Final Remarks on Jean-Luc Nancy


This is the third consecutive post I have devoted to French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s ongoing project of rereading Christianity–rereading it in a way I find very suggestive for the study of trauma.  Today’s post contains my philosophical journal entries, first written on the dates indicated below, on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure:  The Deconstruction of Christianity, translated by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008).

 One of the reasons for the strong appeal Nancy’s effort at recovering Christianity (largely from itself) has for me, lies in his consistent, insistent rejection of any sort of cheap and easy “redemption” or “salvation.”  So, for example, on page 20 of Dis-Enclosure he writes:  “If I am undertaking, at present, a meditation on monotheism, it is not to seek in it some way out, some remedy or salvation.  ‘Salvation’ represents, on the contrary [to what he is attempting], the confirmation of the world of nihilism by the necessity of the redemption that it asserts.”  In Dis-Enclosure and elsewhere, Nancy is careful repeatedly to reject any redemption or salvation so conceived.  Accordingly, his thought makes room for, and thereby respects, the lesson that the Holocaust, the definitive “historical trauma,” and, indeed, that trauma in general, teaches–the lesson that there is no such “redemption” possible, as I have explored in some of my earlier posts at this site.

A little later in the book, in a critical reading of Heidegger in and as a chapter called “On a Divine Wink [German for “hint”],” Nancy also provides grounds for thought on the connection between the Wink or hint, translation (which winkt or hints when it makes an exception for an “untranslatable” word, such as “Wink” itself, just as it functions in the title of Nancy’s essay–and as he perfectly well knows), and sovereignty, which especially today attempts to establish itself on the declaration of “exceptions” to the presumed rule of law, exceptions necessitated by such public or historical traumas as the attacks of September 11, 2001.  (To cite Carl Schmitt’s famous definition, “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”) 

Thus, Nancy writes on page 106:  “The exception of the untranslatable constitutes the law of translation. . . . Where there is exception, there is sovereignty.  What is sovereign is the idiom that declares itself to be untranslatable.”  Then, in the very next paragraph (on page 107), he goes on to write:  “Sovereign is the translator who decides to suspend the translation, leaving instead the word in the original.”  Then he proceeds to express a double connection between the Wink and sovereignty: 

Thus we can establish, on the one hand, that the Wink is sovereign, and on the other, correlatively, that the sovereign winkt. . . . Nothing is more specifically characteristic of sovereign majesty than the frown, the wink, the expression said to be ‘imperceptible,’ the reply to which is called a ‘sign of complicity,’ in the sense that, in that complicity, connivance precedes and exceeds understanding, in the sense that complicity has already understood whatever it is that has not been openly offered up to the understanding, but is expected.  The Wink opens an expectation at the same time as an impatience to which the decision to understand without waiting, in the twinkling of an eye, responds.

In his essay on the Wink Nancy connects Heidegger’s notion of “the last God” as the God who winkt, with  Derrida’s différance (the ordinary spelling of which, in French as in English, uses an e where Derrida writes, instead, an a)–noting in the process that the a in différance is itself a Wink (the very difference to which it calls attention can only be indicated in writing, since as pronounced in French there is no difference between the word written with an a and written with an e)–and with the idea of what passes by, as Heidegger says “the last god” passes by and is the last god only in so passing.  In that connection (of connections) itself, Nancy sees a Wink that opens upon “another sense”–a sense other than that of sovereignty, including, especially and essentially (since, as Derrida taught in Speech and Phenomena, there can be no “meaning” without “indication,” which is to say without any winken that opens the space for “signification”) the sovereignty of “meaning” itself (of that very sense of sense).

On page 113, Nancy writes, on this “other sense”: 

It is not the sense of the other or of an other [as in, say, Levinas], but the other of sense and an other sense, an always other sense that begins freelyif freedom consists in the beginning, and not in the completion, of a new series of events, a new sending back and forth of sense.  This inaugural and never terminal freedom accedes to that excess of sense–which is its sense, which is to say also the sense of being–as if to a climax, a supreme or a sublime that we cannot (and this is precisely the point) call “supreme being,” and that corresponds rather to the suspension of the supreme or of the foundation by which sovereignty declares itself.

