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#9: What do we have in common?

Jean Luc Nancy – Artem Magun – Oxana Timofeeva /// The Question of the Common and the Responsibility of the Universal

Artem Magun: Dear Jean-Luc! In how far the community changed, in your view, since 1986 ? Among other things, we might speak of the world’s repolarization and repoliticization. In this landscape, there emerges not only the question of solidarity and being-in-common, but also the question of collective action, of action that would be both constitutive of the community and effectively realizing it. Can we imagine action, common praxis, that would not be “work” (in Arendt’s sense), production, oeuvre?

Artem Magun: Dear Jean-Luc! In how far the community changed, in your view, since 1986 ? Among other things, we might speak of the world’s repolarization and repoliticization. In this landscape, there emerges not only the question of solidarity and being-in-common, but also the question of collective action, of action that would be both constitutive of the community and effectively realizing it. Can we imagine action, common praxis, that would not be “work” (in Arendt’s sense), production, oeuvre?

Jean-Luc Nancy: The community has changed before 1986. I think that it started to change when the collective relationship to the active transformation of history shifted. Instead of aiming at a community produced in the praxis-type action, one moved attention to a community of gestures or symbols, a community of expressions or manifestations, rather than of action: this, in fact, corresponds to a community of existential, spiritual, or aesthetic testimony. This is true, for an example, of the Lettrist international, then the Situationist international.  This is also true of the process of weaving discrete, loosely organized relationships among people with a similar feeling of the world, but without a program. (This kind of groups has always existed. It was precisely the community defined by action and program that was a new phenomenon, emerging with the French revolution out of what had earlier been a political faction. But in this “faction”, the “cause” was usually the coming to power by a person or by a group, and not a general intention related to society and world. At the same time, the national and international communities reached a point of disaggregation, where they were once strong, and the smaller infra-national communities reidentified themselves as defending the cause of “minorities”.  Speaking globally, the general and generic being-together of a  “communism” to come dissolved at about the same time, because it had either dispersed or recrystallized into many discrete elements. Hence, there appeared the necessity of thinking being-together as such. The “collective” became problematic because of the very large numbers involved (these numbers have perhaps never been truly thought through). A humankind with a perspective of soon numbering 10 billion people, and with the intensification of communication all over the world – both change the entire mode of “being-together” as such, a mode that had previously been posed in a very determined fashion.

To say this in slightly different words : manifestation or performance have been substituted for operational activity. But at the same time, the question on the nature of relation came to the foreground: if the “common” is no longer dominated by finality (“total man”, “society without classes”), in what does it consist? We are not finished with this question…The action that is not work and does not produce an oeuvre is  political action, in the sense of Arendt, indeed, in the sense of exchange among citizens. This presupposes the city (cit?) : but where, today, is the city? Citizenship has partly vanished during this very same transformation, to be replaced by the new “communitarian” identities that block the political being-together for the sake of a fusion or of an essentiality of the “common”….

A.M.: Should we return to the notion of an acting collective (would that be a subject ? would this be a subject in the Hegelian sense?), or do we need perhaps to revise the cult of action and to return to the “autonomous community” or the “inoperative” community, to use the formulations of Bataille and yourself? What is to be done of communities (like Bataille’s “communities of lovers” or simply groups of friends) that are vivid and ready to share and to “impart”, but who also share the refusal of all universality, that is, of politics?

J.-L. N.: These communities of lovers or friends are not communities, from my point of view. They are rather unions or, if we can experiment with the word, communions. Community, on the contrary, is ordinary being-together, without any assumption of a common identity, without any strong intensity, but exposed to banality, to the “common” of existence: it is egalitarian in the sense that our existences are all equivalent, thus making the existing inequalities even more salient. The responsibility of the universal is the responsibility of this equality – of the common (banal) – of the equality that we need to think, given all the necessary disparities of places, roles, etc. Egalitarianism is a flagrant abstraction, but its concretization has yet to be thought through: how to think a differential equality, if I dare say so…

A.M.: If the community is not a subject, but a place, and if the expansion of the subject signifies the bureaucratization and technologization of the world, what is to be done of the expansion of places? Isn’t this reminiscent of empire and imperialism?

