P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue No. 191
23rd February 2015
Edited by Nicole Note
I. 'Why 5+1 is not always 6' by Ignaas Devisch
II. 'Jean-Luc Nancy, myth, ideology' by Pieter Meurs
III. 'Ceci n'est pas la solidarite: On public mourning,
identification and political solidarity' by Femke Kaulingfreks
From the List Manager
IV. An evening with Wittgenstein
V. Joad Exhibition
VI. CFP: Mind, Body and Self
Issue 191 of Philosophical Pathways is dedicated to the contemporary
philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.
Jean-Luc Nancy was born in Caudean, France, in 1940. In 1963, he
graduated at the Sorbonne in Paris, having written his master thesis
on Hegel's philosophy of religion. In 1973, he obtained his doctorate
with a dissertation on Kant's analogical discourse. Although he
published extensively on Hegel and Kant, his thinking is primarily
linked to the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida.
Indeed, 'occasionally, it is insinuated that Nancy is a 'French
Nietzschean', a 'post-Heideggerian' or even a 'Derridean'' (Hutchens
2015, 24). However, Nancy takes their thinking (legacy(?)) up to its
limits. If anything, Nancy can be considered a highly originary
thinker because he endeavours to let sense speak for itself (Meurs,
Devisch 2015). He uses words and sentences so that they stand outside
themselves and open up to a regime of sense beyond their own specific
traditional meaning. According to Morin, 'Nancy's ideas make sense
but this sense arises more from moving across sentences than from the
internal signification of any one particular sentence taken into
isolation' (Morin 2012, 2). Indeed, Nancy's peculiar style not only
makes him a pioneering writer, but also helps him to write
originally, thinking things anew, rephrasing and retracing their
A good example of this is the work he did together with Philippe
Lacoue-Labarthe for the Centre for Philosophical Research on the
Political between 1980 and 1984 (Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe 1997). In
their texts, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe literally try to retrace or
re-treat the essence of the political. They question the space and
meaning of what is considered the political, doing this in such a way
that the political is problematided or re-defined. Their
deconstruction of the notion of the political has had a significant
impact on key contemporary political thinkers such as Alain Badiou,
Claude Lefort, Jacques Ranciere and others.
Nancy has employed the same style and movement in his thinking on
community (1991), religion (2008), ontology (2000), and more
generally, the sense of the world (1997b, 2007). Each time, he deals
with conceptual assumptions and systems in this way, he engages with
and pushes the limits of their originary meaning.
The three articles contained in this issue of Philosophical Pathways
focus on his contribution to political philosophy, each from its own
Ignaas Devisch starts with one of Franz Kafka's short stories ('5+1
is not always 6'). It is about five persons living together and a
newcomer joining them later on. Devisch introduces the story to
problematise what it means to belong. What is interesting in this
story is that it brings to light the haphazard nature of the small
community of these five persons, and by extension the contingency of
any community. It also displays how these persons introduce a
distinction between an inside (the community of five) and an outside
(the newcomer), even if the former are dimly aware of the
(previously) uncommitted nature of their relationships on which their
communality is founded.
Inspired by Nancy, Devisch invites us to rethink community, or our
being together. While in previous times, community was usually
something that was simply there and to which people belonged due to
shared characteristics, today we no longer know how to express this
being in common; the concept has lost its very meaning and so does
our ability to organise society. In order to reconsider community, we
have to understand, as the story of Kafka reveals, that all criteria
to enclose a community are contingent. A community can never be
closed based on essential characteristics; it is always incomplete
because of its very disposition of being formed by singular
individuals. Hence, incompleteness does not stand for a lack, but is
constitutive of community.
To grasp on a still deeper level what community, or collective
identity, entails, Devisch has to show how Nancy's approach to
community is inherently linked to an altered perception of subject or
identity, one that is formed neither through collective nor through
individual essences. Rather, its main characteristic is fluidity
through time, a non-essence that is both singular and collective (or
plural). What is particular about this view is that both terms do not
stand next to one another, but intrinsically refer to one another.
Singularity is always being with others, to be exposed to others and
yet to differ from them in a non-substantial way. Identities (both
collective and individual), then, are each time, through each
encounter, recomposed, transformed, reshaped.
This take on the communal, while requiring a certain amount of
intellectual effort, opens up new and challenging perspectives. These
perspectives will remain blocked from sight if we keep perceiving
community from traditional standards -- essentialities -- that
newcomers have to adapt to.
Pieter Meurs' article is of a more abstract nature and investigates
the relationship between myth and ideology, more particularly how
myth enters into ideology, in order to briefly indicate why we are
experiencing a loss of sense in modern times.
Nancy highlights the all-pervasiveness of myth (e.g. religious
stories are also mythical), because of an intertwinement of logos,
community and reality. Myth presents itself as the prime manner of
understanding reality, as the very language of the things manifesting
themselves. It is representation itself. It needs no interpretation or
explanation. As such, it founds reality, it reveals the reality of
community to itself. In myth, the cosmos structures itself in logos,
and logos structures itself. Myth explains and founds community,
providing it with a reason to be. And yet myth is always an
invention. Needing no legitimation, it turns its own foundation into
For a long time, ideology did not have this mythical aspect but, as
Meurs shows in Nancy's thinking, its totalitarian tendencies can be
considered as an entry of myth into modern political thinking. As
myths, totalitarian ideologies (including capitalism) are truths in
themselves that cannot be proven wrong. Today, however, this
correspondence between truth and reality has been seriously
problematised. Since our representations no longer designate the
objectivity of the world, we are at a loss about how to understand
reality, having lost its signification. It is this loss of sense we
are experiencing in modern times.
Femke Kaulingfreks compares in her article two cases of public
mourning entwined with political protest. Some time ago, in the
United States several people of color were killed by the police
(Michael Brown, Erik Garner). Here, public mourning is considered to
be the expression of identification with a shared humanity,
regardless of whether there was an actual identification with the
victims. Recently, in France people were massacred in the attack on
the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Mourning,
expressed under the slogan 'Je Suis Charlie' rather seems to
ventilate a strong identification with Western liberal ideals of
freedom of expression and creativity. Kaulingfreks starts from this
distinction to question public mourning as an act of political
solidarity, if drawn on an appeal to identification. She relies,
amongst others, on Nancy's insights on freedom and subject that
differ from the liberal interpretation, a-being-on-my-own position
that the autonomous subject can attain or be deprived of. Instead,
freedom should be thought as the very being in the world with others,
sharing existence, regardless of whether we acknowledge or appreciate
the existence of these others. Being free is the very experience of
coexistence, confronting us with the limits of autonomous,
substantiated subjects; an ontological condition needing no further
qualifications. Nancy's interpretation has political implications,
indicating how the political goes beyond the founding of a coherent
order amongst like-minded people. It likewise points to the limits of
an established and necessary justice system, and the compelling force
of protesting against injustice, in order to each time render justice.
B.C. Hutchens. Jean-Luc Nancy and the future of philosophy. Montreal,
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.
P. Meurs and I. Devisch. The meaning of Sense. In: Matthews, D. and
Mulqueen, T. (eds.) Being Social. London, Counterpress, 2015.
M.E. Morin. Jean-Luc Nancy. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012
J.L. Nancy. The inoperative community. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1991.
J.L. Nancy and P. Lacoue-Labarthe. Retreating the political. New
York: Routledge, 1997.
J.L. Nancy. The sense of the world. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1997b.