This other sense is–to use the title of the next chapter from Nancy’s book, which reflects on a notion of Roland Barthes’, as the preceding essay does on a notion of Heidegger’s–“an exempting from sense.”  Nancy observes (pages 125-126) that to “exempt” is “to relieve of an obligation, to free, to exonerate from a duty or debt.”  Thus, “an exempting from sense” requires (to make sense) that “first sense must have been posited at the level of an obligation, an injunction of some sort . . . an imperative. . . . We have to make sense and produce sense, or else produce ourselves as sense.”  Later (still on page 126) he adds that “the formally sublime dignity of the ‘person’ and anonymous monetary circulation [which defines global market capitalism, of course]” are but the two sides of the single coin of what sets (itself) up (as) the sovereign–and together, as globalization of market economics, constitute the process to which “the other sense” of the preceding chapter on the Wink would be “other.”  Nancy then goes on, still on the same page: 

The wanting-to-say [that is, the “meaning”:  vouloir dire, in French, which literally means “to want to say”] commanded by sense always consists, in sum, in a wanting-to-have-said (“I have said” is the word of the master).  An exempting from  sense, by contrast, designates a wanting-to-say [a “meaning”] in which the wanting melts into the saying and gives up wanting, so that sense is absent and makes sense beyond sense.

“There is no sense that is not shared,” Nancy has said already, at the start of his essay on an exemption from sense.  Returning to that observation on the last page of the same essay he writes:

Sense is shared or it does not exist.  The contrasting couple of the exclusive ineffable and the general equivalent, or, if you prefer, of negative theology and monetary ontology, is the result of the disintegration of sharing itself, in which each of the two senses falls to a single side.  Unique sense, in sum, is always unilateral, and no longer has any sense for that very reason.  Nor is it a question of juxtaposing multiple senses.  Here’s the point:  What makes sense is one person speaking to another, just as what makes love is someone making love to someone else.  And one being the other by turns or simultaneously, without there being an end to these comings and goings.  The goal–if we must speak of a goal–is not to be one with sense.  It is not even mutual understanding:  it is to speak anew.

 Then, at the bottom of the same page, he ends the chapter with this:  “And there we have, if I still dare use this word, an ethics for our time–and more than an ethics.”

Nancy then follows with a third excellent chapter, on “Prayer Demythified,” at the end of which (pages 137-138) he writes the following reflections, which illuminate fanaticism as the most destructive form of the endeavor to avoid or deny trauma–though he does not himself use that term.  What he says applies not only to contemporary religious fanaticism of whatever sort, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian–as in the murder in Kansas just a few days ago of Dr. George Tiller, in the name of the protection of the “rights of the as yet unborn,” as it has sometimes been put.  It also applies to Nazi and fascist fanaticism, as Nancy’s own remarks make clear, and to all other forms of political fanaticism, “religious” in professed motivation or not.  Above all, Nancy’s analysis casts light on the connections between distortions of language and the fanatical avoidance of trauma, just as his earlier discussion of the Wink casts light on the connections between translation and sovereignty.  Nancy writes:  “Fanaticism is nothing but the abolition of the intractable distance of the real [the traumatic structure of “reality” as such, in effect], and consequently also the extinction of prayer and all speech, in favor of effusive outpouring, eructation, and vociferation.” 

In contrast to all such denial and distortion, prayer as such, as he has been arguing in the essay on prayer that precedes that comment on fanaticism, is nothing but the lifting up, the elevation, of the saying that is prayer itself.  Hence, he goes on: 

In the elevation of prayer, a supplication also, albeit “accessory,” cannot fail to intervene, for in it [that is, in prayer] is revealed the “poverty” [of all human speech itself].  The fact is “poor humanity” may have nothing else to pray.  Prayer thus conceived does not enrich, does not remunerate the “poor humanity” that we today have just as many reasons to bemoan [as ever].  It carries poverty over to saying–and it isn’t poverty but saying that is obliterated in this prayer.  Does not the same apply (isn’t it the same thing) to the  saying of love, the saying of mourning, and the saying of speech itself?

