Jean-Luc Nancy: A rare philosopher who lives beyond death

13 December 2021

Jean-Luc Nancy: A rare philosopher who lives beyond death

In Memoriam - Jean-Luc Nancy. In this dialogue, Osamu Nishitani and Yotetsu Tonaki, who translated Nancy's writings and were close friends of him, discuss this rare philosopher who lives beyond death.

A philosopher of Openness whose thought remains actual beyond death

Osamu Nishitani: I believe that Jean-Luc Nancy was an extremely contemporary philosopher who was the first one to go beyond death while living, or to live beyond death, and continued to weave his thoughts in the field of “the impossibility of death or its share.” Whenever various events occurred in the world, he developed his thoughts one after another in response to the demands of a variety of people. He was a person who thought at the present while traversing all divisions. Nao Sawada, for example, has written an excellent monograph on Nancy, from which you can get the essential ideas of Nancy's philosophy.

I have known Nancy first as a reader and translator, and then as a personal friend for the past 30 years. Mr. Tonaki is more than a generation younger than I am. Young people like you have a different default situation for thinking about things from our generation, and your ideas and perspectives are also different. That doesn't mean I think our generation is "outdated," though. Mr. Tonaki, you have been working around Nancy, especially after 3.11 [March 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami]. I've also worked with you on Jean-Pierre Dupuy and the Catastrophe Theory. I believe it was because of a common magnetic field of resonance. Now that Nancy has passed away and his work has stopped, I would like to ask you what kind of person Nancy was to people of your generation, and how you perceive his death.

Yotetsu Tonaki: As you said, I had been communicating with Nancy through translation since “3.11”, Fukushima catastrophe in 2011. We had discussions, he invited me to his home in Strasbourg, and he treated me with open arms. When he came to Japan in 2017, he had to be hospitalized in Tokyo and I accompanied him to the hospital. It was in fact a strange experience for me to have a personal exchange with Jean-Luc Nancy, a great philosopher whom I had previously known only through the texts.

Although many philosophers have passed away in the past, I cannot sort out my feeling yet to accept the death of Jean-Luc Nancy the philosopher, and the death of Jean-Luc, my personal friend, nor I am able to accept them properly.

Nevertheless, ever since I was asked to participate in this dialogue, I have been thinking about how I could summarize in a few words what kind of philosopher Nancy was. I can’t find the answer yet, but as you said, he was able to see through a wide variety of issues because he saw the situations from the perspective of a philosopher beyond death. He listened carefully to every voice, not only to talk about every issue but to develop the discussion carefully. In this sense, I think he was a philosopher of Openness, as Nancy himself used sometimes the expression. Nancy's contemporaries, such as Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Rancière, are excellent philosophers, and I think they had this tendency as well, but what characterized Nancy in particular was this stance, and I think that is why he was able to discuss situations without making a hasty decision. He talked about disasters and technology, as in After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, which I was involved in translation, but he also talked about art and love. I think this attitude was the way he was as a philosopher.

Nishitani: Now you mentioned Openness, which is Heidegger's term, and Agamben also appropriated it. When Nancy thought about “the experience of freedom”, he tried to open Heidegger's term Openness in a different direction.

Even before I went to France, I had heard that there was a sharp philosopher around Derrida who also had a strong approach to literature and psychoanalysis, along with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. However, it was when Blanchot published The Unavowable Community that I became interested in Nancy all at once. At the time, I was having a hard time writing about Bataille, and when this book by Blanchot came out, I thought “This is it”. I even thought that I didn’t have to write about Bataille. Because the paper by Blanchot was written under the impact of Nancy’s paper, I looked for and read it. It had a great impact as it seemed to blow a hole in the history of 20th century thought. I don't think I fully understood the scope of the paper at first, but after a few years, I think I clearly realised its significance.

It can be said that he rescued and opened up the question of being-with (community) from Heidegger.

Heidegger's major challenge was how to overcome the Western metaphysics of the Subject. It was illustrated in Being and Time in a sense successfully. Heidegger dissolved the absoluteness of the subject by beginning with the fact that the “I” is impersonal that has the characteristics of Geworfenheit [thrownness], with the term Dasein or Das Man [anyone] , and such Subject is passively being in the world. He rephrased the Subject as Dasein, and showed that it is basically Mitsein [being-with]. I think there was a backlash and criticism against the so-called individualism of Western modernity. What Ferdinand Tönnies theorized was that the organization from community to society is an irreversible process of history, that is, modernization, and that its principle lies in the emancipation and independence of the individual, but there were doubts and objections to this theory of modernization.

