Jean-Luc Nancy: Opening the meaning of finitude.

17 September 2021

Jean-Luc Nancy: Opening the meaning of finitude.

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In memoriam Jean-Luc Nancy. This article was first published in French in Le Monde on 26 August 2021 as “La mort de Jean-Luc Nancy, philosophe de la fragilité de l’existence”.

“In the future we will never stop, I presume, reading and thinking, and counting too, with him.” These words that Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) wrote in Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy (Galilée, 2000) took on a particular meaning with the announcement of the death, on August 23, of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, at the age of 81.

His life and work could have come to an end many times over. After undergoing a heart transplant in 1992, which is the subject of the fascinating book L'Intrus (Galilée, 2000; Michigan UP 2002), Nancy engaged in a long-term battle against cancer. The "great event" that his work represented, again according to Derrida, is suddenly put into perspective by the event of death. For the author of The Fragile Skin of the World (Galilée, 2020; Polity 2021 forthcoming) had been developing, since the beginning of the 1970s, a thought of finitude, based on an awareness of the singularity and fragility of existence.

Born on July 26, 1940 in Caudéran, near Bordeaux, Nancy was professor emeritus of philosophy at the Marc Bloch University in Strasbourg. He spent most of his teaching career there, between 1968 and 2004 - he was also program director at the Collège international de philosophie between 1985 and 1989, alongside his great writing companion Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1940–2007), with whom he signed, among other things, The Literary Absolute (Seuil, 1978; SUNY, 1988), an important study of German Romanticism. Faithful to Strasbourg, he always responded generously, when his health permitted, to invitations to speak or to meet with students, just as he responded to requests from all over the world.

His successor to the chair of metaphysics, the philosopher Jacob Rogozinski, asked him one day how he was doing, while passing him in the university library. "A week ago I almost died, but now everything is fine," Nancy replied simply. "He has not stopped dying and being reborn, and has drawn from it a form of wisdom, more and more solar over the years, far from any tragic pathos," confided to Le Monde Rogozinski who organized, in 2015, one of the rare colloquia devoted in France to a philosopher who has nevertheless shone all over the world since the 1990s.

The author of Ego sum (Flammarion, 1979; Fordham UP, 2016) first published on Hegel, Descartes or Kant, the subject of his doctoral thesis in 1973. Inspired by Martin Heidegger's existentialism, he took up several major philosophical questions by examining them from the foundation that constitutes existence. For example, in The Experience of Freedom (Galilée, 1988; Stanford UP, 1944), he develops the argument that our freedom is not an absolute that would be limited by the existence of others. On the contrary, it is the existence of others, and our being-with, that would be the condition of all freedom.

A reader of Georges Bataille and Friedrich Nietzsche, he was philosophically interested in the question of the body even before his own body was concerned by the operations of medical technology. For, "the body is existence and there is no existence but corporeal", he writes. In Corpus (Galilée, 1993; Fordham UP, 2008), one of his most beautiful books, Nancy transforms the trials he undergoes into places where questions are inscribed, the better to touch the meaning that overflows from them.

The political question of community is another major theme in Nancy's work. In The Inoperative Community (Bourgois, 1986; Minnesote UP, 1991), followed later by La Communauté affrontée (Galilée, 2001), then by The Disavowed Community (Galilée, 2014; Fordham UP, 2016), he seeks to recapture the meaning of the "common" left fallow by the crisis of communism. It is then a question of thinking a community free of any substantial identity or any subservience to a collective subject, where the communication between singularities exposed to each other takes precedence over the ideal of communion, and where "being in common" no longer needs a "common being."

