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

Sexistence Book Cover Sexistence
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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Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Cory Stockwell
Polity
2021
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Elad Lapidot: Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, SUNY Press, 2020

Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism Book Cover Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism
SUNY series, Philosophy and Race
Elad Lapidot
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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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SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Kas Saghafi
SUNY Press
2020
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192

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

Derrida, suppléments Book Cover Derrida, suppléments
Jean-Luc Nancy
Éditions Galilée
2019
Paperback 20.00 €
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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.

Garnet C. Butchart: Embodiment, Relation, Community: A Continental Philosophy of Communication, Penn State University Press, 2019

Embodiment, Relation, Community: A Continental Philosophy of Communication Book Cover Embodiment, Relation, Community: A Continental Philosophy of Communication
Garnet C. Butchart
Penn State University Press
2019
Hardcover Edition $74.95
208

Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy: German Philosophy: A dialogue

German Philosophy: A Dialogue Book Cover German Philosophy: A Dialogue
Untimely Meditations
Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy. Edited by Jan Völker. Translated by Richard Lambert
MIT Press
2018
Paperback $12.95 T | £9.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

On January 30, 2016, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy conducted a public dialogue at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) moderated by Jan Völker. The agenda for the dialogue was Badiou’s and Nancy’s perspectives of German philosophy and of its influence on French philosophy. This book records their conversation.

In his “Afterword”, Völker wonders if something like a dialogue is ever possible between philosophers. While skeptic that a dialogue in the strong sense is possible among philosophers, he suggests that to have a philosophical dialogue is to “exhibit the presence of philosophy, to share its essence, to develop problems by debating shared concepts…it is always an address, a praxis—an invitation, a letter” (81). What a philosophical dialogue does not seem to be, is a shared effort to reach an agreement and mutual understanding.  With that in mind, we need also to remark that this book is not a discussion about the reception of 19th and 20th Century German philosophy into French philosophy in general, but a reflection on Badiou’s and Nancy’s personal and highly original relationship to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. It is not the history of German philosophy in France, which would have to include also the influence of the different strands of neo-Kantianism, but an attempt to map the convergences and divergences between two leading French thinkers, which also happen to be the last representatives and inheritors of the great “Philosophical Moment of 1960’s”.

Völker opens the conversation stating that German philosophy plays an important role in the thought of Badiou and Nancy, while at the same time both subscribe to the idea of the timelessness of philosophy. Based on that, Völker asks from Badiou and Nancy to assess the philosophical relationship between Germany and France.

Badiou replies that philosophy is not really timelessness. There are discontinuous philosophical periods that we can locate historically and geographically.  We can speak of a Greek, an Arabic, a French (which starts with Descartes, and includes Spinoza and Leibnitz, both not French as he acknowledges), an English, a German (German Idealism), and finally a German-French period which seems to be reaching its end. This German-French period includes thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and Ricoeur, and continues in Lacan’s and Foucault’s influenced French structuralism. Characteristic of this “French period”, which represent the last stage of the German-French philosophical constellation, is the effort to release Philosophy from its academic restraints and infuse it with new life, and to orient it towards a more political role, drawing inspiration from Psychoanalysis, the Arts and Mathematics.

Nancy adopts a more historical approach. He first comments on the fact that while Völker asked about the French-German philosophical relationship, both interlocutors are French, and they represent the French tradition. Nancy stresses that the influence of German philosophy dates from the interwar period, while the Second World War and its aftermath saw the departure of Philosophy from Germany and the invigoration of French thought.  What French philosophy inherited from the German tradition was the idea that the saying of Philosophy should be present in what it is said (7), which he opposes to a Cartesian tradition advocating a neutral language.

