Shattering Silence of Peace (3)

. . . aren’t the new dead everywhere, on all sides, in every nation? Should I harden myself against the Russians because there are Jews, against the Chinese because they are far away, against the Germans because they are possessed by the devil? Can’t I still belong to all of them, as before, and nevertheless be a Jew?

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, from a note written in 1944


Just this year of 2015 Fordham University Press brought out an English translation of a book by Jean-Luc Nancy that was first published in France three years earlier, in 2012, a book that addressed the disaster of the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant a year before that, in March 2011. The original French title of Nancy’s book was L’Equivalence des catastrophes (après Fukushima), which in the English translation by Charlotte Mandell reversed the two parts of Nancy’s title, eliminated the parentheses, and added a colon, becoming After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes.

I imagine that those changes to the book’s title were made for commercial reasons, but they seem to me to distort things. First of all, they make it look as though Nancy’s primary concern is the still recent disaster at the Fukushima power plant. In the title of the original French edition, however, not only does reference to Fukushima belong to the second part of the title, not the first, but it is also placed in parentheses to emphasize its subordination to the first part of the title—and with no colon between the two parts, a mark that is itself suggestive of an equivalence of the what precedes that with what follows after it.

The reversal of the two parts of the title in the English edition, coupled with the removal of the parentheses and the substitution of a colon, makes Fukushima occupy first place and center-stage. That may indeed sell more copies of the book, but it is likely also to add to the very confusion Nancy is struggling to dispel. For him, the Fukushima disaster is really just a lens through which he focuses his real concern in the book, which is on what’s named in the other part of his title—the first part in the French edition, but made to take second place, like an afterthought, in the English one.

After all, if the Fukushima disaster reveals something such as “the equivalence of catastrophes,” then part of what it reveals is that the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 is interchangeable with one or more other disasters. Thus, one could imagine Nancy writing the book using, perhaps, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl as his focusing example, if the “equivalence” at issue has something to do only with disasters at nuclear installations. Or he might have used just any old disaster—say the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied bombers during World War II, or the American massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE—if it doesn’t. At any rate, going by the remainder of the title (the part besides “after Fukushima,” whether that itself comes after or before the rest, in parentheses or out of them, and with or without a colon between), he could have used any disaster that does counts by his analysis as “equivalent” to the 2011 one at Fukushima.

What’s more—and more importantly—there is a rich ambiguity to Nancy’s title pertaining especially to how one takes the phrase, “the equivalence of catastrophes.” That phrase can be read in at least three different ways.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could mean, for one thing, that the catastrophes at issue are equivalent to one another, such that the disaster at Fukushima would count as “equivalent to” the earlier ones at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, for example, or to whatever other disasters are at issue.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could also be taken quite differently, however. It could be taken to mean the equivalence that catastrophes such as Fukushima themselves generate, as it were: How Fukushima and other disasters like it (so: “equivalent disasters,” in the first sense of the phrase at issue) make other things (maybe everything else) equivalent—as a nuclear disaster, for instance, reduces everything within its range to cinders, let’s say.

Finally, “the equivalence of catastrophes” could mean what might be called “catastrophic equivalence.” That is, the phrase could be read as what grammarians call a “subjective genitive,” so that it means “catastrophes’ equivalence.” By such a reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would be taken to mean the equivalence that belongs to catastrophes of the sort at issue, rather than meaning, say, “catastrophes, those equivalent things,” which would be the first reading again (just as “the house of John” could be taken to mean “John’s house,” rather than, say, “John, the house”).

Thus, by the third reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would mean an equivalence that itself generates catastrophes, by a sort of inversion of the first sense I just suggested. This third reading would point to some sort of catastrophe generating equivalence, some sort of equivalence that, as such, generates catastrophes (presumably including generating the one at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011).

In fact, Nancy is concerned with the intertwining of all three: the catastrophic equivalence that makes all catastrophes equal in destructive potential.   But it is above all toward the equivalence of catastrophes in the third sense that his analysis drives the reader—at least so did the reading of his book drive me, when I first read it just a couple of weeks ago, after it came out in English.

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What history shows us of gender-based societies, that is, societies that operate “under the sign of gender,” as Ivan Illich puts it in the passage from Gender I used as the second epigraph to my immediately preceding post, are predominantly if not exclusively societies in which women are made “subordinate” to men, as Illich also puts it. That is, in the recorded human past—which is what we mean by history, in the sense that “historians” concern themselves with it—gender-based societies have institutionalized inequality between the genders, where that word gender means what Illich calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” the duality, namely, of the “feminine” and the “masculine.”

Inequality is not to be endured. It is to be eliminated.

However, to eliminate an inequality is not to erase all differences, or to pretend that there are none. Far from it! It is to acknowledge, recognize, honor, and celebrate differences. For straights to treat gays as equals, for example, is not for the former to treat the latter as just more members of some snot-slinging, belching, skirt-chasing, gun-toting band of macho brethren—incorporating gays into straight wolf packs, as it were. It is not to deny, overlook, or hide the differences between gays and straights, but rather to acknowledge and attend to them, letting them “come out of the closet.” It is, in short, to let them be, in an active sense: to say Amen! So be it! to all the differences, and not to subject any one any longer to subordination to any other.

Equivalence is interchangeability. If two things are equivalent, then they are interchangeable, which is to say freely substitutable one for the other. Each of two equivalents—for example, the quantity (20-18) and the quantity (1+1)—can be substituted for the other in any given structure to which both belong, without the substitution changing the structure as a whole.

If, for example, all guinea pigs are equivalent when it comes to being beloved pets, then if one’s beloved guinea pig—let’s call that dear one “Fluffy”—were to die, then all one would need to do is go out and buy any other guinea pig as a substitute. If Fluffy goes belly-up on you, no problem! Just go out and get yourself another Fluffy!   Just buy another guinea pig and give it that same name, and everything will once again be “copacetic,” as used to be said.

Thus, establishing equivalence between two things is allowing each to substitute for, to take the place of, the other. Right legs, however, cannot substituted for, or take the place of, left legs. Right legs and left legs are not equivalent. Modern prosthetics takes that very lack of interchangeability into account, producing prosthetic legs of both sorts, right and left, rather than just producing one product that will substitute equally well for either leg, as in the old days of peg-legs such as Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick.

In a situation already marked by institutionalized inequalities between two or more groups of people all of whom truly are equal in dignity and worth—as are men and women, or gays and straights, or Germans, Jews, Russians, and Chinese—confusing equality with equivalence can only result in a situation in which the already present in-equalities are entrenched ever more deeply and secured by ever more fully impregnable borders. The most truly impregnable of all borders, in fact, are precisely those that are no longer even visible as borders, but are simply accepted by everyone as defining the field of vision and movement—constituting the very world itself, such that it is no longer even possible so much as really to imagine anything different.   Kierkegaard said ago that the very deepest, most utterly, truly hopeless state of despair—the very etymological meaning of which is to be without hope, from Latin de-, “without,” and sperare, “to hope”—is that in which one does not even know any longer that one is in despair. When equality gets confused with equivalence, in a state where forms of subordination and dominance, the denial of equality, have already been institutionalized, then all real equality has truly been utterly despaired of. What looks like equality under such a desperate condition is really just the final closing of all borders against it.

Such equivalence is catastrophic.

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Money is the general equivalent in terms of which everything can be assigned a value relative to all other things, so that interchange of those things can occur without bounds. All economies, whether cast in terms of production or consumption, are systems for the circulation of such unbounded interchange.

To be given a price, which is to say assigned a monetary value so that it can enter into such an economic system of circulation, is to be stripped of all worth. What has only a value, has no worth.* It can be replaced by anything else of equal value, with no resulting loss.

If people can be bought and sold, it is only insofar as they have been deprived of their own dignity, stripped of their own worth. Just to the extent that people are interchangeable one with another, each person is worthless. When all are without worth, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equivalent in their worthlessness, even as their value fluctuates with the market (after all, the price of slaves in the slave-market varies from slave to slave, as does the pay of the worker from worker to worker in the labor-market).

