In Memory of Jean-Luc Nancy: So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away
11 October 2021
Roots or Dancing Blossom, Mohammad Farnam; Image credit: received.
In Memory of Jean-Luc Nancy
“Als das Kind Kind war,
warf es einen Stock als Lanze gegen den Baum,
und sie zittert da heute noch.”
Lied Vom Kindsein, Peter Handke
It is not easy to write about loss, especially when one is unsure of its nature. Grieving and reminiscing about the privation can be easier for someone who knows what has been lost. After all, nostalgia is a longing for something that is past, in the hope that the present can be more bearable. Writing, however, does not have any other responsibility than trying to get closer to some promise that may never be fulfilled, whether it is a promise of viens or of an à-dieu.
With this in mind, writing about an unseen friend, someone you have long dreamed of meeting, seems impossible. To overcome this Différend, this inability to speak in available discourse genres or failure to express her/his own experience in such a way that the others understand her/his words, one has to listen to the voices calling him/her from beyond the history. Contrary to what Martin Heidegger thought, it is not the poet who calls the past, but these are voices of the past that call poet. And the writer is always exposed to these sounds which address him/her. For instance, Karl Marx and Charles Baudelaire call Walter Benjamin and he writes Arcades Project as a response. That is how writing begins: not by trying to restore the past, but rather by showing that fulfilling the former and the promises it made is inherently impossible. That is why, in writing about Jean-Luc Nancy, I have to go so far back in time that it seems as though it belongs to another world, separated from me, awaiting an autopsy with its cold body.
A dark and cold evening in Tehran, November 2012; high on caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, the streets of the city center crawled under my feet. New books, new authors, and appealing covers adorned the shelves of the bookstore. Georges Bataille's The Accursed Share was translated, as was a translation of a book by Kristeva, and the ledges were filled with a cheap, but popular, romance novel, and in the meantime, poor people of this rusty city were rubbing against each other with a sense of total surrender. Wandering among the pillars of paper, a small book with a dark red cover caught my eye, titled The Truth of Democracy, by Jean-Luc Nancy. Henry Miller said a long time ago that a book “lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation...” (1) So, with no hesitation I began the vicious process of intellectual dissemination!
My young brain trembled as I read the lines I had encountered with for the first time: “The share of what is without value – the share of the sharing (out) of the incalculable, which is thus, strictly speaking, unshareable – exceeds politics.” (2) A few years later, coincidentally, a publisher suggested that I translate Nancy's book, The Inoperative Community. Due to several reasons, I could not take up this chance and instead agreed to edit the Persian translation, which sadly was never completed. Years later, as I got to know Nancy better, another publisher suggested that I translate his book on Fukushima, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes. As with the previous episode, there was also no opportunity to do so, and the verbal confrontation with this strange and uncanny figure was postponed for another time. One might wonder, however, when the time will come. Can time be regained, as Proust tried to do in his masterpiece?
“But sometimes it is just when everything seems to be lost that we experience a presentiment that may save us; one has knocked on all the doors which lead nowhere, and then, unwittingly, one pushes against the only one through which one may enter and for which one would have searched in vain for a hundred years, and it opens.” (3)
Only after becoming acquainted with Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi did I have the possibility of this regaining once again in the form of a large family that had opened its arms to me. The time regained opens a new window for friendship and camaraderie, a hatch into the singular, namely, "being other" in the world and not being one with any of the existing divisions of the domination system. But then again, as Derrida argues, friendship should not be too stable, and should not railroad the future into its habitual expectations, which is to deny not only the difference of the other person, but also the more radical difference that time insinuates into any and every friendship. And this instability is best portrayed by the word absence, something that, as Divya Dwivedi puts it marvelously, “is with me, how could I imagine running towards or away from it?” (4)
Talking about Nancy's teachings is not effortless for someone like me, especially in the form of a short text. Contemplating the depth of Nancy's influence on my thinking, my perspective on literature and philosophy requires a tremendous amount of endeavor. Nevertheless, I do not wish to think of narration as trivial, to postpone it to the future, hoping that one day I will find what it takes to tackle it. As I learned a long time ago, writing means embracing existence with its non-existence: unlimited spending, without end and object. Isn’t it the case that, as Blanchot has shown, every person within himself/herself is an anonymous and nameless writing?
Jean-Luc thought me of a community that does not come together on the basis of imaginary identity, but on the basis of “non-communion”. The world he created and the family he belongs to is open to all, any reader can receive and join a writing, with no prior communion and no hierarchy. For me, there was and still is a sense of awe, of powerful, vast, and complex feeling in interacting with his ideas, something experienced as boundlessness that can eventually overwhelm or even destroy the observer. He courageously acknowledged that in an era when philosophy seems to be taking its last breath and "has become the specialty of non-specialists, of the handlers of ideas and evaluations, each of whom speaks according to his or her own opinion", in a dystopian condition of accelerationism and uninterruptible war, philosophy, as the ultimate form of critical and creative thinking "has become the noble name for opinion."(5)
The antidote to this uncanny tension between the logistic and the strategic, between the preparation for specialized and mechanized war and a situation in which military technologies and an accompanying technocratic system come to control every aspect of life, according to Nancy, is a Community without community, “always coming, endlessly, at the heart of every collectivity.” (6) For me, and I dare to say for all of us, this community (in all its forms) is the ultimate gift, the legacy of Jean-Luc, but not as something that Marcel Mauss or even Georges Bataille describe, something that burns and consumes but wastes much of its energy. On the contrary, Nancy knew that as Derrida has shown, whenever someone gives something and the object given is acknowledged as such, it inevitably enters a circle of exchange and the gift given turns out to be a debt to be paid and returned, cancelling the gift that by nature is supposed to be free with no return whatsoever. Jean-Luc's gift was a perfect one, something that would escape the aporia of circulation, a future gift that never arrives. This is the madness of Nancy's gift precisely because it does not follow any logical rules and contradicts itself. This is exactly the suspension and exile that causes the symbolic system to be deprived of its identity.
