A Hegelian footnote to Nancy

In the acknowledgments to the collection The Birth to Presence, Nancy confesses that he has not always found it possible to provide bibliographical references for his quotations: “Some readers may take this to be oversight or a blameworthy hastiness, even if the reference is to a well-known text. (‘What is “well-known” isn’t known at all,’ writes Hegel; I know this sentence well, but I don’t know where to locate it in the Phenomenology of Mind.)”

For various reasons, this confession has always stuck out in my mind — it is a reminder of the greater fussiness of English publishers with regard to quotations, and the irony of the specific quotation in question is of course striking. Hence I believe that during the course of my year-long tutorial over the Phenomenology, I would have noticed the quotation if it actually appeared. And my evidence for this bold claim is that I did in fact notice it when I came across it in Addition 2 to paragarph 24 of the Encyclopedia Logic (pg. 59 in the Hackett edition):

In this way the Logic is the all-animating spirit of all sciences, and the thought-determinations contained in the Logic are the pure spirits; they are what is most inward, but, at the same time, they are always on our lips, and consequently they seem to be something thoroughly well known. But what is well known in this manner is usually what is most unknown.

What do you think, readers? Is this most likely the passage Nancy had in mind, or is there a closer match elsewhere?

Agamben the “left Heideggerian”

Matthew Abbott shared with me via Twitter an article of his in which he presents a thorough-going Heideggerian reading of Agamben, coining the term “political ontology” to set his work apart from both “political theology” and “political philosophy.” I need to think this through more, but on a first reading, it’s certainly a very convincing systematization — I also appreciate the parallels he draws with Nancy’s work, positioning them both as “left Heideggerians.”

A passage I just translated yesterday from Opus Dei speaks to this problematic of “political ontology.” Discussing Cicero and Ambrose’s introduction of the term officium into ethics and priestly practice, respectively, he writes: “But, as often happens, a terminological transformation, if it expresses a change in ontology, can turn out to be just as effective and revolutionary as a material transformation. Putting on the garments and mask of officium, not only the virtues but, with them, the entire edifice of ethics and politics meets with a displacement whose consequences we must perhaps still weigh” (pg. 95 of the Italian).

A puzzling paragraph in Being and Time

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been going through Being and Time with a student volunteer, in anticipation of teaching it. Yesterday we went over chapter 5 of the first division, “Being-in-the-World as Being-With and Being-One’s-Self. The ‘They,'” and there was a line that I found somewhat puzzling (in bold):

The world not only frees the ready-to-hand as entities encountered within-the-world; it also frees Dasein — the Others in their Dasein-with. But Dasein’s ownmost meaning of Being is such that this entity (which has been freed environmentally) is Being-in in the same world in which, as encounterable for Others, it is there with them. We have interpreted worldhood as that referential totality which constitutes significance (Section 18). In Being-familiar with this significance and previously understanding it, Dasein lets what is ready-to-hand be encountered as discovered in its involvement. In Dasein’s Being, the context of references or assignments which significance implies is tied up with Dasein’s ownmost being — a Being which essentially can have no involvement, but which is rather that Being for the sake of which Dasein itself is as it is.

Die Welt gibt nicht nur das Zuhandene als innerweltlich begegnendes Seiendes frei, sondern auch Dasein, die Anderen in ihrem Mitdasein. Dieses umweltlich freigegebene Seiende ist aber seinem eigensten Seins-sinn entsprechend In-Sein in derselben Welt, in der es, für andere begegnend, mit da ist. Die Weltlichkiet wurde interpretiert (§18) als das Verweisungsganze der Bedeutsamkeit. Im vorgängig verstehenden Vertrautsein mit dieser läßt das Dasein Zuhandenes als in seiner Bewandtnis Entdecktes begegnen. Der Verweisungszusammenhang der Bedeutsamkeit ist festgemacht im Sein des Daseins zu seinem eigensten Sein, damit es wesenhaft keine Bewandtnis haben kann, das vielmehr das Sein ist, worumwillen das Dasein selbst ist, wie es ist.

(M&R translation; Section 26; Heidegger’s page 123)

So on the one hand, we have this network of relations (significations, assignments), and on the other hand, something which “can have no involvement.” Continue reading “A puzzling paragraph in Being and Time

On writing about Jean-Luc Nancy

When applying for postdocs last year, my stated research project was a study of Jean-Luc Nancy. His notion of “being-with” plays a significant role in my dissertation, and I’ve also thought about doing something on Augustine’s De Trinitate that would use Nancy, so really getting a handle on him seemed like a good idea — and it was also what my advisor suggested as a next step.

As time has gone by, however, my enthusiasm for the idea has flagged somewhat, and I think it might actually be because something like a “study of Jean-Luc Nancy” just isn’t a viable project. For me, Nancy is a source of great ideas or motifs: often very suggestive, and yet always needing to be “completed” somehow. Perhaps the model for a “study of Nancy” is Derrida’s Le Toucher: Jean-Luc Nancy, in which Nancy’s work provides a starting point and lens for a study of the philosophy of touch.