In Heideggerian terms, death dictates human’s finitude, and in death, communality is revealed, and by accepting this, Dasein awakens to Eigentlichkeit [authenticity]. Heidegger derived the logic to entrust the awakening of Dasein to the community of the people[Vork] as a historical formation. Heidegger's logic had a great impact on many intellectuals, but he saw its manifestation in the Nazi phenomenon ("the rise of the people") of the time. However, this is why it has since become a taboo to question "community" and "communality" in philosophy, political science, and sociology.

Thoughts on Share, Living After a Heart Transplant

Nishitani: However, Nancy made it possible to question "community" without getting caught up in the discourse of communism and totalitarianism, nor the movement to totalize existence by playing with negativity. This inspired Blanchot to write The Unavowable Community. In his text, The Inoperative Community, Nancy showed that être [being] cannot be singular, but is always avec [with], and that avec is what makes each being possible. It is not possible to talk about the being in general, but only about individual beings. I won't go into the details of the process of theorizing it, but Nancy said that this avec [with] that makes existence possible is not any entity like joint or glue, but rather a disconnect. In other words, there is a separation between A and B, and this separation itself binds both together. Both of them share the separation and disconnection and it makes them possible to being individual beings. This is the être-avec [being-with]. Each being is always in a plural relationship. In short, existence can only be enabled by “with" or "in cooperation”. Each being has a number of cutting planes, and shares its various cutting planes with others. The difference that they are not exactly the same is "shared" and "divided" by both. That is the logic of Nancy's “partage" [share].

Partage [Share] is an unmediated touch, it is not an object of perception, nor a matter of thought, but a relation of sens [sense]. Each difference comes up in the dark, so to speak, and it is a sensory thing that you will notice gradually later. At the same time, that is sens, the meaning. It could be the sense of heat, or it could be the sense of icily cold. He developed the discussion to say that this is passion.

Nancy believed that it was partage [share] after all that had made Western metaphysics possible, and he clarified and updated the history of Western philosophy by as it were passing an electric current through it. It can be said that he rescued and opened up the question of being-with (community) from Heidegger.

This is Nancy's crucial contribution, and what becomes important here is his own heart transplant. At the age of fifty, he was no longer able to live on as himself (Eigentlichkeit [ authenticity]), and the decision to transplant is left to others who share the existence with. It was also technologically possible, and there was Other who could donate the organ to the medical network. The people around him all wanted him to live. Then Nancy's own heart was removed and someone else's heart was transplanted into it. This means that he would die once. When he regained consciousness, Nancy was literally living off by the heart of Other. In this way, he came to live the partage [share] on the biological and physical conditions that had made his existence possible. Nancy would subsequently go through his thoughts, including what the world is, what technology is, and what medicine is.

In The Intruder, Nancy deals with the issue of immigration as well as the issue of heart transplants. In this text, Nancy reflects on what he does not think as a subject that makes full use of modern science and technology, but thinks himself who lives in the midst of this complex and what he thinks as such a being. He would develop his philosophical thinking about the contemporary age, in which life has come to the point of being artificialized through transplantation technology.

Still from L’intrus by Claire Denis; Image Credit:

I met Nancy in person in 1991, when I stayed in Paris. It was just after the Gulf War. And in response, a major symposium on philosophy was held in Tunisia in 1992. The theme was “Sujet et citoyenneté" ("Subject and Citizenship”). Lacoue-Labarthe, Balibar and Agamben were also invited there, but Nancy could not come due to severe post-transplant rejection. In the 30 years since then, I have known Nancy, he has been a person who was beyond death, so to speak. I think he lived in a state where the beyond of death was in his body, and he thought based on that state.

Talk about the situation, community and politics around the 1980s

Tonaki: I think you have said everything that is important. All I can do is state it in a slightly different way.

