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Jean-Luc Nancy

I presented this talk on 15 April 2021, as part of “Thinking Loneliness” the sixth and last instalment in a series on “Loneliness and Technology,” organized by The English Association (UK).

Here is a description of the event:

What is the relationship between loneliness and the history of thought? How have thinkers thought about loneliness through time? The reinvention of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Europe saw an influential upheaval of the relation between solitude and sociality. Whereas aesthetic experience might remain a lonely state in practice, its ability to conjure the human faculties into a state of ‘free play’ was thought to register its inherently communal nature, which Hannah Arendt understood to form the core of an unwritten and arguably still unrealised political philosophy. Like solitude, loneliness has also been a site of philosophical fantasies: of self-presence and self-sufficiency, but also of the possibility of disposing with, or escaping from, markers of identity or difference, including race, class, gender and sexuality.

This event brings together scholars whose work has addressed loneliness at the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and queer theory. We will be asking: what role has loneliness played in the history of philosophy? How has it structured philosophy’s attempts to establish the foundations, possibilities and limits of both subjectivity and community?

Part of The English Association’s series on “Loneliness and Technology” – 15 April 2021

Thinking Loneliness is the sixth event in our series of The English Association’s special interest group on Loneliness and Technology.

What is the relationship between loneliness and the history of thought? How have thinkers thought about loneliness through time? The reinvention of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Europe saw an influential upheaval of the relation between solitude and sociality. Whereas aesthetic experience might remain a lonely state in practice, its ability to conjure the human faculties into a state of ‘free play’ was thought to register its inherently communal nature, which Hannah Arendt understood to form the core of an unwritten and arguably still unrealised political philosophy. Like solitude, loneliness has also been a site of philosophical fantasies: of self-presence and self-sufficiency, but also of the possibility of disposing with, or escaping from, markers of identity or difference, including race, class, gender and sexuality.

This event brings together scholars whose work has addressed loneliness at the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and queer theory. We will be asking: what role has loneliness played in the history of philosophy? How has it structured philosophy’s attempts to establish the foundations, possibilities and limits of both subjectivity and community?

John Paul Ricco outlines a queer ethos of finitude in which both solitude and things affirm time as only ever the time that remains

By looking at the ways in which Denise Riley’s essay, Time Lived, Without Its Flow, and Adania Shibli’s novel, Minor Detail, confront the singularity of death and what of life remains unlivable, and then turning to Dean Sameshima’s photo series, being alone, and zu verschenken(‘to give away’), Ricco begins to outline a queer ethos of finitude in which solitude and things are two principal existential and empirical affirmations of the sense of time as only ever the time that remains.

I will be in conversation with Jean-Paul Martinon (Goldsmiths). You can register via the Eventbrite link below.

In a curious statement several years ago, Giorgio Agamben claimed that “the fundamental ontological-political problem today is not work but inoperativity [inoperosità].” Yet, even if he goes on to unfold “the poetics and politics of inoperativity” in terms of potential and use, the meaning of this term remains elusive. It would seem to translate Maurice Blanchot’s formulations in his literary criticism and fiction of “désœuvrement,” designating at once “worklessness” and “unworking,” as later reelaborated by Jean-Luc Nancy, among others. But it also resonates with a sequence of motifs turning around the problem of nonwork more generally, such as leisure, expenditure, play, erotics, fugitivity, inertia, revolution, sabbath, failure, etc. We could venture that the diffuse semantic field of inoperativity suggests on the one hand varied modes of refusing, undoing, or deactivating given operations and structures. And, on the other hand, it implies another way of doing or being in common—that is, other ways of coexisting or living in the world—no longer captured by the powers of appropriation, re-production, and rational instrumentality otherwise presiding over the work of modern humanity. For this seminar, we invite papers that think through arts, literatures, or theories of inoperativity across the disciplines, with a particular emphasis on its ethical and political stakes.

Fun With Agamben! – The New Inquiry

Michael Krimper and I are organizing this seminar (panel) for the next American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference, which will take place online from 8-11 April, 2021, with Montreal being the host city.

Abstracts are due by October 31st.

Submission instructions are available here: https://acla.secure-platform.com/a/organizations/main/submissions/details/1113

Jean-Luc Nancy: Poetics, Politics & Erotics of Exscription

Parallax, volume 27, issue 1 (February-March 2021)

Editors: John Paul Ricco, Stefanie Heine, Philippe P. Haensler

This special issue gathers the work of seven scholars writing on Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of exscription. The essays demonstrate the centrality of this concept in Nancy’s thinking, and its specific relevance to poetics, politics, and erotics—historically and in terms of the contemporary moment. By pursuing various permutations of this concept in Nancy’s work over the past thirty years, the authors move the discussion in exciting new directions and underline the concept’s applicability to questions of community and the commons; sex and sexuality; art and aesthetics; and the human and the animal.