The second movement of the dialogue pertains to Badiou’s and Nancy’s relationship with Kant.  Badiou doesn’t like Kant.  He does not like the idea that there is a limit to human cognition, nor does he like the notion of a categorical imperative or the distinction between sublime and beautiful.  Nancy offers a nuanced rebuke to Badiou. Indeed, he also finds Kant «unlovable”, but this can be explained by the fact that Kant is writing in a language which is not mature enough to express his thought. Nancy also rejects Badiou’s understanding of Kantian epistemology as placing limits to knowledge. The “thing-in-itself” is not a something unknowable hidden behind the phenomena but, in a Heideggerian spirit, the “positing of the thing as such” (15). Nancy further explains that this is pure reality, which pushes reason to seek the unconditional, even if Reason knows that it will not find it.  Badiou declines this position. Everything can be absolutely known (17).  The “thing-in-itself” is nothing but “the general system of the possible forms of multiplicity”, one that we can explore mathematically, and therefore come to know (18). To say otherwise is to open the door to obscurantism and to political enslavement.

The question of limits to knowledge serves as a cue to Völker to steer the conversation to Hegel and to the question of the negative. Völker asks: «How much system is necessary to think negatively» (21). Nancy interprets negativity as mobility. Hegel’s system is one that does not cease to systematize itself.  Even when Hegel engages into fields that seem odd today, like in his Philosophy of Nature, his purpose is to give voice to all things or to “traversing all things through language” (23).  Badiou, for his part, expresses his passionate relation to Hegel, but also his impatience with Hegel’s encyclopedist drive, which does not leave room for what is to come.  But Hegel is also a true thinker of an affirmative negativity. In this, he is, in spite of his shortcoming, our contemporary.

Nancy objects to Badiou’s affirmation of contemporaneity. We come after Hegel, and we reread him.  For Nancy, the relationship is one of reception. There is no direct encounter with a text but through those reading that already influenced our encounter. Nancy’s own reading of Hegel is mediated by a chain of tradition constituted of Derrida, Bataille, and Kojève. Nancy also objects to Badiou’s emphasis on the “exhaustive” impulse in Hegel. Nancy prefers to speak of a “process of coming to fulfillment». He sketches the difference through a succinct discussion of Hegel’s presentation of the modern state as a “moral idea”, which already contains the idea of the disappearance of the State and its replacement with a more adequate form of “ethical idea in action”. On a more general way, Nancy reads Hegel’s like a philosophy of «infinite jouissance».

Badiou rejects Nancy’s characterization. The “jouissance” we find in Hegel is a relationship internal to the spirit. Therefore, does not exclude the exhaustion of possibilities. Furthermore, Badiou believes that there is a big difference in the way in which he and Nancy relate to texts. Badiou characterizes his own reading as “naïve”, as seriously taking into consideration what it is said, and then to rewrite it in his own terms (30). Nancy feels compelled to defend his hermeneutical approach, shifting the question to the relationship between history and thought, and to Marx.

At this point, the moderator steers the discussion to Marx and to Marxism.  Völker asks the panelists to address the questions that Marx poses to philosophy: the question of practice, the question of the absence of Marx in contemporary critical discourse.

Badiou asks if it is adequate to characterize Marx (and also Freud) as philosophers.  Marx’s oeuvre contains philosophical ingredients but is not primarily a work of Philosophy. Furthermore, Badiou criticizes the notion of philosophical praxis and the idea—which goes back to the “Theses on Feuerbach”—which reduces philosophy to the interpretation of the world.  Badiou understands interpretation in a narrow sense, e.g., the production of myths, religions, wisdom. Philosophy, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of the rational and is based on science and mathematics.

Nancy concurs that Marx is not a philosopher because he does not push his questioning to the end. Marx is happy with pointing out to a future state of humankind but does not push forward to say what that future state would be. Marx is a philosopher which at a certain point got caught into something more urgent.  Interestingly, Badiou retorts that while not a philosopher himself, Marx indeed elaborated in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the concept of “generic humanity” (Badiou’s rendering of Gattungswessen, generally translated as “generic being”), and the “problem” is to identify in existing societies the seeds of this generic humanity (39).  It is noteworthy that Badiou is quoting here from the same 1844 Manuscripts that his master Althusser banished to the realm of the pre-Marxist. Badiou concludes this answer with the observation that on this point he feels that they both agree and that he is happy that such understanding was reached in reference to Marx.