If, on the other hand, each and every single person (or, for that matter, beloved guinea pig) is irreplaceable, then each and every one has a worth that is strictly speaking incalculable: Worth is not a matter of calculation, only value is. Worth can only be esteemed, not estimated. In that sense, we could also say, correlatively, that value, which is just what can be counted and therefore estimated, is nevertheless—and precisely as being subject to estimation—in-esteem-able: Value is not a matter of esteem at all, but just of calculation. What has value has its price, but what has worth is “priceless,” as we rightly say. Thus, if each and every person has worth, which is to say each and every one of them is priceless, then none of them is any better or worse than any other, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equally priceless, available to no market (for example, though there can be a market for guinea pigs, there can be no market for Fluffys—or Janes or Jameses).

So whether it is a matter of equivalence or of equality, people are all the same. That sameness is incomparably different in the two cases, however.   Papering over that difference, making equality equivalent to equivalence, itself fosters sameness of the first sort, the sameness of equivalence. Yet it does so only at the cost of altogether undercutting sameness of the second sort, the sameness of equality.

That making equivalent of equivalence and equality is itself a catastrophic equivalence: an equivalence that engenders catastrophes.

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It is in the nature of the economy, at least of the money-based modern economic system of commodity and service interchange, to go global. Exchange as such knows no limits within which it naturally confines itself. Of its nature, we might say, it has no natural limits, but rather just keeps on expanding, until and unless it runs up against some non-economic barrier it cannot overcome. Then it just collapses, since it belongs to its very nature always to expand, always just to keep the interchanges not only going but also always growing, and if it can no longer do that, it can no longer be.

Nietzsche said that life never attains any steady state. Always life is either growing, or else it is dying; it never just maintains itself at any given level. In that way, life, we could say today, is like the global market economy, which is always either growing or diminishing, and can never strike some balance point beyond which it just stays steady. The nature of life, however, is such that when life hits a limit in one of its forms, life can trans-from itself, then keep on growing in its new form—biting the head off any black snake of limits that may crawl into its mouth   The economy, however, is no living thing. It cannot transform itself. When it comes up against a limit to its continuing growth, all it can do is shatter.

In going global and then going on, the economy enmeshes all things ever more deeply with one another in and across global networks of exchange and interchange. All we need to do to confirm that is open any daily paper, online or in print, to the business section, and at a glace we can see how what happens anywhere on the globe has an impact on the worldwide economy, as expressed in global stock-market fluctuations. Accordingly, what used to be local catastrophes cease to be local at all any longer, but have globally catastrophic impact. The very boundary between local and global catastrophe gets washed out, as does the one between “natural” catastrophes and “man-made” ones—which latter boundary has always been somewhat porous anyway: for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE would not have been so catastrophic, had a bunch of Romans not chosen to live in such close-by places as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In his reflections after the 2011 disaster at the Fukishima nuclear power station, Nancy tries to call our attention to all that.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What Jean-Luc Nancy tries to call to our attention in his book pertaining to Fukushima is really the same thing that Ivan Illich tries to call to our attention not only in Gender but also in most of his works. Both Illich and Nancy try to call to our attention how catastrophic our entire economic system” (as well as the entirety of our “politics,” which has become nothing more than the pursuit of the economy by other means, we might add), based as it is on what might well be called “the rule of equivalence” is. It has been catastrophic, that is, generative of catastrophes, from the very start, since to generate catastrophes is nothing less than the very mechanism of its growth—a growth that could belong to no living thing, but only to something man-made.

However, in this age of the equivalence of all things, including men and women, an age in which the typically masculine fear of fear itself at last comes out permanently on top, such calls upon our attention really accomplish no purpose. They are as useless as my daughter’s now long-dead childhood pet guinea pig, Fluffly. So far as it comes to effecting significant changes in the global system, such calls cannot but fall on deaf ears.

They do nothing but break the peace, shattering the silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Still more to come, in my next post.

* That’s how I will here use the terms value and worth, at any rate: to mark the difference at issue. Others may prefer other ways of marking that difference. In the end, how we choose to mark the difference at issue makes no difference, just so long as the difference itself gets clearly marked, and remembered—the difference between what I’m here calling value and what I’m here calling worth.

Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (2)

This is the second of two consecutive posts under the same title.  My original expectation was that this would also be the final post under that title.  However, the series has now expanded beyond my original plan, and this post has now become the second of a currently planned series of three.  Readers will have to wait till next time to see if I succeed as planned.

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Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho


I first got out of step with myself sixty-eight years ago yesterday, which was my birthday.  I’m a New Year’s baby, born on the first day of the first year of the baby boom that fired up as soon as the guns of World War II stopped firing.  I then spent the next forty-plus years trying to get into step with myself, failing miserably at it time after time, until I finally just gave up trying.  To my surprise, I then—which is going on twenty-eight years ago now—began at last to learn, not how to get in step with myself, but how to keep stumbling along better in my continuing out-of-step-ness.   So I hope, at least.

That mention of hope brings me around to some reflections on some reflections of Jean-Luc Nancy.  Or, rather, it almost does, as I’m about to explain.  That will take me a while, though.  So please have faith—which, in fact, is where I’ll really start, but only after I stumble around some more in preliminaries, as my regular readers know I love to do.

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Such readers, if attentive, may have noticed three words I just used in the preceding paragraph:  faith, hope, and love, these three.  Please keep them in mind.  I will come back to them, after I fill in a bit.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Stumbling along my way as usual just this past summer I was doing some reading of a book first published ten years ago, but not translated into English until last year (2013).  The book is by French sociologist Bruno Latour, and the English version is called Rejoicing, Or the Torments of Religious Speech (translated by Julie Rose—Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA:  Polity Press 2013).  Reading Latour’s book triggered my going back, in turn, and rereading a book-length manuscript of my own that I also wrote about ten years ago, but had never published and hadn’t revisited for eight or nine years.  Rereading it again last summer, I was struck enough by my own ten-year-old thoughts that I decided to rearrange the chapters, do some minor editorial cleanup, add one new chapter, and see the whole thing into publication on my own.  Just a few days ago I finished reviewing the galley proofs, and so now I am able to give myself the finished book as a sort of birthday gift, here at the beginning of 2014.

My new/old book is entitled God, Prayer, Suicide, and Philosophy:  Reflections on Some of the Issues of Life.  I will announce here on this blog when it becomes it available, which will be soon.  [NOTE of 1/21/14:  It now is.  See the link provided to the right of my blog site.]  Meanwhile, my reason for bringing it up today in my second and final post on “Traumatic Selfhood:  Becoming Who We Are” (a reason, of course, besides the good, old-fashioned, patriotic American one of hoping to reap monetary profit from doing so) is because it contains some passages pertinent to my current blog topic of trauma, selfhood, and becoming ourselves—those three being themselves among the issues of life on which I reflect in my new/old book.

My conjoined reading and rereading, of Latour and myself respectively, occasioned especially my writing of the new chapter to my book.  In turn, as hap and happenstance would have it, as I was writing that new chapter I was also reading Adoration:  The Deconstruction of Christianity II, an English translation (by John McKeane— New York:  Fordham University Press, 2013) of a recent book by Jean-Luc; and as I continued to write my new chapter, I carried discussion of Nancy’s thoughts over into it.

At one point in Adoration Nancy is discussing what eventually came in Christian theology to be called the three “theological virtues.”  They are called that because they can only be instilled in those who come to have them by God (theos) Himself (to use the Christian way of speaking).  In contrast, what are called the “moral virtues” are those that can be acquired by our own human efforts.  There are seven “cardinal” virtues altogether, according to what eventually became the standard Christian codification (corresponding in number to what eventually became the standard seven “deadly sins”), which goes all the way back to St. Paul himself.  Four of the seven are “moral”:  prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  Those four are under our own power—both to acquire in the first place, and then to go on practicing.  On the other hand, we must depend upon the grace of God (in Christian parlance), to be given the three theological virtues (though we can lose them easily enough on our own, just by failing regularly to use what we have been given, that is, to practice them in our own choices and actions).  The three theological virtues are “faith,” “hope,” and “charity.”

