophies of reflection, including Husserl’s phenomenological-transcendental reduction. Morin emphasizes that a radical reflection, far off from being an ‘ultimate’ reflection, is grounded on factical experience and concerns an existential philosophy that questions the “ever-renewed experience of its own beginning in the unreflected and the description of that experience” (34, citing Merleau-Ponty 2012: Phenomenology of Perception, lxxviii, trans. mod.). The difficulty in such a radical reflection lies in the fact, that it still has to account for a mode of openness of a certain pre-reflective and pre-linguistic towards reflection and language. In order to not fall back into the argument of a constituting consciousness, Merleau-Ponty therefore posits a »tacit cogito« on the grounds of a sensing and self-sensing lived body, a body which opens itself towards itself as well as towards the world through active-passively sensing of an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ at what seems to be the same time.

At the end of the chapter, Morin emphasizes, with regard to different objections that were raised after the publication of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, that the notion of »tacit cogito« still remains entangled with some kind of constituting consciousness, not being able to “develop the specific way of being of the body [as a mediator] itself in a positive way.” (42)

Chapter 2

In the second chapter Morin enriches the idea of a possible operative cogito beyond a constituting consciousness through Nancy’s reading of Descartes in Nancy’s book Ego Sum. Through this engagement, she emphasizes Nancy’s notion of the body not as mass but as differance (26). Similar to Merleau-Ponty, Nancy points to the special »kind of unit« in Descartes’ sixth meditation, with the focus on the unit being “neither-soul-nor-body” (56) but an opening that articulates itself, not in the structure of a substantial presence but in that of a »to-itself« (57). As Morin emphasizes, Nancy here argues that “the to-itself denotes […] the movement of existence as being-towards itself so that […] there is no self at the origin of this movement” (57, my emphasis). Again, similar to Merleau-Ponty, Nancy focusses on the moment in which ‘the subject’ comes to its first articulation, which for him necessarily implies an experience that is given through the body.

Beyond these similarities, the first grave difference between Merleau-Ponty and Nancy lies at the heart of their respective notions of »body«. Where for Merleau-Ponty the lived body can still be posited as a certain subjective operative consciousness (at least in the Phenomenology of Perception), which indeed implies a subject, Nancy aims at egressing subject-philosophy in stating the utterance of the »ego sum« as “a pure performative, […] without underlying substrate or subject (53, citing Nancy 2016: Ego Sum: Corpus, Anima, Fabula, p. 84-5). The performative utterance of the »ego sum« is stated as an action without subject (54) or in the words of Derrida: as a »teleopoetic utterance«. With regard to the relation of body and ego, the teleopoetic utterance, by uttering ‘ego’, produces something proper: “An I that can say ‘I’, and ob-jects the body, that is, throws it in front of itself. […] [B]ut only because it is effectively not its own body […] holds the body at a distance” (57). The limit of the self for Nancy is a limit that does not lead to a solid ground but to an »abyssal intimacy«, which Morin, in accordance with Nancy, names the “inside of the world” (57).

Reminding us of Merleau-Ponty’s »radical reflection« in which a certain pre-reflective sets the stage for an endless endeavor of reflection, so too – but in a different fashion – Nancy hints at Descartes’ sixth meditation in order to show that “what is most inside is not some me that would finally coincide with itself but always something more […] and opens me up to relation” (58). The union of body and soul for Nancy is not a relation between two things, but an ontological spacing or opening-to of the other (60). For him, not only bodies are radically plural and fragmented, but so is the world and with that sense making itself. Sense-making, which constitutes on the model of touch in Nancy’s thought, is always an experience of a limit (64). The world, far from being understood as a cosmos, follows the logic of a singularity that is always plural in its origin (80).

Thus, a major difference between Nancy and Merleau-Ponty can be found in their elaboration of Descartes’ unity of body and soul in the sixth meditation. Where Nancy follows the logic of divergence, Merleau-Ponty respectively focusses on a certain logic of entanglement (as can exemplary be seen in his notion of body-schema).

Chapter 3

In this chapter Morin puts Nancy and Merleau-Ponty in a more direct conversation and refers her inquiry back to the guiding question of how the nuanced differences in their respective ontologies lead to new insights on Merleau-Ponty’s path along the edge of phenomenology. Morin mainly focuses on the difference that “lies in their respective ways of conceiving of sense and making sense” (70). She casts this difference in terms of a »priority of unity« (Merleau-Ponty) over »dislocation« (Nancy), which for her includes a priority of interiority over exteriority or of the moment of reappropriation and integration over the moment of alienation and separation. Even though Morin repeatedly emphasizes that Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical endeavor aims at overcoming such dichotomies, and especially the dichotomy of interiority and exteriority, she oftentimes methodically draws back on such a dualistic thinking, which might leave the impression of a problematic tendency to undermine Merleau-Ponty’s original thought beyond such dualisms.

Yet, the reader gets a better sense of her usage of such conceptual pairs through her comparison of Merleau-Ponty’s »body-schema« and Nancy’s description of the body as »corpus«. Through engaging with the lived body as body-schema and Nancy’s corpus as “constituted by a fragmentation that is never mended” and which “difference spreads to the body’s relation to the world” (71) it becomes obvious that Morin uses such dichotomic pairs in an argumentative-methodological fashion, in order to highlight the nuanced differences of the two thinkers in a straightforward way. This leaves the impression that she somewhat simplifies the argument for readers who might not be too familiar with the respective philosophies. Nevertheless, such a simplification through a contrasting dichotomic argumentative fashion to me seems like a valid methodological approach, especially with regard to the sometimes very opaque subtleness of Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s ontologies.

