Derrida and Nancy’s Elliptical Friendship and Incommensurable Fraternity
When it comes to theory, friendship, and the conversation that can ensue between and through the two, the question(s) of what we wish to hold on to (terms, words, concepts), which we want to abandon, is always fundamental to their shared sustaining. In particular, words of and from the other, including and perhaps especially when that other is for you, someone like a brother. This is what we might refer to as a “fraternization (or not) of terms.”
These thoughts occurred to me recently, as I was reading a draft of a current essay by my friend Philip Armstrong, on fraternity and friendship in the work of (and between) Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. (Philip’s piece is forthcoming in an issue of the journal Diacritics; it is outstanding, so be sure to track it down).
As a partial response to the question as to which words or terms we wish to hold on to, to retain, to willingly inherit, or to distinguish oneself from, we might say that it is always a matter of “more than one” and “less than one” which, as Derrida curiously suggests, at the opening of his lecture and what was to become the first part of his important late book Rogues, is a relation that is more elliptical than aporetic. For Derrida, the ellipsis is a figure for “minus one” and “more than one”—excess and withdrawal, at once.
This is something like the rhythm of originary abandonment and perhaps also of friendship, fraternity, or love. Not only an abandonment “from” identity, the proper, and self-same (or, conversely, abandonment by or of the other, in alterity), but as Philip so strongly argues, an abandonment “to”…the elliptical sense of shared existence in its sustaining (e.g. decision) of the spacing of separation (e.g. decision).
“Love” would be one of those “technical measures of equality” that Nancy speaks of in The Experience of Freedom, and that leaves Derrida—in the text cited above—so perplexed. Such measures are, for Nancy, forms of praxis that are “affirmations of the political.” Meaning, affirmations of the spacing of incommensurable sharing and sharing of the incommensurable, that is opened up and given access to, by the political. Each time, measured against nothing (this is “freedom” as Nancy defines it). It is this freedom, measured against nothing and not returning to itself, that renders this rhythm syncopated and overflowing (and hence perhaps something other than “aporetic”).
In Rogues, what Derrida says he cannot understand, is the way in which the incommensurable can be thought of as a measure, and a common measure at that. This also means that he cannot understand why Nancy would want to have retained the notion of fraternity, in his thinking of freedom, and as the name for partaking in this measure. Which is to say that for Nancy, what commonly goes by the name of “common measure” is the incommensurable, to the extent that sharing or being-in-common is always a sharing in that which is in excess of any general measure or equivalence (again, this, for Nancy, is “freedom”). It is as though the measure is not, nor can never be shared in common, since as measurable it will deny or appropriate the separated spacing that must remain incommensurable in order to be shared in its sense, and not say, simply exchanged in its value (according to a measure of general equivalence). Therefore, being-in-common is sharing, and sharing is partaking in the incommensurable, which is, in turn, the only measure of being-in-common.
Nancy gives the name “fraternity” to the gathering of those who partake in common in this incommensurable measure, as in the Christian and Freudian figures of brothers without fathers. Hence this emptying out (or dismembering) of the Father into the body, is part of what Nancy has called the deconstruction of Christianity. Yet we might ask whether this fraternity is a partaking/sharing in deconstruction, as well. That is, to the extent that the latter may be understood as a partaking in the dismembered body of the father, the law, the logos, and any other common substance and measure. It is in this regard that Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity may also be a way of thinking about partaking in (by deconstructing) deconstruction. If Derrida was the first (and last?) deconstructionist, is Nancy the first to deconstruct deconstruction?
In a discussion with Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe in 2004, Derrida attests to the importance of Strasbourg (where both Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe are/were residents), and does so in a way that speaks to the distance and separation that structured his relation to these two friends and to this place. In the transcription, Derrida’s comments take on a pronounced and visibly explicit elliptical form.
“I was thinking to myself: this friendship that I hold so dear, like the apple of my eye, if I had lived in Strasbourg, if I had seen them every day, I don’t know whether I would be here…I think that a certain distance, the ‘good distance’ we spoke of yesterday, ‘the distance that is good [la distance bonne],’ has kept us and kept our friendship alive.” (From, Jacques Derrida, For Strasbourg: Conversations of Friendship and Philosophy, Fordham University Press, 2014: 17).