The three go together, and in Adoration, Nancy talks about all three.  Of the first—faith—he writes:   “Faith is given as nothing other than the force of trust in that (or him, or her, or those) of which it is impossible for me to obtain any knowledge that would create any assurance or guarantee.”  He contrasts such faith (foi is the French term at issue) with what he calls belief (French croyance), which he uses to mean holding some more or less definite idea or proposition to be true, as one might, for example, believe that it’s going to rain this afternoon, or that there’s a jolly old elf named Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and annually doles out presents globally to children he deems worthy—or “nice,” as opposed to “naughty.”

That is the sense of belief in which to believe something is, in effect, to “think” it to be so, as I might say that I don’t know for sure, but that I think the tallest mountain in North America is Mt. McKinley.  Even if what one believes, in that sense of the term, is something that one does not know for sure to be true, nevertheless such “beliefs” are the sorts of things one at least might eventually come to know.  So, for example, I might say that I “believed” it was raining outside, if I was closed away somewhere in a windowless room and heard a patter on the roof.  But if I went outside and found myself getting drenched in it, I would no longer say I “believed” it was raining, since then I would know it for a fact.

In contrast, faith, writes Nancy (p. 90, with my added emphasis),  “supposes the annulment of all kinds of knowledge and representation.”  It is, as he indicates in the first line I quoted from him above, a pure form of trust—a trust that cannot ever be reduced down to a trusting that any given thing will occur.  The faith that Nancy has in mind is one that always holds itself wide open to receive whatever comes its way, refusing ever to be confined to anything that could be specified in any propositional way as such a faith or trust that such and such will sooner or later prove to be thus and so.

Such wholly open-ended faith correlates perfectly with hope, at least as Nancy understands the notion of that second of the three theological virtues.  “As for hope [espérance],” he writes, “it most properly designates . . . not the hope [espoir] that something—an answer, a conclusion—might come about, but [rather] the tension retained in the trust that something or someone always comes.”  Hope as he has it in mind is the same as what Kierkegaard, in the first of his Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, calls expectancy—specifically, the expectancy of faith, thus correlating the second with the first of the theological virtues, just as Nancy does.

Throughout years of teaching Kierkegaard, I always found it useful to contrast such expectancy with what we would ordinarily call “expectations.”  The expectancy, which is to say the hope, that correlates with what both Kierkegaard and Nancy call faith is, writes the former in the Upbuilding Discourses, is “victory.”   Faith’s expectancy of victory, however, is altogether free of any adulteration by expectations of any sort about just what “victory” is supposed to look like.  It is an expectation-free expectancy that is always already fulfilled, whatever may come—which is why, as Kierkegaard insists (and, as I read him, Nancy would agree) insists, expectant faith is so certain of its victory:  because that victory comes, no matter what comes, just so long as faith remains faith, wide open in hope.

In effect, faith’s hope in victory is so sure and certain, hope’s faith in victory so firm and unshakeable, because that very victory is already given already in the mere fact of having hope and faith.  Accordingly, right after remarking, as already cited, that the proper designation of hope is the trust that something or someone always comes,” Nancy adds: “And that it will come not later but here and now—not coming in order to complete itself in a presence, but so that I come thanks to its coming.”

What is meant by that last remark is nothing salacious,* though it runs the risk of sounding so.  I will venture to put the point this way, running different risks: To have the hopeful faith and faithful hope Nancy is addressing is to persist in granting oneself permission to be granted permission to be-come who one has come to be.  It is holding oneself open, in the open (what Heidegger calls “truth”), to receive the permission, always already granted even before or whether one ever asks for it, that lets one be whatever one has by hap been let to be.   In a short, easily misunderstood formula, we might say that such hopeful faith/faithful hope is fidelity in accepting permission to become oneself.

As for love (the third of the theological virtues, alongside faith and hope), to love—at least to love skillfully, and not in such a way as to rob love of its own definitive intention—is to grant permission.  As faith without hope cannot keep its faith, and hope without faith loses its hope, so can there be neither faith in any hope nor hope in any faith without the love that—free of all distrust and expectation, but faithful come what may, and filled with expectancy—lets be whatever lief be.  That applies to all love, however one takes it, including even “sexual love”—which may be a pleonasm, if one follows certain philosophers, including Nancy (and perhaps even Plato, that old body-despiser).

In love, what comes always comes as a surprise.  That’s why love’s hope cannot be confined within any expectations, and why its faith cannot be denied victory, come whatever may.  That’s love’s famed unconditionality.

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“But,” readers might well be asking themselves, “what does all that have to do with the self?”

Good question!

*     *     *     *     *     *

And to that question I will devote my next post, the final one—I promise, just trust me!—of what has come to be a three-part series (at least by my present expectation) on becoming ourselves, traumatically belated as that may be.

* Or, if it is at all salacious, that is only insofar as it casts light on the underlying salaciousness of the ordinary way of using the term salacious, which according to my dictionary means “treating sexual matters in an indecent way and typically conveying undue interest in or enjoyment of the subject.”  Nietzsche observes somewhere that the idea of an “immaculate conception”—such as the second most recent official Catholic dogma attributes to Mary, the mother of Jesus—could only arise if one has first “maculated” conception to begin with.  If, as Paul, the Christian apostle to the gentiles, says, to the pure all things are pure, then it is only for those who have already dirtied themselves that there could be anything “dirty” in “sexual matters,” “indecent” in the conveying of them, or “undue” in whatever interest one took in them.  Perhaps for those not already so dirtied, the only indecency would be not to convey such matters, and the only undue interest would be to take no interest in them at all.  On that, readers could profitably consult another recent English translation of some of Nancy’s essays:  Corpus II:  Writings on Sexuality, translated by Anne O’Byrne (Fordham University Press, 2013).

Intrusive Thoughts and Cultural Trauma

Perhaps nothing written is meant to go unread, even if the reader is only a creature of the writer’s mind, an attentive and exacting self that compels refinements of honesty. 

— Marilynne Robinson, New York Times 11/17/13*

We never come to thoughts.  They come to us.

                    –– Martin Heidegger, “Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens” (1947)

There is no thought without urgency.

               –Jean-Luc Nancy, Qu’appelons-nous penser? (2012/2013)


Whenever thoughts do come to us, they come as intruders.  They break in upon us, disruptive, urgent, unruly, and demanding.  But after all, just as chipmunks are for chipmunking (as I used to like to say in my classes before I retired from teaching), that’s what thinking’s for.

Some of the unruly thoughts that have recently been urging themselves upon me, disrupting my thoughtlessness and demanding my attention, have come to me while reading a new publication by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.  Actually, it is the subsequently reviewed and corrected transcript of a public conversation between him and Daniel Tyradellis, a younger German philosopher.   That conversation took place in Berlin just one year ago, in November 2012, and was published a bit less than a year later by diaphanes, in both French and German versions.  I’ve been reading the French edition, entitled Qu’appelons-nous penser? (Bienne-Paris:  diaphanes, 2013), which can be rendered into English as “What do we call thinking?

The title given the book in its simultaneously published German version is in one way, perhaps, more suggestive of what is under discussion in its pages.  The book was brought out in Germany as Was heisst uns denken?  That title is richly ambiguous.  Uns is German for us; and the question posed by the German title can be heard—and should be, if we’re to be thoughtful in our hearing—in two different ways at once.  On the one hand, it can be heard as asking,  “What to us is called thinking?” or, in more colloquial English, “What do we call thinking?”  Yet on the other hand, the German question can be heard to ask,  “What calls us to think?” or, to interpret the German a bit more heavily, “What calls for thought, or thinking, from us?”

One reason the two ways of hearing the German should both to be kept in mind, at least if we are to hear thoughtfully ourselves, is because, of course, what we ourselves happen to call thinking is clearly not altogether unrelated to whatever it is that calls for thinking from us.  After all, insofar as our thinking and our calling are in order, what we call thinking should surely and above all be whatever it is we are called upon to do, by whatever it is that most especially calls thinking forth from us.   Indeed, a good initial stab at giving an ostensive definition of just what we call thinking—just what we call by that name, or at least what we should call by it—is that thinking is what we do when we respond appropriately to the call of what calls upon us to think, obeying the command it issues us.