Without going into too much detail, it is sufficient to emphasize that in this third chapter Morin thoroughly shows how Merleau-Ponty’s »lived body« – which is distinguished by a body-schema that allows for the integration of my synesthetic perception, gestures and relation to the world as well as to others through a kind of pre-reflective synthesis -, differs in its way of sense-making from Nancy’s »corpus« – which is derived from Descartes’ partes extra partes and highlights the plurality of my senses and of my bodily being in general and that cannot be collected into a systematic whole (76). Whereas for Merleau-Ponty sense is related to a unified pre-reflective synthesis (at least) given through the body-schema, sense for Nancy finds its place in the differentiation of multiple singularities.

Interestingly, Morin concludes the chapter with a critical outlook on Nancy, arguing that: “What Nancy emphasizes then is resistance to synthesis or unification, even if one must in the end say that the subject or the world finds in this resistance its ‘stance’, that is, a certain kind of unity” (81).

Part 2 – Thing

As the title promises, the second part is concerned with the status of the object or thing in Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s philosophies. Whereas the first part drew on Descartes as a dialogue partner, the second part starts a conversation with more recent thinkers of object-oriented ontology, new materialism and speculative realism. In order to better understand the ‘accusation’ of correlationism, Morin is concerned with the question of the strategic role of a supposed anthropomorphism in Merleau-Ponty’s description of inhuman things.

Chapter 4

In order to understand Merleau-Ponty’s alleged »strategic anthropomorphism« in his description of things, Morin engages with his phenomenology of perception which emphasizes the paradox that perception is always perspectival but nevertheless neither the perception of the thing for-itself nor of a sign of the thing. What Morin calls the »paradox of the in-itself-for-us« highlights the fact, that perception is not a mere step in the path of objective thought towards the objective relations behind an experience, but that perception itself, in its finite character, exposes the objective thing in its reality as it is given in its appearance. Speculative realists interpret this as a philosophy of immanence, predicating that phenomenology is stuck ‘within’, and thus, does not have the possibility of comparing reality as it would be ‘without’ consciousness (91).

In order to not fall back on the difficulties of a philosophy of immanence respectively a philosophy of transcendence, Morin reminds us that Merleau-Ponty thinks reality at the level of the phenomenon, an order in which we are neither solely a being nor a constituting consciousness, but first and foremost we are mixed up with the world and others in that we are united to being “through the thickness of the world” (Merleau-Ponty 2012: Phenomenology of Perception, p. 311, my emphasis). The notion of »thickness« that we encounter in Merleau-Ponty in different stages of his thought is not always easy to understand, since – similar to his notion of style – he doesn’t really offer an explicit definition of it. Nevertheless, Morin lucidly underlines that “this thickness is not a third thing that would stand between consciousness and being and hide the latter. It is rather the world not as thing but as promise of something more that sustains my explorations” (92).

We learn from this chapter, that in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking ‘the thing’ offers itself to us through a certain manner or style, which we encounter in its phenomenality and not its mere appearance. In its phenomenality, an object is an “intersensorial thing that speaks to all my senses” (93) without being absorbed into the sum of its parts. Ultimately Morin encounters a sort of »strategic anthropomorphism« in Merleau-Ponty’s correlative concept of the lived body and its being-towards-the-world. The important difference between a reductive anthropomorphism and Merleau-Ponty’s stance lies in the fact, that for Merleau-Ponty one encounters the world through a body that is never fully mine, “i.e. that is never constituted by and hence laid out in front of consciousness” (97). The thickness of the world is a modality of the inexhaustibility of my relation to the world as well as my relation to myself as a bodily being.

At the end of the chapter though, Morin rightly points to the fact that even though Merleau-Ponty was able to dialecticise the notion of subject and object into a system in which both are correlates, in the Phenomenology of Perception he is not yet able to account for the being of the dialectical relation itself.

Chapter 5

Here Morin continues to inquire of a »strategic anthropomorphism« in Merleau-Ponty.  She mainly addresses two questions in this chapter:

(1) Do objects refer us back to ourselves, since they are filled with our own possibilities projected in space?

(2) If so, are objects mere internal possibilities?

In order to answer these questions, Morin engages with a notion of »cautious anthropomorphism« introduced by Steven Shaviro and Jeffrey Cohen, to broaden the strategic anthropomorphism in Merleau-Ponty in order to show that his anthropomorphism is not about centering a thing around human abilities, feelings or categories, but much rather about how a thing appears to us in entering our existence and is thus always recognized in its own place, in which objects dialogically shape our experience of the world (115). Objects then might refer us back to ourselves but neither in a way that would lead us to acknowledge them directly or in their totality nor in a way that would amount to an alleged neutrality of intellectual contemplation. On the contrary, in accordance with a »cautious anthropomorphism« – that Morin sees reflected in Merleau-Ponty’s »strategic anthropomorphism« – objects are guaranteed an irreducibility to mere intellectual ideas, in that they are given »in the flesh« which arouses certain »desires« and amounts for the incompleteness of any exploration.

