Jean-Luc Nancy and the myth of the individual

Deconstructing dualisms

The dualisms of mind and body, individual and community, have troubled Western philosophy for centuries. Jean Luc Nancy who died on August 23, aged 81, made it his mission to overcome them. Despite his incredible wide range of interests and prolific output, two key ideas always remained at the centre of his thought: The individual is meaningless without a community, and the self only makes sense as an embodied, social being, writes Peter Salmon.


People are strange. For the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who died on August 23 at the age of 81, this was no platitude. As he himself noted, it was this strangeness which drove a career of thought not only onwards but outwards – over 200 books, in some of the most scintillating prose gifted to us by a philosopher, covering subjects as diverse as philosophy, literature, politics, film, sexuality, contemporary art, history, and most recently the coronavirus pandemic, that ‘all too human virus.’ It is no surprise that Nancy would explore the complications and implications of the pandemic, as a medical, cultural and political question. His work always sought to engage with contemporary issues – to him, this was a part of philosophy’s job. More than that, the human body – the body as human, the human as body – was the location where he carried out some of his most profound, controversial and revelatory work.

In philosophy, the split between analytic and continental philosophy often (although not always) breaks down fault lines centred around ideas of dualism, with analytic tending to privilege the idea of a separation between mind and body. How we are ‘in the world’, how we interrelate with all the other things that are (on a personal or collective level), and how the body operates in this milieu are of paramount interest to Nancy and drive his often ferocious and passionate deconstruction on some of our most common sense ideas about the relationship between mind and body. The other dualism he sought to break down was that of the community and the individual. Nancy would argue that these are not separate entities, nor in fact are they distinct – only thinking makes them so.

More than that, the human body – the body as human, the human as body – was the location where he carried out some of his most profound, controversial and revelatory work.


The dependence of the individual on the collective

Central to Nancy’s work was his refusal to countenance the idea of the distinct, singular individual. As he argued in 2000’s Being Singular Plural, a singular being is a ‘contradiction in terms.’ In this he followed thinkers such as Heidegger and Levinas, but his arguments are both more primordial and more radical.

At least since Husserl, continental philosophy has problematized the idea of the Cartesian self, the subject/object dichotomy produced by Descartes’ proposition ‘I think therefore I am’, arguing in various ways that the primacy given to consciousness over our embodied self is not only false, but a reflection of the way philosophy (perhaps mistakenly) goes about its business. To think the world in this way – to consciously analyse the things around us and regard doing so as ‘how things are’ – is not how we actually encounter the world.

Rather, we are, in Heidegger’s phrase always already ‘in-the-world’, there is no consciousness which is established and then reaches outwards – our self encounters the world immediately. For Levinas, it was our encounter with others which establishes our ‘selves.’ In each of these cases there is, in some sense, a self which can be extracted – albeit only theoretically – from the world.

The self, he argued, is irreducibly plural – ‘we’ is not a secondary term, rather it precedes individuality, such that the latter is, in many ways, a perversion of what it means to be - a human, a subject, a self.

Nancy was having none of this. The self, he argued, is irreducibly plural – ‘we’ is not a secondary term, rather it precedes individuality, such that the latter is, in many ways, a perversion of what it means to be - a human, a subject, a self. A great deal of human thought – whether at the level of abstract philosophy or in the most quotidian doxa – is based on the illusion of our individual sovereignty (‘solitude’, he scoffs, that ‘Christian event’) which we must reclaim. Or renounce. Each is equally wrong, being based on a false premise. We are, always already, coexistent and coessential with those things which we perceive as separate.

In making ‘we’ primary, Nancy is seeking to argue a selfhood which he believes is both logically true (aself without another self is an absurdity) and intuitively correct – the phrase ‘a sense of isolation’ is always a negative term. One may wish to be alone, but one would not wish, in that act, to be stripped of all connection.

Nancy then, is the great philosopher of the term ‘with’ – which is not an addendum to the self but its primary way of being. Just as there could be no time without ‘at the same time’ – if time were to flow without events, then there would be no 3.30pm – so a putative individual only actually exists as a relationship. ‘Being,’ he writes, ‘cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating with and as the with of this singularly plural coexistence… with is at the heart of Being.’

The world then is made up of these relations in a circulation that goes ‘in all directions at once: all things, all beings, all entities, everything past and future, alive, dead, inanimate, stones, plants, nails, gods – and humans.’ This world – the world - does not ‘have a sense’ which we then need to discover. This would imply that we are somehow able to stand outside the world and ascribe a sense. Rather, the world is sense in that there could be nothing else – sense and world are perfectly commensurate, with no superfluous meanings.’

The world is this ‘plurality of singularities’, remembering always that the singular is a construction we might use for convenience, but which we must not mistake for originary. Strangeness refers to the fact that each singularity is another access to the world.

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Confronted – individually, philosophically, spiritually – with this fecund world of sense, we cannot help but generalise and totalise. (We might also seek sense in something external, such as God, or Truth, which Nancy does not allow.) For Nancy, it is the very act of totalising and generalising, and the way that we do so, which is the site of critique. Totalising is false, but ‘we must analyse the meaning of every attempt.’  

Take, for instance, the (totalising) idea of community. Nancy was fascinated by the way the concept functions in human thought and human history. His great early work, La communauté désoeuvrée (The Inoperative Community) analyses the idea of the lost community – that generalised idea of human interaction which is to be regained or reconstituted.