That attempt at definition will be informative for us, of course, only if we can identify what it is that calls for thinking from us, as well as what it is we are supposed to do, to answer that call.  Otherwise, it tells us nothing, or at least nothing pertinent to determining what it is to think.

All that is old hat, of course, to anyone at all familiar with Martin Heidegger’s 60-year-old work, Was Heisst Denken?   The title Nancy and Tyradellis give to the published transcript of their public dialogue, especially but not only in its German version, is meant to evoke that earlier work by Heidegger, the title of which has been translated correctly enough into English as What Is Called Thinking? but which, as anyone who has read that work knows, could also have been no less correctly translated as What Calls For Thinking? and/or What Calls Thinking Forth?

Well, what does?

I won’t try directly to answer that question in this post.  I’ll just content myself with giving some indications, which I hope will excite some thoughts of my readers’ own about the matter, impelling them to think about it for themselves.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In the closing lines of his conversation with Tyradellis, Nancy tells us that his thinking, at least, is always “in response to questions or requests” (to give my own free translation, as I will continue to do in the citations from him that follow).  “That also says that ‘think’ signifies ‘feel,’ ‘experience,’ ‘receive’,” he goes on to tell us.  Feel, experience, or receive what?  Nancy answers that question for us, too.  To think, he writes, is to feel, experience, or receive “impulses, affects, excitations, in-citations,” and the like.

So, according to Nancy, thinking is the response we are called upon to make to what comes to us from without, and incites us to think, gives us the impulse or urge to do so.  That is the urgency of all thinking.  And as the line from Nancy the reading of which incited me to cite it at the beginning of this post already says, without urgency, there is no thought at all.

What, exactly, does what calls for us to think call for from us?  Nancy gives us a significant hint (as though incited to provide the answer before we even felt the impulse to ask the question), when, earlier on in his conversation with Tyradellis (pages 20-21), he begins by talking about the experience of writing.  He says that “in writing there is an impulsion” toward “that altogether particular pleasure that one experiences when one sees that the writing proceeds of itself, as though on its own.” The pleasure at issue is the one we have all felt from time to time, when our writing goes so exceedingly well that it writes itself through us, as it were, without us any longer working at it especially.

Furthermore, Nancy adds, not just he but everyone wants to see what he or she writes “appear, and stay alive!”  That is, what Nancy goes on to describe as the pleasure of seeing one’s way open up of itself before one “in an entirely autonomous manner,” is a pleasure internal to the very process of writing as such:  To write is to go along this autonomously self-opening way—a way which, as it were, uses the writer’s writing to open itself step by step as the writer writes along it.

Coupled with this pure autonomy of writing is an equally pure anonymity.  Precisely because the way that opens itself up in writing finally does so all on its own, no one can ever finally own what is written.  In the final analysis, what’s written never belongs as a possession to any one person or even any possible range of persons, all the way out to the limitless infinity of “everybody.”  Even when one writes “privately,” as one does in a personal journal, for example, one experiences the same “impulsion” that Nancy talks about:  the impulsion toward letting what one has written go forth of itself, to live a life of its own.

That is why, whenever one writes, no matter how “private” one intends to keep it, one always writes to be read.  That is, one always writes to be read not just by oneself, but by another, even if that other “is only a creature of the writer’s mind,” as American writer Marilynne Robinson writes to be read in the lines above, from her review of the recent publication of the Flannery O’Connor’s personal journal of prayers addressed to God and never intended for publication, at least as publication is ordinarily thought of.   We might well add that even an atheist might well write just such a prayer journal, addressed to just that same addressee, with just that same expectation of being read, even though the writer is convinced there is no God there to receive the address.  That’s just another way of saying what Marilynne Robinson says in the lines I’ve cited from her, lines themselves incited by her reading of O’Connor’s private prayer journal, written to God alone.

All that’s just how it is with writing:  Writing is always, as writing, both impulsively urgent, and uncontrollably free, both wholly autonomous and totally anonymous.

It’s the same with thinking.  It, too, goes where it will, a law unto itself; and nobody owns it, either.

Writing for myself at least, I never know what I think till after I’ve finished writing it.  For that reason, I always hated it when teachers during my interminable school days would make me write out and turn in an outline before writing and turning in the paper supposedly guided by that outline.  The only way I was ever been able to do that was by writing the whole paper first, then outlining the thing after the fact, to try to please whatever picky pedant pedagogue required an outline of me.

In turn, that’s one reason I was pleased to read Nancy saying, right after discussing the peculiar pleasure particular to writing, in all its anonymous autonomy (and remarking that, “of course, that has something to do with thought”):   “One doesn’t write philosophy in accordance with a plan:  I want to say such-and-such, I want to produce this or that closed signification.”  Of course, one also doesn’t write without any initial, initiating idea at all—that is, without some sort of impulse, excitation, or incitement to try to go in a certain general direction.  “To be sure,” Nancy writes, “one has an idea; but that idea draws itself out.  And at the end, the result is something that one has not foreseen.”

When I first sat down to write what has become this present post, for example, I had just such a vague, general idea of where I wanted to go.  That idea included working with the passages from Nancy that I’ve been working with.  Bringing in Marilynne Robinson’s remarks did not occur to me at the time, however.  That’s because I hadn’t read them yet.  And that, in turn, is because they were not even published yet—they had not yet “appeared,” to use Nancy’s fortuitously felicitous term.  But then, when I came across those remarks a few days ago, the thought came to me that they fit right in with what I was trying to say.  So I added them to my unplanned plan as it continued to unfold under my very gaze as I continued to write.  (Happy coincidences like that are part of the way it goes with writing and/or thinking, I’ve always found, even if I’ve not always found them when I most felt I needed them.)

One thing that, unlike the remarks from Robinson’s review of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, was always included in my general sense of what I wanted to write about in this post was a passage from another French author besides Nancy.  That is a passage that reading Nancy’s own comments about writing and thinking brought to my mind, unbidden—a passage about “culture” by the post-Lacanian French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, in something by him that I also read just recently, namely, “Transference:  Its Provocation by the Analyst,” one of his Essays on Otherness (London and New York:  Routledge, 1999).

The passage at issue is a fine, long one (on pages 223-224) in which Laplanche is discussing Freud’s Der Dichter and das Phantasieren (“Poets and Fantasizing”).  Laplance first observes that Freud nowhere asks the question, “what, quite simply, drives the Dichtersit venia verba [pardon my saying so]—to ‘dicht’ [“poetize,” if you’ll pardon my translating it so].  Why create in order to communicate, and communicate through creating.  And above all, why communicate in this way—that is, by addressing no-one, aiming beyond any determinate person?”

Laplance then goes on to note:  “Modern studies of language clearly show that communication is a pragmatics:  to communicate is to manipulate, to produce an effect on someone.”  Then he goes on—in a discussion that reminds me of one of my own, in The Stream of Thought (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1984), about “novel door-stops,” that is, novels used as door-stops—to acknowledge that, of course, one can engage in “cultural production” (writing novels, or books of philosophy, for example) for “glory and profit,” or even to procure sexual conquests.  “But,” Laplanche remarks, “what an extraordinary going-beyond [that is, what a cumbersome, round-about way] it takes to get there.  Going beyond oneself, but above all going towards another who is no longer determinate, and who will only incidentally be the object of an individual sexual conquest”—if ever!  “Through this dimension,” Laplanche continues,

cultural production is situated from the first beyond all pragmatics, beyond any adequation of means to a determinate effect. . . . The addressee [addressed by “cultural production”] is essentially enigmatic, even if he sometimes takes on individual traits.  So it is with van Gogh’s Theo, who is as much an analyst without knowing it as is Fliess for Freud, for behind him looms the nameless crowd, addressees of the message in a bottle.