With regard to Morin’s own method, I here find it a bit irritating that, even though she underlines Merleau-Ponty’s refusal to commit to a notion of an active constituting consciousness, she sometimes underlines that we, as sentient-beings, take an active positioning, in that “we lend things our flesh in order to make them flesh” (113, my emphasis). Although this might be a rather fussy critique, I would argue that such phrasing can be misleading with regard to Merleau-Ponty’s argument, that the underlying structures of our engagement »in the flesh« are of a certain passivity. In fact, Merleau-Ponty prominently speaks of a passivity without passivism (Merleau-Ponty 2010: Institution and Passivity).

Chapter 6

Morin starts the chapter with a synopsis of Nancy’s “radical desubjectivisation of freedom” (119). For Nancy freedom does not resemble self-determination but it means “to be absolutely without ‘why’” (120). Morin underlines: “Freedom is the unfounded factuality of an existence that surprises itself in existing” (120). She then continues to connect Nancy’s notion of freedom with his understanding of »finitude« that lies in the fact “that any being must be exposed to an exteriority or an otherness in order to be what it is” (120). The finitude of singularities in their infinite exposition to an exteriority expresses an open-ended movement of coming to presence. In putting Nancy in dialogue with his Heideggerian roots, Morin underlines that »the freedom of the world« outreaches Heidegger’s concept of world that stands for a “coherent milieu of significance already laid out in advance” (122). In emphasizing Nancy’s depart from phenomenology through his detachment of sense-making from any form of intentional givenness, Morin uncovers Nancy’s concept of world as “the space of sense: the sharing of singularities exposed to one another: stone, ground, dog, grass, star, and me, and you” (122). The world is thus free in its infinite finitude in that it signifies a “groundlessness of the world, the ever-renewed coming-to-presence of the world […]” (120). To say that a thing exists then, is to affirm its structure of difference and spacing which is opposed to a pure in-itself as well as an essence for consciousness. In this way, sense is not reduced to its givenness and accessibility, be it to intentionality, a sentient lived body or a Dasein. In challenging phenomenology’s access as the a priori of being-in-the-world, Nancy emphasizes »sense« as that “what happens on the edge or threshold, in-between singularities, in the encounter with an […] alterity that resists assimilation […], to which there is access precisely only in the mode of non-access” (125). The exposition of a thing thus, is an exposition of an »it-self« to itself and others.

The question that hovers above this chapter followingly, is whether Nancy’s materialism resembles a kind of unifying relationalism after all, in that one still has a certain kind of access to a thing by means of a contact-separation of surfaces. This impression deepens when Morin stresses in Nancy that “I am able to encounter the stone only insofar as I am also already stone” (125). A sentence which Morin further contextualizes in view of Merleau-Ponty’s later ontology of flesh, an ontology that she argues to be too unifying in view of Nancy. She engages with this question through further elaborating on Nancy’s notion of sense as material, by which he means that sense-relation resembles precisely not a givenness but a “void – or space […] which relates without gathering, or gathers without uniting” (128). Followingly, Nancy’s ontology does advocate a certain relationalism, with the main difference that it is not unifying, in that it hints at a “materialism [which] is linked to the plurality of origins in their impenetrability” (135).

Part III – Being

The final part of the book confronts Merleau-Ponty’s “carnal ontology” more directly with Nancy’s “ontology of the singular plural” in order to elaborate on their respective quests for “a principle of non-dialectical difference that allows for the emergence of sense right at Being itself” (145).

Chapter 7

Morin starts the chapter with an extended dialogue of Merleau-Ponty, Nancy and Heidegger. She emphasizes that both, Merleau-Ponty and Nancy, “seek to undo the metaphysical difference between existentia and essentia in favour of thinking of existence or presence that is not pure positivity but includes a moment of negativity that is not the other of presence but its opening” (146). In terms of Merleau-Ponty, this chapter engages with his reappropriation of the notion of »Wesen« through his reading of Husserl and Heidegger, in order to “emphasize the intertwinement of fact and idea, or existence and essence” (152). In this way, facticity becomes the ground or ‘fabric’ that gives essences their solidity.

In order to further analyze the tools with which Merleau-Ponty and Nancy ponder Being beyond the dichotomy of presence and absence, negativism and positivism, Morin engages with Merleau-Ponty’s ontology as a “third genre d’être between Being and Nothing” (153) and continues with Nancy’s annulment of the ontological difference through his emphasis that “there are only beings, nothing behind, beneath or beyond them” (164).

Morin concludes the chapter with the lucid observation that for both philosophers the »il y a« or »es gibt« does not mean that Being gives the given. Through making a detour of a deconstructive reading of Heidegger she reasons that: “Rather, we must hear the Heideggerian es gibt through Derrida’s deconstruction of the gift in Given Time. […] The gift must not only be thought as without giver and without given (beyond subject and object) but also as without property or propriety” (163).