In his essay, “Buccal Intimacies,” Philip Armstrong rethinks the photograph in terms of touch and the pre-orality of the mouth, by looking at Ann Hamilton’s series of “Face to Face” photographs in which the open mouth coincides with the aperture of the camera to become the space of photographic enunciation, exposure and exscription. In her essay on “Beastly Writing” Naomi Waltham-Smith pursues a trail of footprints in the work of Nancy, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous, and tracks down the animal voice in the vestigial sonorousness of the animal’s retreat. 

Erotic pleasure, sexual desire, and carnal sex are just a few of the more familiar ways in which corporeal existence is exscribed—an irreducible ontological condition of ecstatic exposure that Nancy most recently has named “sexistence.” John Paul Ricco’s essay, “Drawing the Edge of the Commons,” explores these themes in Nancy’s work, in terms of the relations between the sex practice of edging and the aesthetic practice of drawing in the work of Francisco-Fernando Granados, Sarah Kabot, and Shaan Syed—three contemporary artists that in various respects articulate what Ricco theorizes as an “erotic aesthesis” and edge of the common.

In his essay, “The Dis-Appearance of Desire,” Philippe P. Haensler reads Nancy’s writing alongside Jacques Lacan’s seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, charting remarkable affinities between the two thinkers and their respective notions of exscription and sublimation. 

The poetics of exscription is the focus of Charles de Roche’s essay on fragmentary writing and the moment when Friedrich Hölderlin scratches a manuscript page with a pen devoid of ink. And Michael Krimper aligns Nancy’s notion of literary communism with the thinking of Maurice Blanchot, Marguerite Duras, and Achille Mbembe, all within sight of current political concerns regarding plural configurations of assembly, the people, and the commons. 

Ginette Michaud provides the “Afterword” to the journal issue, as she reads each of the essays in terms of Nancy’s overall philosophical project, and alongside of and against other recent engagements with his work. 

The title of this post comes from the research project that I embarked on five years ago, with generous support from a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). I recently returned to my grant application, partly because the funding period for the grant is set to expire this week, and with that ending comes a need to look back and to assess. Yet given the current moment in which this retrospective gaze is being cast, I am inclined not only to try to measure the distance between the beginning of 2015 and the present, but also the degree of proximity between the terms I had used to frame the research project, and my present thinking and writing about the COVID-19 and the latter’s tremendous impact on public health, sociability, and autonomy. Here’s the opening paragraph of my “Summary of Research,” excerpted from the SSHRC application:

What if security is not the means of assuring freedom but of losing it altogether? What if fixed, enclosed, and secured grounds and ends are what we must abandon if the condition of freedom, as unconstrained, open-ended experience, is to be preserved? In the contemporary global context of curtailments of civil rights and liberties, the fortification of borders, and the militarization of society—all in the name of securing freedom—this question is of tremendous consequence and deserves to be addressed in new ways. In my project “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” I argue that the space of freedom is a spacing or spaciousness that is “outside yet not beyond.” Which is to say that freedom does not belong to a transcendent or abstract realm, and also to argue that our experience of freedom has a thoroughly corporeal basis. In its physical corporeal reality, however, freedom is not absolutely immanent, which makes it imperative to develop an understanding of bodies not as enclosed entities but rather in terms of exorbitant extremities, exceeding corporeal limits. Such excess renders bodily limits as always-unfinished edges rather than as definitive ends. Following the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose work has been central to the development of my own thinking, I regard the experience of exorbitant corporeal openness as one of both pleasure and risk, up to and including joyous, passionate abandon to the outside and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.


Johann Peter Frank, M.D. System einer medizinische Polizei, 1779.

The Risk of Health

As Michel Foucault outlines in an interview that took place in 1983, one of the primary risks of security is the risk of dependence upon the State and the system and attendant institutions of social security (public health, unemployment compensation, housing provisions, etc.). Security breeds dependency, and dependency in turn demands greater levels of security. This feedback loop is, at the same time, in tension with the demand for independence (autonomy) from the very systems that are meant to provide security. (Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in The Essential Works of Foucault, volume on “Power,” edited by James Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley and others; The New Press, 2000: 365-381).

The space of this tension between dependence and independence is quite narrow, and as Foucault emphasizes, this “calls for as subtle an analysis as possible of the actual situation” (367). The latter of which he goes on to define not as the large-scale system of economic and social mechanisms, but the “interface between, on the one hand, people’s sensibilities, their moral choices, their relations to themselves and, on the other, the institutions that surround them” (ibid.). In other words, such analysis of the “microphysics” of power, knowledge, and freedom, is less that of politics in the traditional sense (dare I say, even of “bio-politics”), and more so one of ethics; it is also less about spaces of enclosure than environmental openings. For Foucault, this is the distinction between what he calls “sociologism,” and an attention to ethical problems.