Whenever we think of a gift, at the same time it disappears and escapes our common way of thinking and our common sense. And isn't it what we all learned from you, my dear unseen friend, that there are times that disappearance signals an entire epoch, an entire chance for philosophy “in the time of an intense transformation of the world… a time whose entire nature and significance are to be found in the mutation, metamorphosis, and changing of the world”? (7) In other words, as you elaborated years ago, as far as the question of the disappearance of presentation is concerned, we might never know where we are! And so we enter the realm of "the disappearing", a dimension where the principles of disappearance vanishes!
A perplex and nexus matter, disappearance is not just about loss, but more importantly, what is disappearing? What is the Being that seizes to exits and reveals its emptiness before us? Here, the multiple and differential character of Being that Nancy articulated finds its most importance: as far as the singular characteristic of Being is concerned, Being cannot be One, and we cannot formulate it simply as a gathering. In this philosophical structure, emerges a philosophy regardless of the mechanisms that try to simplify and formulate it. In the act of disappearance, we encounter the other with all its discontents and otherness, a kind of opening to the community. Accordingly, the point is not to recognize ourselves in strangers, but to recognize a stranger in ourselves. (8) Hence, comes the radicality of love that breaks us up. In contrast with the tradition of love, which sermonize of immanence and perfection and can be found in almost every classic Iranian poetry (from Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī to Hafez), Nancy speaks of a shattered subject. In this sense, love implies the impossibility of jouissance, of a disintegrated reunion or in general, a failed absolute.
From Jean-Luc I learned that the experience of love exposes us to being jarred out of the very perfection love seems to promise, that the break itself is what makes the heart, a break that fills the world with its noise. And this is the noise of the world, the noise of all things, as Shaj Mohan puts it: "The noise of all things is the background against which the voice of philosophy is heard—something like a philosophical background noise." (9) This breaking, this rhythmic disappearance, cuts the so-called normal order of things, of life and all its limits, tested against the "rhythm of the partition of being, syncope of the sharing of singularity." (10)
Jean Baudrillard once said that there is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room. I, on the other hand, believe that there is nothing more peculiar and bizarre than a room lying empty to the Meaning of meanings, naked and vulnerable to something which does not allow us to pass it over. This is an experience that a collectivity cannot make its work or its property, something that exposes a radical meaninglessness that cannot be subsumed. Isn't this impoverishment of that which resists any appropriation or objectification what we all experience in the act of loss? Isn't it a fact that, once face with the tragic loss of a loved one, the trauma resides not so much in what actually happened, but in "the undeniable fear or apprehension of a threat that is worse and still to come"? (11) What is more terrifying than standing in a room filled with noises surrounding it's mere presence? And this is yet again another thing I learned from Jean-Luc, that "the abyss is otherness as such. Unknown and unknowable", that groundless and startled, "this otherness is what we must think – must and should, one more time." (12)
Umberto Eco once said that most of what we have accumulated will not be lost in the end; rather we are "leaving a message in a bottle." I cannot think of better way to pause. This great achievement is always endless and inexhaustible: there is no end, no interruption and we only need to find the right way to articulate it. As Jean-Luc told me once, “we need another language, that is to say, not new words, but another capacity to listen, another sensitivity to meaning itself... if possible!” (13)
1. Miller, Henry, The Books in My Life, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1969, p. 32.
2. Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Truth of Democracy, translated by Michael Naas and Pascale-Anne Brault, Fordham University Press, 2010, p. 17.
3. Proust, Marcel, In Search of Lost Time, Volume VI, Time Regained, translated by Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin, Modern Library, p. 136.
4. Dwivedi, Divya, “The Audacity of Jean-Luc Nancy,” Philosophy-World-Democracy, September 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/grace/the-audacity-of-jean-luc-nancy
5. Nancy, Jean-Luc, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Philosophy World Democracy, July 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/the-end-of-philosophy
6. Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Inoperative Community, edited by Peter Connor, Translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1991,0 p. 71.
7. Nancy, Jean-Luc, “Philosophy as Chance: An Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy,” interview to Lorenzo Fabbri, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Critical Inquiry 33, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007, p. 440.
8. See Slavoj Žižek, “What our fear of refugees says about Europe,” New Statesman 29 February 2016: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2016/02/slavoj-zizek-what-our-fear-refugees-says-about-europe
9. Mohan, Shaj, The Noise of All Things, “Philosophy-World-Democracy” journal, June 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/articles-1/the-noise-of-all-things
10. The Inoperative Community, p99.
11. Derrida, J., Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. P. Brault and M. Naas, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, p104-5.
12. Nancy, Jean-Luc, Before the Abyss, “Philosophy-World-Democracy” journal, April 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/articles-1/before-the-abyss
13. Nancy, Jean-Luc, To Be Listening; interview with Kamran Baradaran, “Philosophy-World-Democracy” journal, March 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/to-be-listening