J.L. Nancy. Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford University
J.L. Nancy. The creation of the world or globalization. Albany: Suny
J.L. Nancy. Dis-Enclosure: the deconstruction of Chistianity. New
York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
(c) Nicole Note 2015
About the editor:
I. 'WHY 5+1 IS NOT ALWAYS 6' BY IGNAAS DEVISCH
1. Two short stories
To introduce what is at stake in Nancy's work, let me start with a
short story from Franz Kafka. A very short story it is, and Max Brod,
who edited Kafka's work, entitled it posthumously as 'Gemeinschaft' --
the English translation is entitled with 'Fellowship', a very
questionable translation. (1983) It is a story of no more than
fifteen lines about five people living together in a house. They were
five friends we are told, everything was fine, but then a sixth wanted
to join in and he refused to budge. The sixth came to disturb the
party and throw the mathematics overboard. Though the friends wanted
to include the sixth if the 5+1 would have become 5 again, which
means they would still be one community, a whole or a totality.
Before the sixth arrived, the five were one, not because they really
enjoyed each other but they were one; they lived together and
therefore they are a community; the intruder came to turn this order
upside down because the 5+1 isn't actually 5 but 6 or even more than
To summarize the story: we were with five friends, we once came out
of a house and people said, look, these five came out of this house.
Since then, we live together and all went well until a sixth arrived.
As such, we don't mind the sixth but the five of us are fine as it is;
we don't know him and we don't want him. Although we don't know each
other, we are used to each other now and we don't want to be six.
Being with six doesn't make sense but being with five neither, but we
are used to it and we don't want a new community. We could make strong
statements or detailed declarations but we won't do that. We don't
declare anything. The sixth keeps on coming and although we push him
away, he always returns. End of the story.
Kafka's short story obviously discusses the matter of belonging to,
of being part of a group or a kind, of being included or excluded.
While Borges explicitly mocks about the attempt to classify living
beings of all kinds, Kafka discusses the mathematical order we are
familiar with. Apparently, when it comes down to being together,
mathematics comes in trouble. Many social scientists, sociologists or
philosophers have claimed this in the past: people living together in
a community generate a reality of which a total sum is always more
than the parts of it. (Lopez 2003) Consequently, the question of
living together is not a problem where 1 and 1 is always 2. Kafka's
short story poses this problem in the starkest terms: 5+1 isn't five
and therefore, the sixth, the intruder by coincidence, is not allowed
to enter the house, not because the five hate him but simply they are
five and belong together and he's not one of them. If 5+1 would have
been 5, then it would have worked, but apparently 5+1 will even be
more than 6.
Franz Kafka's tale exposes a metaphysical problem we want to reveal
throughout this article. The way five friends leave the house is
quite everyday scenery. It could have been workers leaving their
company by the end of the day. People come together, fall apart, make
agreements, cross each other in the street, curse one another in
traffic, etc. To be sure, we all have more in common and more intense
contact with some than with others; indeed, while some will strike us
as completely strange, there may be others that we feel are our
soulmates. Not all experiences are equal, or even important, but all
fall within the frame of what we could describe as everyday
Kafka's story is intriguing because the five also operate in this
everyday mode, but nevertheless privilege one meeting so as to
surmount the everydayness and attain an authentic existence. They
exploit a banal meeting in order to set up a community to which only
they belong, excluding everyone else. Despite their vague awareness
that their community is nothing more than a banal meeting, they
institute a communality where the shared experience of their
contingent meeting undergoes a sort of process of concretization and
seems to harden into an essence, a first cause or principle to
overcome the order of contingency. They take this proclaimed essence
to erect a barrier between themselves and others.
What Kafka's story indicates so beautifully here is that this barrier
is itself of the order of the contingent, so that the whole operation
of marking out the community is supported a priori by a failure.
Every community is also a contingent community but most often forgets
this contingency in order to put up a barrier between the inside and
the outside, between the members of the community and the intruders.
Then community becomes an imaginary whole (Anderson 1999), an organic
entity which seems to be natural in the way its barriers are installed.
Someone who profoundly thought about the importance of community in
our contemporary world is French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.
Community, he keeps on repeating, is one of the major problems of our
era. Why indeed do we have to think community today? Undoubtedly, the
most obvious answer Nancy would give to the question is that
community today is an issue affecting every kind of formal
organization in society.
It sounds rather banal to say we have to deal with something because
it is a problem, but the question is of course why today community is
a problem or at least a question and why we cannot but deal with it.
(Nancy 1991) There were times where it was self-evident who belonged
to the community and who didn't, you were simply born in it. You were
inside or outside of the house. Community then could not be a problem
because the question of what it means to be in common did not even
arise. (Devisch 2010) Whether these periods were better, simpler or
rosier is yet another, at the same time very necessary, question to
be asked if we are to avoid any nostalgic romanticizing of times
past; the fact is that community has not always been under
discussion. In some periods, community was simply there, as the
foundation and final cause of existence and the being of community
was a sufficient reason for living together in a community. (Nancy
Obviously today, this is not the case and one does not have to
consult philosophical or ethical literature to see that community is
indeed a problem, or at least is being conceived as problematic, and
it is thus imperative to look for an answer to the problems that
present themselves in thinking through our times. (Macintyre 1981)
Since having clear insight into a problem is just as important as
finding an answer, the question is: which problems are we dealing
with in the context of community? The most basic and tautological
answer is: the problem that we no longer know what we are talking
about when we talk about community.
Here, too, the triviality of this answer speaks volumes but again,
this is to Nancy a crucial insight in nowadays' society: the fact
that we no longer know whether and how we can still speak about
community, this is the fundamental challenge of community today. The
most foundational evidence of a community -- who belongs to it and
why -- is at loose ends and this is at least a challenge, not only to
philosophy but to society as a whole. (Nancy 2000) If every barrier of
a community is contingent -- think about Borges: if every
classification fails -- then the fundamental question raises how to
organize society, since we cannot simply pretend that we are one
world community and then presuppose all of our problems to be solved.
As far as Nancy concerns, we need new words and concepts to think our
being together today, because the words by which we thought about
community -- community is all about sharing the same essence: a
color, a race, a nature, a nationality or a culture -- is being
eroded by the way society has evolved. (Collective MT 1991) A variety
of cultural, political and social developments have led to the
disappearance of traditional social bonds. A quick recounting of
these developments would include the economic reduction of the
importance of the old nation states through the increasing
significance of transnational and global economic and cultural
organization, rapid urbanization, greater complexity in terms of
social and institutional structures and the progressive
disintegration of ancient social connections and traditions. These
have all contributed to the appearance of new insecurities and an
increasing precariousness of our situation, both at the individual
level and in the field of the social. All this has contributed to the
appearance of new insecurities and created increasingly precarious
situations for both individuals and society as a whole.
Insecurities have troubling effects not only on a number of social
and political structures but also on our personal identities.
Consequently, one of the most important uncertainties of today's
society is that the traditional social bonds have dissolved and that
we are confronted with the most basic questions. This is if course a
golden age for philosophers who are most often fond of fundamental
questions. So is Nancy. One of his major books on community is called
Being singular plural. (Nancy 2000) He argues that there is no
singularity which is not plural and, the other way round, that there
is no plurality which is not singular. To translate this into
layman's terms: to be always implies to be more than one.
To Nancy, the 'more than one' is crucial: being never means
being-alone but always being-with. (Nancy 2008) Although this idea
seems the most banal oneliner since decades, it is crucial in many
discussions on identity and community. It implies that every
enclosure of a community will always also be disclosed or disturbed
from outside because the criteria used to enclose it are contingent.
There will always be a sixth.
