BY Erik Morse AND Robert Barry in Profiles | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

Here to Eternity

French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy talks about subjects ranging from everyday life to film, the body and the soul

BY Erik Morse AND Robert Barry in Profiles | 01 NOV 10

Along with founding post-Structuralists Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy has consistently challenged the role of the 20th-century philosopher within the French academy. Born in 1940 in Paris and educated at the Strasbourg Institut de Philosophie and Université de Toulouse Il-Le Mirail, Nancy witnessed the uprisings of May 1968 as well as the evolution of Situationism. Beginning with the publication of Le titre de la lettre (The Title of the Letter, 1973), written in collaboration with longtime friend Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy rigorously incorporated concepts of semiotics, psychoanalysis and phenomenology into a system of thought that was both highly critical of metaphysics and yet intimately bound to the subjective experience of the human. In 1982’s La communauté désoeuvrée (The Inoperative Community, 1982) – considered to be his magnum opus on the politics of community – Nancy revealed his deep commitment to Heideggerian narratives of ontology and subjectivity as well as his increasing divergence from the more agnostic theories of Derrida.

Following a heart transplant and a prolonged battle with lymphatic cancer, Nancy redirected his intellectual efforts toward the experiences of both physical and phenomenological embodiment, as well as the mundane objects and routines of everyday life. The results, ‘Corpus’ (1992), L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2000) and ‘Noli me tangere’ (Touch Me Not, 2003), were slim texts or individuals essays – miniatures if you will – that were lauded by Derrida as the essence of the Postmodern age. Fordham University, New York, has recently published English translations of Nancy’s works from the last ten years, inspiring a new wave of American scholarship on France’s most prestigious living theorist.

Claire Denis, Trouble Every Day, 2001. Film Stills. Courtesy: Wildbunch, Paris. 

ERIK MORSE    Many of your recently translated works are devoted to concepts of everyday life. In The Fall of Sleep (Tombe de sommeil, 2009), for example, you write about sleeping and dreaming; in On the Commerce of Thinking (Sur le commerce des pensées, 2009) you deal with the commodification and communities that develop around bookstores; in ‘Corpus’ you analyze the meaning of embodying and touching; and in your Introduction to An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson (2006) you explore the ‘mundaneness’ of Cartier-Bresson’s photography. What drew you towards writing about the everyday after decades of theorizing about big subjects such as hermeneutics and the nature of language?

JEAN-LUC NANCY There is, for me, no difference between supposedly grand questions or grand subjects and the small questions which relate to everyday life. Everyday life is part of infinity. The mere fact of indicating a separate everyday is inadequate: there is no more everyday than there is eternal; each day is a possibility of eternity. My interests are the same whether or not I am considering photography or touch, cinema or democracy. We speak about everyday life because of a rote opposition, inherited from centuries of thought, which is given as monumental, heroic, exceptional. It is true that our relationship with truth is monumental, heroic and exceptional. But at the same time it’s not a tale of chivalry: it’s our life.

em The concept of everyday life is a particularly French concern, beginning in the 19th century with the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire through to Guy Debord and the Situationists, and the mythscapes of Roland Barthes. What were your formative experiences with these theories? When, in the history of western philosophy, do you believe the topic of everydayness first became salient?

jln Didn’t René Descartes himself say that what we have to do is live and look after the affairs of life? He writes that the highest thoughts have meaning and value only insofar as they are concerned about existence. The everyday is also the ‘every time’. Every day, every hour or every year, if you like, there is a rhythmic repetition or beat of time that escapes temporal succession, that connects to an outside of time, to eternity.

em In his 1987 essay, ‘La Parole quotidienne’ (Everyday Speech), Maurice Blanchot claims that the connection between boredom and the everyday is a human phenomenon that does not belong to nature. What role does boredom play in your everyday considerations of our bodies and other objects?

jln I have no experience of bordom, I really don’t understand what it means. I only know the boredom of certain conversations that are a little too fashionable or conventional – in other words, a lack of relationship or communication with certain people. For me, it’s a sort of modern version of ‘spleen’. But this is not what Blanchot is talking about.

em There is a beautiful passage in The Fall of Sleep in which you attempt to describe this mysterious sense of falling as the most necessary component of sleeping. What’s the connection between the sleeping body and the waking body as they relate to the experience of this falling?

Society is beginning to understand that a civilization is disappearing and that it has entered a change of the same magnitude as the shift from antiquity to the middle ages. 

jln The subject thrown out of self and the subject thrown into self are different, even incommensurable: being ‘in oneself’ is sleep, being absent to oneself – including while dreaming (which I did not want to speak about because true sleep occurs without dreaming). The subject of the dream is itself absent to his/her dream, absent in the very presence of that form of perception, feeling and affect. Whatever happens to the subject does not happen to him or her – or it wakes them up, it suddenly convenes the watchful subject. The relationship to the self is the same as the relationship to other people – they only occur outside oneself and with the other. What is fascinating about sleep is that it is the state without relationships.