This sense of loss, notes Nancy, has never been absent from (Western) thought – the pasts where we locate this ideal community did the same about other pasts. ‘The lost, or broken, community, he writes

can be exemplified in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of paradigms the natural family, the Athenian city, the Roman Republic, the first Christian community, corporations, communes, or brotherhoods – always it is a matter of a lost age in which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds and in which above all it played back to itself, through its institutions, its rituals, and its symbols, the representation, indeed the living offering, of its own immanent unity, intimacy, and autonomy.

Like the myth of the noble savage, this community has never existed, but the thought that it has, always has. It is, veiled, our own recognition that the ‘we’ precedes us, and that our individualism is an operation – a painful one – of occluding this. This longing for an original community refers to a myth, not a real event.

It is also a longing, in some sense, for our strangeness to go away, for us to fit in, by having a shared identity. In this lost community, the problem of ethics, for instance, is dissolved by the idea that at one time there was an elysian realm of shared rights, shared values and shared desires. The painful complexity of life is closed off.

Nancy then, is the great philosopher of the term ‘with’ – which is not an addendum to the self but its primary way of being.


The embodied self

And yet complexity continues, always already, to intrude, and the dialectic between the individual and community imposes itself in often surprising ways. In 1990, Nancy became the first person in France to receive a heart transplant. His essay L’Intrus (The Intruder) is a fragmentary exploration of the experience – this great philosopher of the ‘we’, of the plurality of the singular, literally having a physical organ of another human placed inside them – and not just any organ, but the heart, which so much of philosophy (and religion, and culture) has identified with the self.

As his ‘personal contingency crosses with a contingency in the history of technology’, Nancy records how his own heart ‘was worn out for reasons that have never been clear. Thus to live, it was necessary to receive another’s, an other’s, heart.’

His survival is ‘inscribed in a complex process woven through with strangers [doctors, nurses, the donor] and strangeness’ until ‘this strangeness and strangerness become ordinary, everyday occurrences. This is expressed through constant self-exteriorisation: I must be monitored, tested, measured.’ He must become part of the collective, an object like other objects, in this case ‘the sick human’ or ‘the medical statistic’ or the ‘locus of hope/bravery/medical wonder.’

In this monitoring, testing and measuring, Nancy became his body in new ways. ‘I am the illness,’ he wrote, ‘and the medical intervention, I am the cancerous cell and the grafted organ, I am the immuno-depressive agents and their palliatives, I am the bits of wire that hold together my sternum, and I am this injection site permanently stitched in below my clavicle, just as I was already these screws in my hip and this plate in my groin.’

This was a peculiarly intimate encounter with the flesh, it was of a piece with Nancy’s writings on the body and his questioning of philosophy’s practical and theoretical relationship to it, if we allow those terms to be separated. Again his dispute is with the Cartesian separation of the body and the mind, again his work is more primordial and more radical the Descartes other disputants.

As embodied selves we are indisputably thrust into the world. We kiss. We touch. We decay. We have heart transplants.

For Nancy, to speak of a self which is different from the body is a nonsense. It makes, he noted, ‘no sense to talk about the body and thought apart from each other, as if each could somehow subsist on its own.’ Rather it is an ‘immense unending encounter’ and any positing of a separation is to be deconstructed for meaning.

More – it is through our corporeal extension into the world that we enter into ‘sense.’ Were we just a Cartesian mind without extension, a floating consciousness without a physical presence, we would not encounter the world as a palpable entity. As embodied selves we are indisputably thrust into the world. We kiss. We touch. We decay. We have heart transplants.

Thus the body, writes Nancy, is

exposing/exposed, and extension of the breakthrough that existence is, An extension of the there, the site of a breakthrough through which it can come into the world. A mobile extension, spacings, geological and cosmological displacements, drifts, sutures and fractures in archi-continents of sense, in immemorial tectonic plates, shifting under our feet, under our history. The body is an architectronics of sense.

Thus it is part of a system of exchange, endlessly open. Its mode of relationship is touch, where touch is the constant encounter of the body with all and everything. Jacques Derrida, whose only text on a contemporary philosopher On Touching – Jean Luc-Nancy – goes so far as to note ‘For Nancy, touch remains the motif of a sort of absolute, irredentist, and postdeconstructive realism’ – a realm where even the method of deconstruction cannot enter and begin its work.

Here at the body, writes Nancy, one cannot disentangle ‘the organic, the symbolic, and the imaginary, or the continuous from the interrupted.’ These separations are the secondary work of thinking. Only in the irruption of sense, such as when confronted by a heart transplant, does one ‘become for oneself a representation – a montage and assembly of functions.’

Nancy survived – ‘everyone… must agree that it is worth prolonging my life’ – with his new heart, twenty years younger than the rest of him, for another thirty years, during which his restless brilliance continued to produce works of astonishing daring, always striving to confront the world of the now. His final published work Sexistence explored ‘the drama of prohibitions, ideals, repression, transgression, and destruction’ in sexuality, while soon to be published texts explore gender, and coronavirus. Again and always the embodied self.

In 2001, Derrida produced a collection of memorials for friends he had lost to death. In English it was entitled The Work of Mourning. The French title is more beautiful, and would not be out of place in memorialising Jean-Luc Nancy, Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde - Each time unique, the end of the world.

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