Nancy's thought about community emerged in the 1980s. Until then, it was difficult to talk positively about community, at least in the context of the French philosophy. At the same time, the liberal-communitarian debate was taking place in the English-speaking world, where community tended to be associated with traditional or conservative values, such as the concept of the “common good”. Nancy raised the idea of the “inoperative community” at this moment, to help us think about community in a different way.

Until the 1970s, Marxism was still dominant in France in various fields. When Mitterrand formed a Socialist government, at first the Communist Party joined it, it turned out that the Mitterrand government also turned to neoliberal policies. On the other hand, there was an symbolic incident in a Paris suburb in the late 1970s where a communist mayor bulldozed an inn for immigrants from Mali, in the name of the rights of French workers, while eliminating immigrants who were taking their jobs. Balibar left the party after this incident.

On the other hand, with the publication of Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition in 1979, the “grand narrative”, including Marxism, began to rattle. In the mid-80s, the war crimes trial of Nazi SS officer Klaus Barbie was held in France, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah was released, and the issues of Auschwitz and the problem of the “collaboration” were rekindled. It was in the midst of the so-called postmodern era that Nancy raised the idea of community.

Nishitani: You are right. Around the same time, the historical revisionism started.

Tonaki: Yes, that's right. And it was during that period that Heidegger's complicity with the Nazis became an issue as well. Nancy's work with Lacoue-Labarthe, in particular, presented the nature of community in a way that didn't aestheticize politics nor turn politics into some sorte of “work” (oeuvre) . I think that was also breakthrough.

Not only that: the 1980s was the time when French contemporary philosophy first took seriously what politics is. Until then, in the Marxist scheme, political systems and political philosophy had been considered as simply based on superstructures. At this moment, Nancy, together with Claude Lefort among others, began to raise the question of the political (le politique). From there, he went on to present a number of important philosophical concepts, such as Inoperative Community, Compearance and Being Singular Plural.

What is characteristic of this is that, as you mentioned earlier, each individual being shares a variety of disconnected aspects with others. For this, Nancy did not think of partage [share] as a kind of value that should be pursued, but rather as something that is multi-layered and constantly renewed.


Discussion about immunity, sensation, sex, love, and technology

Tonaki: For example, after Nancy had the heart transplant, he had to take immunosuppressive drugs ever since. In 2017, when he came to Japan for the international symposium "Myth, Community and Fiction: From Bataille to Nancy" at Keio University to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Bataille's birth, Nancy could not attend the symposium because he fell and was hospitalized. When blood came out from the injured area, he could not get any medicine into his body to stop the bleeding due to the immunosuppressive drugs. Based on these real-life experiences, Nancy was also thinking about what immunity is.

Immunity is the ability to suppress the invasion of others or foreign substances in order to maintain the identity of the self. Therefore, lowering the immune system means accepting the situation in which others must enter the self, renewing or destructing the self. In this way, the identity of the self becomes more fluid. I think Nancy had always had this idea.

I was impressed that Nancy talked about the palpitations of the transplanted heart. He said that he was kept alive by the African woman who gave him the heart and that the Other continued to live in his body. Whether it is the Fukushima catastrophe or the recent virus, the barriers between human beings and technology, between nature and artifice, are becoming more and more fluid, and as a result, human beings must always be in a state of transcending themselves. I think that Nancy's idea of community was based on this experience of constantly renewing the boundaries, shared with Others.

As communism declined, there was a resurgence of religion, but Nancy did not defend communism, nor did he turn to religion, nor did he get caught up in ideology, but he actually opened up a philosophical discussion on the lost idea of being-with.

In this respect, sens (sense) and passion that you mentioned earlier are also important. As Nancy said, sens in French means a sense, meanings, and directions, while passion is exactly what we accept. Our senses accept things that come from outside. This is exactly what the English word “sensor” means. Through the sensor, the body can take in or not take in what comes in from the outside. The body is in contact with the world through its various organs. It can be said that such sensors are the very place where division occurs. It is a boundary surface that enables us to accept what comes from outside.

Nishitani: You're right. Nancy was acutely aware of the fact that he was thinking under such conditions. Meditation has to assume the subject transcendentally, but Nancy weaved his thoughts on the level that he was living the partage [share]. I think he was a philosopher who faced the issues of globalization and technology while drawing on the philosophical traditions of the West. I remember also that he organized at Strasbourg with Lacoue-Labarth Le Carrefour de la literature, inviting notably Fethi Benslama and Edouard Glissant.