It is understandable that the work of art, experience of a singularity exposed, whose meaning is there without being reduced to a message to be decoded, had seized equally, and so often, the attention and the spirit of Jean-Luc Nancy. He has written about religious painting, contemporary art and the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, and he collaborated with the choreographer Mathilde Monnier and the singer Rodolphe Burger. Nancy's work is profuse, with nearly 150 books, most of which have been published by Galilée, the publishing house where he co-edited a collection, "La philosophie en effet" together with Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Sarah Kofman, and which is bringing out his new book, Cruor, in October. His readers sometimes struggle to see a central concept emerge from the mass of his writings that could become a school. A philosopher "who writes like no one else", as Derrida once said, Nancy impresses with his chiselled style, his precision, and the breadth of his views. Yet, he remains difficult to classify.

Henri Bergson (1859–1941) said that any philosophical system, even the most complex, could be related to a single intuition. Now, to find such an elementary part in a philosophy that has renounced the logic of systems is even more complex. There are, of course, the recent themes of the body, community, and the legacy of German philosophy. But before, and through, all that, it is fundamentally the question of meaning.

If there is a "question of meaning", for Jean-Luc Nancy, whether it is a question of the meaning of existence, of history, of political action or of the world (The Sense of the World, Galilée, 1993; Minnesota UP, 1997), it is not simply, according to a questioning that goes back to the origins of philosophy, because a truth or a value would be to be found in order to determine the direction of our life or of our action. It is because the question itself no longer makes sense, at least in the terms bequeathed by tradition. As he explained in an interview in 2005: ""Sense" itself is a concept whose sense remains to be reconsidered. If sense is always a "reference t o . . . " (the sense of X is in reference to Y, the sense of my life is beyond my life, the sense of the world is beyond the world, according to Wittgenstein), then how is the reference of sense operative if there is no term or instance that is beyond the world ? (…) "Sense" means precisely no-thing, means something which doesn't fit with any thing."

How then to think the sense when it cannot be founded any more on transcendent principles such as God, the man, the history, the science, the law…? This problem is undoubtedly that of all contemporary philosophy. The generation, sometimes called "postmodern," of Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida has moreover made of this flattening of the philosophical questions an explosive space of conceptual creation. Within the generation that began its career when this shock wave resounded, at the same time as Alain Badiou or Etienne Balibar, for example, Nancy traced a path of thought that was both close to and different from this dynamic.

He refused, for example, with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, to take over from Lyotard and Deleuze at the University of Saint Denis, preferring to stay in Strasbourg, where the situationist idea that one could "suspend everything," including the imperatives of critical thought, still resonated. This suspension is also a condition of openness, if not a method to answer the question of meaning.

How to avoid the problem that the absence of reference to the beyond of transcendence translates into a closure of meaning on the sole mechanical signification of signs, or on the market value of what he calls the capitalist "ecotechnics"? The man who was interested in theology before philosophy claimed, in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity (Galilée, 2005; Fordham UP, 2008), a certain "absentheism": the absence of God did not, in his eyes, close the meaning of the question of God. Nancy's work thus contributes to thinking a condition of openness of finitude, which refers neither to a beyond, nor only to the literal and self-referential presence of the things of the world.

Undoubtedly the philosophical gesture key to opening this other way of meaning would be what he calls "excription". By this term, he designates the process of resistance of the meaning to the inscription, that is to say to the language that aims at it. It is this resistance that allows the "declosion" (dis-enclosure) of the question of meaning. Will we one day speak of Nancian excription or of Nacian dis-enclosure, as we speak of Marxist critique or Derridean deconstruction? In any case, Nancy's work magisterially works on the issue of the opening of the sense of finitude.

This finitude of the world, of existence or of the body, which was inscribed – and also excribed - these days in the dispatch announcing the death of Jean-Luc Nancy, "does not constitute the negation of the infinite”, to quote a very beautiful text of 1991 (republished in Le Poids d'une pensée, l'approche (La Phocide, 2008). There is an absolute of the finite. This "absoluteness,” he writes, “is held in the availability of the singular, of the non-totalizable, of the unfinished, of the open, or else of the granular, fractal, dispersed totalities, and in the necessity of contingency, in the rigor of wandering, and in the exposure of this being-exposed that one names ‘existence.’ At the end of ends, that is what it’s all about."

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