Nancy states that such insufficiency constitutes in principle every
community. This must be regarded as fundamental, he concludes. The
disclosure of a community is not derived from an originary or
still-to-be-constituted completeness nor from a lack that the
community is designed to sublate. (Nancy 1999) Rather, such
incompleteness is something constitutive because we are, be it as an
individual person or as a collective identity, always exposed to
others. For Nancy, the incompleteness is never located in some sort
of quest for a closed totality. Insufficiency never stands for a
lack, but for something that fundamentally cannot be perfected or
finished and therefore is constitutive for every community. In short,
closure goes hand in hand with disclosure and this challenges
profoundly our thinking of identities.
Next to the incompleteness, a second characteristic Nancy puts
forward is what he calls the singular character of identities. (Nancy
2000) Singularity is not an easy concept. It refers to something that
is rather ungraspable and unique, something hasty or fluid. These
are, of course, no characteristics that will lead us towards a
substance or essence of a society. It rather appears to be the other
way round: the lack of any essence seems to be the only essence of
singularity. (Nancy 1992b)
Singularity represents the idea of a temporal identity, a
non-substantial given changing all the time while existence goes on.
In yet another text of Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, we find an
interesting passage that might help us to answer this dilemma:
For us, existence is above all what is singular. It happens
singularly and only singularly. As for the existence, its
own existence is above all singular, which means that its
existence is not precisely its 'own' and that its
'existing' happens an indefinite number of times 'in' its
very individuality (which is for its part a singularity).
Singularity is what distinguishes the existent from the
subject, for the subject is essentially what appropriates
itself, according to its own proximity and law. Yet the
advent of a subjectivity is itself a singularity.
To accentuate the non-essential and temporary character of our
identity as an individual or as part of a collective, not only Nancy
but a lot of contemporary continental thinkers have used the notion
of singularity. Many of them are or have been looking for a suitable
concept to think identity in a non-substantial or non-essential way.
Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze, to mention just
a few names, have tried to make progress in thinking our identity in
this way. (Agamben 1990, May 1997, Patton 1996, Derrida 1997, 1988)
Most of them have an almost inborn fear from the political,
philosophical, and social claim that identity can be seen as
something that one owns. This does not only hold for an individual
essence but also, and perhaps more urgently, for essences that
believed to be shared collectively. Twentieth century politics have
shown all too clear where the claim on closed substantial identities
might lead to. Therefore, all of the thinkers named (and others),
want to undo the possibility of this claim by thinking identity or
existence in another way, in order to prevent us from totalitarian
thinking. (Traverso 2001)
While many thinkers put forward a strong individual identity against
the risk of totalitarian collectivities, Nancy's specific touch in
this debate is the explicit relation he establishes between
singularity and plurality. He argues that there is no singularity
which is not plural and, the other way round, that there is no
plurality which is not singular: being is always being-with, singular
is always singular plural, being one is always being more than one.
The singularity is a plurality, with and between other singularities
(which are, by the same token, also pluralities). Nancy speaks of the
'singular plural' in such a way as to make clear that singularity is
inextricably bound up with plurality. Singularity is being-with-many.
(Nancy 2000, 2008)
To singularize oneself means to be exposed to others and to differ
from others. The relation between singularities is their
incommensurability. They can never be reduced to one another, but
their mutual differences never boil down to substantial
characteristics which can lead towards the closure of a collective of
similar singularities. We are different from one another, but not out
of a substance or archetype. Characteristics like ethnicity or
culture are contingent, in a way that they are not the exclusive and
substantial key terms to include or exclude a person to a certain
community. Admittedly, there are Germans and others who are not,
there are laborers and others who are not, or there are Muslims and
others who are not, but here Nancy crucially points out these people
do not differ in a substantial way from the others since there is no
infinite and everlasting native essence called 'German', 'laborer',
or 'Muslim'. Because of their singularisation, identities differ from
themselves and can no longer be thought of as a substance to which
one, depending on whether one shares the putative essence of the
collective identity, belongs or not. Identities, be it collectives or
individuals, are contingent in a way that they change with every
singularization. Each time again, they are recomposed, rebuild, and
modified. Not that they are just like anything or anyone else. They
are a 'self' but this self is only in its respective singular moments
each time again different from the other moments. (Nancy 2008)
Kafka's story in which the five conceived themselves as one and the
sixth represented their 'more than one' reveals the starting point
Nancy stands upon in his writings on community and singularity and
the way he develops a new thought on individual or collective
identity. Identity, he claims, is no vast and steady entity,
grounding itself. Neither is a collective, thought out in terms of a
substantial criterion that allegedly marks the frontier between inner
and outer. Both the individual and the collective exist in their
respective singularization. They change all the time and so do their
Thinking changing identities is as such not innovative -- of course,
we change all the time -- but it gets radicalized in Nancy's thought.
Nancy does not start with the essence of an identity which then is
subject to some changes. It is just the other way round: identity is
nothing but the gathering of singular differences, the
infra-individual differences that make someone always plurally,
locally and momentarily different.
Existence is without essence and that is what Nancy's singularity is
all about. If we all are singular and thus plural, we neither do have
an essence nor are we substantial individuals:
At this exact point, then, one becomes most aware of the
essence of singularity: it is not individuality; it is,
each time, the punctuality of a 'with' that establishes a
certain origin of meaning and connects it to an infinity of
other possible origins. Therefore, it is, at one and the
same time, infra-/ intra-individual and transindividual, and
always the two together. The individual is an intersection
of singularities, the discrete exposition of their
simultaneity, an exposition that is both discrete and
transitory. (Nancy 2000)
Consequently, we do not differ just from others but also continuously
from ourselves. With a friend we behave differently than with family.
In different contexts we can also behave differently toward the same
person. People never meet person Y as such, but always person Y with
specific infra-individual qualities or characteristics. This is why
people are not to be distinguished from each other on the basis of
whether or not they share a common denominator. There are no
archetypal points of comparison or one or another essence against
which each character trait can be measured. The smile of an African
girl does not typify the girl on the basis of some substantial
characteristics of either being black or African. The smile typifies
the girl at that moment, at that fleeting moment at which she laughs.
Each new situation brings another smile (or tear) and thus another
origin or singular moment. (Nancy 2008)
This seems superficial but it implies a lot. As long as we start from
identity as a substantial given, an unfruitful opposition is at work:
the collective is seen as the enemy of the subject and vice versa.
From this perspective, individuals should adapt to enter the identity
and if not, they remain an intruder, an outsider. ...
G. Agamben. La communaute qui vient. Paris: Seuil; 1990.
B. Anderson. Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and
spread of nationalism. London: Verso; 1999.
Collective MT. Community at loose ends. Minneapolis -- Oxford:
University Of Minnesota Press; 1991.
I. Devisch. The disclosure of a metaphysical horizon, or how to
escape dialectics. South African Journal of Philosophy.
J. Derrida. Dissemination. London: Athlone Press; 1997.
J. Derrida J. The politics of friendship. The journal of philosophy.
A. Kafka. The complete stories. New York: Schocken Books; 1983.
A. Lopez. Society and its metaphors. Language, social theory and
social structure. New York: Continuum; 2003.
A. Macintyre. After virtue. A study in moral theory. London:
T. May. Reconsidering difference. Nancy, Derrida, Levinas, and
Deleuze. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State
University Press; 1997.
J.L. Nancy. The inoperative community. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press; 1991.
J.L. Nancy. La comparution/ The compearence from the existence of
'communism' to the community of 'existence'. Political theory.
J.L. Nancy. Un sujet? Homme et sujet. Paris: L'Harmattan; 1992b. p.
J.L. Nancy. The experience of freedom. Trans. Bridget McDonald with a
forword by Peter Fenves. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 1993.
J.L. Nancy. The question of community. The practical philosophy of
Jean-Luc Nancy. Studies in practical philosophy. A journal of ethical
and political philosophy. 1999;1(1).
