Abstract of a Paper in-progress
The first half of my paper is a reading of texts by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on religion, the divine and the sacred, art and aesthetics, and specifically on the attention that he has given to questions of place within philosophical and theological discourses. For as early as 1985 in his essay “Of Divine Places,” Nancy has argued that the question of God is not (or no longer) a question of being, essence, and presence (what is God?) nor of temporality, messianicity, and the infinite (when is God?), but a question of place and distinct location (where is God?), and what Nancy has more recently named “dis-enclosure.”
Given that in the philosophical and religious history of the West, the gods and God have always been departing, a divine place is not a taking place but a place of withdrawing and retreating (in absconditum). According to Nancy, if there is a divine place, it is at/from the step, less a footprint than a footfall or tread, where the latter is understood to be nothing other than the separated touching of sole and ground. As Nancy writes toward the end of “Divine Wink” (2003): “The step is the divine place, the only one, the place in which the power of the passing manifests and transcends itself” (119). In addition to finding one of its homologies in “wink,” (based upon a reading of Heidegger on “the last god”), the step is, as Nancy explicates via a recourse to etymology, a vestige (vestigium) and as such is the remains of a step, not as image or perhaps even as indexical sign, but in terms of the touch of the step, its operation and its place. The latter used here by Nancy “in the strong sense of the word is always the vestige of a step” (“Vestige of Art,” 98), and hence a divine place.
In the second half of the paper, I turn to the recently opened National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, in order to ask whether its deep recesses—exactly coinciding topographically with the two so-called “footprints” of the World Trade Center towers, might not be understood as a monumental securitization of the site, a hollowing out of the ground to its purported zero degree and that, less as profanation than divinization, renders it as hallowed and perhaps sacred ground, distinct from Nancy’s conception of divine place.
Finally, by drawing together Nancy’s recent writing on the empty tomb as distinct from the temple/cave, and the question that Derrida posed at the end of his 1968 lecture “The Ends of Man:” “Is there an economy of the eve?” I speculate towards a sense of spacing, aesthetics and archi-ethics as the withdrawal and retreat of architectural limits or the eves of the temple and the oikos (perhaps neither to nor from the temple but at and on its eve, that is to say, its threshold, opening, offering and infinitely finite access). And of temporality less in its coming than its passing by, like the step of the Gods, the departed, and perhaps even the ones who, in stepping from the heights of the towers on that September morning, caused so many of us witnesses to exclaim “my god!”
Following Nancy, I contend that this is the utterance of freedom as freedom unto nothing—nothing but the withdrawal and retreat from absolute destination or resurrectional return. This is at once the freedom of those who stepped out from the precipitous edge of the towers, and the utterance of those looking up at the sky and at the instant of witnessing each body falling. This is what I take it to mean when Nancy writes of “an utterance, and as ‘my’ utterance to the precise degree that it comes to me from the other who, in passing, gives me a sign, and whose Wink I respond to with ‘my god!’—without my having actually to say this word, whose ‘sense’ is to name or rather to mark, to remark, and to exclaim the passing itself and the passing not as a state but as a passerby whom I call to address, having perceived his step and the signal of that step” (“Divine Wink,” 116, original emphasis).
The economy, archi-ethics and aesthetics of the eve that I wish to think and present here, is an attempt to understand how the National 9/11 memorial, rather than staging the “zero mystery” (“Divine Places,” 140) and zero plan at ground zero, is a securitizing of the footprint, which is also to say—with a view of the water that endlessly flows into the memorial’s seemingly bottomless depths: “the baptizing [of] our abysses” (“Divine Places,” 113). Not a temple per se, but like every temple, the memorial is an attempt to guard against the departing, desertion and destitution of this kenosis from being an absolute abandonment in the form of a bare and empty place. For the “temple,” whether Greek, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, monumentalizes destitution and desertion, and provides shelter and protection not from these forces, but for them, in the finite form of architectural enclosure and spatial detention. Indeed it is remarkable to realize that the memorial at Ground Zero can be understood as a condensation of the four figures of the temple, as outlined by Nancy in his essay “The Indestructible:” Greek (contemplation of ruinous destruction and artistic metamorphosis); Jewish (twice destroyed and source of diasporic meaning, the latter in this case perverted for the purposes of waging a global war on terror); Christian (infinite construction, dome and spire, technology contemplating itself); Islamic (heart as black rock, reserved space, impenetrable and indestructible thing). Indeed, as Nancy states, this remains the current four-fold of the world, and with no small sense of regret we might agree with Martin Filler who, in his rave review of the memorial, bestows on Michael Arad, its designer, the status of “one of the signal placemakers of our time” (“A Masterpiece at Ground Zero,” New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011).
Throughout the paper, I will attend to many of the structuring tensions that Nancy’s work has focused on, including what he retains and refuses in notions of the sacred and divine (and how more recently he has thought this difference in terms of the image and the distinct); the difference in earlier work between bare place and bare thing (the latter of which will be theorized as “vestige”); tomb/grotto as opposed to temple/cave; resurrection versus the raising of the body; the ob-scene and the fore-scene; and the empty and what I have come to call the already un-made.