However that may be–and clearly his questions function rhetorically here–Nancy concludes that to

concern ourselves with this empty remnant [Note that term!] of prayer, remain faithful to this obligation . . . , [f]or us . . . has the force of a categorical imperative, for nothing today is more important than this:  to empty and let be emptied out all prayers that negotiate a sense, an issue, or a repatriation of the real within the narrow confines of our faded humanisms and clenched religiosities, in order that we may merely open speech once again to its most proper possibility of address, which also makes up all its sense and all its truth.

Trauma calls for just and only such prayer as response–a prayer that lifts up trauma and the traumatized themselves, and, in raising them up, obliterates not trauma and the traumatized but the praying voice itself, vanishing behind what it exhausts itself in lifting up.  Such a remnant prayer, which expropriates those who pray–dis-appropriating them of all their own property, in order that they may at last pray properly–is the only proper prayer, indeed, the only proper speech, of those remnant communities, as I have called them, that are the only real communities, in any world of trauma such as ours.


What follows are my entries on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure in my philosophical journal from last fall.



Monday, November 24, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure.  The second essay, “Atheism and Monotheism,” from page 25 to the end of the essay on page 28, is excellent.  In general, he is good indeed on the belonging together of atheism and theism, and on the identity (in Heidgger’s sense [of just such belonging-together, as contrasted to identity taken as mere belonging-together]) of the two as defining the West, but in these last few pages of the piece he is even better than usual.  Just to hit some of the highlights:

P. 25: 

Faith is not weak, hypothetical, or subjective knowledge.  [It’s not knowledge at all.] . . . On the contrary, it is the act of the reason that relates, itself, to that which, in it, passes it infinitely:  faith stands precisely at the point where atheism [as the casting loose, one way or another,  of God, if “God” names the principle of totality, as he’s arguing it does]. . . . This is the point Kant already recognized formally [see his critique of reason to make room for faith] when he spoke, for example, of “the incapacity in which reason finds itself, to satisfy by itself its own needs.”  Reason does not suffice unto itself:  for itself it is not a sufficient reason.

P. 26:  However,

the name “God” . . . in [an] atheological [sense, rather than the principle/God of theism/atheism] . . . refers to “something,” to “someone,” or to “a nothing” . . . of which faith is itself the birthplace or the creative event.  That “God” himself may be the fruit of faith, which at the same time depends only on his grace (that is, exempts itself from necessity and obligation), is a thought profoundly foreign–perhaps it is the most foreign–to the theism/atheism pair. . . . Yet this thinking is not foreign to Christian reflection–no more so than to reflection in Judaism or Islam.  Let us cite only Makarios of Magnesia [4th century].  “This one who does the will of my Father gives birth to me [Christ] by participating in this act, and he is born with me.  He who believes that I am the Son of God engenders me in some sense through his faith.”

Bottom of p. 26 he cites “the word that was in a sense Heidegger’s last:  ‘Only a god can save us now.’ ”  Then, top of p. 27:

It is not politically correct to treat his sentence without contempt.  Yet it is philosophically necessary. . . . Now, to “save” is not “to heal.”  It is not a process, and it is not measured against some ultimate “health” (salus and sanus are not the same terms).  It is a unique and instantaneous act [note:  a Heideggerian Event!], through which one who is already in the abyss is held back or recovered.  “To save” does not annul the abyss; it takes place in it.  (Perhaps buddhist “awakening” takes place in a comparable fashion, if it takes place,  right in the middle of the world and not outside it).