J.L. Nancy. Being singular plural / Nancy, Jean-Luc ; transl. by
Robert D. Richardson e.a: Stanford university press; 2000.
J.L. Nancy. The being-with of being-there. Cont Philos Rev.
J.L. Nancy, R. Rand. Corpus. Fordham University Press; 2008.
P. Patton. Deleuze. A critical reader. Basil Blackwell; 1996.
E. Traverso. Le totalitarisme. Le XXieme siecle en debat. Paris:
(c) Ignaas Devisch 2015
II. 'JEAN-LUC NANCY, MYTH, IDEOLOGY' BY PIETER MEURS
In a footnote of his La Communaute Desoeuvree, Jean Luc Nancy writes
that it is necessary to investigate more closely the entry of myth
into modern political thinking and more generally the relationship
between myth and ideology (Nancy 1990, 116n). In this paper, I will
explore the way in which we should understand this strange relation
between myth and ideology. To do so, I will first briefly outline
Nancy's now already known thinking of myth. Secondly, I will
introduce a modern understanding of ideology. In a concluding remark,
I will discuss Nancy's idea of the entry of myth in ideology.
In La communaute desoeuvree, Nancy discusses myth within the context
of community. We all know myth as a narrative that tells of the
beginning of times or of the reason for something. It is a specific
set of understandings that shows why things are the way they are and
why people do the things they do. According to Nancy, a myth
functions not merely as a metaphysical principle for a community: not
only does it provide a community with an explanation for its
existence, it also guarantees its foundation and continuation. It is
a language that is 'the element of an inaugural communication in
which exchange and sharing in general are founded or inscribed'
(Nancy 1991, 48). Let us analyse this sentence in order to grasp its
full potential. First of all, Nancy considers myth to be full,
original speech. It is not a discourse that needs to be argued in
order to be legitimate. Rather, myth provides the legitimation of
arguments itself. It informs us of how we do things, not why we do
them. Myth refers to a (mostly implicit) set of understandings by
which we encounter the reality of our community. As such, it needs no
explanation but is itself the explanation: 'it does not need to be
interpreted, since it explains itself' (Ibid., 49). Drawing on
Schelling, Nancy would say that myth is 'tautegorical': it simply
communicates nothing other than itself. Myth presents itself as the
initial or prime language that allows us to understand our reality.
Or even better: that provides us with an understanding of that
reality. As a consequence, according to Nancy, myth is reality
communicating itself: it is the interplay between the practical and
the theoretical. 'It is the speech and the language of the very
things that manifest themselves, it is the communication of these
things: it does not speak of the appearance or the aspect of things;
rather, in myth, their rhythm speaks and their music sounds' (Ibid.,
50). In this regard, myth and community necessarily belong to each
other. It is impossible to grasp the existence of our community
outside myth. 'Myth arises only from a community and for it: they
engender one another, infinitely and immediately' (Ibid., 50).
According to Nancy, myth, as a system of meaning, as our regime of
sense, tells us what a community is about. It explains our reality.
Or in other words: community reveals itself by means of, or, in myth.
Simultaneously, however, in this revealing, myth also legitimates or
founds community. Myth is not simply a, or rather: the, explanation
of our reality, but it also provides this reality with a raison
d'etre, a ground of existence. That myth explains reality, while
being the explanation itself, means that it founds reality. As
foundation, myth is figurative for reality only insofar as it is
figuration itself. In other words, myth offers us a representation of
reality, not because this would refer to a certain truth, but because
it is representation itself. As such, it inscribes itself into the
reality of community: 'at the same time as each one of its
revelations, it also reveals the community to itself and founds it'
In a sense then, myth is 'the name for logos structuring itself, or,
and this comes down to the same thing, the name for the cosmos
structuring itself in logos' (Ibid., 49). According to Nancy, we can
only understand our reality through myth. It is proclaimed through
(or presented by) myth, and in this proclamation our reality
communicates its myth. In short: myth is simultaneously
interpretational and foundational. It offers an original, inaugural
frame of reference that inscribes itself into the real and through
which our reality makes sense. Consequently, myth is no innocent
story. It refers to the specific interplay between our practices and
theories. Myth refers to that story through which we live, know and
act. The Nancean account of myth deals with the reciprocal interplay
between the physical and the meta-physical. It expresses the fact
that a description is never independent of its reality, that it is
intimately linked to a certain normative or prescriptive content.
Myth not only offers a description and an explanation of reality, it
also provides it with meaning, with a direction.
So far, Nancy has explained myth as a narrative or an imaginary that
offers us an explanation of reality, while at the same time founding
it. We should understand myth from its mythic (or mything) power.
What Nancy teaches us in a genuine comprehensive way, though, is not
only how this myth relates to the world, but also to itself: he
indicates that myth always already is a myth as well. This seemingly
tautologic sentence 'means in effect that myth, as inauguration or as
foundation, is a myth, in other words, a fiction, a simple invention'
(Ibid., 52). Although a myth is an interpretational matrix that gives
meaning -- and as such, direction -- to everyday practices, it is, at
the same time, a simple fiction as well. Nancy thus combines two
quite distinct and opposite meanings of the word myth. He argues, in
this respect, that we should not understand myth from one of these
meanings (on the one hand: that it is a fiction, on the other: that
it is a foundation), but from their internal tension. He considers
myth as a foundation by fiction, or as a founding fiction. This has
everything to do with the fact that myth is self-communicating,
self-explaining. It needs no legitimation: it is legitimation or
explanation itself. As a consequence, myth turns its own fiction into
The power of Nancy's thinking of myth lies in the idea that myth is
simultaneously myth and foundation. Not only is it a critical account
to understand myth, but it also offers a critical way to investigate
our modern situation. In order to do so, we first have to explore the
meaning of ideology.
So far, 'nobody has yet come up with a single adequate definition of
ideology' (Eagleton 1991, 1). It is however a 'word that evokes
strong emotional responses' (Freeden 2003b, 1). This has everything
to do with the way in which Marx and Engels (1998) have influenced
the understanding of the concept. Their work has engendered the
common conception of ideology (as a smokescreen) that is still
influential today. However, as much as the contemporary scholarship
is indebted to the Marxist concept of ideology, it also criticizes
its pejorative connotation. Geertz aptly summarized this critique
stating that 'the term 'ideology' has itself become thoroughly
ideologized' (Geertz 1973, 193). For a long time, ideology referred
to dogmatic, doctrinaire and closed systems of thought that needed to
be overcome. With Althusser (1969), ideology was regarded more and
more as the hidden element of specific representations and
significations. In this view, ideology is no longer considered as
something that needs to be overcome, but is a necessary permanent and
organic part of social totality. Althusser argued that 'ideology is
not an aberration or a contingent excrescence of History: it is a
structure essential to the historical life of societies' (Althusser
1969, 232). Ideologies are a fundamental part of social practices.
Rather than to false understanding of reality, ideology refers to
understanding pure and simple. It is a structure by which we know the
world. And this understanding is not solely a conscious act. In this
sense, Althusser indicated that 'ideology is indeed a system of
representations, but in the majority of cases these representations
have nothing to do with 'consciousness': they are usually images and
occasionally concepts, but it is above all as structures that they
impose on the vast majority of men, not via their 'consciousness''
(Althusser 1969, 233). In this regard, ideology has a
practico-socio-political function: we live or experience
socio-political reality by means of ideology. It is a representation
of the relation between men and their world.
Thus, contrary to the Marxist understanding of ideology, more recent
studies in the first place question the ephemerality and the
deceptive aspect of ideology. Ideology is no longer a smokescreen
that blocks true consciousness and as such should be overcome.