Chapter 8

The last chapter is dedicated to the question, to what degree Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh “introduce[s] difference – differance, spacing – at the heart of sense, which would bring Merleau-Ponty’s later thought in closer proximity to Nancy’s ontology” (169). She engages with this question through a reevaluation of the notion of »écart«, which both thinkers use extensively. »Écart« in its broader sense is understood as divergence and hints at a self that is never truly identical but only given through divergence, which thus becomes a constituent for sense. Following this thought, Morin asks how radical Merleau-Ponty’s account of »divergence« is. She points to his notion of »chiasm« and asks if its underlying assumption of reversibility succeeds in giving “spacing, exteriority and alterity its due” or if it ends up “reinstating a massive unity at a higher level” (178).

Morin finds her answer in a final juxtaposition of Nancy and Merleau-Ponty. Because Merleau-Ponty repeatedly underlines that »écart« is rooted in the notion of flesh, as the “primordiality of écart” (180) and the “formative medium of the object and the subject” (Merleau-Ponty 1968: The Visible and The Invisible, p. 147), promiscuity and encroachment lie at the heart of »écart«.

This latter conclusion remains foreign to Nancy. Morin argues: “Speaking of what happens between singularities, Nancy also uses the image of the intertwining or the knot, but insists on the absolute separation of the different strands being knotted” (180). Followingly, Nancy in opposition to Merleau-Ponty, highlights an »ontological void« at the limit that exposes bodies to themselves and each other (180), so that the in-between of singularities remain an “absolute separation” (180). For Merleau-Ponty on the other hand, the in-between already belongs to one flesh, which does not resemble a simple unity, but nevertheless does not include an ontological void.

Conclusion

To get to the point: Morin succeeds in her proclaimed aim, in that she effectively casts the differences in emphasis of the two respective philosophers, so that each is an important corrective to a tendency in the other’s work (182). In approaching her study from the angle of speculative realism and its criticism of phenomenology’s correlationism, she fruitfully offers an alternative reading of post-Kantian thinkers in the phenomenological tradition, that, in light of the criticism, “would reduce all being to sense-making to a subjective process” (183).

Through her engagement with Nancy and Merleau-Ponty, Morin offers a coherent and pertinent proposition, which underlines that at least two positions in the broader post-Kantian phenomenological realm neither collapse being into sense nor reinstate a strong division between them. She concludes: “[B]oth Merleau-Ponty and Nancy displace and reassess the role of the limit in sense-making as the place of separation and exposure” (183) and thus of a place at the limit of subjective processes.

Morin’s study offers a highly relevant perspective in a time that “demands a decentering of the human and an attentiveness to the human outside” (184). In light of this, her book can also be read, not least (!), as a fruitful addition to the very lively discourse of a phenomenological geography, which engages with challenges that the climate-crisis impose on us as human beings.

Aukje van Rooden: L’Intrigue dénouée. Mythe, littérature et communauté dans la pensée de Jean-Luc Nancy, Brill, 2022

L’Intrigue dénouée. Mythe, littérature et communauté dans la pensée de Jean-Luc Nancy Book Cover L’Intrigue dénouée. Mythe, littérature et communauté dans la pensée de Jean-Luc Nancy
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 23
Aukje van Rooden
Brill
2022
Hardback €169.00

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Fragile Skin of the World

The Fragile Skin of the World Book Cover The Fragile Skin of the World
Jean-Luc Nancy, Cory Stockwell (Translated by)
Polity
2021
Paperback $19.95
140

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[1], 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”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4] Rather, Nancy suggests a temporality of the “here and now” as the site of passage,[5] 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.[6] 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,[7] 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. [8] 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”[9] 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.”[10]

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.”[11]

Bibliography:

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)


[1] 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].

[2] “…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].

[3] 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

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] Nancy, Corpus. p. 24.

[10] Ian James, The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006). p. 132

[11] 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>.

Jean-Luc Nancy: Sexistence, Fordham University Press, 2021

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Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Steven Miller
Fordham University Press
2021
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Jean-Luc Nancy: The Fragile Skin of the World, Polity, 2021

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2021
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Elad Lapidot: Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, SUNY Press, 2020

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2020
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Kas Saghafi: The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics, SUNY Press, 2020

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

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2019
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Jason W. Alvis: The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn

The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn Book Cover The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
Jason W. Alvis
Indiana University Press
2018
Hardback $65.00
320

Reviewed by: Daniel Cox (Saint Louis University)

Jason W. Alvis’s new book, The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, takes insights from Heidegger’s notion of eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren and applies them to the phenomenological study of religion and religious experience. Synthesizing Heidegger’s work with French philosophers who have made influential contributions to the theological turn in phenomenology, Alvis successfully develops an inconspicuous phenomenology which challenges the privileged forms of presentation that hinder our phenomenological and theological thinking. In addition to offering a compelling chronology of the history of 20th century phenomenology and its various twists and turns, this book fruitfully teases out the paradoxical, subversive, and transformative nature of religious experience.

Is God a spectacle? Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? If phenomenology is concerned with phenomena as they appear, while the object of theology is inherently unknowable, then is a “phenomenology of religion” a contradiction in terms? The Inconspicuous God tackles these questions and more, offering a tour de force on the development of phenomenology in Husserl’s writings, Heidegger’s monumental reshaping of phenomenology, and through to the French and theological turns in the later 20th century. Central to Alvis’s project is an attempt to recover, fortify, and ultimately defend Heidegger’s notion of unscheinbarkeit (inconspicuousness) as a way to both breathe life into a phenomenological explanation of religious experience, as well as to challenge critics of phenomenology’s mingling with theology.