Tonaki: To add a little more about the sense, I think that for Nancy, the important thing was listening. Nancy wrote a book titled Listening, the subject of which was to listen. Whereas seeing is an experience where we can actively choose whether to look this way or that way, listening is more passive, where we are forced to listen to what comes from outside. Rather than formulating a philosophy of his own, Nancy listened closely to various things and thought while listening. This can be seen in his theory of hearing.

Nishitani: Heidegger also said "Listen to what existence says” and “Listen to the call of conscience.” Marlene Zarader has shown, though, it was a plagiagism of Jewish tradition. Anyway, Heidegger lapsed when he reduced Mitsein [being-with] to people, but then he reconsidered the origins of the modern world and moved on to the problems of the age of world image and technological theory. He continued to say that cybernetics leaded the Ge-stell [enframing], and since metaphysics has been dissolved into it, it is das Geschick [destiny] and the rest is left to Gelassenheit [releasement], but still it is the duty of thought to "listen to what the Being says.”

Nancy, on the other hand, emphasized sens [sense] and said that partage [share] is not to share something, but that partage itself is avec [with] and that avec can only exist in terms of avec [with], and that avec is, so to speak, the existence of absence. He went on to discuss about avec [with] in terms of the dimension of listening with the senses of the body, rather than entrusting oneself to something transcendent such as God. At the beginning I mentioned “beyond death," that it is "exposé" [exposed] rather than extase [ecstasy], and from that touching (to the eardrum) was rooted.

Tonaki: When Heidegger said hearing the voice of existence, he said something like it came from ancient Greece. Sartre and Levinas both criticized Heidegger's Dasein as not having sex and not being hungry. Nancy discussed the issues of the body, sex and love as well as the issues technology relating to our mode of existence, which Heidegger did not address. Nancy argued in his recently published book, Sexistence, that sex is not a mere act or biological regulation of human beings, but is intrinsically related to the mode of existence itself, and he also considered philosophically the issues of love, eros, and desire. From this point of view, it is characteristic that he also discussed the theory of community in a way that is inherited from Bataille.

Image Credit: Fordham University Press

Relationship with Bataille and Blanchot, issues of Christianity and Western norms

Nishitani: I think Nancy is one of the philosophers who took Bataille seriously. Bataille said that there was little point in discussing sex and death unless we dissolved into a living existence (body). The foundation of human existence is biological life, but the crucial difference between human and other creatures is that we talk, that is, human is the creature with language. But humans persists through reproduction. That is why humans are also sexual beings, and only humans engage in sexual behavior through language and consciousness. So he called that realm eroticism. It was Bataille who brought into Western philosophical thought the idea that existence could not be described without sex. In response, Nancy regarded Bataille as a person who “has gone farthest into the crucial experience of community” and developed his own thinking through his interpretation of Bataille's attempt. I think the reason why Nancy has been able to articulate issues of love and sexuality is because he took Bataille seriously. Lately I am thinking a lot about who Bataille was, and trying to write a theory of Bataille.

Tonaki: From the manuscript that Nancy prepared for the symposium at Keio University in 2005, I felt that he had been keeping the issue of Bataille alive in his mind for a long time (ref. Tayo-tai [Manifold] No. 2). Initially, Nancy was introduced as a Derridaist and a theorist of the deconstruction of Christianity, but I myself felt that Nancy's thought was elusive. Since that symposium, I have been able to see the outline of Nancy's thought in relation to Bataille and Blanchot.

And there are young researchers in Japan who are specializing in Nancy’s thought, including Ryosuke Kakinami and Junichiro Ito, the translator of An All-Too-Human Virus, which was published in Japan in August this year. I am looking forward to the publication of their works that discuss Nancy in a coherent manner.

On the other hand, Nancy also edited Levinas's draft on the subject of eros (Levinas.

Volume 3, Eros, littérature et philosophie : essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d'éros), which I also participated in the translation in Japanese. Both of them shared many common themes, but surprisingly, Nancy told me that he had read very little Levinas until then. I think it is necessary to consider the meaning of his approach to Levinas in his later years. Perhaps it will give us a clue to think about Others and being-with in a different way.