Rather, it is considered as something permanent that offers a
possibility to understand reality. In this sense, Freeden (1996) is
right that it would be more correct to speak about ideologies
(plural), instead of ideology. Instead of referring to one
predominant and deceptive way of understanding the world, ideology,
or rather: ideologies, are considered as various 'sets of ideas by
which men posit, explain and justify ends and means of organized
social action, and specifically political action, irrespective of
whether such action aims to preserve, amend, uproot or rebuild a
given social order' (Seliger 1976, 11). It is neither good nor bad,
true nor false, liberating nor oppressive. Ideologies are narratives
that inform us about our relation to the world. In this regard,
ideology has been presented as an ordered system of cultural symbols:
it provides authoritative concepts to render practices meaningful
Ideology, in this generic inclusive conception, is considered as a
system of beliefs, a set of moral and political understandings that
gives an explanation and legitimation and proposes a specific
direction of the world. Now we know what ideologies are, we have to
understand how they work. In this, we should read the word literally:
ideology is an (not necessary conscious) understanding (logos) of the
world by means of conceptual and ideal images (idea). It is Hannah
Arendt's critical account of ideology that is very insightful in this
sense. In her The Origins of Totalitarianism, she defines ideology
quite literally as 'the logic of an idea' (Arendt 1962, 469). She
argues that ideology revolves around the application of an idea to
history in such a way that the course of events is explained by the
idea as one consistent process. It means that 'whatever happens,
happens according to the logic of one 'idea'' (Arendt 1962, 469). The
idea becomes the foundation for the way in which the world should be
ordered. It offers the premise and explanation for everything.
According to Arendt, this form of idealism at the basis of an
ideology implies that every ideology inherently contains totalitarian
aspects. She discerns three totalitarian elements that are
characteristic to ideological thinking. The first concerns the idea
that ideology offers a total explanation for the movement of history,
in the sense that it justifies what becomes, has passed away and is to
be born. This 'claim of total explanation promises to explain all
historical happenings, the total explanation of the past, the total
knowledge of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future'
(Arendt 1962, 470). Secondly, in order to fulfil this promise, an
ideology needs to elevate itself to something that stands beyond
ephemeral reality: 'ideological thinking becomes emancipated from the
reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a
'truer' reality concealed behind all perceptible things, dominating
them from this place of concealment and requiring a sixth sense that
enables us to become aware of it' (Arendt 1962, 470-471). The third
totalitarian element is to be found in the foundation for this
emancipation: an ideology's idea functions as its axiomatic premise
or ground from which everything else is a logical consequence.
Ideologies are thus always a kind of logical deduction, corresponding
to the two aforementioned elements. Firstly, 'because its thought
movement does not spring from experience but is self-generated, and,
secondly, because it transforms the one and only point that is taken
and accepted from experienced reality into an axiomatic premise,
leaving from then on the subsequent argumentation process completely
untouched from further experience' (Arendt 1962, 471).
In a sense then, the totalitarian elements of an ideology seek to
objectify its narrative. They try to exempt a space from speculation
as a place where the ideology's core concepts can be presented as an
absolute and final ground. Ideologies hold on to the realism of the
idea. As a consequence, the explanation or understanding about the
world that an ideology offers becomes nearly indisputable, almost
god-given. The logic of ideas presupposes the steady ground of its
own logic. In this sense, ideology claims its logic of the idea to be
true: it offers a steady ground to found its political community upon.
It withdraws ideology from being a mere narrative and legitimates the
claim of its veracity.
4. Myth's entry in ideology
At this point, it is possible to connect myth and ideology. According
to Nancy: the totalitarian tendencies of an ideology indicate the
entrance of myth into modern political thinking (Nancy 1990,
116n). Myth's entry into ideology, implies first of all that an
ideology is believed to be an original, true narrative. It becomes
the truth of the world. This is the case since the foundational idea
of ideology is considered as self-evident, a truth in itself. In a
sense, then, ideology works by means of its mythological structure.
In other words, the mythological background of ideology implies that
ideology legitimates itself: by means of the logic of its ideas. It
needs no legitimation for it is legitimation itself. Or, as Nancy
would say: 'it is self-communicating' (Nancy 1991, 50). The entry of
myth into ideologies explains the dissolving of a transcendent
vantage point into the immanence of a logic of ideas. The political
narrative becomes the truth, not because it refers to a vantage point
that assures its truth, but 'simply because'. It is claimed to be true
in itself. In other words, mythic ideology, becomes the authentic tale
of the world. As a consequence, it cannot be simply proven 'wrong' by
any other political narrative, because such another narrative could
never claim absolute truth itself. Indeed, the entry of myth into
political thought implies that this thought and its political outline
cannot be easily inverted. The ideas that form the ground of an
ideology are no longer simple ideas: they are total, global. They are
no longer ideas that can be discredited or fought.
At the same time however, it is evermore apparent that today, the
mythic status of ideology can no longer be claimed. Indeed, 'we no
longer live in mythic life, nor in a time of mythic invention or
speech' (Nancy 1991, 52). Our speech and ideas no longer refer to the
inaugural communication in which exchange and sharing in general are
founded or inscribed. They are no longer original. Due to the
contemporary crisis of sense, words have lost their originary
significance. They are no longer the communication of reality itself.
Put otherwise: words or concepts do not simply equate things. Together
with philosophers like Lyotard, Derrida, Nietzsche, and others, Nancy
wants to debunk the realism of the idea that has been present in the
Western tradition (Meurs et al 2009). Words are mere words or
representations, they are not the real as such. Our representations
don't denote the objectivity of the world around us. And as such, we
are not sure anymore what reality signifies. It is in this sense, the
loss of sense we experience in modern times, refers to the loss of
signification due to the collapse of a direct and objective relation
between the real and our concepts. We have lost the significance of
things. We do not live in myth anymore.
From a critical point of view, Nancy's account of myth and its entry
into modern political thought, reveals the mythical character of the
contemporary political narratives. It shows that ideologies, while
claiming to offer a steady ground for society, cannot invoke such a
1. Eagleton (1991, 28) even considers to equate ideology with culture.
2. I am indebted to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy's
apprehensive use of Arendt's analysis of ideology in their Le Myth
3. Indeed, in this sense, Arendt is right to claim that 'not before
Hitler and Stalin were the great political potentialities of
ideologies discovered' (Arendt, 1962, 468)
4. For a critical analysis of the modernization of myth, see
Edelstein (2007). Basing himself on the works of Sorel, Edelstein
argues that in order for a myth to enter into modern politics, it is
crucial that it does not draw on the authority from the past, as
classical myth would, but that it is aimed at future accomplishments.
'This temporal reversal affects a second traditional characteristic of
myths: whereas myths were commonly defined by their narratives --
Plato calls them 'old world stories' in the Timaeus -- their modern
incarnations appear much more static, iconic even, as though paused
on a single image-frame' (Edelstein, 2007, 33).
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towards an investigation). In: S. ?i?ek (ed.) Mapping Ideology, pages
100-140. London: Verso Books, 1994.
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Exercises in Political Thought. London: Penguin, 1993. 216
H. Arendt. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
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rethinking of the political space. In: Cultural Values, 4(2):239-255,
I. Devisch. The sense of being(-)with jean-luc nancy. In: Culture
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T. Eagleton. Ideology. London: Verso Books, 1991.
