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Even the open closes: on the disappearance of Jean-Luc Nancy

2 September 2021

Even the open closes: on the disappearance of Jean-Luc Nancy

At Librairie Quai des Brumes in Strasbourg, 2013

Jean-Luc Nancy: in memoriam. First published as “Même l’ouvert se referme – sur la disparition” de Jean-Luc Nancy in AOC on 30 August 2021,

Jean-Luc Nancy was one of those for whom philosophy must be shared, continually turned towards a sensitive attention to the present. With the death of the philosopher on 23 August, it is the last page of a work that responds to the world and responds to the world that is being written, and for which the immanence of meaning to itself was endlessly renewed.

"He who writes responds. "Whoever writes resonates and, in resonating, responds. These two formulations by Jean-Luc Nancy, so clear-cut, so representative of his tone, I cannot read or hear them without telling myself that the one who wrote them, this time, after so many alerts, will no longer respond. And beyond the devastation of mourning, the primary meaning is that of this silence or extinction.

Among the many expressions by which, as if in a slow and necessarily clumsy gesture, we try to ward off the brute fact of death, there is the one that says of a being that it has become extinct. Now it is appropriate for Jean-Luc Nancy, who can be said to have died, first of all in the strictest sense, like a life force - a heart, a breath - that gradually ceased to function, but also because even from a distance, even intermittently and discreetly, his presence acted like a continuous watch.

Sometimes hyperactive, sometimes limited to a few filaments perhaps, fragile but not blinking, and above all strangely faithful. And that was enough to tell us that the world we see slipping away before our eyes or our steps, going in directions we neither wished nor planned, was being watched, listened to, probed, and that a consciousness, close to it, maintained that there was still something of a space in it that could be crossed and was worthy of consideration.

No matter how far-reaching his awareness of a collapse of the reasons for hope was, Jean-Luc Nancy never gave in to nostalgia or engaged in a catastrophic discourse. Nor, conversely, did he ever take refuge in the escape of a utopian vision that was oblivious to the reality of the historical moment he was living through. What he continually sought to bring about had little to do with the glimmering of a consumed past or with that of a dawn distended by an exuberant promise; it can be said that it was above all in the closest proximity to the present, in the low light of what the days delivered to him, that he intervened.

The very impressive number of his interventions in the press or in the form of small books is the most obvious sign of this constantly maintained attention and curiosity, but this relationship to the present, through which he fully assumed his responsibility as a philosopher in the city, came from afar, supported by a work of thought whose considerable scope remains to be explored.

Certainly, as the abundance of reactions from all corners of the planet to the announcement of his death shows, Jean-Luc Nancy's thought, often translated, has circulated a great deal, infusing many minds over several generations, and to the point that the second community that could be gathered around his name, which resembles anything but a cenacle of initiates, would be immense.

But immense is above all the work of thought that sustains it and that, beyond media exposure, functions as a reserve that is a real joy to explore and fathom, and first of all because it is, precisely, the space of an infinite resonance: a thought that responds to the world and responds of the world, and for which the immanence of meaning to itself is endlessly renewed - nothing, for it, should or can lead to the installation in an instituted form.

But whereas Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, with whom he formed a rather exceptional tandem in the history of thought, was always reluctant to accept being called a philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy fully embraced this appellation, and it was this full adherence to what is neither a profession nor a vocation but above all a way of standing in the world that he continually strove to illustrate, It must be said that he was on the verge of a form of heroism when faced with the numerous operations he had to undergo, starting with his heart transplant in 1991 – a particularly dramatic moment that he avoided by reflection, by coming back later on to this event of which his body had been the theatre, and by humour.

Against what background of happiness, in spite of everything, this stands out, it would be necessary to say by evoking first of all some memories. Firstly, that of his unfeigned good humour, while still on a drip, just after the transplant, we discussed in the corridors of the hospital the finalisation of The Compearance, which was about to be published. Or the period, now distant, of the formation of his thought, when emulation and friendship had taken the form of a house shared with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, in this street of Strasbourg where he continued to live afterwards, this time as a couple, with his wife Hélène - a house where the experimentation of a form of community life, devoid of any exhibition, surprised all visitors by its brightness.

It is to all those who lived there, including the animals, that The Inoperative Community is dedicated, a seminal book in which the reasons for being, the forms and the chances of living together are examined through the sieve of an exceptional intelligence regarding the stakes, in contrast to everything that today transforms being together into a softened slogan. What is envisaged with the often-repeated schema of community (including in titles where it is successively disengaged, confronted, and disavowed, not without having been in passing unavowable for Blanchot, whose book responded to Nancy), is of course the with, but insofar as it is not a project.

The with is there as the "there is" that founds it and it is with it, in it, that we are born. This common exposure to the common is the condition, and this is precisely what we tried to describe in The Appearance, a book that tried to oppose the fall of real communism with the possibility of a future politics, the very one that Jean-Luc would later call "the politics of the infinite link".