Chapter one brings Heidegger’s phenomenology of the inconspicuous into conversation with Jean-Luc Marion’s writings on the paradoxical nature of revelation. Challenging phenomenology’s privileging of precision and clarity, Heidegger observes that what is hidden or covered up is paradoxically integrated into what it is for a phenomenon to appear as a phenomenon. For example, if I’m walking quickly through a crowd I mustn’t focus on what stands right in front of me, for otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information and would be unable to conceive of the pathway to my destination. Instead, I must look to where I’m headed while still being aware of my surroundings enough to not bump into people. The people in the crowd thus become inconspicuously integrated into my frame of vision, presenting useful information while not being fully present to thought. This is brought to a head in Heidegger’s writings on Being—which remains hidden while always closest at hand—eventually leading to his reformulation of phenomenology as no longer loyal to Husserl’s method of unveiling phenomena clearly and distinctly, but now as deformalizing the very distinction between the veiled and the unveiled. For Heidegger, the paradoxical nature of appearance is not something for philosophy to overcome, but is rather something to recognize as irreducibly endemic to the lebenswelt itself.

For Marion, the epitome of paradox is revelation, which he understands as “a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering its own modes of givenness.”[1] Similar to Heidegger’s insights into the paradoxical nature of appearing, Marion holds that revelation disrupts the very distinction between that which appears and that which is hidden. His work on saturated phenomena—revelation being the saturated phenomenon par excellence—is characterized by attempting to overcome the dialectic between the visible and the invisible, and as such shares Heidegger’s view that a reliance on this dialectic numbs thinking.

Alvis tries to take the work of these thinkers a step further by indicating two ways an inconspicuous revelation can avoid the dialectic between visibility and invisibility while also providing an opportunity for rich religious experience. First, revelation should be understood as intertwined within the banal fabric of everyday life, not as events that must shock and awe. “Revelation, if it truly is to be shocking, must take place in the most unexpected of places and ways: in the marginal, inconspicuous, and banal.”[2] Second, revelation not only challenges the privileging of visibility over invisibility in presentation, but deformalizes the framing of this distinction itself.

In chapter two, Alvis takes a closer look at what Heidegger might mean by eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren. Drawing from the Zähringen and Parmenides seminars, Alvis attempts to systematize Heidegger’s notion of the inconspicuous and contextualize it with respect to his larger project. As opposed to being a lens through which all phenomena can be viewed or being construed as only a step in the process of phenomenalization, Alvis ultimately finds that the most fecund interpretation of this elusive topic to be that Heidegger had in mind distinct phenomena as being inconspicuous or as appearing inconspicuously. These particular phenomena require a particular phenomenology in order to make them intelligible: a phenomenology of the inconspicuous. While all phenomena can perhaps take on the character of inconspicuousness—as a builder’s hammer becomes inconspicuous in his habitual use of it—certain phenomena are more likely to appear as inconspicuous than others. Alvis’s intended contribution is to show how experiences located in the religious life can represent these distinct phenomena that have a special ability to appear inconspicuously.

Chapter three takes Michel Henry’s writings on “life” in conjunction with Heidegger’s thoughts on “world” in order to challenge the view that the world is a neutral theatre for subjective consciousness. For Heidegger, the world is neither a sum total of neutral data nor something to be overcome, but rather is something intrinsically yet mysteriously tied to the “being open” of Dasein as it lives and endures. The objects I encounter in the world do not merely convey neutral meanings available to all rational agents, but instead tell me something about myself, what I care about, my mood-as-lived, and thus my overall affective involvement in the world at large. Inconspicuousness comes into play as the oscillation between taking-an-object-as-such and taking-an-object-as-indicative-of-involvement-in-the-world. We can learn something about the world not by philosophizing in armchairs but by being affectively involved—living and dwelling—in the inconspicuous clearing opened by Dasein.

Henry takes up this thread of affectivity in his description of “life.” To be living in the world, for Henry, is to be an affective being. We come into the world only after being affectively involved with life. The world is studied by paying attention to the affective interactions that buffer the in-between spaces separating ourselves and the world. Although there is a worry that Henry reinstates a dichotomy between inside and outside—which both Heidegger and Husserl attempted to dispel—Alvis finds that he indeed successfully domesticates life in the immanent.

Combining Heidegger’s “world” with Henry’s “life,” Alvis locates the possibility of experience of the inconspicuous God in the oscillating interval between them. Jesus himself was characterized by a mode of living that was not of this world, teaching his followers the ways in which the ordinary and banal can teach us something about God. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—in which the paradoxical in-the world/not-of-this-world relation is exemplified—teaches that a dwelling in the world allows participation with the inconspicuous God, while cutting against the invisible-visible paradigm.

Chapter four develops an inconspicuous liturgy alongside Jean-Yves Lacoste’s development of the nonexperience and nonplace of the Absolute. Alvis seeks to correct some of Lacoste’s misconstruals of Heidegger’s project and arrive at an inconspicuous liturgical reduction. For Lacoste, a liturgical reduction entails bracketing away the ‘thesis of the world’ in order to allow the presentation of God to be free from the modes of presentation that characterize our world. This allows the phenomenological appearance of God to be located in the strangely irreducible exterior of consciousness. The world must be put in suspension in order to experience the ‘nonexperience’ of the Absolute. By bracketing a totalizing thesis of the world away from the question of the experience of God, Lacoste allows God to appear as total but not as totalizing.

