Writing some years after he received a heart transplant in the early 1990s Jean-Luc Nancy remarked on the historical contingency of living beyond his early fifties. Had he been born twenty years or so earlier he would not have survived; twenty years later he would no doubt have survived differently. He also noted the sense of strangeness that accompanied the experience of receiving, and of living with, the heart of another: transplantation, he wrote, imposed an image of nothingness. Into that space most associated with intimacy and interiority, a different emptied-out space had intruded, provoking a sense of no longer being properly oneself. If Nancy was able to turn the experience into something like a philosophical parable, it is because he had long been engaged with questions of the material contingency of thought. Before it is something that we can think of as the site of our most proper self, our body is already inhabited by and exposed to the outside – a condition of co-belonging in the world as well as source of vulnerability. For over a half a century, Nancy elaborated a corpus of philosophical thought that ceaselessly traced its own limits. His thinking addressed fundamental questions of ontology, freedom and consciousness, reason and the foundations of judgement, while constantly exposing itself to philosophy’s various outsides, domains with which it has been historically and perhaps irreducibly intertwined: the political and the social, ethics, art and aesthetics, the theological and the religious.
The bare facts of Nancy’s career are quite straightforward and well-documented. Born in 1940 in Caudéran near Bordeaux, he graduated with a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1962, took the agrégation in 1964 then worked at a lycée in Colmar before taking a position at the Strasbourg Institut de Philosophie in 1968. He completed his doctorate in 1973 and that year became a lecturer at Strasbourg’s Université des Sciences Humaines, where he remained until his retirement in 2002. Until his illness in the late 1980s he was active on academic committees and was a visiting professor at numerous universities around the world. Yet this outline belies the richness and complexity of his intellectual trajectory, one that is exemplary of a wider sweep of late twentieth-century French philosophical culture. During his adolescence, as a member of Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne he was steeped in a culture of Christian socialist militancy as well as the wider atmosphere of the French left of the period, defined by the struggle in Algeria as well as the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the difficulty of other attempts to recast socialism in Europe and elsewhere. Yet his beginnings in academic philosophy were made in the absence of any decisive heritage or orientation.
This all changed in the following decade when Nancy encountered the influences that would shape the rest of his career. In 1961 he was introduced to Hegel by the philosopher and theologian Georges Morel, and the following year wrote his master’s dissertation on religion in Hegel under the supervision of Paul Ricœur. Although, by his own account, Nancy was no longer personally religious, he nevertheless continued in these years to participate in activist Christian circles as well socialist and trade union groups. During this time he also discovered Heidegger, and was influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem who taught him at the Sorbonne. In 1967 he met Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, another deeply engaged reader of Heidegger with whom he would participate in the events of May ’68, and who as a colleague at Strasbourg became a long-standing friend and philosophical collaborator. The sixties bear witness to the eclecticism of Nancy’s intellectual formation, one in which the influences of his religious upbringing and milieu, his political activism and philosophical engagements were so deeply entangled as to be inseparable. In this environment Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics could align with a profound disaffection with the political perspectives of the period and fuel non-conformist or non-communist Marxist activism and even insurrection.
Nancy’s discovery of Heidegger was mediated by Gérard Granel, who first translated the key Heideggerian term Abbau as ‘déconstruction’ and who greatly influenced both Jacques Derrida and, much later, Bernard Stiegler. It was through an early article of Granel’s dedicated to the then far less renowned Derrida that Nancy first encountered what would become widely known as deconstruction. With the rise of structuralism in the early 1960s – to a great extent influenced by Canguilhem – Nancy was amongst those who felt that the specificity and even existence of philosophy was under threat. By his own account, his first contact with Derrida was a letter sent in 1968 or ‘69, addressing the relation of philosophy to the human sciences and in particular the supposedly ‘scientific’ status of Althusserian Marxist theory. It is at this point of initial contact with Derrida, which inaugurated a second crucial philosophical association and friendship, and with his appointment at the Université des Sciences Humaines that Nancy’s career as a philosopher can be said to really begin.