This is no sort of elitist position, “for what can be termed ‘the cultural’ exists from the moment the human becomes human:  cave-paintings, idols, and probably music and poetry.”  Such an address to such an anonymous, enigmatic addressee “prolongs and echoes the enigmatic messages by which the Dichter himself, so to speak, was bombarded [namely, by his parents’ or parent-substitutes’ enigmatic messages sent to him when he was an infant].”

In a not so enigmatically significant move, Laplanche replaces the currently omnipresent term “consumer” with that of “recipient” as a name for the one to whom the cultural “product” is addressed.  “It is of the essence of the cultural product,” he writes,

that it reaches him [the recipient] with no pedigree, and that it is received by him without having been addressed to him.  The recipient’s relation to the enigma is thus different from the author’s, a partial inversion of it.  But here too, the relation is essential, a renewal of the traumatic, stimulating aspect of the childhood enigma [that is, of the “enigmatic signifiers”—enigmatic first and above all to their very “senders,” as Laplanche never tires of insisting—sent without even knowing it, by parents baffled about having sent them, to their at least equally baffled children as recipients].

In turn, “the ‘art critic’ ” or critic’s equivalent, including the person who “does non-clinical psychoanalysis,” is

caught between two stools:  the enigma which is addressed to him [that is, the cultural product in relation to which the “art critic” himself or herself is but one of the limitless crowd of anonymous recipients], but also the enigma of the one he [the “art critic”] addresses [in turn], his public (for it is too easy to forget that one always does [such critical or analytical work on cultural products as does the “art critic”] in order to write about it [for/to an anonymous recipient of that new writing], to communicate it in turn.

It is the offer which creates the demand:  a constant proposition in the cultural domain.  The dominance of human needs, undeniable but truly minimal in the domain of biological life, is completely covered over by culture.  The biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural, which is by definition intrusive, stimulating and sexual.

*     *     *     *     *     *

This very post is itself, of course, a cultural product.  I can only hope that its readers, which is to say the whole anonymous, endless crowd to whom it is addressed, like a message in a bottle, find it “intrusive, stimulating and sexual.”  I feel an impulse to add that, so far as I know at any rate, I am not using it to procure any sexual conquests or for any other pragmatic purpose.  I’m just thinking.  May it in turn, taking on a life of its own, give rise—as Paul Ricoeur once famously (and rightly) said the symbol does—to further thought!

What more could I ask?

* In a review of the recent publication of Flannery O’Connor’s private prayer journal.

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.

Letting God Go: Further Remarks on Jan-Luc Nancy


“Let go, and let God.”  That saying, popular in Twelve Step recovery groups and various other contemporary circles, begins to take on new, unexpected meaning when heard with ears tuned by reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s Noli me tangere:  On the Raising of the Body, translated by Sarah Clift, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008). 

Noli me tangere,” Latin for “Do not touch me,” is what Christ says in the Gospel of John when he appears to Mary outside the empty tomb on the first Easter morning.  Nancy’s reading of that line and, with it, of the entire Christian doctrine of “the resurrection of the body” in the title essay of the book is part of his larger project of “deconstructing Christianity.” 

By “deconstructing” Christianity Nancy does not at all mean tearing Christianity apart in order to crush it as an enemy or infamy, as Voltaire once famously called for doing.  Rather, he means carefully loosening Christianity from the encrustations beneath which centuries of abuse, most (and certainly the most devastating) of which has been at the hands of Christians themselves, have buried it.  His project is, therefore, not one of eliminating Christianity, but one of recovering it–or what remains of it after all the abuse it has suffered–by undoing as much of the covering over, the avoidance, denial, distortion, and silencing, to which it has been insistently and repeatedly subjected, most violently and repeatedly by those who have claimed to be acting in its name and for its own good (an all too common refrain among abusers in general, of course).  To use my own way of putting it, what he is trying to do is to clear obstructions out of the way so that the trauma which is Christianity can at last and again come back to traumatize us.   

In his reading of Jesus’s command to Mary not to touch him, Nancy emphasizes that the same line can also be and has also been rendered, “Do not hold me.”  Do not, that is, try to keep hold of me, do not cling onto me.   Instead, let me go, both now and later, when I complete my going “to the Father.”  That is, by Nancy’s reading, Mary is told not to try to hold onto divinity or God, as though the divine, as though God, were some sort of actual or acquirable “property” one might, legitimately or not, lay claim to.  Rather, to let God be God is to give up all efforts to make God into anyone’s personal property–or anyone’s community’s property,  for that matter, no matter how small or how large that community may be, all  the way up to  the universal community of all human beings, or all sentient beings, or even all beings,  period.  To let God be God is to let God go, to let the divine depart, to be set apart in its departure, ab-solute, that is,  absolved from, disencumbered by, released from all relations, and all possible or actual claims that might be build upon such relations. 

By Nancy’s reading, the very divinity of the divine is such shining presence beyond all being present, the very presence of what can never be brought to presence, what always departs, giving  itself only in and as that very departure. 

By at least one traditional Christian reading, Jesus’s command to Mary not to touch him is the command of God as such, since Jesus is God (at least as one of the three Persons of the Trinity).  Especially if the very divinity of the divine, of God, lies in the giving of itself in and as departure, nothing more fitting, as it were, of God could be said, God “in person” could not say anything more God-like, than the command to let God go, not to cling to God, as though to something one might somehow, God knows how, make one’s own.  

Accordingly, to let God Godself go would be the only way to obey God and, thereby, to let God be God.  In other words, to head the advice or command,  whichever it may be, to “let go and let God” would mean first, last, and always to let God Godself go:  Let go, and in that letting go, as that letting go, let God Godself go–let God depart, let God take off, rise up, and fly away, let God leave.  

So understood, then, to “let go and let God” would be nothing more–but also nothing less–than to let God go.  Here, at last, when we have come to  a place where we can and must let God go, we find ourselves at that remote or desolate place, that desert and deserted place, where ecumenism becomes expansive enough to include not just all Christian denominations, or even all “faith traditions” whatever, including all polytheistic ones, but also all non-traditional traditions and traditions of no tradition at all, so that even atheists, anti-theists, and the utterly indifferent can join hands with all the rest of us, if there are any.

 Nancy plays upon the ambiguity of the French phrase for “raising of the body,” la levée du corps, which can mean resurrection but is used as well to mean the lifting of the corps of the dead person to carry it from the mortuary to the burial site.  For Nancy, that delivery of the dead to their graves is, in effect, the very meaning of “resurrection” itself.  He is insistent in rejecting any reading of the resurrection that would make it tantamount to the resuscitation of a corpse.  Like many Christian theologians themselves, both Protestant (for example, Jürgen Moltmann) and Catholic (for example, Moltmann’s Tübingen colleague Hans Küng)–and, I am sure, Orthodox, though I am not well enough read in Orthodox theology to name them–Nancy dismisses that idea altogether.  For him, resurrection is no such resuscitation.  Rather, resurrection is the letting go of the departed into departure.

The “empty tomb” in the Christian Gospel stories means precisely, in his reading, such ineradicable, not-to-be-held-back departure.  For him the resurrection is (pages 15-16) “not a magical trick.”  Rather:  “It is the very opposite:  the dead body remains dead, and that is what creates the ’emptiness’ of the tomb, but the body that theology will later call ‘glorious’ (that is, shining in the brilliance of the invisible) reveals that this emptiness is really the emptying out of presence.”  A bit later on the same page he writes:  “Death is not ‘vanquished’ here, in the sense religion all too hastily wants to give this word.  It is immeasurably expanded, shielded from the limitation of being a mere demise.  The empty tomb un-limits death in the departing of the dead.  He is not ‘dead’ once and for all:  he dies indefinitely.”  Nancy reiterates this point again on the next page (17):  “The resurrection is not a return to life.  It is the glory at the heart of death:  a dark glory, whose illumination merges with the darkness of the tomb.  Rather than the continuum of life passing through death, it is a matter of the discontinuity of another life in or of death.”  One more page later (18) he repeats the same idea yet again, arguing that the “lifting” or “raising” of the body is “not . . . a Hegelian Aufhebung.”  It isnot a dialectics of death.”  Nor, he continues, “does it mediate death.”  Rather:  “It makes the truth of a life rise in it, the truth of all life insofar as it is singular.  It is vertical truth, incommensurable with the horizontal order in which dead life is reduced to material remains.”  On page 26 Nancy sums up as follows: 

The risen body remains earthly and in the shadow:  its glory does not belong to it and the resurrection is not an apotheosis; to the contrary,  it is the kenosis [“self-emptying” of God, first in creation of the world, then, in the person of Jesus, who, according to Paul, did not boast of his equality with the Father, but so completely humbled himself as to take on human form and eventually accept even death on the cross, the inglorious death reserved for the lowest of criminals against the power of Rome] continued.  It is in the emptiness or the emptying out of presence that the light shines.  And this light does not fill in that emptiness but hollows it out even more . . .