Alvis finds a similar theme running through Heidegger’s writings on the disclosure of Being to Dasein. Contrary to the early Greek and Husserlian notion of Being as a stable presence that can be ascertained by consciousness, Heidegger’s Being is first disclosed when one finds oneself thrown out into the world, which is the fundamental experience of Dasein. This thrown-openness which characterizes Heideggerian Being exceeds—or, rather, precedes—conscious experience, and as such it entails a fundamental relationship with the nonconscious or the nonexperienceable.

Instead of bracketing the world away completely—which destroys the way Dasein dwells as a ‘worlded’ being—Alvis suggests thinking the world as inconspicuous. Instead of looking for the Absolute by escaping from the world, we should view the world as harboring the potential nonplace and nonexperience about which Lacoste speaks. This allows the inconspicuous God to manifest in the marginalized, dormant, and inconspicuous ‘here’ within our world. The clearing or opening onto the nonplace and nonexperience of the Absolute is found in the uncanny and banal places that, inconspicuously, are most near and familiar to us. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction, therefore, suspends not the world but the spectacles of the world in favor of the Absolute’s indwelling in the inconspicuous and immanent ‘here.’

In chapter five, Alvis follows Jean-Luc Nancy’s investigations on Christian adoration in order to develop a way by which the inconspicuous God can be adored. Adoration is a reflexive activity whereby one sets apart that which is deemed worthy of praise from that which is not. But this can all too easily turn into an idolization of spectacles. What is worthy of praise and adoration, Nancy argues, is not the spectacle which is differentiated from the ordinary, but instead differentiation itself, as the abyss or opening which both appears and withdraws when we set things apart.

However, Alvis argues that a grafting of pure differentiation onto divinity can easily become an idolatrous discourse in our spectacle-dominated world. Divine differentiation, to which an inconspicuous adoration is directed, must be seamlessly incorporated into the marginal and everyday in order to avoid the idol-multiplying simulacrum of divinity that an adoration of pure differentiation creates. An inconspicuous adoration allows for the familiar and immanent around us to be an occasion for glimpsing the Absolute. We can learn something about the inconspicuous God by adoring what is forgotten and rejected as commonplace. What do we adore when we adore the inconspicuous God? Not difference-as-content but instead the non-idolatrous differentiation that overcomes the spectacle/ordinary dichotomy altogether.

Chapter six takes stock of Dominique Janicaud’s critique of Heidegger in order to pin down some of the methodological implications for how evidence should be construed in the context of an inconspicuous phenomenology of religion. A staunch critic of Heidegger, Janicaud thought his notion of unscheinbarkeit was the root of the bad theological turn in phenomenology, which was responsible for unnecessarily complicating phenomenological thinking. Heidegger eschewed Husserl’s privileging of clarity over absence, turned away from his intentionality-rich method, and integrated absence and withdrawal into the substrate of phenomenological thinking, all things Janicaud thought were poisoning phenomenology. But this is due, Alvis argues, to his misunderstanding of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit, which Janicaud seems to think means “inapparent” or “invisible.” Unscheinbarkeit instead should be translated as “inconspicuous,” “lacking in evidence,” or “lacking the ability to be spectacular.” Contra Janicaud, then, “phenomenology of religion” is not an oxymoronic attempt to solder together clarity with absence, but is instead, following Heidegger, the attempt to deformalize the very distinction between clarity and absence in order to allow religious experiences to present themselves in ways which exceed our worldly compartmentalizations.

Alvis then synthesizes the work of William Alston, Merold Westphal, and Anthony Steinbock in order to arrive at an inconspicuous construal of religious evidence. Alvis wants a description of evidence that avoids being reduced to epistemology, that avoids ushering in ontotheology, and finally that avoids ascribing legitimacy to any and all phenomena without explanation or defense. For Alvis, if “religion” refers to the being-open-to an essential relationship between Dasein and a meaning-giving potentiality; and if “experience” describes the process of grasping the particularities in consciousness which become meaningful-for-me; then “religious experience” describes the momentary latching onto intelligible data which is constitutive of the being-openness of Dasein to the meaning-giving potentiality of the Absolute.

Alvis then offers three reasons why the theme of inconspicuousness is keen to describe evidence for religious experiences construed as such. First, the religious experience is inconspicuously integrated into the whole of experience, thus being unable to be extracted from the totality of presentation. Second, religious experience isn’t straightforwardly “provable” because this would assume the Absolute can be wholly conjured when its evidence is offered. Third, the absoluteness or omnipotence of God—to which religious experience points—resists being brought into full clarity, remaining inconspicuous in our attempts to do so.

Chapter seven investigates the merits of understanding faith through the lens of inconspicuousness. By considering the thought of both Heidegger and Jean-Louis Chrétien, Alvis develops three ways the theme of forgetting supports an inconspicuous faith. First, forgetting as denoticing, which includes a double movement in which one is open to the new while simultaneously recognizing the disclosure of the new in the old that endures. Second, forgetting as counternoticing reincorporates the remembered into a novel context, which allows for a new type of knowledge to manifest. Third, forgetting as covering-over, which includes laminating over that which is remembered, not as anti-remembrance but as counter-remembrance.