To appear, in this sense, was not to go before a court but simply to appear within the generalized exhibition. This was a reminder of the founding tension that Jean-Luc later formalised by insisting on the non-separable or inseparable character (from himself as well as from others) of the subject, defined as being above all "a power of relation".

This power is an opening and, as such, it produces networks, but these are in turn threatened by closure, and it is the quality of individuation that acts here as a guarantee: "each One as such subverts the closure of the network", it is explicitly stated, which means that it is thanks to the singularity, not only of any subject, but of any point of existence, that the dis-enclosure, which is like a new hatching, can take place. Dis-enclosure is therefore nothing other than that which liberates existence by allowing the "in-finite shining of the finite" to blossom in it, in an endless game.

The other name of this shining is sense, which is, even below terms as recurrent as coming or spawning, the most active word in the philosophical lexicon of Jean-Luc Nancy, who dared to title one of his most collected books The Sense of the World, thus taking the lovers of asserted truths (who still run the streets and the corridors of universities) against their will, reminding them that meaning is nothing other than the narrative that the world makes of itself, that the declension of an unfinishable "there is" that no ideology of presence supports. It is precisely this narrative that must be listened to, and at this price is resonance.

It is easy to see how Nancy's ontology, deliberately emancipated from its guardianship, joins the attention that is that of the poem, and how it also founds and authorises that "politics of the infinite relation" that he set out to define, and in which coming also becomes a form of dwelling in time, the time to which he devoted a strangely soothed reflection in one of his last books, entitled, and this is quite a programme, The Fragile Skin of the World. But at no time did he think of these relationships as the lineaments of a system, or accompany the appearance of meaning with a procession of limits by associating it with privileged areas of emergence.

The question he poses is, on the contrary, that of a free coming always to come: "Can we," he wrote in The Sense of the World, "think of a triviality of meaning - an everydayness, a banality, not as the dull opposite of brilliance, but as the greatness of the simplicity in which meaning exceeds itself." And what is truly extraordinary is the calmness with which Jean-Luc Nancy made right of this excess, going to collect it in the most diverse domains in an almost untiring quest.

I am aware, in any case, of how derisory and, even more so, how partial and insufficient such a rapid assembly of certain elements of his thought can be. One would like to take the time, for example, to follow his highly sensitive reflection on the way in which, as it moves forward, the line of the drawing always touches on the unknown - this was in the context of an exhibition organised by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, The resulting book is entitled Le plaisir au dessin (Pleasure in Drawing). We would also like to return to the moment of definition he shared with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, when together they translated the texts of the Athenaeum, the journal of the Jena Romantics, and ask him again what they both understood by the notion of the "literary Absolute" and what became of it in their own paths.

And so on. But it just so happens that this work that we can do with Jean-Luc Nancy's considerable work we must now do without his help, and what must be said here is how available he was, how wonderful it was to hear him, to hear in his voice the pleasure of exercising the relationship, including with children, as was the case with the "little lectures" that he agreed to joyfully several times at the Centre dramatique national de Montreuil.

In one of them, entitled Partir - Le départ, he spoke at length with the children about death, in another, entitled Vous désirez? he spoke to them about desire and this is what he said: "To desire is quite simply something that does not refer to having something. To desire is a state, I don't like this word very much, it's a disposition that is always in motion, an impulse, a tension, not to have something but simply to be someone. That's why we only live by the desire to live.

This simplicity of speech he seemed to achieve effortlessly, and no more than there was demagogy in his movement towards children, there was no showiness when in colloquia and seminars he discriminated the slightest deviations, the slightest tremors of the concept. In its popular meaning, perhaps a little neglected today, the word philosopher designates above all a way of being, a form of wisdom, even an ability not to get carried away.

There was indeed something of this in Jean-Luc Nancy's attitude, characterised by a constant refusal of pathos, but what I perhaps remember first, as he leaves us, is the extraordinary astonished mischief of his gaze, the same gaze that we see in So lebte er hin, a little film in which, facing a character played by Rodolphe Burger (who is at the origin of the film), he plays the part of an aged Lenz, who would have survived his Vosges wreck.

On several occasions Jean-Luc Nancy had been in front of the camera and he had also been on stage, accepting out of friendship and curiosity to play small roles in shows from the great era of the Théâtre National de Strasbourg, Sophocles' Antigone in the version translated and reinvented by Hölderlin and Euripides' The Phoenician Women, both directed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Michel Deutsch.

But in this costume film where he wears a wig, it is really that he enters with his exhausted face into the character he is supposed to play and that he plays with a staggering strength and precision. So that beyond this grumpy, smiling Lenz, it is he that we see. At the end of this little film, he suddenly leaves, closing the door behind him, and that is unfortunately what has just happened to us. "One lives only by the desire to live". This desire was, by Jean-Luc, held to the end of the possible, where the open, against all expectations, closes. From now on, a long, very long mourning process begins.

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