In turn, to trust in the resurrected one, the risen one, is to exercise a faith that Nancy distinguishes sharply from all belief, from all “contents,” as Heidegger also and already called them in his 1920-21 lecture course at the University of Marburg, “Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion” (in The Phenomenology of Religious Life, translated by Matthias Fritsch and Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencie, Bloomington and Indianapolis:  University of Indiana Press, 2004), where Heidegger insists that the authentic sense of the letters of Paul can only be found, not in their specific “contents” (Wasgehalt), but only in what he calls their “relational-sense” (Bezugssinn), inclusive of their “enactment-sense” (Vollzugssinn), the sense they take on when their relational-sense is brought to fulfillment in life-praxis.

The same notion, I would argue, is to be found in what William Faulkner puts in the mouth of Nancy Mannigoe, the black housekeeper and nurse for Temple Drake’s two children, in Requiem for a Nun, his eventual sequel to Sanctuary.  Accompanied by Gavin Stevens, the attorney uncle of her husband, the mature Temple of Requiem visits Nancy in the jail cell where she is awaiting execution for the murder of both Temple’s children–an act Nancy has performed, paradoxically, out of love for the children and, especially, for Temple herself, to save the latter from sin.  Calmly facing her own pending death, Nancy maintains that it was only an unshakable “belief” that allowed her, not only to take on such a horrifying deed, but also, having performed it, to face her own death with peace and confidence.  When first Gavin, then later Temple press Nancy to articulate just what she believes, Nancy refuses to tie her belief to any specific contents, and answers that she “just believes.”

Interestingly, just a few days ago I read a line from yet another, very different author–different in significant ways from Nancy, Heidegger, and Faulkner, all three, though sharing some features with each.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her recent book Leaving Church:  A Memoir of Faith (New York:  HarperCollins, 2006), tells the story of her own journey of faith.  Her story leads her, in young adulthood, to join the Episcopal church.  In time, she goes on to become an Episcopal priest.  Eventually, she comes to serve as rector of her own congregation, only later to leave that post and even, in at least one sense, the Episcopal church as such–all of it as a matter of her continued growth in, and/or exerciseof, faith.  About that difficult decision to “leave” her church, she writes (page 111) that she felt called upon to  do so because:   “I wanted to recover the kind of faith that has noting to  do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything.” 

Compare Nancy, on what he calls “belief,” as contrasted to what he calls “faith,” when he writes (page 22):  “Belief waits for the spectacular and then invents it when needed.  Faith consists in seeing and hearing where there is nothing exceptional for the ordinary eye and ear.  It knows to see and to hear without tampering [sans y toucher].   Returning to the same point a few pages later (pages 28-29), he uses the example of “the disciple (John himself) who ‘sees and believes’ before the empty tomb with the abandoned bandages and shroud.”  According to Nancy:  “He understands without seeing, but nothing is said of the content of his faith.  It is as if this faith consisted in trusting the emptiness as such, without searching for what has become of the dead.” 

Later (pages 39-40), Nancy even goes so far as to identify such faith in emptiness itself with “goodness.”  Concerning the long popular tradition wherein Mary Magdalene is so often assumed to be a woman of ill-repute, as the saying goes, he writes that such an assumption “answers to the following paradox:  the ‘good life’ is not a life that conforms to good morals (one can also think of the adulterous woman, the prodigal son, etc.) but is that which, in this very life and in this world, keeps  itself in close proximity to what is not of  this world:  to this outside of the world that is the emptiness of  the tomb and the emptiness of god, the emptiness opened up within or as ‘God’ by the birth of man, by the birth of the world.”


I wrote the passages below in my philosophical journal on the dates indicated.  Together with what I have written above, they give the gist of what I so far have to say about Nancy’s book on the resurrection.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

In the question and answer session with the children after his talk to them, “In Heaven and On Earth,” p. 97 [in Noli me tangere:  On the Raising of the Body]:  “. . . the Jewish religion awaits the Messiah, who will be sent by God, and Christianity says that the Messiah has already come, and that he is Jesus.  Now I might very well say, if we had the time, that the fact that the Messiah has come does not mean that  he has truly come.”

That makes me think of Rosenzweig, for one.  He and Nancy share an insistence on the autonomy of  each “religion” here, yet also share an  insistence on their belonging together–and insight into how they do so.

It strikes me that related to Nancy’s insight might be the notion that the Christ “to come” of the Christian formula, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” can and must be different in identity with the one who has died and is risen. And Judaism can be seen as the refusal to close that gap, against what would  happen–the total closure of that gap = the gap of the Event itself–if Christianity were left on its own.  Indeed, Judaism would also collapse into a black hole of itself, were it not in polemic relation to Christianity.  In that way, each “religion” can only be  itself in enmity-relation with the other.


In the second piece [of the book], “Mary Magdalene,” p. 57: 

She is not a sinner because she prostitutes herself; it is the other way around:  she prostitutes herself because she is a sinner.  She is a sinner because she does not know love.  She does not know love because she is abandoned.  She is abandoned because she is far from God.  She is far from God because she is a creature, a part of creation.

However, in encountering Jesus (washing his feet with oil and drying them with her hair), “She ceased to be in sin” (p. 59).  Her open love for him cleanses her of her sin.

In turn (same page), she loves him only because she experiences herself as loved by him.  In her meeting him, “The love that had abandoned her returns to her in her abandonment.”  (“For,” he goes right on to say,”love cannot love unless it can go all the way to where it is lost, to where it got lost.”)  A little later he adds that in leaving sin behind by loving in the capacity awakened by his loving her, she becomes (pp. 59-60) “as pure as the other Mary,” that one free of sin, who is a “sign of exception so as to point out from within abandon or abandonment [e.g., “loving with abandon,” as we say] the hidden face of abandonment itself, the face that abandonment never completely abandons.”

Then, as the resurrected Christ finally, after showing himself to her, goes to the Father, he sends her far away as well (p. 60):  “He goes away and she goes away [letting one another be only in such leaving of one another!], the one like the other set free while leaving:  set free from wanting to be free [my emphasis], set free from wanting to be themselves.”


Previously, in his “Prologue” to begin the title piece (“Noli me tangere”), he articulates a notion of the Gospel itself as parable, and of the difference of parable from allegory, that reminds me again of Rosenzweig (his insistence that the Song of Songs is not at all “symbolic”).  P. 4:  Jesus’s life, and the telling of that life in the Gospels (or, I’d say, in all subsequent retellings of that story), “is a representation of the truth that he claims himself to be.  But that does not simply [i.e., at all,  really] mean that life illustrates an invisible truth:  rather, this life is precisely the truth that appears [se présent] in being represented [se représentant].”

Here (still p. 4), “truth itself becomes parabolic,” wherein this very life is seen–by those given eyes to see (to which he soon turns)–to be/as truth.  Nancy remarks: 

A thought that conceives of revelation as bringing to light a hidden reality or as deciphering a mystery is only the religious or believing modality (in the sense of a form or representation or subjective knowledge) of Christianity or or monotheism in general.  But in its deep, nonreligious and nonbelieving structure (or in accordance with the auto-deconstruction [Isn’t that, finally, pleonastic?] of religion that it puts into play [cf. Vattimo]), ‘revelation’ constitutes the identity of the revealable and the revealed, of the ‘divine’ and the ‘human’ or the ‘worldly.’ “

Here, one has (still p. 4) “the identity of the image and the original.”  Thus does the long sovereignty of the image, as I call it, at last end.

