Jean-Luc Nancy is a thinker of the world; this world, our world. Born in France in 1940, he gained prominence with his work The Inoperative Community. However, his thought addresses not only community, but art, body, sexuality, war, and, for our purposes here, Christianity and political economy. He wrote and lectured up to his death on August 23, 2021.
The nature of Nancy’s work is subtle and poetic. He is subtle because he deconstructs traditional terms (e.g., being, existence, creation, world) yet continues to use them. When reading these terms in his work, it is important to understand them in their deconstructed and redefined meaning. He is poetic because he tends to write evocatively rather than didactically. One can get a sense of his thought more easily than one can list point-by-point theses. However, the subtlety and poetry of his language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism.
Although he wrote about Christianity, Jean-Luc Nancy is a philosopher, not a Christian theologian. I will trace his work on Christianity and on global capitalism to arrive at what I believe is his most important contribution: his ontology. Through ontology he offers an interpretation of our current situation that is both unflinching and demanding.
In Dis-Enclosure, Jean-Luc Nancy undertakes a deconstruction of Christianity. Deconstruction does not mean to destroy, but to open a system to the unthought possibilities within it. For Nancy, Christianity and the West are inseparable and must be thought together.
He starts by reconsidering Jewish monotheism, which he locates as one of the origins of the West. Monotheism represents a radical break from polytheism, which posited the plurality of myths and related deities populating the cosmos. In contrast, Jewish monotheism posits God as one who is unrepresentable and withdrawn from the vicissitudes of history, and it posits a world separated from its principle. The God of monotheism withdraws from the world and, likewise, withdraws any myth or meaning from the world. Therefore, he claims that “monotheism is in truth atheism” — that is, it declares a world without God (Dis-Enclosure, 35). For Jean-Luc Nancy, monotheism self-deconstructs into atheism; and rigorous atheism has religious roots.
Christianity, which conjoins Judaism and Greco-Roman culture, advances the self-deconstruction of monotheism in paradoxical ways. For example, the doctrine of the Incarnation is not a myth of an all-powerful human or a demi-god. Rather, it is the logic of God becoming godless in the abandonment of divine power. The Christian God is one “who atheizes himself [sic] and who atheologizes himself [sic]” (Dis-Enclosure, 82). For Nancy, Christianity is essentially self-deconstructing in the fact that it “indicates, in the most active way…the principle of a world without God” (Dis-Enclosure, 35).
A world without God is the legacy of Christianity that arrives at atheism and, eventually, nihilism. The emergence of humanism or the Enlightenment, or modernity, is not a rupture with a “dark” Christian past, but the continuation of an all-too-Christian trajectory. Demythologization in the name of an axiom (e.g., reason, progress), which is characteristic of these trends, has its provenance in the atheistic logic of monotheism. However, the progressive stripping of narratives and values from social life eventually unfolds into the nihilism of contemporary globalization wherein all is dethroned but capital.
Following Marx, Nancy understands that, historically, communities and identities that were once founded on myths, traditions, or hierarchies are dismantled by capitalism. Through this process of dismantling, social realities are stripped bare, leaving us devoid of any meaning or value except capital. Just as monotheism demythologizes the world in the name of one principle, globalization replaces all value with the value of capital alone.
Nancy deploys the concept of “ecotechnics” to describe the world produced and reproduced by global capitalism. On one hand, ecotechnics is the name to describe the world stripped bare of all narrative, history, or horizon of meaning. “For the projection of linear histories and final ends, it substitutes the spacings of time, local differences, and numerous bifurcations” (Corpus, 89). On the other hand, in place of any History or telos, human and nonhuman bodies are incorporated into a global capital system. Ecotechnics is the incorporation of bodies — local and planetary, human, mechanical, and cosmic — into a system where they are arranged and put to work according to capital.
Ecotechnics is a revision of biopolitics. If biopolitics proposes that life is the object of modern governance, Nancy no longer believes this framework to be sufficient. He does not think we can conceive of life outside of its entanglements with other apparatuses and the environments that makes it possible. Moreover, without determined public spaces or shared commitments, there’s no longer a polis for there to be politics in any meaningful sense. Ecotechnics, however, points to the inseparability of life, body, nature, and technology in the reproduction of our world. If ecotechnics has an object, it is not life but the spatial configuration and production of bodies as the reproduction of capital.
For Nancy, capital is not an abstraction, but is corporeal and relational. It creates an “agglomeration”, a piling up and concentration, of wealth and misery, “by the reconfiguration and determination of human and nonhuman bodies stripped of all other signification (The Creation of the World, 33). Capital is the configuration of our world and of our being. It arranges, moves, and works bodies into a diffuse global network. Nancy does not make a distinction between an economic base (production of commodities) and ideological superstructure (politics, law, religion, etc.). Rather, Nancy sees capital as almost synonymous with the physicality of its social and global ordering. This ordering is the endless distribution and reproduction of wealth, misery, labor, poverty, and suffering.
Christianity posited a world without God and a world without myth. This is the impetus for atheism and contemporary nihilism, in which the world lacks any principle or value except for capital and its reproduction. However, for this reason, Christianity and capitalism also point toward a provocative and demanding ontology. It’s this ontology that I believe is Nancy’s most important contribution.