em In addition to your collaboration with Claire Denis on her film L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2004) – which was based on your essay of the same name and details the heart transplant you received some years ago – you also appeared in David Barison and Daniel Ross’ documentary about Martin Heidegger’s 1942 Hölderlin lectures, The Ister (2004); in 2001 you published The Evidence of Film, dedicated to the cinema of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. What drew you to this dialogue with the world of cinema? Are there any shared narratives between Denis and Kiarostami that attracted you?

jln No, there are no affinities between these cinemas. Each film is an encounter with a singular way of making film: not telling a story, but showing something, making the vision of something appear, grow close. One kind of cinema tells and another approaches. The first is not simply the spectacle, of course, it is more complicated than that. But what I call ‘the approach’ – the movement of the camera used to make things and beings approach or recede – is necessary for true cinema.

em In the last decade, cinema has taken more of a keen interest in the role of the philosopher. With The Ister, Derrida (2002), Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008), the cultural theorist has become a star, much in the way that Guy Debord did in his film The Society of the Spectacle (1973). Have these new films achieved a similar vernacularizing of contemporary theory by making it more accessible?

jln No, not at all. Cinema hasn’t done any more with theory than with anything else. A movie was made about me – I know about the dangers inherent in that kind of project. Since then, I have refused to participate in similar projects; a thought cannot be filmed.

em Having read On the Commerce of Thinking alongside L’Intrus, I was struck by the connections made between the transplanted, ‘intruded’ body and the book. You describe the transplant as a kind of ‘cracking open’ and a ‘closed opening’ of your body in much the same way you determine that the secret of the book is about ‘opening and closing’ the spine. You also emphasize the surgical instruments of the transplant and refer to the book as a collective result of objects – pens, typefaces and paper. Is there a danger in the larger analogy between text and body of ignoring any biological imperatives or ethics for the auto-generative pleasures of language?

jln The auto-generative, to use your word, and the transplant are not foreign to each other. In the grafted body, the graft and all its attendant and intrusive mechanico-chemicals enter the ‘auto’ [the self]. My heart transplant is my heart. Here, ‘my’ does not designate the ownership of an object, it is the relationship with the self – which is what the body is. As with any relationship to the self, it is infinite, since the self is never completed in any manner whatsoever.

em Your newly translated book, The Truth of Democracy (Vérité de la démocratie, 2010), explores the cultural effects of May ’68. Do you see any connection between the current political and cultural environments in Europe and those of 42 years ago?

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectatle, 1973. Film Still. Cinema hasn't done any more with theory than with anything else [...] a thought that cannot be filmed. 

jln No, Europe in 2010 is nothing like Europe in ’68, when there was a very powerful feeling that civilization was futile – but this feeling intermingled with the need for structural reforms in a society that was archaic in relation to contemporary technological, economic and geopolitical realities. 1968 led to a process of transformation that amounted to adapting society to something that was leaving it behind: a new, techno-politico-economic world. This adaptation has had many negative effects. It unleashed the spirit of consumerism and the race towards these aforementioned goals and completed the destruction – which had started long before – of the frameworks, or references, of religious and emancipatory politics (as they are called, even if the expression is questionable). The resulting society has fewer foundations than it did before 1968. But society today is beginning to understand that a world and a civilization are disappearing and it has entered a change of the same magnitude as the shift from antiquity to the middle ages. What remains from ’68 is this understanding of change and with it an understanding that we should respond not with politics or economics but with thinking, with imagination, with what I call worship: a relationship to the infinite. We must stop believing that economic measures or political models can respond to what is happening. What is happening, in Hegel’s words, is the spirit of the world being transformed.

em Has the digitalization of our lives produced another kind of body, sleep, prosthetic or selflessness?

jln No. How could the physical world be made redundant by electronics? These are fantasies! The body that moves, eats, suffers and enjoys is the same one. Electronics change our means of knowing, searching, acting or caring but our lives are not digitalized! Our life sees itself treating itself, handling itself, prolonging itself, becoming complicated and being simplified in various ways which it does not understand. It is exceeded by itself, by this formidable outgrowth of technology. But it is life itself which experiences this.

em You collaborated on a book with Michel Gaillot about electronic music, Techno (1998). In it, you describe techno as a musical version of Situationism. Do you see in electronic dance music another example of technology opening or extruding the body ‘from the outside’? Is electronic music another kind of ‘intruder’?

jln Yes I think that this kind of music and dance constitutes an opening marked by the intrusion of an unknown outside – a kind of trance or mechanization, a strangeness which was always intrinsic to dance but which here becomes more directly grafted on the body, without social or spiritual support. This is predominantly what happens in techno: you feel the sounds and rhythms arise and you let yourself be caught up in them, without any concern for the formalities of music.

em Can we link the sense of touch to a closeness or intimacy with objects of the everyday world without falling into the trap of ‘presence’ that plagued theories of phenomenology? What is the link between the human touch and, for example, bricolage, mélange, ‘thing-ness’?

jln Touch places us into the intimacy of things, of matter: what is cold, hot, rough, hard, soft, sticky, slippery, etc. And this intimacy is exactly that of the universe with itself. It is the co-belonging of all things, nothing else. What do you mean by ‘bricolage, mélange, “thing-ness”’?

em I mean either the concepts of haecity (the ‘thisness’ of an object) or quiddity (the essence of an object) or, outside of the realm of philosophy, what could be called ‘the secret life of objects’. In other words, when does phenomenology slide into a kind of animism?

jln ‘Animism’? Why not? Everything has a soul: ours. But who is this ‘we’? And ‘aesthetic of silent objects’, yes, why not? Of course everything has a ‘secret life’ – stones, leaves, sea, our muscles. One should not think with these large oppositions that seem to reactivate the denunciation of a dangerous materialism. Come, come, it is much too late to be materialistic! But matter is perhaps beginning to speak.

