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Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘Communism means conceiving being-in-common’

Jean-Luc Nancy, the celebrated French philosopher, died on the 23rd August 2021 at the age of 81. Here, in an interview with Pierre Chaillan, he talks about his work and his relationship to Marx and Marxism.

6 September 2021

Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘Communism means conceiving being-in-common’

Born in 1940 in Bordeaux, Jean-Luc Nancy became a professor of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg in 1968, where he taught until 2004. He was motivated by a concern to critically revisit the great German philosophical tradition, which until then had been too little known in French universities. Recognising this same philosophical demand in the work of Jacques Derrida led to a friendship between the two. In the 1970s, Jean-Luc Nancy followed in the footsteps of Emmanuel Lévinas, so much so that the ‘Strasbourg school’ seemed to be revived. He published several books together with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, including The Literary Absolute (1978), and is particularly remembered for The Inoperative Community (1986). In the 1990s, he frequently collaborated with other writers, as well as with artists and film-makers. In the 2000s, he developed a deconstruction of Christianity with Dis-Enclosure (2005) and Adoration (2010). In his youth, he was tempted by theology, but his encounter with Derrida, and his readings of Althusser, Deleuze, Heidegger, Blanchot and Hölderlin, led him to conceptualise a fragmented world where existence is stimulated by ‘being-in-common’, ‘community’ or ‘communism’.

In L’Equivalence des catastrophes (Après Fukushima), written after Fukushima, you consider a postmodern twenty-first century. Why do you see such a historical break?

I don’t think we are yet in the post-modern. We are in a ‘post-post’, in other words, a ‘pre’. We are ‘before’ or at the beginning of a change that is probably as profound and considerable as the end of Rome or the Renaissance. The Fukushima disaster represents a decisive moment because it occurred at a time when everything had happened to give it a meaning that it would not have had twenty years earlier. The state of financially overheated capitalism combined with the irresponsibility of an energy-producing company, the shifting geo-economic and political relationships, the growing evidence of an absence of reflection on the long or even medium term, both ecological and technological, sociological and civilisational. All this has made Fukushima a strong symbol, burdened moreover by the memory of Hiroshima. In fact, it was the closing of a period: what could have remained ambiguous with Hiroshima and Nagasaki turned out to be unambiguous. It is clear that we do not know, nor even want to know, what we are doing. Perhaps we don’t even know what should be done. ‘What is to be done?’ is no longer really the question for us; rather, first of all: ‘What kind of doing?’ What do we want to talk about?

You say that capitalist globalisation has led to a ‘civilisational catastrophe’?

Globalisation has been under way for a long time: it is part of the very principle of capitalism and its technological and democratic correlates (although I don’t mean to say that technology and democracy are integrally and in all their determinations linked to capitalism – but so far, these three terms have advanced together). Capitalism presupposes by definition an end to local, territorial ways of life and reproduction of existence. Production is defined as both the production of wealth from capital accumulated and invested and as the production of existence itself, which becomes dependent on the goods produced, from spices to nuclear energy and computer speed. Now, this existence, which believed itself to be progressing because of these goods, in fact discovers itself to be subject to their self-development, which can no longer indicate a ‘meaning’ by itself. Or rather, which indicates an erratic desire for meaning, of which neo-religious and neo-philosophical fashions bear witness. There is a proliferation of what Marx called ‘the spirit of a spiritless world’. But Marx himself did not say what this ‘spirit’ that the world is deprived of might be.

In your opinion, is Marx’s critical analysis still relevant today but in some aspects outdated?

Basically, Marx trusted, in a way that was both Kantian and Hegelian, in a progress and accomplishment of history. He believed capitalism was carrying out a ‘historical mission’ by leading humanity to a point where the conditions for liberation from the subjections and alienations of production would be produced. A push called ‘revolution’ would shift the entire self-produced existence into an equal and universal distribution of all goods that can give value to existence. In fact, ‘revolution’ was not so much a political term as a spiritual one: revolution would have ignited the spark of a new spirit. This spirit would have enveloped and illuminated the pure ‘value’ extorted in ‘surplus-value’: the intrinsic value of the human producer. Marx was a humanist and his very strong and acute sense of what he called ‘real humanism’, as opposed to self-righteous or utopian nonsense, presupposed ‘man’ as an absolute value. We now need to think of man more than ‘humanly’, if I may say so. More or differently. Besides, we need to think about man in a world that he has largely transformed, notably through energy needs. ‘Revolution’ remains the name of a demand that is not now clearly identified. We must re-identify ‘man’, ‘revolution’, ‘history’... but perhaps first re-identify identity!

How can we envisage a future under this ‘general capitalist equivalence’, when ‘everything is worth anything else’? How can we conceive a new world?

We don’t conceive the new, in the sense of a representation and a project. Wemust try to conceive and imagine, of course, but we must also know that the only movements that operate in depth are hidden ones, working beneath consciousness and philosophies, invisible at first. Who invented and wanted capitalism? Marco Polo? The Medicis? The Church? Francis of Assisi? The ‘Cahorsins’? Luther? These answers are all correct but equally narrow. It was actually a series of peoples, structures and mentalities that initiated the joint movements of towns and businesses, the emergence from feudalism, etc. It is the same for us. We cannot see the future any better than a burgher from Cahors discovering the Lombard bankers around 1430. But we must be attentive and sensitive to change. Not to what has been proclaimed unprecedented, which is only a market value that is already obsolete, but to what is unheard of and not yet audible. We must make ourselves ears, just as music has been asking us to do for a good century now.