J.-L. N.: Why don’t we turn these terms around? The expansion of places, in the sense of the indistinction and general connexion among places, is precisely what technicization means. On the contrary, the “place” as a locality of “someone”, like the “there” of Heidegger’s Dasein that is “always mine” , this place, precisely, is the “subject”! Not the subject of a self-relation, but rather the subject of the finite infinity of the relationship to this presumed “self”. Community is the connexion of relationships to self that pass through the Other and become infinite in the Other, as far as s/he is the Other as such. To think this, we have to abandon the model of the “individual”: yet today, the individual suffers so much that s/he has been placed into the foreground. The individual is glorified in his/her success, in power and money, and s/he suffers in the isolation and deprivation of sense. It is not the question of alleviating his/her destiny, but of “aufheben” , of sublating it in a being-in-common that would however not be a collective super-individual.

A.M.: Community founds itself in liberty as ectasis, in the transcendence of people and things toward the sharing of what is impossible for them to share, of the unshareable. But what is this liberty: is it the decision to transcend oneself toward the indeterminate unity, to the negative of the common? Or is it, on the contrary, the negativity of the opening, of the indifference? Where is the free community, between the militant democracy and hospitable liberalism?

J.-L. N.: Liberty is neither an opening toward an indeterminate unity, nor indifference : on the contrary, it is liberty for difference, for the difference of each “one” who can only differentiate oneself in a relation. This is why, in a relation, liberty always meets with the unshareable of being-oneself – this self, as far as s/he is just self, is insubstantial and impossible to situate. The task is to hold on to the unshareable as the reason (in the senses both of ratio and of foundation) for sharing. How do we share the obscure knowledge of our own finitude? In fact, we have been always already sharing it, and it is this “always-already” that makes communities, families, societies, all sorts of connexions, subsist and insist. We need to grasp again this knowledge, that has already been there. The effacement of religions both hides this knowledge and makes it more necessary. Religion used to supply us with the common reason of existence. Today, the one who exists should not give oneself one’s own reason and account, but should rather learn that he has had it already: that he “possesses” this knowledge, as far as it is impossible to possess.

A.M.: The last decades have seen a spectacular intensification of the terrorist politics. This terrorism, when it definitively transcends the limits of civil or partisan war in the traditional sense, largely relies on the media, on the spectacle. Thus, the  nostalgia of a “community” that you have criticized in your book led to the nihilist theatralization of community, to a pornographic parody of community and sovereignty. Thus, again, in a new sense, there is a return to a certain fascism, a fascism that is openly desperate and suicidal this time around.
In affirming their sovereignty, terrorists sacrify themselves and the others. These deaths have a spectacular effect, they make people express their solidarity, but this ends quickly, and the “solidarity in the face of terror” remains little more than a state ideology. Terror burns out the common, in the very place of the common. Thus, we return to a question posed by Bataille, by you, by Derrida: how and where do we find the common and the sovereign, if not in death? How and why to search or to practice the community, if, perhaps, it cannot even be “founded” or “constituted”?

Oxana Timofeeva: The onological need for community is animated by the desire to reject the suicidal logic of the contemporary individualist societies. Is it possible to transform this desire of not producing death any more, into some sort of political exigency? The familiar political languages do not satisfy this exigency because they hide the mortal truth that lays behind the presumed immortality of the absoluted and isolated subject. Do we need, perhaps, to invent a new “politics” based on the thought of community – a political language that would correspond to the ontology of the being-in-common?

J.-L. N.: One needs, in my view, to start by distinguishing between the being-together and politics : we should not confuse them. Politics is the sphere of the distribution of functions and roles, the maintenance of equilibrium. But politics does not absorb everything: community exists in multiple ways (i.e. in aesthetical, affective, religious, economical, technological ways). Maybe one even has to say that it is no political community, but a politics in general that opens and makes possible the various singular exercises in the different orders of the “common” (e.g. literature or literatures, arts, sports, sexuality, etc.). Of course, this presupposes that politics has this openness for its  principle (such is democracy) but not that it pretends itself to fill in the opening (democracy remains without identity).