His 1973 doctoral thesis, also completed under the supervision of Ricœur, was on Kant, confirming that although Heidegger is often thought to be Nancy’s paramount influence, his early readings of Hegel and then of Kant were nevertheless decisive. Nietzsche likewise became an important reference, shaping Nancy’s interest in the formal properties of philosophical discourse and informing the argument of his first book, The Title of the Letter, published in 1972 and co-authored with Lacoue-Labarthe. A highly critical reading of the writing of Jacques Lacan that reflected Nancy’s scepticism about the status of the structuralist human sciences, it led Lacan to refer to its authors as Derrida’s ‘underlings’. The judgment was hardly fair, but the books that followed over the next several years on Hegel, Kant, Descartes, and German Romanticism could be broadly characterised as deconstructive commentaries, which offer anti-foundationalist readings of canonical texts of philosophical modernity and explore the permeable relationship between literature and philosophy. Yet however much they betrayed a proximity to Derrida these commentaries, with their distinctive synthesis of Nietzschean and Heideggerian approaches to overcoming metaphysics, were highly original, and ultimately paved the way for the differences that would open up between the two.
The turning point was perhaps the establishment of the Centre de recherches philosophiques sur le politique at the École Normale Supérieure in 1980. Founded by Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe at Derrida’s suggestion, the centre intended to explore the political dimension and implications of deconstruction. There was a constitutive ambivalence to this project, one that soon produced fault lines: while there was an acknowledgment that philosophy is unavoidably a political practice and therefore always implicated in political activity or struggles, at the same time deconstruction refused any direct assimilation of philosophy to politics or attempts by philosophy to offer a foundational programme for politics, as well as overhasty attempts to seek conjunctions with Marxism. The thinking that emerged at the Centre, and in deconstruction more generally, should be understood against the wider intellectual background of post-war France, in which Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophical foundationalism were perceived to have been retroactively tainted by the experience of twentieth-century totalitarianism, the Holocaust and the violence of European colonialism and imperialism. Hegel, viewed as the paradigmatic thinker of system and totality was taken to be exemplary of a philosophy which, in its aspiration to absolute fulfilment in history, provided a model and expression of the very real ideological conditions of historical violence, totalitarian state-forms, and genocidal projects. Heidegger’s political itinerary also loomed large in this sense of philosophy having been compromised by its relation to politics.
In truth Nancy was a subtle and attentive reader of Hegel, fully aware of the complexities of a philosophical discourse whose drive towards systematicity and the absolute might have been mitigated or undermined by its dynamic of negativity. Nevertheless, the question of philosophical and political subjectivity dominated the concerns of the Centre and informed Nancy’s response to deconstruction’s ambivalence about the relation of the philosophical and the political. Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe were convinced that philosophy’s tendency to produce idealised conceptions of subjectivity – the people, national or racial identity, the proletariat, homo economicus – and proffer them as a basis for political community and forms of social and economic organisation was essentially metaphysical. In this context the ills of both totalitarianism and capitalism could be seen to have a common shared condition. It was therefore the passage from the philosophical production of foundational identities to the enactment of political projects that required deconstruction. By 1984 however, it had become clear that this orientation was not shared by all of the Centre’s participants: Claude Lefort’s work emphasised a much clearer dividing line between democracy and totalitarianism, rejecting Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s Heideggerian understanding of subjectivity, while Denis Kambouchner similarly dismissed their distinction – again inspired by Heidegger – between politics understood as an everyday practice and ‘the political’ understood as a more fundamental order of relation organising collective life. Without consensus on these assumptions, it was hard for the work of the Centre to progress.
For Nancy, the impasse coincided with his divergence from Derrida. He now returned to an engagement with Heideggerian ontology and to the question of shared being-in-the-world, fusing this with Bataille’s conception of finite embodiment and corporeal excess. This allowed him to transpose the concerns of deconstruction from the paradigm of textualism onto that of existential phenomenology and its focus on shared, material and worldly existence: it was not just the decentred subject of intertextuality or the differential rupturing of intentional consciousness that would be at play in deconstruction. He understood thought to be fundamentally embedded in the contingency of bodily life, according to which sense and meaning were disseminated as shared worldly existence. Nancy would insist from the 1980s onwards that, prior to the political ‘there is the “common,” the “together,” and the “numerous,” and that we perhaps do not at all know how to think this order of the real’. The attempt to think this ‘order of the real’ would inform his unapologetic return to an – albeit fully deconstructed – ontology that Derrida would always refuse.