You question politics. What characterises the current crisis?

‘Politics’ is the most worn-out word in our lexicon. It tries to mean everything: at the same time government, strategic management, and the overall conception of life or meaning. In fact, it designates both a sphere separate from other spheres and an envelope for all spheres. Or, it is reserved for uprising against domination – and more for the moment of uprising (insurrection, establishing power) than its conclusion (revolutionary institution). It’s a split word, well captured in the bewildering expression ‘politicians’ politics’. As if we were talking about ‘cooks’ cooking’ in a pejorative sense. And I have done this myself. Talking about ‘the political’ as distinct from ‘politics’ is no better, it’s just a fog. The crisis of politics is only one aspect of a general mutation of symbolic orders. The values, signs, stakes of what we call ‘life’ and ‘death’, ‘individual’ and ‘community’, ‘God’ and ‘man’, ‘history’ and ‘space’, ‘exception’ and ‘banality’ are in a particularly blurred, even chaotic state within so-called ‘developed’ society, as well as on the scale of global brawls and complexities. Is it a question of ‘governing’? But governing what? A banking system, supranational corporations? A state? Of what kind? Or is it rather a question of thinking about what being-in-common is when neither God nor master give us the reason for this ‘being’? Then it is more than ‘politics’, if this word can no longer designate the ‘public space’ that the Greek city could represent for its citizens, ‘free’ men distinguished from their slaves, women and foreigners.

Doesn’t the meaning of a common existence require politics as collective intervention and reappropriation?

‘Reappropriation’ is more than ‘political’ in the sense I have just outlined. It must, of course, indicate a policy or policies. But it is, first of all, of the order of the ‘spirit’ or ‘meaning’. Everyone agrees, in private, that money is ‘worthless’. But, out loud, all we hear is monetary value... Let’s talk about something else. I won’t keep this word ‘reappropriation’. Why ‘re’? What is there to return to? What has been stolen from us? Perhaps nothing: before we were serfs of a lord or of the Lord God. Is this what we need to reclaim? Then, is it a question of ‘property’? What kind of property? Marx spoke of ‘individual property’ in opposition to ‘private property’ and ‘collective property’. A nice idea, but what does ‘individual’ mean? Marx certainly did not mean individualism. What he had in mind – vaguely – was something that some people today would call ‘subject’ in the sense of affirmation of an act of existence, a singularity that has absolute worth for itself. But this cannot be ‘appropriated’ without escaping from all forms of property: wealth, the ‘ego’, identity.

According to you, working ‘for a better world and a better man’ means ‘thinking the present and thinking in the present’. So you reject the vision of change as a project?

As a project, yes. Projection, planning and programming have never done anything but project what it was possible to calculate at a given moment. And consequently, they block the image of a future already hemmed in. Of course, it is necessary to predict and calculate: but we must first manage to see what must be seen and therefore fore-seen. Should we project more cars? Vehicles with different energies but with the same principle of quasi-individual travel? Not cars but other forms of transport? What ones? For what kind of city? What kind of journey? We quickly find ourselves beyond the projectable and the possible. But it’s always a question of something beyond the possible! The burgher of 1430 had no idea what would happen in 1492, when Columbus reached an ‘American’ island. And in 1930, we had little idea of Europe and the world in 1992. Which is not to say that nothing should be done: we should be careful, but careful of what is not visible, not recognisable, not formed...

You speak of a ‘struction’ for a ‘conceived common’...

I mean that, after long and powerful constructions, followed by equally long and massive destructions, and through deconstructions that have opened the way to disassemblies and suspensions, a time has come to consider struction or structions, i.e., according to the Latin, heaps, piles, unconstructed elements, without architecture, anarchic or even anarchistic sets, as the truth of our situation. We have to think within this. It is not built, not edified, not edifying. It is anarchic. What does it tell us about ourselves?

You point to the validity of a ‘communism of non-equivalence’ in the sense of allowing for equality and enabling catastrophe to be averted.

Yes, an equality that is not measured by the equivalence of commodities, therefore of our labour-powers as commodities, whether represented as votes or as ‘imprescriptible rights’. Not an equality of levelling, but an equality of dignities, all of which are basically non-equivalent. Am I worth you? Are you worth me? Are we talking about our salaries? Our merits? Which ones? Our moral qualities? Which ones? No one is worth anyone else, and all are exclusively worth an absolute and non-comparable value.

By distinguishing ‘community’ from ‘society’, communism is seen more as a ‘being-in-common’ than a ‘common good’. How does this concept allow us to move forward together?

For more than two centuries, the word ‘communism’ has contained the following question. Once society has been developed as such, as an ‘association’ of interests and forces, and once the ‘unsociable sociability’ (Kant) of this society is established, one of two things is true: either we are not ‘in common’ at all, and there is only a relative ‘social’ equilibrium to be managed by force, money and law; or we are indeed ‘in common’ and there is no sense in an isolated existence. This is the actual fact that we have to reflect on. This fact is something we all experience, whether we know it or not. Otherwise, why would we be here talking to each other for an exchange that will be published so that others can participate in it?

L’Humanité, 28 August 2013. Translated by David Fernbach.