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To Be Listening : Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy

29 March 2021

To Be Listening : Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy

Sugababe, Diemut Strebe, 2014. A living bioengineered replica of Vincent van Gogh’s ear, grown from tissue engineered cartilage cells procured from a direct male descendant, Sugababe contains natural DNA from Vincent and genetic engineered components of historical and synthetic DNA; Image credit : Ronald Feldman,

In this interview to PWD, Jean-Luc Nancy talks to Kamran Baradaran about catastrophe, ten years after his book on Fukushima. Calamities and catastrophes have become the password of our days. Since the Fukushima disaster, tragedy and dissolution have once again become an integral part of the world, from the 2008 financial crisis and collapse to the Beirut explosion and the Corona pandemic. Speaking of these catastrophes which leads to a dissolution of what we would like to call a sense of the world, requires its own language, a language that, according to Nancy is equivalent to another capacity to listen, another sensitivity to meaning itself.

KAMRAN BARADARAN: The word “catastrophe” comes from the Greek κατά (down) and στροφή (turning). In the book After Fukushima, you have said that “We are being exposed to a catastrophe of meaning” (p.8). How should we understand the relation, or should we say “equivalence”, between particular catastrophes like Fukushima – and Hiroshima in whose rhyming with Fukushima you had remarked a peculiar poetic meaning – and this catastrophe of meaning which seems to name a more general affliction?

The Hiroshima and Fukushima disasters, as well as those of Chernobyl and others, and the one that is now emerging as the consequence of French nuclear tests in the Pacific, and many other non-nuclear but chemical or economic disasters (such as the recent fire in Beirut) and, more broadly, mass destruction, genocide, the ever more deadly weapons that strike civilians (that is, in a general way, the catastrophe that is the abolition of the distinction between war, guerrilla warfare, management, exploitation...) and all the ecological threats -- these are equivalent despite the very great differences that distinguish them because they are always the effects of a techno-economic control that has no other master than the extent of its means: This in turn leads to a dissolution of what we would like to call a sense of the world.

KB: You have said that “nuclear catastrophe – all differences military or civilian kept in mind – remains the one of potentially irremediable catastrophe, whose effects spread through generations, through the layers of the earth” Years after the Fukushima disaster, not only has this threat not disappeared, but it has also increased in the face of various geopolitical tensions. How are we to overcome irremediable wounds such as Fukushima to prevent similar calamities?

Perhaps we are powerless in the face of our excessive power. The dangers associated with atomic power plants are linked to the need for electricity, which is itself linked to all technical "progress" – military and medical, computation and space, etc. It is not a question of "preventing calamities": it is a question of changing our humanity.

This is why we need another language, that is to say, not new words, but another capacity to listen, another sensitivity to meaning itself... if possible!

KB: The catastrophe and the possibility of the apocalypse raise many questions in terms of categories such as the end. Accordingly, catastrophe can be the endpoint for the repetition of a process, just as the financial crisis was, in many respects, the endpoint for the uninterrupted process of financial capitalism. Is it possible to expect some kind of negative positivity amid a crisis?

The process of financial capitalism has changed but it persists. I do not know if the murderous excess of technologies can affect the technical process - which is not technical at all in the machinic sense but is a general spirit....

If there were a political outcome, we would know it. If there were an ethical outcome, we would know it. It is really about civilisation as a whole...

KB: Over the past few decades we have witnessed many such crossings: nuclear and climate disasters, to the collapse of financial institutions, the defeats of widespread protests, refugee crises, the viral pandemic, climate change. You seem to have written with an eye on both past and future catastrophes when you asked for “a communism of nonequivalence”. Last year you wrote about Covid19 that “the virus communises us”. Can we understand this as a call to solidarity and responsibility which is particularly important. Can the occurrence of a crisis be considered the singular chance to return to collective action?

Calls do not make answers and 'chances' are not necessarily taken. There are as many silences as calls, as many risks as chances. Let's not try to reassure ourselves anymore.

Perhaps we are powerless in the face of our excessive power.

KB: The impossibility of survival after a universal catastrophe has been a serious question, which was also memorably raised by Jacques Derrida in “No Apocalypse, Not Now”. It was also raised in the field of philosophy of literature and art, from Adorno's famous statement on the "barbaric" act of "writing poetry after Auschwitz" to artworks based on the spectacle of abjection, or what Paul Virilio calls SNUFF LITERATURE. After the apocalypse, what art forms are needed to overcome the "illusion of the end” without banal optimism? In After Fukushima, you observed that “That is why the names of Auschwitz and Hiroshima have become names on the outermost margin of names, names that name only a kind of de-nomination—of defiguration, decomposition”. What relation to meaning and language can we hope to have after having repeatedly arrived at this margin of names?

Domination - the prevailing of which Derrida speaks in the text you mention – ruins nomination: it prevents the work of languages which consists in always displacing or questioning the effects of domination. For example, domination by the word "progress"... whereas the meaning of this word, of this name, of all the values that are combined with it, can only displace the very idea of progress as an improving progression – which immediately engages the question of the "best" and therefore of the "good" and therefore of the "evil." This is why we need another language, that is to say, not new words, but another capacity to listen, another sensitivity to meaning itself... if possible! But the possible is always too narrow. It is the impossible that is at stake: what is not possible but the listening of an unheard-of resonance....

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