P.9:  “. . . the parable waits for the ear that knows how to  hear it and . . . only the parable can open the ear to  its own ability to hear it.”  Thus, the parable “both brings the capacity to hear–the ears to hear–to first be, and is what is heard in the exercise of that capacity.”

Following this, he distinguishes here (p. 10) and elsewhere (e.g., in the session with the children of “In Heaven and on Earth” [later in the book]) between “faith” and “belief,” using the latter to mean rigidification into specific contents of belief, I’d say, and identifies religion with such belief.  That gives him, he thinks, grounds to write:  “[W]hat thus distinguishes belief from faith is identical to what distinguishes religion from literary art, provided we hear these terms in all their truth.”

Yet, I’d say, one could draw distinctions a bit differently here.  Thus, I’d follow Vattimo and, even more importantly, Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun, by moving to free the very notion of belief of all set reference to a fixed content.

Regardless, however, of such differences on how the points are best articulated, I am point for point in full agreement with Nancy.


In n. 4, p. 108, Nancy notes the intentional ambiguity of his phrase “deconstruction of Christianity,” whereby it can mean

an analysis of Christianity–from a position presumed to be beyond it –as well as the displacement, with modifications, proper to Christianity. . . . It is essentially a matter of the following:  not only does Christianity detach and exempt itself from the strictly religious, but it also marks out intaglio, beyond itself, the place of  what will finally have to abandon the simplistic alternative of theism or atheism [my emphasis].  In fact, this deconstruction is at work, in various modalities, throughout the monotheism of the “religions of the Book” as a whole.  This work always corresponds to the following:  the “One” god is no longer precisely “one god.”


In the body of his text, after his prologue, Nancy gives/follows such a deconstruction “of” (that is, by and about) the notion of “resurrection,” for one.  That is a matter of not missing the (pp. 15-16) “nonreligious meaning” of that term: 

What for religion is the renewal of a presence that bears the phantasmatic assurance of immortality is revealed here to be nothing other than the departing into which presence actually withdraws, bearing its sense in accordance with this parting. . . . “Resurrection” is the uprising [surrection], the sudden appearance of the unavailable, of the other and of the one disappearing [the word he uses also can mean dying] in the body itself and as the body. . . . This uprising or insurrection is a glory that [reveals itself and only reveals itself in and as it] devotes itself to disappointing you and to pushing your outstretched hand away.

The Body of Trauma: Some Thoughts on Jean-Luc Nancy


Usually, I have been trying to make a new post at this blog-site three times weekly, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  However, this week, because of the Memorial Day weekend and a brief trip that will take me away from my computer till week’s end, I am making this post on a Tuesday morning–and it will be the only post I make until next Monday, June 1.

The entries below, which I first wrote in my philosophical journal on the dates indicated last fall, concern contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s book Corpus:  The Raising of the Body, translated by Richard A. Rand (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008).


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus.  The title essay is given bilingually.  Nancy argues that/articulates a vision whereby body is spacing of space =  place (lieu) as such = disjunction, etc.  In  effect, to use my own way of trying to put it:  body, the there of being (so much is also in Nancy’s own wording), is the external as such and as the always externalizing.  As so (self-)externalizing, body (which = the self itself as this = at all), so “self,” is never “itself.”  Hence, p. 28 (in the French, 29 in the facing English):  “Mais corpus n’est jamais proprement moi” (which Rand renders in English as:  “But corpus is never properly me“).  Body, and therefore self as this self (the only possible “self” itself), has no “own” (propre) to own.  It is, as such, the ex-propriated,  the dis-ap-propriated.

Yet Nancy’s own analysis goes on to articulate the expropriating dis-appropriation (cf. Luce Irigaray, by the way) as the very own-most of body/self as such.  It is here (= as body) in and as the externalization of itself, that self/body is its own, its proper (propre).  So, for example, p. 32:  “L’aséité–l’à-soi, le par soi de subject–n’existe que comme l’écart et le départ de cet a–(de cet à part soi) qui est le lieu, l’instance propre [!!!] de sa présence, de son authenticité, de son sens.”  [Rand’s translation, p. 33:  “Aseity–the a-se(lf), the to-itself, the by-itself of the Subject–exists only as the swerve and departure of this a–(of this a-part-self), which is the place, the  moment proper of its presence, its authenticity, its sense.”]

(Although, at least so far,  Nancy does not address this point, this treatment of  self-withdrawal as the body is already there in Heidegger’s treatment of “the thing.”)


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nancy, Corpus, p. 63 (in Rand’s English translation): 

The image [and, therefore the body, which is image–as in “image of God”] . . . has no link to either the idea or, in general, to the visible (and/or intelligible) “presentation” of anything at all.  The body is not an image-of.  But it’s the coming to presence, like an image coming on a movie or a TV screen–coming from nowhere behind the screen, being the spacing of this screen, existing as its extension . . .


P. 66:  “Lorsqu’on commence, il y a déjà une antécédence absolue.”  [Rand’s translation, p. 67:  “As soon as one begins, there’s already an absolute antecedence.”]  Cf. how the new real, the event, creates back behind it its own possibility, as though that possibility preceded the reality–in Bergson.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nancy, Corpus, p. 99 (in Rand translation):  In effect,he says, there is no “proper body,” body is never “proper,” yet–

Nor is this [that is, the “weighing” of (which is) body] appropriation. . . Nevertheless, this in no way removes the possibility of still  naming the events of appropriation (or nonappropriation) either as kairos (or luck) or as “revolution” (or as rage, and a challenge thrown against the inappropriable [compare Améry]).  A body isn’t “proper,” it’s appropriating/inappropriating.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Nancy, Corpus, pp. 106-108 (French text): 

En un sens, la création du monde des corps est l’impossible même.  Et en un sens, . . . c’est l’impossible qui a lieu.  Que le sens et the sang n’aient pas de schème commun . . . , que la création soit un incontenable écartment, une catastrophe fractale architectonique, que la venue a monde soit un irrépressible rejet, voilà ce que veut dire corps, et voilà ce que desormais sens veut dire.

[My translation:  “In one sense,the creation of the world of bodies is the impossible itself.  And in one sense, . . . it is  the impossible that takes place.  That sense and blood should not have a common schema . . . , that creation should be an uncontainable gapping, a fractal architectonic catastrophe, that coming to the world should be an irrepressible rejection, that’s what body would mean, and that’s what from now on would be the meaning of sense.”]

Thus, body–the being there of Being “itself”/no-self–is trauma, to use my language.

After a break, in the next paragraph, he goes on to write of such a thought:  “Cette pensée:  hoc est enim, voici, le monde est son propre rejet, le rejet le monde est le  monde.  Tel est le monde des corps:  il a en cette désarticulation, cette inarticulation du corpus . . . un corps ‘parlant’ qui ne fait pas ‘sens,’ un ‘parler’-corps qui ne s’organise pas.”  [Rand translates:  “This thought:  hoc est enim, here, the world is its own rejection, the world’s rejection is the world.  Such is the world of bodies:  it has in itself this disarticulation, this unarticulating of the corpus . . . a ‘speaking’ body that doesn’t make ‘sense,’ a ‘speech’-body that isn’t organized.” Rendered literally, that last phrase in Nancy’s French says “. . . that doesn’t organize itself“–which I would prefer here.]

Thought and body–thought of body, body of thought:  dis-em-bodiement, perhaps–as trauma traumatized and traumatizing:  Event.


P. 112:  Neither body nor thought belong to the order of “knowledge”–or,  then, of any corresponding “not-knowing.”  Thought, then, is no knowledge; rather: 

La pensée est l’être en tant qu’il pèse sur ses bords, l’être appuyé, ployé sur ses extremités, pli et détente d’étendue.  Chaque pensée est un corps.  (C’est pourquoi, à la fin, tout système de pensée se désagrège en soi-même,  et il n’y a que corpus des pensées.