Of course, one might say the same of Zizek, and I managed to do a fairly systematic study of his work — but before beginning research for Zizek and Theology, I already had a presentiment that it would be possible to find some kind of guiding thread by periodizing his work. With Nancy, though, it seems as though it’s irreducibly fragmentary.

Nancy on the excessive use of the term “political”: the death of politics?

In his book Philosophical Chronicles (a published set of radio addresses), Jean-Luc Nancy deals with a host of issues from daily life from the perspective of a philosopher, and some of them are deceptively simple, yet profound. His address from January, 2003, which addresses the word “politics” [politique], makes two very important points that have been haunting me for some three months now. First, Nancy points out the excessive use of the word politics, and its use in realms not normally considered “political.”

In the artistic domain in particular, it is often seen as necessary to declare that a work or an intervention has a political relevance, a political sense, or even a political nature. Whereas in the past we would come across the notion of the political commitment of an artist (of a writer, a philosopher, or a scientist), today we must refer to a necessarily political dimension in their practice itself. What cannot be said to be “political” appears suspect in being only aesthetic, intellectual, technical, or moral. (24) Continue reading “Nancy on the excessive use of the term “political”: the death of politics?”

“The Prehistory of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Deconstruction of Christianity”

In keeping with a longstanding tradition, I am hereby making my AAR presentation on Nancy available to you all in PDF format. It was part of a panel including Clayton Crockett and Mary-Jane Rubenstein, with Laurel Schneider responding, and it was somewhat overshadowed by the other papers in the Q&A — perhaps rightly so, as you can determine for yourself.

In keeping with another longstanding tradition, I will not be posting my other AAR paper from this year, as I intend to work it up into an article at a later date. (That’s right: AUFS is where my non-reusable conference papers go to die.)


I spent most of today reading Laclau’s On Populist Reason. I still have a good chunk left — and in any case it’s too soon for me to respond intelligently to the theoretical content as such — but I thought that it was worth remarking that one thing I have always admired about Laclau is the clarity and rigor of his arguments. When I read Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, for example, I came away convinced that the economy really can’t be determinative “in the last instance,” and I don’t think that would’ve happened had they presented that portion of the argument in a more stereotypically “continental” style. (This book holds fewer surprises for someone familiar with Laclau’s previous work, so no such epiphanies have resulted so far.)

Even in the most extreme instances of “continental” style, though, such moments of crystal clarity do occur and are very powerful — for instance, early on in Nancy’s Inoperative Community, he lays out a very straightforward and compact argument that the “metaphysics of the absolute” is simply logically incoherent, and to my mind, the only possible response there is, “Wow, I guess you’re right.”

It seems possible, however, that if a text were simply the accumulation of such moments of crystal clarity, it would paradoxically lapse back into an absolute opacity.

Further Thoughts on Ontology

I have commented here before on what one might call my “methodological” objection to the Radical Orthodox ontology — namely, the fact that the Radox authors baldly assert their Neoplatonic ontology of hierarchical participation because of its supposedly benificent moral effects. I suggested that perhaps ontology, which at least etymologically is supposed to have some relation to how things “are,” should take science seriously. At the same time, I don’t think that ontology has to be the slave of science, which in practice would mean embracing the ontology of mechanical determinism.

I maintain that the trick the Radox authors attempt to pull would never have been able to succeed if the dominant strains of postwar philosophy had not fallen asleep at the ontological wheel. Analytic philosophy’s prohibition of ontological or metaphysical reflection system-building is well-known, and the dominance of Heidegger and his successors in continental philosophy (in its various institutional incarnations) led to a similar suspicion of metaphysical claims — most often quasi-moral objections to metaphysics as a “totalizing discourse” that is somehow directly oppressive (“Hegel caused the Holocaust,” etc.). Jean-Luc Nancy has undertaken to do a kind of post-Heideggerian ontology over the past couple decades, though I’m not sure he’s really “taking off” among Americans; there may also be someone in the analytic camp pursuing something along these lines, though I’ve not heard of it.

The shame here, though, is that during the prewar period, there was a real flowering of ontologies of the exact kind that I advocate — perhaps the biggest names there are Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James. In each case, there is a recognition that the mechanical determinism (largely unconsciously) assumed by scientists is not adequately accounting to experience, and so the attempt is made to develop a more inclusive and realistic ontology.

Then in the postwar period, the whole thing apparently just shuts down in America, in both the analytic and continental traditions — the latter of which also spread to many other disciplines in the humanities where ontological reflection may have found a place. Certain contemporary developments — the rediscovery of Deleuze as a “real philospher,” the surprising prominence of Badiou in certain American circles, the aforementioned work of Nancy, Zizek’s more recent work — point toward the potential for a renewed interest in a truly contemporary ontology. The shame, however, is that in so many ways we in America at least have to reinvent the wheel because the prewar developments wound up getting prematurely cut off in our context.