Even further and of particular interest in the current context of the global viral pandemic, is the way in which Foucault understands “health,” specifically not as a “right” but only as something that must be understood in terms of “means:” “means of health.” Before I explain what Foucault meant by this notion, it is necessary to foreground one of the most essential insights he puts forth in this interview. Namely, that the need and demand for health is, by definition, an infinite demand, according to which the problem then immediately arises, as to how this infinite demand inevitably finds itself within a finite system of means (373-74). Given that this is always the case, Foucault says that limits cannot be set theoretically and once and for all, but only established ethically, and in terms of each particular case. Yet such ethical decision would occur, as he goes on to describe it, within a collectively agreed upon framework of decision-making and “ethical consensus,” involving the users as well as the practitioners. This process creates and sustains what Foucault refers to as “a cloud of decisions”—one that in terms of the issue of “health,” need not be entirely determined and dictated by medical reason.

Foucault then asks the question: “must a society endeavour to satisfy by collective means the need for health of individuals?” (374). To which, from the perspective of actual practice, is a question that would need to be answered in the negative, simply because satisfying these innumerable and infinite needs and demands of health, is not feasible. Here’s how Foucault expresses this inevitable conundrum:

I do not see and nobody can explain to me, how technically it would be possible to satisfy all the needs of health along the infinite line on which they develop” (375). The problem raised is therefore that of reconciling an infinite demand with a finite system” (377).

Current public health care systems and its practitioners are always weighing this infinite demand against finite means; just as users are always weighing their dependence on, and independence from, these systems. There are a variety of ways in which people come to accept that their health and their lives will be protected and assured, and that they will, at some point, be allowed to die. One example that Foucault provides, is military service, especially in wartime. Others include those people whose diets are high in salt (risk of hypertension) or sugar (risk of diabetes), and those who are addicted to alcohol and tobacco. We are fully aware of the negative effects of each of these, which are tremendous not only in terms of physical health, but also in terms of economic cost and mortality rates. Nonetheless, these are practices, risks, and costs that neoliberal reason of public health has been willing to countenance, to absorb, to insure against, to pay for. Eight million people die from tobacco use each year; with 1.2 of those being non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. And yet, what we might now be inclined to describe as “smoking distancing,” typically takes the form of smokers standing little more than a few feet from entrances to buildings and the like. Without providing a response, I will simply ask: what makes the COVID-19 novel coronavirus different, and an exceptional exception?

Means of Health (not Right to Health)

There is much more than can be said about the conjuncture of the political economic, the bio-political, and the social-moral, that constitutes neoliberal rationality, of which social security and public health is one major strand. But perhaps I will bring this post to a close by briefly discussing three things that Foucault advocates when it comes to these issues.

  1. A system of social security that will “free us from dangers and from situations that tend to debase and or subjugate us” (366). Which means a system that first and foremost protects us from the subjugating effects of safety and security—those risks.
  2. A system of social security, or what I have called elsewhere, “a government of the commons,” that operates by way of the current activist motto, “nothing about us, without us.” Meaning: users are decision-makers, and decisions are made from the ground up.
  3. A system of social security that offers means of health (distinct from “right to health” which as such does not exist). For Foucault, means of health is a mobile line traced according to technical-medical + economic-collective + social decision-ethics practices, and that always confronts questions of access and its necessary and inevitable limits and exclusions, yet does so collectively, ethically, and not theoretically-programmatically (i.e. not “once and for all”).

To this I would add that any ethical-collective means to health, while never losing sight of the conundrum of infinite demand and finite means discussed above, nonetheless must seek to find ways to operate as “pure means” (Benjamin, Agamben), which is to say, without instrumental, economized, techno-managerial, rationalized, and generally-equivalent ends.

Virology of the Common

This would require ways of thinking the ontology of the common as a shared exposure to contagion, and to the infiltration and intrusion of unknown forms of alterity into the heart of the self and its rapport with others. This would be to speak and think and write in terms of our common virality, contagion, and collective contamination—those “vectors” that are the forms and modes of undetectable or anonymous commerce and communication. This would, at the same time, not lose sight of the incommunicable that always persists at the limits (but, again, perhaps also at the heart) of the known and the communicable. It is this that makes any community worth living an unbecoming community. And it is to this that Jean-Luc Nancy recently gave the name “commonovirus.”

Multiple home symbols made by human hands.

 

The University of Toronto Press and its journal, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, have just published a collection of essays that address the current COVID-19 global pandemic.