Alvis argues that an inconspicuous faith must recognize the importance of forgetting which resists a totalizing grasp onto the object of faith. Instead of a faith in, we should embrace a faith with, which recognizes the interpersonal aspect to religious experience and phenomenological thinking. The inconspicuous God is the most ‘unforgettable’ because it is paradoxically that which most uniquely resists being contained within memory’s grasp, always residing in the inconspicuous peripheries of thought.

In chapter eight, Alvis investigates the aboutness of the inconspicuous God, which includes bracketing away the metaphysical questions “is there a God?” and “what is God’s essential nature” while instead focusing on the phenomenological questions “how is God given?” and “to what forms of presentation does God relate?” Alvis finds Emmanuel Levinas to be an ally in describing how God can be described in a way that doesn’t idolize incomprehensibility while also avoiding the temptation to draw God out into the full clarity of daylight. Levinas negotiates these obstacles by locating God’s incarnate infinity in the multitudinous faces of the inconspicuous others that surround us. We share ethical and social relationships with the foreign faces around us without ever grasping them directly. God’s intelligibility is thus gestured toward through our immanent relationships with others which avoid a totalizing conceptualization.

Keeping in theme with the preceding chapters, Alvis argues that inconspicuousness offers a key to subverting the dichotomies which obfuscate a description of the givenness of God. The intelligibility of God comes about not through locating God in a single pole of light/dark, clear/obscure, presence/withdrawal, but instead by recognizing the unique way in which an experience of the Absolute subverts these categories altogether. Inconspicuous phenomena instead can be given through hiding, surrogating, screening, or being present-at-hand by proxy. To recognize God as inconspicuous entails paying closer attention to the common and marginal, as opportunities for a glimpse into the Absolute which incites wonder. To seek the inconspicuous God is not to search after a hidden essence, but is instead a call to action for paying closer attention to our immanent relationships with the ordinary and with others. A phenomenology of the inconspicuous, at the very least, obliges one to rethink the temptation to quarantine God into either incomprehensibility or a blinding clarity, and instead to become open to the potential for an experience that oscillates between them.

Now I’d like return to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this review in order to expound on how they can be illuminated following some of the insights gained from Alvis’s project. Is God a spectacle? The answer is a clear no for Alvis. God understood as a spectacle—as well as the inversion of this: God understood as pure incomprehensibility—relies upon the assumption that the phenomenality of God must operate according to a dazzling clarity. Associating divinity with spectacularity is to invoke the multiple duplicities—absence/presence, clarity/withdrawal, light/dark—that facilitate an idolatrous obsession with grasping the totality of the Absolute in its infinity.

A phenomenology of the spectacle—which operates according to a privileging of presence and a repression of absence—is problematic for a number of reasons. Spectacles have a shelf life, so a philosophy that idolizes spectacularity soon becomes a discourse of addiction which eventually colonizes all facets of life. By privileging clarity and a totalizing intelligibility, a phenomenology of the spectacle teaches that what is good is that which does not resist domination and what is bad is what avoids conceptualization. This betrays an epistemological pathology that seeks certainty and absolute precision as the ends of philosophical thinking, which thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida have thoroughly critiqued. Applied to theology, God becomes the greatest spectacle of all and by proxy that which is most able to be domesticated by thought. As all the great thinkers of classical theology knew to be true, a God that can be domesticated by thought is no God at all, but is only a “god”: a powerful yet finite being among beings.

Jesus himself was hardly spectacular in his life. He was a lowly Jewish preacher who disavowed the power of state and sword, lived in a shared community with his disciples, and taught pacifism and tolerance in the face of violence. Those whose faith relies primarily on the mythical spectacles associated with Jesus—miraculous healings and his resurrection—often miss the importance of his life and teachings, as Nietzsche knew to be true. To isolate the spectacle of miracles or resurrections as the core of Christian theology is to necessarily relegate Jesus’s social and political teachings to second-order phenomena, when in fact the reverse is an eminently more faithful portrayal of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ. The force of the New Testament relies not on cheap tricks but on a transformative vision about what humans can become and how they can live as oriented toward a primordial Goodness that shines forth in all things. As Nietzsche knew, an ascetic devotion to metaphysical platitudes—and we should include here the worshipping of divinity-as-spectacle—inevitably tends to turn our heads away from the banalities endemic to worldly being and toward a maddening denial of life.[3]

Instead, the God of a phenomenology of the inconspicuous avoids the totalizing gaze of clarity, while also resisting the void of pure incomprehensibility. God ought to be understood as harboring a potential to be disclosed in the ordinary and banal, among those disavowed and disenfranchised by society. We can glimpse something of the infinite in that which is paradoxically closest to us. An inconspicuous phenomenology thus tarries with the paradoxical nature by which phenomena are disclosed to us. There is always something hidden in a phenomenon’s being presented. Contrariwise, that which most resists conceptualization can be the nearest at hand. The inconspicuous nature of divine phenomenality allows for an experience of the Absolute which paradoxically is revealed through the ordinary and every day.

Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? In considering revelation, the religious lifeworld, liturgy, adoration, evidence, and faith, Alvis consistently finds that these theological themes are animated by a phenomenology that disavows the duplicitous metaphysical categorization by which one would separate phenomena into polarizing categories. The Absolute is paradoxically revealed through the ordinary. Recognizing the affective dwelling of Dasein in the lifeworld resists the polarizing oppositions of inside/outside. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction suspends the spectacles of the world in order to allow for the nonexperience of the infinite in the immanent. By lingering with the rejected and forgotten, we can cultivate an inconspicuous adoration that overcomes the clarity/withdrawal dichotomy. An inconspicuous evidence must recognize the impossibility of bringing divinity into full clarity, and instead must allow God to blend inconspicuously into the entire field of experience. Faith in the inconspicuous God is directed toward that which is unforgettable precisely because it paradoxically resists memory’s grasp. In each case, Alvis shows how invoking a polarizing metaphysics of presence and absence numbs theological thinking, and instead we should recognize the ways in which an experience of the Absolute deformalizes and thus subverts these sorts of distinctions.

Is “phenomenology of religion” an oxymoron? As already alluded to in the summary of chapter six, this phrase only becomes an oxymoron if one adopts a duplicitous metaphysical perspective whereby phenomenology is assumed to be a method of grasping objects with absolute clarity, while religion is assumed to be a discourse directed toward unknowable phenomena. Setting the stage as such certainly would cause problems for how God, as hidden or unknowable, could be brought into the light using a method that privileges clarity. However, following Heidegger, Alvis seeks to deformalize the distinction between clarity and absence that undergirds this problematic.

This confusion in terms also stems back to the misunderstanding of the meaning of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit. As Alvis repeatedly has shown in his book, this word does not mean “absent” or “invisible,” which Heidegger addressed early on in his career. It needs to be understood rather as that which slips conscious grasping while still presenting itself intelligibly. An inconspicuous phenomenology cuts against phenomenality itself and the conditions of experience we typically rely on, paying attention to the ways a phenomenon incorporates absence into its appearance while recognizing the way those phenomena that are ontologically furthest away are paradoxically nearest to us.

I’d like to now pivot into some more critical remarks that hopefully spark further dialogue and academic interest into this fascinating topic. One cannot help but to draw a comparison between a phenomenology of the inconspicuous and the analogia entis (analogy of being) as described in the classical Christian tradition. Both methods seek to accomplish similar goals. The phenomenology of the inconspicuous seeks to offer ways to describe religious experiences that privilege neither clarity nor absence, but instead subvert this distinction altogether. Similarly, the analogia entis seeks to offer ways to understand the relationship between God and creation, which is done by drawing an analogy between the two that eschews both equivocal and univocal predication. While phenomenologists would likely have problems with the analogia entis understood as a totalizing metaphysical system, this largely isn’t what Aquinas and others had in mind when writing about it. Instead, it was a method to temper our knowledge of God and God’s relationship to humanity and to usher in humility before that which escapes complete conceptualization yet is revealed through the immanent.

Similar to the phenomenology of the inconspicuous, the analogia entis seeks to navigate a path between a rationalist philosophy disconnected from history and tradition that seeks to bring everything out into the clarity of light and an individualistic voluntarism that can identify no rational norms nor universal intelligibilities, which ultimately culminates in a nihilistic historicism and relativism. Both also seek to show how something of the infinite Absolute can be gestured at by paying more attention to the immanent and ordinary. Erich Przywara’s celebrated book on the analogia entis endeavored to bring the ancient doctrine into conversation with 20th century phenomenology, especially Heidegger and Husserl.[4] More attention needs to brought to the contact point between this classical doctrine of Christian theology and modern attempts to rethink religious principles in ways like Alvis does in his book.

If nothing else, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous can utilize the scholarship surrounding the analogia entis for understanding how God became understood as a spectacle in the first place, since this was not always the case. As recent commenters like Gavin Hyman have argued, God becomes associated with spectacularity once a univocity of being is adopted in order to understand the relationship between God and man.[5] In order to counteract God or religious experience being understood as spectacles that must shock and awe us, we must learn how the move from analogy to univocity occurred in history and apply this to our current philosophies to safeguard them from hiding a repressed tendency toward idolatrous spectacularity.

In conclusion, Alvis’s book successfully accomplishes its stated goals and is a must read for those interested in both the phenomenological and theological traditions, as well as the ways in which these two traditions can benefit from dialoguing with each other. Alvis provides new avenues for thinking about God and religious precepts which pay homage to Heidegger’s innovations in phenomenology while being true to the salvific story of Jesus. Most of all, Alvis correctly identifies the problems associated with a phenomenology of religion that privileges clarity over other types of presentation. Perhaps Alvis’s greatest lesson is to teach humility before the mundane and ordinary, for the experience of God is revealed through a transformative potentiality present in those overlooked and ordinary phenomena that are closest at hand.

References

Alvis, Jason W. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hyman, Gavin. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris.

Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Edited by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House.


[1] Jason W. Alvis. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 33.

[2] Alvis, The Inconspicuous God, 49.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House, 108.

[4] Erich Przywara. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.

[5] Gavin Hyman. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris, 49.