Nancy’s ontology, most clearly articulated in Being Singular Plural, redefines Being as “being-with” or “being-in-common.” In contrast to formulations of Being as an essence, substance, or a property, being-with proposes that beings necessarily exist in relation. That is, only actual beings exist and to exist is nothing other than to be exposed to the exteriority of other beings. In exposure, each being appears with all other beings that are exposed in their turn. This is what all beings have in common. For Nancy, this is being-with, and he calls “sense” that which circulates between each being.
Being-with is the “co-” that Nancy reiterates in terms such as co-essence, co-appearance, and co-existence. “A single being is a contradiction in terms” (Being Singular Plural, 12). There is no principle (arche) or telos; there is no sovereign being or position that stands apart from the plurality of being-in-common. A single being is already plural since it is one (singular) among many. There is no totality, boundary, or ground. Existence is coexistence, each time original and each time with others.
Moreover, the “with” between each singular being is nothing. As nothing, the “with” cannot be represented, appropriated, or figured; “with” is simply creation each and every time. Nancy writes, “From one singular to another, there is contiguity but not continuity… All of being is in touch with all of being, but the law of touching is separation” (Being Singular Plural, 5). He draws on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, “from nothing,” to understand the spatial and temporal distancing of our co-existence.
These details might seem abstract, but when Nancy speaks of being-with he’s speaking about the world; this world, our world. The world “means rapport, relation, address, sending, donation, presentation to — if only of entities or existents to each other” (The Sense of the World, 8). Our world is nothing other than the infinite circulation of sense among all things. Moreover, with no transcendent referent, “the world no longer has a sense, but it is sense” (8). Nancy’s thought demonstrates the difficulty as well as the commitment to thinking the world on its own terms.
For Nancy, the history of the West, including global capitalism, has an ambiguous relationship to the world. By way of a triadic movement, it presupposes our being-in-common, alienates us from it, and reveals it once again, albeit in a limited way. In this third and final movement, it simultaneously unveils the being-with of the world (by denuding social reality) and betrays our being-with in the name of the one, capital.
Our being-with is not a disinterested empirical observation. It is existential. It is an ontology and an ethic; it is a fact and an exigency. As Nancy writes, “Before all else, we are in common” – thus, communism is “a fact, our first given” (The Truth of Democracy, 54). The radicality, ambiguity, and demand of our being-in-common is what we are required to think – and guides how we are to live.
Drawing on Georges Bataille, Nancy asserts that sovereignty is nothing, like the unthinkable, non-relational solitude of the monotheistic God. Nothing, because it is impossible, escaping any figure or representative. And, nothing, as in the groundlessness of creation itself, of our being-in-common. Political sovereigns are never sovereign in fact. Rather, they are inescapably relational to themselves and their subjects. Therefore, Nancy challenges us to think politics without and beyond the logic of sovereignty.
Nancy’s philosophical history has ultimately presented us with two infinites: capital and being-with. On one hand, the infinite reproduction of capital by capital. Globalization is simply the totalizing and logical outcome of capital’s infinite movement of reproduction and expansion. On the other hand, our infinite being-with, that is, the non-totalizing and unrepresentable ontology of our open-ended co-existence.
Between capital and being-with, between nihilism and ex nihilo, between Christianity and its deconstruction, the distinction is indeed subtle, maybe too subtle. Nancy’s aim is not to justify capitalism (or, Christianity, either). However, he leaves us with an ambiguity between capital and being-with that one could construe as a triumphalism of the West. That is not his aim. Rather, his aim is for an unflinching consideration of the world on its own terms — both its history and its ontology.
Revising Nietzsche, Nancy declares that today we must “become what we are,” that is, in-common (The Truth of Democracy, 54). He demands that we think communism as our being in-common. Communism is not the outcome of a history, a lost past, or a project we can master. It is an ever-insistent demand. His work is not hopeful, mournful, nor despairing, but properly existential. Communism is both our being and our responsibility. And everything we are and will be depends on how we respond to this demand.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Sense of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1997.
Nancy elaborates his thinking of the world without transcendence or an outside referent. Each essay stands alone and touches on themes such as desire, psychoanalysis, labor, art, and politics.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2000.
This is Nancy’s clearest articulation of ontology. Nancy borrows the Heideggerian term Mitsein to rethink Being as being-with. He explores being-with in relation to philosophy, language, and sociality. The other included essays focus war, identity, and humanity.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Creation of the World or Globalization. Albany: SUNY Press. 2007.
This work is a focused consideration of global capitalism and the possibility of justice. The infinite reproduction of capital is posited alongside to the non-finite openness of existence. Other themes include technology, creation, sovereignty, Marx, and Christianity.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. New York: Fordham University Press. 2008.
Nancy provides an evocative meditation on the body—human and nonhuman. Rather than the property of an ego, the body is an opening toward the plurality of other bodies. In this work, he rethinks the body as the indispensable extension of the soul, the divine, and thought in relation to others.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. New York: Fordham University Press. 2008.
This work is less a criticism of Christianity, than a reconsideration of its central features through the lens of Christianity’s atheist logic. He provides novel meditations on popular Christian themes such as Incarnation, the book of James, faith, prayer, salvation, and the West. He also engages figures such as Gérard, Granel, Heidegger, and Blanchot.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Truth of Democracy. New York: Fordham University Press. 2010.
An unqualified affirmation of the social movements during May 1968 on its 40th anniversary. He considers the importance and the disappointments of real democracies in the second half of the twentieth century. He considers politics beyond notions of sovereignty wherein democracy finally becomes communism in its demands and practice.