COVID-19 Essays

As Greg Bird and Penelope Ironstone describe in the opening of their Editorial Introduction, “This is a rapid response collection of essays. In the evening on Sunday, March 15 we began contacting Canadian-based scholars working in the field of biopolitics to write a short, biopolitically-inspired essay that critically interrogates some aspect of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

I am pleased to have my “three brief meditations” on friendship, intrusion, boredom, ethical distance, and sabbatical, included in this wonderful collection of incredibly astute  critical voices.

Here’s the Table of Contents

1. Being in Common at a Distance by Elettra Stimilli

2. In the Distance by Philippe Theophanidis

3. Biopolitical Economies of the COVID-19 Pandemic by Jon Short

4. On Ways of Living in the Midst of the COVID-19 Global Pandemic (Three Brief Meditations) by John Paul Ricco

5. Crisis, Critique, and the Limits of What We Can Hear by Stuart J. Murray

6. The Pandemic is (Extra) Ordinary by Penelope Ironstone

7. The Biopolitics of Numbers by Victor Li

8. Uncanny Convergences: Mobility and Containment in the Time of Coronavirus by Roberta Buiani

9. Biomedical Apparatuses or Conviviality? by Greg Bird

10. Government-in-a-Box, or Understanding Pandemic Measures as Biopolitics by Neil Balan

On 26 February 2020, in Il Manifesto, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a short response to the current coronavirus outbreak that, according to the World Health Organization and others, borders on—if indeed it has not already become—a global pandemic. You can read an English translation of Agamben’s essay, “The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency” on the web site of the journal Positions.

A day later, on 27 February, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy put out a short response to Agamben, titled, “Viral Exception”, published in Italian and French, on the Antinomie web site. Here is an English translation, for which I thank Philippe Theophanidis (York University, Toronto), who also brought this philosophical exchange to my attention.

Giorgio Agamben, an old friend, says the coronavirus is hardly different from a normal flu. He forgets that for “normal” flu there is a vaccine that has been proven effective. It still has to be readapted to the viral mutations every year. But “normal” flu always kills a few people and the coronavirus against which no vaccine exists is capable of obviously  a much higher lethal performance. The difference (according to sources of the same type as those of Agamben) is about 1 to 30: it is not indifferent.
Giorgio assures us that governments seize pretexts to establish all possible states of exception. He does not notice that the exception is indeed becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds (displacements, transfers of all kinds, impregnation or diffusion of substances, etc.) are reaching a hitherto unknown intensity that is growing with the population. In rich countries, the increase in population also means longer life expectancy and an increase in the number of elderly people and, in general, people at risk.
We must not be mistaken in our targets: an entire civilization is involved, there is no doubt about it. There is a kind of viral exception – biological, computer, cultural – that is pandemic. Governments are nothing more than sad executioners, and attacking them seems more like a diversionary manoeuvre than a political reflection.
I reminded you that Giorgio is an old friend. I am sorry to appeal to a personal recollection, but I am not leaving a register of general reflection. Almost thirty years ago doctors decided that I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake. Giorgio is nevertheless a spirit of such finesse and kindness that one can say – and without the slightest irony – exceptional.

 

In an email, my friend and colleague Victor Li has astutely remarked that in referring to Agamben as “exceptional,” it would seem that Nancy is calling Agamben out as “someone who is completely out it,” or, “as in baseball parlance, something or someone who is completely out in left field.”

To this seemingly unavoidable and thereby justified reading, I would like to add the following, by way of furthering Victor’s observations.

I can’t help but think that Nancy’s repeated emphasis on “old” is its own further qualification of Agamben’s stated “exceptional” status. I hear Nancy saying that Agamben is out-of-date, not with the times, and that perhaps even his conceptualization of states of exception is not properly applicable in this current situation—or at least is in need of a serious update. One that would not overly focus on national governments, for instance; as Nancy suggests.

At the same time, “exceptional” here might also mean that while the two men remain friends (many recent encounters verify this), when it comes to this issue (and others, Nancy’s heart transplant, for instance), they no longer touch each other or are “in contact.”

Nancy of course also remains exceptional in being someone for whom the bare life of another became the means by which his biological life was restored. Yet one must go further, as he himself did in “The Intruder,” his essay occasioned by his heart transplant, so as to understand that his very existence—ontologically—is predicated upon an originary force of intrusion; that he is (himself), like any other entity, an intruder. In other words, the bio-technical intrusion in the form of a heart transplant is conditioned by this a priori ontological/existential force of intrusion by which existence is born and shaped.

But this also means that not every intrusion (e.g. virus) is the same or indifferent, and therefore due to this singularity, each intrusion cannot be ascribed to serving the same “state of exception.”

Before one is a friend, one is an intruder; and in the persistence of that intrusion, subsides a friendship that does not grow old.

 

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