From this emerged his conception of ‘inoperative community’ in the early to mid-1980s. Positing community as irreducibly incomplete and open-ended, this was an attempt to recast the experience of historical, social and political community, outside of any logic of shared subjectivity or common identity but as a form of fundamental ontological co-belonging. This was less an instance of philosophy laying the ground for politics than it was an attempt to conceive of an originary space in which relationality of one kind or another could be understood to unfold. There were resources here for rethinking concepts such as equality, solidarity, freedom, democracy and globalisation outside any logic of identitarian political destiny or state form. Yet Nancy continued to refuse the assimilation of philosophy into politics or the collapse of ontology and politics in the service of any given project or programme.
The turn away from Derrida saw Nancy exposed to criticism on at least two fronts. On the one hand there were early critics of the work of the Centre who demanded that it more directly engage with existing political struggles and projects. A trenchant critique by Nancy Fraser urged Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe to ‘venture forth from their transcendental safe-house’. On the other there were those more aligned with Derrida, who were sceptical of Nancy’s return to ontology and its Heideggerian inflection. Later, philosophers such as Simon Critchley, conjugating Derridean deconstruction with Levinassian ethics, saw in Nancy’s return to ontology an elision or repression of the ethical as such. Both criticisms – that Nancy’s thought failed to give sufficient philosophical impetus to political struggle and that it constituted a regressive re-embrace of ontology – would recur throughout his career, informing his long-standing dispute with Maurice Blanchot on the question of community, as well as Badiou’s critique of his primary focus on finitude. In response, it could be argued that the return to ontology that has been evident over the past twenty years might suggest that Nancy was ahead of his time. At the same time, his caution towards the relationship of philosophical foundationalism to the grounding of political projects can be said to respond to the lessons of twentieth-century history, no less relevant today.
It was from this inflection point in the early 1980s that Nancy’s subsequent philosophical oeuvre flowed. His doctorat d’état, supervised by Granel, was published as The Experience of Freedom in 1988. Its demonstration of the failure of Kantian reason to secure a totalising ground for being yielded a conception of existence freed from any unity of foundation and understood as an irreducible multiplicity of contingent beings. This was the hinge which turned Nancy’s philosophy towards the major themes of his mature works of the nineties and of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. A Finite Thinking (1990) established the model for Nancy’s philosophy as an experimental, non-systematic practice which sought to bring itself to the limits of its own conceptual powers and possibilities in order to proceed, in the absence of any grounding or foundational gesture, as an encounter with the contingency and multiplicity of a material existence whose totality exceeds conceptual determination. This would be characterised in different ways in the works that followed, as the fragmentary experience of embodiment in Corpus (1992), as shared ‘sense’ in excess of all phenomenological disclosure in The Sense of the World (1993), as the singular plurality of being that resists ontological determination in Being Singular Plural (1996). These were followed by Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative (1998), which, along with Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel (1996), signalled a definitive end to the post-war image of a ‘totalitarian’ Hegel. From the mid-1990s onwards Nancy continued to engage with questions of politics, most notably concerning ethics and democracy, but also and extensively with art and aesthetics. His meditations on art reconnected aesthetic experience to a renewed realism of touch or contact with the sensible-intelligible world. His major late project, the ‘deconstruction of Christianity’ recast the inner logic of monotheism as an originary absenting of God from the world. In this way, he argued, the seeds of atheism had always already been sown within theism, leading to the eventual secularisation of historical religious forms. Nancy never returned to an embrace of religion as such, but his thinking has proven to be a rich resource for critical understanding of a contemporary return to religion and the category of the post-secular.
Nancy died in August, leaving various projects suspended in a state of incompletion, perhaps testifying to his understanding of thought itself as ongoing, and always incomplete. Decades before the vogue for ‘new materialism’ and ‘speculative realism’, Nancy inaugurated a shift in the wake of deconstruction towards a renewed, albeit highly novel, realism. His refusal of all politics grounded in idealised conceptions of subjectivity, self, and of political community grew out of a collective experience of historical disaster in the twentieth century. What one might call his embodied worldly realism of relational coexistence speaks to the post-secular identity politics and ecological problems of the twenty-first. Without prescribing easy answers or determinate programmes it traces and marks out the relational space in which the challenges of politics will be met.
Read on: Peter Hallward, ‘Order and Event’, NLR 53.