Nancy and Badiou agree on the claim that philosophy is not interpretation but something else, but their agreement is only nominal. And their conversation turns to the question of the beginning of Philosophy which becomes the question of the beginning of Mathematics. Badiou’s position seems to shift during the conversation. He begins asserting that the birth of Mathematics is an event, an exception to the laws of a given situation (41).  But finally, he accepts Nancy’s hypothesis that Mathematics, as well as Philosophy and Tragedy, had their origin in the de-mythologization of the world. Badiou prefers to formulate this using the formula: “to speak the truth is no longer a question of a prescribed enunciative position» (44). But under the insistence of Nancy, he finally sums up his position beautifully saying that Philosophy needs to find rational and shareable protocols so that humanity is not poisoned by its mourning the death of the Gods (46).

The book concludes with two questions which were added by Völker after the discussion, one dealing with Adorno and the second with Heidegger. Völker asks about the disconnect between Critical Theory and post-structuralist French thought, particularly at a time when the questions asked by Adorno are again relevant.  Badiou rejects the idea of “negative dialects”, preferring an affirmative form of dialectics that can be the basis for a measured, controlled, and creative form of negation. Nancy’s position is more nuanced. He acknowledges that Adorno is not well known in France. This is in part because of his difficult style but is also related to the divorce between radical political movements which emphasized “workerism” at the expense of theory, and a university where Positivism was hegemonic. This split left room only for marginal forms of Marxism (he offers as an example, Bataille and Lefebvre). Nonetheless, Lyotard, Abensour, and others were interested in Adorno. From an English reading perspective, it is noteworthy that Habermas and the thinkers from the third generation of the Frankfurt School are airbrushed from the discussion and also from the conference that provided the framework for this dialogue, though the conference shows extensive examination of Adorno’s philosophy.

The last question refers to Heidegger. Völker refers to the renewed debates on Heidegger’s antisemitism and entanglements with Nationalsocialism.  Badiou offers a succinct response based on three points: (a) that Heidegger’s merit was to bring back the question of being; (b) that he brought it essentially as a historical question; (c) that Heidegger brought the question of being in what is essentially an identitarian context. Nonetheless, his crude nationalism and antisemitism do not erase the importance of bringing back the question of being (53-54).

Nancy disagrees. It is not enough to say that regarding the question of being Heidegger was a great philosopher but that otherwise, he was an uninspiring human being.  Nancy also rejects those interpretations of the work of Heidegger that focus exclusively on his criticism of technology. Nancy believes that there is something more, which was deeply attuned to his time. He refers to the infamous Black Notebooks in terms of «philosophical hyperbole» and «unbelievably hysterical», that has to do with the «overwhelming within Europe» of the relationship to what we know as “politics”. But he does not elaborate further, turning instead to “being” in what can be taken as a silent rebuke to Badiou’s affirmation of the importance of the question of being.  Badiou begs to differ and offers an autobiographical observation: “it was only in a space opened by the Heideggerian question that I was able to arrive at this mathematical vision of the indifference of being” (59).  He then summarizes their discussion as follows:

“…after the French infatuation with German thought (exemplified by Sartre and Derrida) and the distance separating French structuralism and German hermeneutics, what we can now expect to emerge is a new form…of thinking…that…will address the following problem: how are we to reconstruct an affirmative dialectic on the basis of an ontology that accepts the indifference of being” (64).

It befalls to Nancy to pronounce the closing sentences of the discussion, but it is doubtful that these last words should be taken as a summation of the whole conversation.  Ultimately, Völker is right in arguing that what was productive in this debate was the debate itself, and not some implausible coincidences between the parties. French philosophical thought in mid 20th century was intertwined with German Philosophy in complicated ways, and resonated differently in different philosophers, constituting their distinctive oeuvre. Völker created the opportunity for this wide range exploration