I’m sad to hear that Jean-Luc Nancy has passed away.
I spent a few years immersed in his book, The Inoperative Community, and the rethinking of communism that emerged from without. It is not a book I particularly liked or agreed with — finding its reading of Bataille, in particular, to be lacking — but I was fascinated by the responses it generated. Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community and Agamben’s The Coming Community were such hugely influential books on me as I tried to piece together what exactly I found so disagreeable. And yet, whilst I might take their side in opposition to Nancy’s own, I carry a muted respect for his provocations.
Sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than a sparing partner, whether that is someone you can actively engage in open disagreement with or someone you can install in your own head as a devil’s advocate. Nancy was like that to a lot of my thinking when I was writing Egress — a role Badiou is fulfilling these days. The importance of that cannot be overstated.
But what is just as fascinating about Nancy’s career is how doggedly he affixed himself to certain conversations and debates. Although The Inoperative Community may be more famous these days for the responses it generated, Nancy’s own response, years later, in The Disavowed Community, is a beautiful riposte to the decades he and his interlocutors spent mutually flaying each other’s philosophical selves. The coda to the work feels like a fitting epigraph, affirming the disagreements and discussions that defined much of his work. To memorialize a person with reference to the often critical work of others is not to diminish Nancy’s contributions, in this sense; rather the philosophical relations are his contribution, and perhaps his most important one.
Concluding The Disavowed Community — his book-length response to Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, which was, in turn, a response to Nancy’s earlier Inoperative Community — Nancy writes of the idea of continuing a philosophical conversation with someone like Blanchot, then deceased, who has seemingly lost the ability to reply:
Blanchot underscores how much the self that speaks also denounces in the end the illusion of its own consistence, in other words, the fact that the self “cannot affirm itself alone.” This affirmation can be understood in several ways. One can reinforce the (transcendental, existential) antecedence of relation over all isolation (individuation, subjectivation). But Blanchot adds a tone here that he himself designates as “sarcasm” — there is derision in the avowal of the “self”‘s illusory character. Why this sarcasm? Why this dark humor if not out of sorrowful regret [déploration]? After all, the inexorable disappearance of “self” is indeed lamented. However, this disappearance only makes one pole of speech disappear, while speech continues to circulate between other poles, of disappeared “selves” taken up again, revived, listened to again, repeated.
The so-called [soi-disant] dead and living form the eternal return of sense. Blanchot knows this. In “The Song of the Sirens,” he writes: “Not the event of the encounter become present, but the opening of this infinite movement that is the encounter itself.” And yet when he attempts to think the encounter and the people together, the infinite movement becomes movement of the instant dissociation of a community that must only scarcely give space to the encounter, the mythical image of which is the impossibility for a man to reunite with the gift of a woman.
What appears to be a peculiar non sequitur nonetheless echoes Blanchot’s preoccupation with the “community of lovers”, whose relation is outside the standardized couplings of our various legal partnerships. Lovers are keepers of a secret intimacy, which cannot be touched by law. But Blanchot’s misstep, for Nancy, seems to be his fixation on transcendence and transgression. A community of lovers is soon defined by what it escapes — a problem haunting communism itself, which is the real elephant in the room throughout their discussion. So too is a death defined by the life it ends. But for Nancy, this metaphysical transcendence is illusory. A dead person does not become all that which escapes their life, but a sort of essence, always already present, which exceeds and persists and continues in spite of what those left behind now lack.
What is most heartening about Nancy’s engagement with his critics is the way he folds his argument back on the argument shared. Blanchot may have passed by the time Nancy writes his final response, but there is strength here rather than cowardice. That he still feels capable of engaging in discourse with his friend is powerful. Indeed, to talk to him, even in disagreement, is to affirm the eternal return of a relation beyond its physical or legal parameters. It substitutes Blanchot’s philosophy of transcendence for a immanent relation, which may be intensified by death but nonetheless signifies a continuation. It is this that Nancy excavates from Blanchot’s conception of love, which Nancy casts back upon Blanchot himself, as a sparing partner he seems to have a great deal of affection for, even if the intimacy of the exercise is more or less hidden from view. Blanchot calls this the unavowable; Nancy warns we must not mistake the unavowable for a complacent disavowal that we ourselves enable. He continues:
Everything happens as if, with the illusion and/or impossibility of love, a “self” is given that ought to be the subject of love and is unable to be so, since love exceeds all possible presence to both the other and the self, and must diminish or sublimate itself in its own infinity. But the infinite — and it is precisely this that distances me from Blanchot — does not simply consist in escape [fuite] and vanishing. It is all this in a much more present and concrete [actuelle] manner — in the efficacy of relation, proximity, contact. This efficacy certainly does not have the character of a presence to one’s self or to you, or to those whom one attributes an intimacy — at least as long as one represents presence and intimacy as substantive modes of being. But these representations always stem [relèvent] from fairly heavy. In truth, with the density and sufficiency that the most classical metaphysics supposes, substances themselves consist as well in what is based on nothing, being under everything. In this “underneath”, these substances float above the void, creating comings and goings, encounters and compearances [comparutions].
Nancy unearths the undercommons as an excess that does not escape but rather can never be contained. That is what remains. That is his remainder. Long may we keep conversing with it.