Translated by Erik Morse and Noura Wedell

Claire Denis and Jean-Luc Nancy at the European Graduate School, Leuk, Switzerland, 2005. Nancy collaborated with Denis on her film L'Intrus (The Intruder) which was based on his essay of the same name detailing his heart transplant. Photograph: Hendrick Speck.

Claire Denis and Jean-Luc Nancy
by Robert Barry

‘Since moral correctness assumes that one receives the stranger by effacing
his strangeness at the threshold, it would thus never have us receive him.
But the stranger insists, and breaks in.’
Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2000)

Despite a superficial stillness, the striking and frequent sense of a composed frame rather than a captured moment, Claire Denis’ films essentially comprise a cinema of action. For caught in the French director’s lens is always the body at its most physical and its most violent. It is this register that drew Denis to the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, and specifically to L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2000), which became the basis for her 2004 film of the same name. Denis says that her encounter with Nancy was a ‘crossroads’, not at the level of philosophical discourse but something based on ‘his personal experience – internal, physical – what he felt inside.’ This is not to repeat the Hollywood cliché of the filmmaker who extracts the human, emotional story from some otherwise complex conceptual text, jettisoning any intellectual baggage in the process; for Denis, the philosophical aspect of Nancy’s work is inseparable from its corporeality. ‘It’s the same’, she says, in that both take the form of a ‘touching’ (as in the title of Jacques Derrida’s posthumous 2005 book On Touching, Jean-Luc Nancy), an encounter with the stranger already at work within the other.

‘I was teaching with Nancy two weeks ago in Switzerland, and I said we were meant to meet at a certain point.’ How could Denis not appreciate this encounter in so fatalist a manner? It’s almost as if, up until that point, the pair had been working in parallel on the same project: the themes of Nancy’s work were already there in Denis’ films. (The meeting obviously proved inspirational for Nancy as well, who has since written several papers on Denis’ films, as well as co-hosting a number of seminars with her at the European Graduate School in Leuk, Switzerland.) The trauma of the encounter, the foreign body; experiencing one’s own self as alien; the gaps and the limits of mutual comprehensibility, and of empathy; this slippage between the physical and the social body – ‘It is the subject of all my films, in a way,’ Denis says, ‘but his book helped me to understand what a heart is.’

Nancy’s L’Intrus tells the story of his heart transplant operation and the obstinate refusal of his own body to accept this intrusion, this foreign body. Prior to writing this slender volume, the philosopher had always resisted speaking about the incident; it was only at Derrida’s request for a text on Europe’s response to immigration that he finally set it down on paper. Perhaps we do not need such visceral autopathography to understand our own hearts in so violent and alienated a fashion, for it is there already in the experience of love; the sensation of one’s most intimate feelings as somehow foreign and unfamiliar. So love, perversely, becomes the image of the state’s relationship with its immigrants, and Nancy’s suggestive dictum, ‘There is no penetration – only touching,’ begging a certain erotics of political demography, becomes a discourse of postcolonial cosmopolitanism. The effect of Nancy’s reminiscence is to dramatize, even spectacularize, his thinking; to draw it to a point already in proximity with cinema, and perhaps contemporary French cinema in particular.

While explicit violence is rare in French films, Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) is often cited as part of a growing movement of ‘new extremism’ in Francophone cinema. The cinemathèque seems to have discovered gore coincidentally to the rise, post-La Haine (The Hate, 1995), of a cinema which takes the exurban banlieues and their immigrant populations as its subject (Trouble Every Day itself is riddled with wide establishing shots of the banlieues). ‘The extreme right party in France always say that violence comes from immigration,’ says Denis, ‘and that without immigration, France would be wealthy, and healthy, and peaceful. They also said that Europe brought violence because it opened the borders. So in fact, to open, to leave openly, to open the door to danger and to insecurity is probably the real theme of any extreme right party, not only in France, I think. Stay home in security and protect ourselves from the strangers, that’s it!’ What emerges from this meeting between Denis and Nancy though, at the crossroads of their encounter, is the possibility of an engagement with the radically other that can be mutually salubrious without compromising the violence of the encounter itself, wrenching from the other its very otherness, in a programme of assimilation that would seek to make of the two but a paler shadow of the one, and of the stranger no more than a deficient native.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer from Brighton, England. His book The Music of the Future is published by Repeater.