D. Edelstein. The modernization of myth: from balzac to sorel. Yale
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(c) Pieter Meurs 2015
III. 'CECI N'EST PAS LA SOLIDARITE: ON PUBLIC MOURNING,
IDENTIFICATION AND POLITICAL SOLIDARITY' BY FEMKE KAULINGFREKS
Over the past months two widely attended cases of public mourning
took place. In the United States many mourned the death of Michael
Brown, Eric Garner and other people of color who were killed by the
police. In France people mourned the thirteen who were killed in the
terrorist attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In both cases
public mourning was entwined with political protest. Masses of people
went out in the streets to express their grievances for the lives
lost, but also to protest certain unwanted developments in society.
Despite the fact that both cases are of a very different nature,
caused by different events and stirring different emotions, I wish to
compare them here in one respect. A comparison between both cases
enables me to investigate what role recognition on the basis of
identity plays in the active performance of political solidarity, and
how solidarity without identification could be expressed.
1. To identify or not to identify?
In the case of public mourning in the US, the slogan accompanying the
protests, 'Black lives matter', represents a denunciation of the
unequal valuation of different lives by state authorities. The
protests voice a demand not only to end racial profiling by the
police, but to end all forms of structural racism which are embedded
in the American justice system. Contrary to the current situation in
which people of color are not protected by law enforcement like white
people, this slogan implies a prescriptive claim; black lives should
equally matter in general. The expressions of public mourning in this
case seemed to be based on the emphasis of a generic, shared humanity,
regardless of an actual identification of the protesters with the
victims who lost their lives. Not only people of color took the
streets. White people marched in solidarity, not because they
identified with the victims, or suffered themselves from police
brutality, but because they criticized the prevailing societal
structures which make justice more easily accessible to some than to
others. The message was: it does not matter what you look like,
everyone should be treated with care and respect by the police. This
generic claim to a shared humanity was expressed in a more specific
slogan, in order to clearly indicate and denounce who is not yet
counted as an equally valuable human being. As Judith Butler
If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, 'all
lives matter,' then we miss the fact that black people have
not yet been included in the idea of 'all lives.' That said,
it is true that all lives matter (we can then debate about
when life begins or ends). But to make that universal
formulation concrete, to make that into a living
formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have
to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to
mark that exclusion, and militate against it.
The case of public mourning in France showed a different relation
between identification and political solidarity. Immediately after
the terrorist attacks took place people gathered in the center of
Paris and other major French cities, under the slogan 'Je Suis
Charlie'. This slogan seemed to indicate a strong identification with
the deceased editors of the magazine, who became the impersonated
symbols of Western, liberal freedom of expression and creativity,
frankly mocking any authority of church and state. The slogan also
immediately lead to critique. People discussed whether they could
claim to be Charlie or not, with some not recognizing the offensive
tone of the magazine, and others rather identifying with Achmed, the
Muslim police officer, who was also killed in the attack. As a
result, the protests encouraged people to choose sides between
different camps. Especially Muslims were expected to identify
themselves with the treasured liberal values of Western society, and
explicitly denounce violent atrocities committed in the name of
Islamic faith. In this case, the expressions of public mourning led
to a reaffirmation of the already often invoked distinctions between
so called progressive, secular Europeans and backwards, dogmatic,
Muslims. In the mourning of the attack on Charlie Hebdo it became
clear how easily people are both mobilized and divided by claims of
identity politics. The emphasis on identification as a basis for
political solidarity in this case, seemed to imply that one can only
stand up for certain ideals if one feels personally affected by them.
The protests under the slogan 'Je Suis Charlie' did not have an
inclusive effect, but rather stressed already existing boundaries
between dominant and stigmatized groups in Western European societies.
In what follows, I will make use of the work of philosopher Jean-Luc
Nancy to problematize the performance of political solidarity on the
basis of an appeal to identification. I will refer to his basic
political-ontological ideas, and his writings on justice and freedom,
in order to further analyse the cases of public mourning in France and
the US. An engagement with his work will clarify that political
solidarity based on the proposition 'I am...' could imply a form of
inappropriate appropriation, because it presupposes that people can
only support each other if they are the same, or could at least
pretend to be the same. When people express their solidarity while
saying 'I am...', this implies that they fully project their own
perspective on the events, even if their personal experiences are not
at all related. The awareness that some are privileged and others are
not, and some identities are preferred while others are repressed is
clouded by this kind of appropriation. Nancy's philosophy enables an
imagination of political solidarity which emerges in full recognition
of irreducible otherness, and simultaneously in a recognition of a
shared embeddedness in the same society. Solidarity should not only
emerge in a situation in which we can appropriate the suffering of
others as our own, where we can say 'this could have been us, this
could have happened to us'. It should also emerge in situations in
which we cannot personally relate to the suffering which takes place,
but nevertheless we make an appeal to stop the suffering of others.
2. I am
After the terrorist attacks took place in Paris people immediately
felt the need to come together in public and collectively share their
fear, disgust and grief about the terrible events. The following days
marches were organized, not only to commemorate the victims, but also
to protest attacks on the secular, liberal culture of Western Europe.
The public mourning went hand in hand with political statements about
the need to safeguard a public climate in which different, often
opposing, and sometimes harsh and offensive opinions can be freely
voiced. People held up pencils and front covers of the magazine
Charlie Hebdo, stating the importance to defend freedom of speech and
press against fundamentalist Islamic beliefs. The slogan 'Je suis
Charlie' fits well in this liberal tradition and its conception of
freedom. Freedom is a core principle of liberalism. It enables the
self-chosen development of the individual, independent from doctrines
or the influence of others. Restrictions of this personal freedom
through coercion by authoritative forces related to the state, the
church, or the community are only acceptable in case of a very
compelling justification. In the contemporary culture of
neoliberalism, this focus on individual self-determination is coupled
with a belief in the free and unrestricted pursuit of economic
interests. The gaining of individual success and profit is
stimulated, and in a society driven by competition personal interests
are seen as a primary motivation in both social and political life.
The invocation of the 'I am' in the 'Je suis Charlie' slogan could be
seen as a symbol of this dominant neo-liberal strive for individual,
self-realization. The slogan expresses a form of solidarity which is
based on a sense of personal identification, reflecting the idea that
only the freedoms to which we feel personally attached are worthy to
take action for. In addition, the slogan seems to appeal to self
interest as a motivation to express political solidarity. Currently
we seem to live in a time in which people no longer take the streets
because they wish to express solidarity with the marginalized or
excluded. Political ideals seem to be only inspirational if they
relate to ones personal wellbeing. If ones individual freedom is
threatened, this seems to be the strongest incentive to take action.
3. Ontological freedom
Already at the end of the '80's of last century Jean-Luc Nancy stated
that we are predominantly occupied with the concept of freedom in a
negative sense (1993). We are mostly concerned with any kind of
'evil' which could 'threaten or destroy the freedoms most frequently
described by the epithet 'democratic' (ibid., 2). This sentiment
became explicitly apparent in the reactions on the terrorist attacks
in Paris. It seems completely self-evident that we need to defend our
freedom and its uncontested relation to the Western, liberal,
democratic notion of the free will. Nancy observes this as a curious
obsession, since one seems less eager to thoroughly think about the
essential meaning of the notion of freedom. If we do not think
through the meaning of freedom, we fail to notice that a specifically
liberal interpretation of freedom may impede or disqualify other
interpretations of freedom. In the case of 'I am Charlie', the slogan
does not leave much room to reflect on the interests and freedom of
those who are not Charlie, or refuse to identify with Charlie. In
this sense, the slogan invites a solidarity which is limited to only
one category of European citizens, of the ones who can identify with
an image of liberal and secular Western civilization. The freedom
which is defended under the slogan 'I am Charlie' can hence also lead
to a form of repression. It seems to be forgotten that the stimulation
of one persons freedom can easily lead to restrictions on someone
elses freedom. Jean-Luc Nancy states in his book 'The Experience of
Freedom' that freedom can only be enjoyed in relation to other, and
therefore never implies a form of full autonomy (ibid.). This
relation leads to an inevitable vulnerability for the boundaries
which others can set to ones freedom.
