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“The unstoppable murmur of being together”: Remembering Jean-Luc Nancy

6 June 2023

“The unstoppable murmur of being together”: Remembering Jean-Luc Nancy

Image credit: Die Welt

Hommage to Jean-Luc Nancy.

The story of how I met Jean-Luc for the first time is a testimony to the generosity his thinking leaves us with and the kind of community his writings will continue invoking. It was 2011 and I was an assistant professor of philosophy in Colombia. I had been reading for more or less a year Jean-Luc’s work with a group of amazing brilliant students - who I am still very close to and I still keep very much in interlocution with - after having taught a seminar on the inoperative community. Because of the times we were living in (Colombia was in the midst of a transitional justice process while also very much submerged in the longest armed conflict in the southern cone) reading Nancy’s work at the time felt both like and invitation and an open question. We felt inspired by his way of approaching the question of violence – almost without naming it; by his trust in the power of being in common and the critical importance of taking it up as a task (that “infinite task at the heart of the finite,” as he puts it), while also very much warning us of any political discourse that would invoke it as a goal; by his conception of representation behind which, we suspected, there was a connection between history and narrative that felt so timely and urgent at times when any form of testimony seemed so insufficient to make audible the stories that were finally coming out of the war. 

We all had so many questions and a lack of grammars to put them in words. Putting his own thinking in dialogue with our historical circumstances was an attempt to find resources to render our own lives meaningful, credible, legible – in spite of the gaps that are naturally part of the experience of reading a European author in and from Latin America. This difference, however, does not transpire in his work as irrelevant, or even less as an excluded question. Quite the contrary, the vulnerability in Jean-Luc’s work, the way he was very consistent, as a thinker, with the commitment to a radical exposure -  the sharing and opening of a heart that was his and not his to claim – was the reason we kept coming back to his work once and again, in that difference, and with the intention of turning it into the possibility of the encounter. 

Following the advice of my very good friend Marcia Cavalcante, I wrote to Jean-Luc and told him, simply, we had so many questions for him. I explained the context briefly and sent it out as an email. His reply came right away: he was inviting us all to come to Strasbourg for a three days seminar, just us and him (he could no longer travel overseas, he explained, otherwise he would come to us). He wanted us to come and visit, to listen to our questions, and answer those he felt like he could, but mostly, as he put it, to get together, to be together in thinking. And that’s what it was, really, when we finally got to go and meet with him a couple of years later (the story of how we managed, the 13 of us, to go all the way from Colombia to Strasbourg with no funding available for this kind of traveling … that’s a story for another time). We were indeed together in thinking. We were indeed together. We gathered around his thought but ended up learning how, for him, there was no such a thing as a thought to call his own. Every time we referred to one of his works, instead of going back to what he had written, or had already thought about a subject, he literally started thinking anew… like answering for the first time a question that had never been posed to him before, as if the space opened up between us was the inauguration of a world of sense, an opportunity for its re-circulation, a new site for resonance. (1)

Indeed, Jean-Luc cannot be separated from his philosophy. He practiced it and embodied it so consistently that it honestly came at first as a surprise. This ultimate trust, this ultimate bet his philosophy places on an ontology of being singular plural – at a time when the skepticism and suspicion towards anything that mentioned community was at its highest – was not just a theoretical approach, but a way of living. And this is what was most compelling for us about his thinking. This is, I think, one of the reasons why his thought has been taken up in Latin America in the way it has, and why his notion of inoperative community has become such a referent for many thinkers of the common in our continent. Because while Europe was undergoing an exhaustion of the experience of community and of the concepts that had given place to its historical realization, while European thinkers were worried about the end of democracy as they had known it and the need for an interruption of the political structures that had allowed it to become a threat to the political, in Latin America many voices (decolonial, anti-colonial, feminist and anti-racist) were raising to claim the need for a thinking of the commons, of the under-commons, of other ways of being in common that cannot be understood and cannot fit those modern, mostly white, thoroughly colonial, historically European approaches to community. 

Jean-Luc was a thinker that dared to insist on the need to think of the common at a time of (its) crisis. In Latin America, voices raise every day to insist on the need to think of comunidad in the context of a crisis of time itself, asking for other aesthetics, other temporalities altogether. Everyday communities are rewriting history with a claim to their right to exist, with the very resistance that only being in common can offer – as Jean-Luc wrote in The inoperative community: the restless resistance that being in common poses to the constant attempts to its destruction. Interrupting these attempts, once and again, is the “task of community;” not a goal or a project but rather the possibility of imagining (and thus bringing into existence) those worlds that live through the fissures of that over-saturated language of totality – and of the totality that is represented by that abstract concept of individuality that runs through our contemporary political and economic systems, as Nancy pointed out once and again in his work. Let me quote him in length here from that seminar in Strasbourg in 2013; because I think only the echo of his voice can do justice to the relevance and timeliness of his thinking today – and today more than ever: 

what happens when a speaker is interrupted or interrupts themselves? Their speech does not come to an end; it is just suspended and will go on. Or maybe when an interruption takes place something does go on, something that no longer has to do only with listening. My feeling, my relief or my craziness is to imagine that during the interruption something like a murmur goes on between all of us; the unstoppable murmur of being together (just imagine what would happen if it stopped). […] This – if nothing else – is what constitutes an absolute ground of resistance. The evidence is that, in order to shatter this resistance, hate and violence are necessary. A selfishness so great that it destroys the very ego that seeks to isolate itself is needed to break this resistance. 

Against this selfishness, we have the generosity of Jean-Luc’s thought. Not just his generosity, but the essential generosity his thinking claims as being at the ground of what we are: the generosity of an ear always attentive, always ready to listen to the murmur, the unstoppable murmur of being together, that reminds us of our responsibility to care for the world, and the duty to defend as our ultimate imperative the right of every being to be audible, infinitely, without end.



1. The final version of these meetings, after their transcription and a thorough process of editing in which Jean-Luc was very involved, is coming out as a book with Fordham University press.  

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