A little later on p. 27:

And the “god” of which he [Heidegger in the article in Der Spiegel he gave 10 years before he died, with the proviso that it only be published posthumously] is speaking designates . . . the “nothing other” for which philosophy is neither the site nor the regime.  That god, that “last god” as he puts it elsewhere–that “god,” insofar as every god is the “last one,” which is to say that every god dissipates and dissolves the every essence of the divine–is a god that beckons [winkt].  That means, it makes a sign without sense, a sign of approach, of invitation, and of departure.  That god has its essence in winken.  And that sign-making, that blink of an eye comes to pass, starting from and in the direction of the Ereignis–the appropriating event through which man, appropriated to or by being, may be disappropriated (ent-eignet) of an identity closed in on its humanity.  Man may thus “propriate” himself, address himself and dedicate himself (zu-eignet) to what is infinitely more than him-“self” [lui-“même”].


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “Opening” (first piece), p. 10:  “Christianity designates nothing other, essentially (that is to say simply, infinitely simply:  through an inaccessible simplicity), than the demand to open in this world an alterity or an unconditional alienation.”  Then, a bit later:  “Christianity can be summed up, as Nietzsche, for one, knew well, in the precept of living in this world as outside of it–in the sense that this ‘outside’ is not, not an entity.  It does not exist, but it (or again, since it) defines and mobilizes ex-istence:  the opening of the world to inaccessible alterity.”

Thus does Christianity itself become de-constructive.

Following up further (pp. 11-12):  “. . . the true scope of the ‘dis-enclosure’ can only be measured by this question:  Are we capable, yes or no, of grasping anew–beyond all mastery–the demand that carries thought out of itself without confusing this demand, in its absolute irreducibility with some construction of ideas or with some sloppy assembly of phantasms?”

Later on p. 12:  “. . . it is a question . . . of wondering whether faith has ever, in truth, been confused with belief.”  Indeed!  Then, as he correctly and importantly adds:  “In effect, it is enough to observe that belief is in no way proper [that is, here, “exclusive”] to religion.  There are many profane beliefs”; there are even beliefs among scholars and philosophers.


P. 36 (in third essay, “A Deconstruction of Monotheism”):

With the figure of Christ comes the renunciation of divine power and presence, such that this renunciation becomes the proper act of God, which makes this act into God’s becoming-man. . . . In its principle, monotheism undoes theism, that is to say, the presence of the power that assembles the world and assures this sense.  It thus renders absolutely problematic the name god–it renders it nonsignifying–and above all, it withdraws all power of assurance from it.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Judeo-Christian (on Faith),” p. 53, parenthetically notes that in the sense of “faith” at issue in the letter of James “there is at the heart of faith a decision of faith that precedes itself and exceeds itself,” then writes:  “If belief must be understood as a weak form of an analogy of knowledge, then faith is not of the  order of belief.”  But first (right after the parentheses) he writes that, as such a “decision,” “faith cannot be an adherence to some contents of belief.”  At the end of the same paragraph he writes: 

Taking a step further, even a short step, we could extrapolate from James a declaration like the  following:  “It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a ‘belief,’ for example, in the belief in redemption by the Christ, that which characterizes the Christian:  only Christian practice is Christian, a life like that lived by him who died on the cross”–a declaration that we cold read in Nietzsche.

Perhaps there is, in that last remark, an indication of a genuine difference between Nancy’s articulations and those of [Gianni] Vattimo on the relevant point of faith:  Vattimo does indeed continue to think  in terms of what in the broad sense may be called the “contents” of belief–taking the latter still as a “holding for true” in some sense.  In contrast, Faulkner, say, in Requiem for a Nun is clearly no longer thinking that way at all, and his use of “belief” is such as to make it the same, I’d say, as Nancys “faith.”  More importantly, I think the reading of Vattimo on the basis, in effect, of Nancy’s understanding of “faith” would help articulate a less rigid distinction between “contents” of belief and “practice” of faith.

For example, to “believe” in the power of prayer could surely be taken to be “holding for true” that prayer is effective.  Thus, the latter could be called the “content” of such a belief.  However, to hold that “content” for true is to act in a certain way.  So one might say something such as this to an “uncertain” believer of a certain sort (a certain sort of “uncertainty”):  “If you believe in the power of prayer, why don’t you act like it?”  That is, genuine belief itself must manifest as and in “works.”