This thought is in line with the ontology Nancy has developed in his
other work. Nancy emphasizes that every subject always immediately
appears within a relation, and is therefore not characterized by a
purely singular, autonomous substantiality forming its identity.
Simultaneously, the subject is also not absorbed in a plural entity
(e.g. 'society,' 'people,' 'class') that would give it a collective
substantiality forming an identity. For Nancy, the interconnectedness
between singularity and plurality characterizes every form of being;
the singular is always already plural, the plural is always already
singular. Nancy therefore speaks of a singular-plural being (2000).
The singular-plural being is itself an irreducible relation that
cannot be traced back to an initial entity. 'Being cannot be anything
but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with of
this singularly plural coexistence.' (ibid., 3). The 'with' is
therefore at the core of being itself. Being-with others is not a
relation which is added up to an autonomous state of being-by itself,
as the origin of being often tends to be understood according to Nancy
(ibid., 30-31). Subjectivity should therefore not be understood in the
Carthesian sense. 'The singular is an ego that is not a 'subject' in
the sense of the relation of a self to itself' (ibid., 32-33). We do
not become a subject when we become aware of ourselves in a solipsist
way, but rather when we experience something 'other' than ourselves.
For Nancy freedom and being are inextricably intertwined with each
other at an ontological level. Like being itself, freedom always
implies a relation with something other, and is therefore always
shared. Freedom simultaneously emerges with being in the world.
Freedom is therefore in essence not something which needs to be
gained because it is lost, or which needs to be defended as a scarce
good (1993, 13). Freedom is always already there, as part of
existence itself. This 'freedom of existence' should not be seen as a
substantial thing in itself, as a defined substance (ibid. 55), but
rather as a very basic ontological condition, which does not need to
be further qualified. Nancy speaks of freedom as an 'ontological
imperative' (p. 155), but without commandment. Freedom is therefore
also not something which can be possessed or acquired by a subject,
but is rather a feature of subject formation itself. Nevertheless,
'freedom cannot be presented as the autonomy of a subjectivity in
charge of itself and of its decisions, evolving freely and in perfect
independence from every obstacle' (ibid., 66). Since freedom
immediately emerges with every existence in the world, it is also
freedom which enables sharing, coexistence and relations. We are
never completely free in the sense that we are on our own, as an
autonomous self. Being free always immediately implies sharing the
world with others, and sharing an awareness of being in the world
with others. For Nancy, this realization implies that freedom cannot
be seen separately from equality (ibid. p. 71). We are in the world
together with others, who are equal beings in the world, equally
sharing existence with us, regardless of the fact whether we
recognize their right to existence, or whether we positively value
their existence. They are there, like we are, and therefore they are
equally part of the same world.
4. Politics at a threshold
This experience of coexistence, which always confronts us with the
limits of an autonomously operating, substantial subject with a
strongly defined identity, has political implications. The political
in Nancy's interpretation is not based on a shared organization,
program or identity which brings individuals together in a collective
body, but on the understanding that we necessarily coexist with others
with whom we share no necessary similarities. A strong identification,
such as in the case of the 'I am Charlie' protests, is not a
prerequisite for political solidarity according to Nancy. It might
even create unnecessary boundaries between those who can identify
with each other, and 'outsiders' who are denied a similarly valuable
human status. What we share on a basic ontological level, is first of
all a lack of a substantive identity. Consequentially, the political
is not about the establishment of a coherent order amongst
like-minded people. The drawing of horizons, boundaries or frontiers,
which create a division between a familiar whole and its strange
outside, should instead be questioned. Jean-Christophe Bailly speaks
in a joint publication with Nancy of a thinking of the political as a
thinking of thresholds instead of boundaries (Nancy & Bailly 1991,
20). In his interpretation, a threshold does not divide the
community, but rather creates a connection of co-appearance
(comparution), which at the same time does not negate the initial
differences that exist within each community. A threshold is not a
strict barrier which separates a homogeneous entity from its outside;
instead, it is the place which indicates the difference between inside
and outside and which at the same time invites one to pass from one
dimension into the other. The idea of the threshold marks the
necessary connection between any inner and outside space. The
threshold opens the inside to the outside and the other way around.
Superficial, binary judgments between a certain sameness, or
similarity which is good, and an alterity which is evil, can be
contested from an awareness of our irreducible coexistence in the
world. The symbolic distinctions which are made on the basis of the
'I am Charlie' slogan, between good and civilized Western citizens
and evil, barbaric Muslims are an example of such binary judgments.
Political solidarity should not imply an enforcement of such
judgements, but rather challenge a seemingly self-evident reference
to fixed identity positions. Political solidarity could also be based
on an affirmation of the equality of all in an irreducible difference.
This Nancyean understanding of political solidarity comes more to
light in the 'Black lives matter' protests in the US.
5. Lives that matter
After the death of eighteen year old Michael Brown, who was shot by a
police officer while he was unarmed, people took the streets in
Ferguson, and later all over the USA. A variety of protest forms
emerged, which became to symbolize a generally shared outrage about
the unjust treatment of people of color by the police. Under the
slogans 'Black lives matter' and 'Hands up, don't shoot', people
marched, performed flashmobs, blocked bridges and highways and closed
down police stations and courthouses. One particular feature of the
protests stood out. In many places across the country die-ins were
staged. In these performative protests, the expression of public
mourning and political action came together. People laid down on the
streets in public places, blocking traffic, or simply occupying space
with their bodies. High school teenagers performed die-ins in their
school diners, creating piles of bodies between the tables. The
die-ins made a silent, yet dramatic scene. They confronted passers-by
with a performance of vulnerability, or a certain staged finitude. By
collectively repeating the murder scene that sparked the protests,
the performances clarified that this scene is not a singular
incident, but one event in a chain of similar events, of numerous
people of color lying dead in the streets. The countless bodies
spread out on the pavement symbolically underlined the magnitude of
the problem at stake. The die-ins brought together a variety of
people, using this performance of public mourning to emphasize that
black lives matter, exactly by reminding the public how easily these
lives could be lost. White people took part in the protests out of
solidarity without directly identifying themselves with victims like
Michael Brown. This solidarity was mostly inspired by an
understanding of the risk of loss, and an understanding of the fact
that this risk is not equally shared, because of the different
positions people have in society.
Martin Crowley states that an awareness of the risk of loss could
possibly spark an egalitarian revolt against existing injustices
(2009). Crowley bases his analysis on Nancy's ontology with political
implications. Because of the apparent awareness of finitude, the
die-ins could be an illustration of the political agency which
Crowley envisions. An appeal to ontological equality should cause an
awareness that we do not only equally co-appear in the world, but
that we are also equally vulnerable to an end to this co-appearance,
to a finitude of our existence (ibid., 23). We are exposed to this
finitude, but cannot generally control it or appropriate it.
Regardless of our background or social position, we share the fact
that finitude can strike us unexpectedly and irrevocably. The
awareness that we can be equally affected by finitude should bring
about, in turn, a solidarity with those who cannot protect themselves
from finitude, because they have lost all affirmative power or all
rights to act (ibid., 124). As soon as finitude becomes something to
be exercised and decided upon by some at the expense of others, this
is a sign of abuse, which should be contested (ibid., 12). The
deliberately differentiating of exposure to finitude along certain
lines of privilege is an act of injustice (ibid., 24). An egalitarian
revolt should fight such injustices in the name of the equally shared
ontological status of vulnerable coexistence in the world. The point
here is not to save people entirely from their exposure to finitude,
but to safeguard its equal sharing. This was also the central claim
of the die-ins. The actions enabled people to express a shared
concern for the risk to loose ones lives by the hands of state
authorities, even if this risk does not trouble one personally. Other
than the protests in France, these protests were not focused on the
protection of already existing freedom, but on the establishment of
justice, where it is not yet equally established for all.