     Chaque pensée est (ou bien:  dan Chaque pensée l’être est–c’est ici que Parménide énonce “c’est même chose être et pensée”. . .) . . . Une pensée ne dit pas “hoc est,” mais une pensée est “hoc est,” position sans présupposition, exposition.

[Rand’s translation: 

Thought is being insofar as it weighs on its own borders, being supported, bending onto its extremeties, a fold and release of extension.  Each thought is a body.  (Which is also why, finally, every system of thought is disagregated within, and thoughts form only a corpus.)

Each thought is (or else:  in each thought being is–what Parmenides states as “Being and thinking are the same thing” . . .) . . . A thought doesn’t say “hoc est,” but a thought is “hoc est,” a position without presupposition, exposition.]

Body is the trauma of thought, as thought is the trauma of body.


P. 118:  “Joie et douleur sont les opposés qui ne s’opposent pas.  Un corps est joui aussi dans la douleur (et cela reste absolutement étranger à ce qu’on nomme masochisme).”  [Rand:  “Joy and pain are opposites unopposed to one another.  A body is also enjoyed in pain (and this remains absolutely alien to what gets called masochism.)”]  Later, same page:  “Le corps joui jouit de soi en tant que ce soi est joui (que jouir/être joui, toucher/être touché, espacer/être espacé font ici l’essence de l’être).  Soi de part en part étendu dans la venue, dans l’allée-venue au monde.”  [Rand:  “The delighted body delights in itself insofar as this self is enjoyed (as delighting/being delighted, touching/being touched, spacing/being spaced make, here, the essence of the being).  Self extended through and through in the coming, in the coming-and-going into the world.”]

Strangely, estrangingly in such passages Nancy, who extols the body as externality, touches and is touched by [Michel] Henry, the apostle of interiority.

To Begin: Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy

As I wrote in the text for a talk I was invited to give in May, 2008, to the Political Theory Club at the Korbel School (formerly the Graduate School) of International Studies at the University of Denver, and which I entitled “Trauma, Truth, and the Sovereignty of the Image”:

“Recently, my thinking and research has come to focus on the intersection of a number of concepts or figures/tropes of diverse provenance but sometimes surprising convergence: (1) ‘trauma,’ in the sense at issue–to cite a definitive example–in Freud and psychoanalysis; (2) ‘event,’ as that term comes to be deployed in the works of such continental European thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, and Žižek; (3) ‘truth,’ as used (some might say abused) within that same European philosophical tradition; (4) ‘sovereignty,’ primarily in the political sense at issue in contemporary discussions centering around the recovery of the thought of Carl Schmitt–for example, and especially, in the works of Giorgio Agamben; (5) ‘representation,’ in both the political and the philosophical-literary senses—the ‘image’ of my title; and (6) ‘the political,’ in the sense of that term in which such recent continental European thinkers as Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe would distinguish between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.”

That nexus of concepts first began to come into focus in my thought in connection with a class I taught at the University of Denver in fall term of 2005. My work on those themes in conjunction with that class soon resulted in an article which has since been published online in The Electronic Book Review (“9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn’t Let It: Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson”). Since that time, I have continued to work with the interconnections of the concepts involved. Then, in December of last year, I resumed, after a long gap, the practice of keeping a regular “philosophical journal,” more or less restricting my entries to recording my responses to what I was reading at the time in the relevant literature on trauma, a literature which I have been continuing to explore to the present.

I have decided to devote this blog to sharing entries from that journal, beginning with the earliest one pertaining to trauma, which I wrote in February, 2008, and which is reproduced below. As I am able in the future, I will add further entries, until catching up to the present, after which I will continue to add any new entries as I happen to write them. At times, I may also preface an entry with further current reflections such as this one, when that seems appropriate. When it seemed necessary for the reader’s sake, I have provided additional information or explanation within brackets added to the original text of my entries.

There is something appropriate in having a definite delay between the date I originally wrote these episodic entries about trauma, and my decision now to make them available to others. After all, Freud has taught us well that it belongs to how trauma works—how it traumatizes—that there be a certain characteristic Nachträglichkeit or “belatedness” of traumatic impact, a sort of being out of temporal synch with itself, which manifests precisely in episodic recollections and insights that are somehow pushed beneath the surface of the traumatized mind by the traumatizing event itself, only to surface after a delay, sometimes of sizeable duration. Correspondingly, perhaps the most traumatically proper way to write of trauma is episodically and in fragments. Freud’s own writings on trauma surely fit that pattern, at any rate, which gives me a good precedent.

I hope that there is also something traumatically appropriate about dropping the reader suddenly down my entries mid-stream of their current, as it were, without attempting to fill in the thought and reading that led me to make those entries in the first place, or projecting an outline–like a bad fighter telegraphing his punches–of how my thinking has progressed since the date of the given entry. As many of those same entries will at times address, trauma itself has a way of dropping us down in the middle of what seems to be an ongoing story in which we are playing some part, but in which we find ourselves without access to the script, or any clear sense of the storyline.

At any rate, to delay the delay no further, I have reproduced below the first entry from the relevant passages of my ongoing philosophical journal, beginning with its date of original entry.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading Paul Eisenstein, Traumatic Encounters: Holocaust Representation and the Hegelian Subject (SUNY, 2003).

He does a very nice analysis of liberalism [in the classic sense of that term, not the modern, American one] as sharing [with Fascism] the endeavor to avoid trauma (pp. 42ff). But it strikes me that he fails fully to appreciate what his own analysis shows. I can use a phrase of his to point to what I think that is—what his analysis does show. At the very start of that analysis, he uses the phrase (p. 42) “the prevention of future catastrophes” to name the goal at which he aims his own analysis (he does go on in the next sentence, ‘Or at least, that . . . ,” to weaken his goal statement a bit, but that does not concern what I want to say here).

The argument he advances is that both liberalism and National Socialism end up “disavowing” the traumatic kernel (the Lacanian point de caption, “quilting point”) that is “internal” to any political order (like the point of “decision” from which law/right themselves come, according to Schmitt—though Eisenstein does not draw that connection). They disavow that “traumatic instability/inconsistency” that is internal to social order, by turning it into a definite historical something, rather than keeping cognizant of its “transcendence”—by giving the quilting point (p. 45) “a context, a history, from the beginning” (he writes that of “the figure of the Jew” in National Socialism, but his analysis shows it also applies to the liberal construction of any such starting point as [John] Rawls’ “original position”).

What it seems to me he misses in this excellent analysis is precisely what it brought most clearly to my own attention. That is, that the very endeavor to “prevent” such catastrophes as the Holocaust is itself precisely a move of the sort he so clearly exposes in liberalism and National Socialism. In short, it is precisely the endeavor to secure oneself against a future recurrence of catastrophe that generates just such recurrence—indeed, that requires such catastrophe to found itself and whatever order it imposes, found itself and its order in and as the very disavowal of the un-disavowable occurrence of trauma.

As I noted in the margin of his book on p. 42, the discussion could also be cast in terms of the notion of idolatry as I explore it in Addiction and Responsibility [New York: Crossroad, 1993] and especially in my article on RB 7 [“Humility, Maturity, and the Love of God: Reflections on RB 7,” The American Benedictine Review]. National Socialism, liberalism, and Eisenstein’s own notion of “preventing future catastrophes” are all “idolatrous,” in that they all make the contextualizing, historizing moving whereby a “transcendence” is made into an “object”—to sue the Kantian language Eisenstein himself does here. They all make God into an idol.

Entered a bit later the same day:

Eisenstein himself elsewhere all but sees and says what I write above. Thus, he argues, contra [contemporary American historian] Dominic LaCapra, that “structural trauma” is indeed and clearly the “precondition” for “historical trauma,” and that it is only by remembering/
”repeating” the former that we can lessen the frequency of the latter. But what does that entail, if not that the very focus on “preventing” “historical” trauma engenders that very trauma? Only, as Eisenstein argues, in remembering structural trauma can we not keep on doing “deadly” repetitions/recollections of historical trauma, acting them out again and again (as, for example, the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians can be seen to be a re-enactment of the Holocaust itself, with new victims and with the old victims now become victimizers).