Similarly, to use Nancy’s own example, to believe “in redemption by the Christ” is to be empowered and sent underway into redeemed life, a life lived as redemption and [therefore] lived redemptively.  And that “belief” is as much a gift and a grace as Nancy recognizes [what he calls] “faith” to be.

The happening of truth!

On p. 53 Nancy writes:

In a certain sense, James’ Abraham believes nothing, does not even hope. . . . James’ Abraham is not in the economy of assurances or substitutes for assurance . . . . The reasons that this faith has “to believe” are not reasons.  Thus it has nothing, in sum, with which to convince itself.  This faith is but the “conviction” that gives itself over in act–not even to something “incomprehensible” . . . , but to that which is another act:  a commandment. . . . Faith resides in inadequation to itself as a content of meaning.  And it is in this precisely that it is truth qua truth of faith or faith as truth and verification.  This is not sacri-fication [making-sacred] but veri-fication [making-true].

Then, on the next page (54):  “The work of Abraham is the acting or doing of this inadequation:  a praxis [acting] whose poiesis [making] is the incommensurability of an action (to offer Isaac up) and of its representation or its meaning (to immolate his son).”

Yet “to offer up” is no less a “representation,” finally, that “to immolate.”  So I don’t see that he has succeeded in isolating two opposed ideas here.  Despite his parenthetical remark to the contrary [at least as I read its suggestion above], Kierkegaard and Vattimo are pointing toward the same thing he, Nancy, is himself pointing to.  Those are three different ways, terminologically, of pointing to the same thing, I’d say–though none of the three quite succeeds as an articulation, in my judgment.


Something in all this has just occasioned this reflection, linking the interpretation of Abraham and Isaac with the idea I recently wrote of, that giving birth to a child is giving the child over to death:  Perhaps we could read the story of Abraham and Isaac as a parable of birth.  Perhaps all parents are Abraham, and all their children Isaacs who are “offered up” by those parents themselves to “God” = to no-thing = death.  Giving birth is offering up the born to God = death.


Later on p.  54:  “. . . what James . . . calls . . . ‘justification’:  that which makes just, that which creates a just one. . . . would be tied first to faith in the other. . . . The just one or justified one would be he who lets himself be attested, borne witness to, in the other.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins [in the untitled poem that begins, “When kingfishers catch fire”]:  “The just man justices.”


Thursday, November 27, 2008–Thanksgiving Day

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, the end of the reflection on James (“The Judeo-Christian (on Faith)”), p. 59:

What is changing, in the instituting configuration of the West, is that man is no longer the mortal who stands before the immortal.  He is becoming the dying one in a dying that doubles or lives the whole time of his life.  The divine withdraws from its dwelling sites–whether these be the peaks of Mount Olympus or of Sinai–and from every type of temple. It becomes, in so withdrawing, the perpetual imminence of dying.  Death, as the natural end of a mode of existence, is itself finite:  dying becomes the theme of existence according to the always suspended imminence of parousia.

Next paragraph, on [the sacrament of] anointing the sick, especially the dying: 

. . . unction signs not what will later be called life eternal beyond death but the entry into death as into a finite parousia that is infinitely differed or deferred.  This is the entry into incommensurable inadequation.  In this sense, every dying one is a messiah, and every messiah is a dying one.  The dying one is no longer a mortal as distinct from the immortal.  The dying one is the living one in the act of a presence that is incommensurable. . . . Death is tied to sin:  that is, tied to the deficiency of a life that does not practice faith–that cannot practice it without failing or fainting–at the incommensurable height of dying.  Yet despite this, faith gives; it gives dying precisely in its incommensurability (to give death, “the gift of death,” he [that other “James,” namely, Jacques–French for James–Derrida] says):  a gift that is not a matter of receiving in order to keep, any more than is love or poverty, or even veridicity (which are, ultimately, the same thing as dying).