But the opening toward the common, shared in different modes, does not open only towards death !!! This is important: death only exposes the renewed suspension of sense. But there is also life: there is the conatus  of the living-existing, the perseverance in being of the one who does not commit suicide. Why do we continue living? Why do we make works, make children? Why do we go to the doctor to receive treatment? What is this obstinate insistence to live and to make sense, even  in an imperceptible way? Here is the “common” in the sense of “banal”: this banality may also be presented as an incredible, permanent heroism of humans – and this heroism is always in common, never strictly individual. So far as the individual is only busy with the “self”, s/he is lost, because this “self” does not exist. The “authentic”, Heidegger’s “Eigentlich” , is always of the order of sharing (sharing language, speech, affect). Death, for its part, may only be understood as a suspension of the exchange – and we also exchange this suspension. But as a voluntary, productive gesture, that aims at accomplishing a meaning, it is rather the denial of death… The core of the question is this: either a superior “cause” is worth voluntary death, that is, it is worth of putting oneself into the place of death itself, of its contingency and of its character deprived of sense – or death can only represent the senseless and the meaningless, which we should leave to err and to occur. Of course, risking one’s life to save someone – for example – makes sense: this is precisely the sense of a community in being exposed to death, and this sense remains “senseless…” But to die to “save” the humankind or any given society suggests, on the contrary, that this “salvation” would have a sense that would not be meaningless, that it could be represented and assigned…

A.M.: You were recently in Moscow. Russia is, no doubt, a country with a very special history of community and even of “communism.” Today, this community lies in ruins; its remainders have lost their universal character. How do you find, in comparison, socio-political situations in Russia and in France? Can we find something in common, questions or struggles, between France and Russia, all in recognizing the vast divergence of situations, problems, etc.

J.-L. N.: The situations are obviously very different. In Russia, I was astonished by the distant attitude that intellectuals usually hold toward politics. Even if they stress their position on Chechnya, one easily sees their reservations as to political programs, as to the political sphere as such. On the other hand, the scale of the problems is such, and the political reality is so complex, with all its mixture of the remainders of the Soviet past with the uncontrolled development of various powers (financial powers, social networks, etc.), the necessity of assuring the power of the state is so strong and so ambivalent, that I easily understand why one can be skeptical, suspicious, and even paralyzed. In France, representative democracy, political programs, and the control of the state by citizens, as well as the authority of the state, seem to be in their habitual condition, at least insofar as appearances are concerned. However, there are many signs of a general shift in this “democratic” situation: the authority of the State and its representative character are more and more reduced, as is the role of parties and trade unions; we are in a situation where any “socialist” perspective is absent or at least hollowed out, so that one doesn’t really know what the “left” actually means (this becomes a word for morals rather than for politics). Financial – and sometimes moral – scandals are incessant; in France and Italy, they divide the “political class”  and testify to the weariness of a certain image of the state and nation. In this condition, a new kind of internationalism emerges, diffuse and confused, lacking any program, of course: the international of the mondialisation is the one of a certain difficult everyday life that is deprived of landmarks or perspectives; it is an international of the growing disparity of resources among the regions of the world and among the layers of society, an international of deaf consciousness, of the general absence of ends or projects, of an absence which cannot be replaced by technological progress, which only contributes, on the contrary, to the dispersion of “ends”. But one should add that this is also a situation of a very strong international tension between those who want to “globalize” and those who refuse to do so, those who want to emigrate and those who are afraid of immigrants… The “international” does no longer corresponds to the concept that used to be accessible to us before. But in general, the problem is the angle from which to attack capitalism…

A.M.: There is a considerable reception of your philosophy of community in Russia – but it is, for the most part, anarchist and even apolitical. Your readers often hold the communities of artists and lovers for the paradigm of community. What do you think of the possibility to link the deconstruction of the community with a (neo-)communist politics?

J.-L. N.: I certainly would not like the community of artists and lovers to become a paradigm !!! This is a misinterpretation of what I tried to write: I would rather like to make it clear that the communitary link – including, if you want, that among lovers, friends (and artists, but this is another story) – is always an untied, unbound link, and that relation in general presupposes “non-relation”, a spacing inherent to relation itself. By definition, relation implies a rupture with proximity. A “neo-communist” politics as you say could be a politics of spacing as well as of collecting, a politics of the singular as well as the common. But these formulas do not yet amount to a “politics” – far from it! A philosopher does not have a politics to propose: he has to explicate the conditions under which politics is possible today. And these conditions are perhaps now in the process of becoming very different from those we have known: that is, first of all, that “politics” cannot aspire to the totality of social existence, common or not common. Marx wanted politics to disappear as a separate sphere, “to impregnate all spheres of social existence”: but today it is the proper distinction of the political sphere that requires renewed attention (because it is this distinction that liberalism wants to undermine if not to suppress).

Translation from French into English: Artem Magun

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