6. In search of justice
Where Nancy speaks of freedom as an 'ontological imperative', which
is always already there, he speaks of justice as something that needs
to be 'rendered' (2000, 186). Justice is not a natural given, which
can be easily defined or pinpointed, since it is intrinsically
connected to a world which itself cannot be easily defined. Our world
does not consist of a unity or an entity, but of an infinite process
of sharing our existence with others. The world is constantly
transformed, or constantly transforms itself in interaction, without
reference to an external or transcendental authority. Consequentially
a principle of absolute justice, as a certain general standard, does
not exist. 'Justice does not come from the outside (what outside?) to
hover above the world, in order to repair it or bring it to
completion' (ibid. 189). To render justice, implies a recognition of
the unique character of everything which exists, and simultaneously
recognize that everything is always already shared and therefore
never completely autonomous, proper, or untouched. It implies that
each and everyone is equally in need of a just treatment, and
simultaneously it implies that a just treatment in a singular case
does not automatically signify the same in another case. This idea of
justice cannot be defined in itself and can therefore also never be
fully, positively realized. A need for justice will always exist,
which is expressed in protests against injustice, and not in its own
confirmation. These ontological reflections also imply that justice
cannot always be safeguarded by institutions that see to the
implementation of law and order (Nancy 2007, 17). Sometimes laws need
to evolve in order to establish more justice for more people within
society. This is exactly what the 'Black lives matter' protesters ask
for. At the same time, one should realize that one cannot decide on
ones own what it means to be just, since justice is always
established in relation with others (ibid. 63). The ongoing strive
for justice can be brought into practice if we first of all realize
that everyone is in need of recognition and respect, for being a
unique person, and at the same time always already involved in
coexistence with others. Even though we could not define generally
shared conditions for recognition, everyone should have an equal
right to be recognized. This recognition should not be based on
identifiable character traits, which make the one person more easily
recognizable than the other. Not everyone has an equal lifestyle,
needs or desires, but everyone has an equal right to be recognized,
as an equally valuable human being (ibid. 41, 42). This is why Nancy
closely relates equality to justice.
7. Shared humanity
This is also why acts of political solidarity aimed at the
establishment of justice do not need to be based on identification.
Identification and recognition are not necessarily associated with
each other. Recognition can take place on the basis of a very bare,
shared humanity, in full awareness of any further existing
differences. The die-ins and the 'black lives matter' slogan enabled
people to collectively organize themselves around a shared desire for
justice, despite the fact that they did not share a specific identity.
These acts of public mourning and political protest are therefore not
a performance of identity politics, but rather of a politics which
emerges from a shared human vulnerability. They illustrate that
traumatizing events do not need to lead to a reiteration of existing
fault lines between people with a different religion or race.
Expressions of public mourning can bring people together who share
little else than their indignation about the injustices which took
place, and nevertheless find enough incentives in that shared
indignation to take action together. Hopefully, the mourning of
possible future lives lost will spark such a solidarity based on a
shared humanity, rather than an affirmation of one, dominant identity
and its consequent exclusion of those who identify differently.
I. See: George Yancy and Judith Butler, ‘What’s wrong wit hall lives
matter?’ in: The New York Times, January 12th, 2015, source:
M. Crowley. L'Homme sans: Politiques de la finitude. Fecamp: Lignes,
J.L. Nancy and J.C. Bailly. La comparution. Christian Bourgois
J.L. Nancy. The Experience of Freedom. Stanford: Stanford University
J.L. Nancy. Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford University
J.L. Nancy. Juste Impossible. Paris: Bayard, 2007.
(c) Femke Kaulingfreks 2015
IV. AN EVENING WITH WITTGENSTEIN
You are cordially invited to an Evening with Wittgenstein.
Thursday 12th March 2015, 7.00pm
Austrian Cultural Forum London
28 Rutland Gate
London SW7 1PQ
(nearest tube station, Knightsbridge)
Difficult to know and impossible to forget, Ludwig Wittgenstein is
remembered as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. He
published only one book in his lifetime -- a masterpiece that moulded
the evolution of philosophy and baffled his teachers. The evening sees
the launch of the play text, Wittgenstein -- The Crooked Roads, by
William Lyons (Methuen-Bloomsbury Drama), and will also include a
talk on the Wittgenstein family by Margaret Stonborough, Ludwig's
great niece, and the first showing of a filmed scene from the play.
William Lyons, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Trinity College,
Dublin, has written a moving and philosophically acute journey
through successive decades of Wittgenstein's career. The play
received its world premiere on 19 April 2011 at the Riverside
Studios, London, directed by Nick Blackburn and generously sponsored
by both the ACF, London, and the American Philosophical Association.
Entry is free, as will be the refreshments. As space is limited, you
will need to book -- this can be done online at:
V. JOAD EXHIBITION
Two day event: Friday 10th April - Saturday 11th April 2015
Celebrating the life and work of the BBC Brains Trust philosopher
A Joad Exhibition is planned for the 62nd Anniversary of the South
Downs Philosopher C.E.M. Joad (1891-1953) whose Archives are in
On Friday evening, there will be 'Brains Trust Evening', with
Question Master The Reverend Roger Williamson. The panelists will be
made up of volunteers and special guests.
On Saturday morning there will be a 'Ramblette', a short walk from
Amberley Station to South Stoke Village.
Richard W. Symonds
The Joad Society
2 Lychgate Cottages
Ifield Street, Ifield Village
Crawley, West Sussex
Tel : 07540 309592 (Text only: I am very deaf)
Email : email@example.com (preferred communication)
VI. MIND, BODY AND SELF
A three day conference: 24th-26th July 2015
Call for Papers and Presentation
Society for Philosophy and Culture
Victoria University of Wellington
The Society for Philosophy and Culture is an organisation dedicated
to promoting interest in philosophy and other related disciplines.
The Society encourages cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary debate
and discussion. We have branches at Victoria University of
Wellington, New Zealand, and McMaster University, Canada.
The Society is organising an international conference on the topic
‘Mind, Body and Self’ to be held at Victoria University of
Wellington, New Zealand, through the 24th-26th of July 2015. *No
entry fee will be required.* We are requesting submissions of papers
to be presented and considered for publication. Papers may be
accepted in absentia and arrangements for video conferencing can be
made if attendance is not possible.
The conference will present an interdisciplinary analysis of the main
topic of Mind, Body and Self. Papers could be from disciplines such
as: Philosophy, Sociology, Theology, Psychology, Anthropology,
Criminology, History, Geography, Cognitive and Neuro-Science,
Physics, Environmental Sciences, Art History, Medicine, Performing
Arts, Literature, Law, Commerce, Computer Science/ Artificial
Intelligence and Eastern and Western Religious Perspectives. (other
related fields may be considered)
The books http://www.philosophyandculture.org/books.html which have
been previously compiled by The Society are Meaning and Identity: an
interdisciplinary approach and Human Beings and Freedom: an
If you are interested in submitting your manuscript for the book or
in presenting at the conference, please contact us. Confirmation for
presentation and/ or abstracts are due by 28th June 2015. The final
papers will be subject to editorial and peer-review prior to
publishing. Each contributor will receive a copy of the volume.
More information can be found at the Society's website:
*Please forward this email amongst those who would be interested or
willing to attend this conference.*
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