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, in “The Name God in Blanchot,” p. 76: 

Blanchot. . . neither asks nor authorizes any “question of God,” but he additionally posits and says that that question is not to be asked.  This means that it is not a question. . . . God is not within the jurisdiction of a question.  This does not mean that he falls within an affirmation that would answer the question in advance.  Nor does he fall within a negation.  It is not that there is or is not a God.  It is, quite differently, that there is the name God, or rather that the name God is spoken. . . . If all questions intend a “what,” a something, the name God corresponds to the order, the register, or the modality of what is not, or has not, any thing.

He goes on to write that Blanchot also uses words

such as being (as taken from Heidegger) . . . . For them as well,  the question is not to be asked, for it is already deposited within them.  But they are words (concepts), whereas God is a name (without content [any more than any name, properly speaking, has “content”]).  The name God must, then, represent something other than a concept here, more precisely, it must bear and bring to a head a trait common to names as such:  to be at the extremity and the extenuation of sense.


Next essay, “Blanchot’s Resurrection,” p. 89 (first paragraph of the essay):

The resurrection in question [in Blanchot] does not escape death, nor recover from it, nor dialectize it.  On the contrary, it constitutes the extremity and the truth of the phenomenon of dying.  It goes into death not to pass through it but, sinking irreversably into it, to resuscitate death itself.  To resuscitate death is entirely different from resuscitating the dead.  To resuscitate the dead is to bring them back to life, to bring life back where death had destroyed it. . . . Resuscitating death is a completely different operation. . .

The point is, indeed, to let the dead be dead:  thus to resurrect or resuscitate death, and the dead as [still] dead.


Next essay, “Consolation, Desolation,” is a reply to Derrida on Nancy’s deconstruction (in Noli me tangere) of the notion of resurrection.  P. 101:  “Faith never consists–and this, no doubt, in any religious form–in making oneself believe something in the way that one might convince oneself that tomorrow one will be happy.  Faith can only consist, by definition, in addressing what comes to pass, and it annihilates every belief, every reckoning, every economy, and any salvation.”


Monday, December 1, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “On a Divine Wink” [Wink is German for “hint,” and the English “wink,” as in “wink of an eye,” is derived from it], p. 119:  “Such is the divine truth of the Wink:  it stems from the fact that there is no wink of god, but that god is the wink.  He does not do it, he winks himself there, just as he states his name in it, properly common and commonly proper–the name, in sum, of every person.”


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Deconstruction of Christianity”–relevant to my own thoughts on “survivor guilt”–pp. 155-156, arguing that sin is not a “misdeed,” but a “condition,” the very condition of the human in need of redemption (or salvation), and that there is a radical “indebtedness of existence itself”: 

Temptation is essentially the temptation of self, it is the self as temptation, as tempter, as self-tempter.  It is not in the least a question of the expiation of a misdeed, but of redemption or salvation, and salvation cannot come from the self itself, but from its opening . . . and as such it comes to it as the grace of its Creator. . . . Through salvation, God remits to man the debt he incurred in sinning, a debt that is none other than the debt of the self itself.  What man appropriated, for which he is in debt to God, is the self that he has turned in upon itself.  It must be returned to God and not to itself.  Sin is an indebtedness of existence as such.

     In other words, while Heidegger tends to detach existential Schuldigkeit [guilt] from the category of “transgression” or of “debt” (in the ontic sense of the term), I wonder, rather, whether that Schuldigkeit does not realize the essence of sin as the indebtedness of existence–“indebtedness of existence” meaning, at one and the same time, that existence itself is in debt, and that which it is in debt for is precisely for itself, for itself, for the ipseity of existence.

I don’t read Heidegger quite the same way he does.  More importantly, I’m not sure he is not still leaving less than sufficiently clarified the difference-in-interconnection of guilt as simple “indebtedness” and guilt in a negative sense.  Yet his remarks point, perhaps, to the nexus of that interconnection-in-disconnection.  Maybe it is something like this:  the basic “indebtedness of existence” grounds in, and manifests in, the closure toward “self,” which then and as such is the refusal of the debt.

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