Jean-Luc nancy, abandonment and law

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An essay on Jean-Luc Nancy's philosophy of law

Transcript of Jean-Luc nancy, abandonment and law


Jean-Luc Nancy, Abandonment and the Categorical Imperative of Being

Introduction: In the introductory comments to his preface to the Italian translation of Limpratif catgorique,1 Nancy returns to the sequences of essays he wrote between 1977 and 1982, and which were gathered in Limpratif catgorique (published in 1983), in order to make the following clarification: the central issue governing all the analyses and texts included in Limpratif catgorique, he stresses, was the question of obligation. Not simply a moral obligation, but rather the question of an ontological being-obligated. The volume translated here in Italian is composed of essays written between 1977 and 1983, whose themes converge around the motif of an ontological obligation rather than first of all moral. We are thus told that questions of obligation, duty, law, the categorical imperative, will not pertain to matters of morality, but are indeed ontological motifs: obligation and law will need to be engaged in their ontological import and scope. As Nancy already noted in the presentation of the French version of LImpratif catgorique, This text is not about morality. It is about what obligates us, about what makes us obligated beings: a law beyond the law, which is given to us, and to which we are abandoned. One finds here the motif of law intertwined with that of being and abandonment, of abandoned being. This nexus represents the heart of Nancys thought of law and obligation, and the focus of the following pages. In Nancys work, the question of obligation finds itself radicalized, from the (regional) sphere of morality per se, to the entirety of the sphere of being itself. This orientation towards


ontology should not come as a surprise. The principles of this approach are well-known to the Nancy reader: they are listed for instance at the beginning of Being Singular Plural, within the context of a reflection on the senses of the with: the preposition with, we are told, is to be rethought in such a way that an ontology and a first philosophy can be founded upon it. It is a question of rethinking the with as originary to Being itself: With is the meaning of Being. Being is Being-with, constitutively. In sum: being-with is the most proper problem of being 2. This ontological scope broadens as well as radicalizes the thinking of obligation that one finds in Nancys work. One will discover that for Nancy being as being-in-the-world, as existence, understood in its verbal or active sense, must also be understood as a being-obligated: being will amount to a being-obligated. A certain dignity, or ethicality, is thus conferred to the event of being, for, as Nancy states, the fact that being as being in the world and as the finite concreteness of the infinity of being itself or of the act of being is a being-obligated is not a reduction of its dignity, but on the contrary that which opens for it the possibility of dignity and sense (Preface to Italian edition). In other words, obligation frees being for itself, opens it to a relationality, so that being can then be as the event and the openness that it is. In short obligation frees [being] for its most proper being (ibid). The task of understanding obligation and law from the perspective of what is most proper to being is thus delineated clearly. We still need to examine how Nancy understands being at the closure of metaphysics, no longer as the metaphysical substance of the tradition, retaining none of the substantiality that was attributed to it in the history of philosophy, but precisely as abandonment. Such an abandonment of the onto-theological features of substantiality will turn out to be the site for the very possibility of obligation, if it is the case, as Nancy reminds us in this same preface, that, The destitution of the Supreme Being has the direct and necessary


consequence the obligation of creating a world. We will see that in a certain sense, obligation and being-abandoned are one and the same phenomenon, and that such obligation indeed a veritable categorical imperative of being will be rethought in terms of the creation of the world at the end of onto-theology.

I. The Site of Abandonment. In his early essay, Abandoned being (1981), which was published in a translation in the volume entitled The Birth to Presence,3 Nancy straight away approaches the term or the notion of abandonment in terms of our historical situation, and more precisely, as the very site of our historical being. Abandonment designates where we find ourselves, the condition (or rather, one should perhaps say, incondition4) of thought at the end of a certain (metaphysical) history: We do not know it, we cannot really know it, but abandoned being has already begun too constitute an inevitable condition [condition incontournable] for our thought, perhaps its only condition.5 Abandonment is the sole condition for our thought, because at the end of metaphysics the totality of possible metaphysical principles has been exhausted, leaving us in a state of abandonment with respect to such principles. Abandonment designates the end of metaphysics, of onto-theology, and Nancys problematic of abandonment thus first of all assumes the opening of the Nietzschean era of the death of God and twilight of the idols, of the historical site of nihilism as the exhaustion of all values and significations (thus, for instance in Dis-Enclosure, Nancy would speak of the abandonment or dereliction that is nihilism.6) What is important to note is that abandonment is an exhaustion from which Nancy seeks to reengage the work of thought, and reengage the question of law and obligation. The only ontology that remains a task for thought, according to Nancy, is precisely no longer onto-theology, but rather


an ontology characterized by the feature of abandonment, abandonment as the sole predicate of being: From now on, the ontology that summons us will be an ontology in which abandonment remains the sole predicate of being.7 At the end of the essay, Nancy would also write that henceforth ontology has no other object than the dereliction of being8. Nancy thus defines the condition for the tasks of thought at the end traditional metaphysics: all objects of thought will have to be determined and engaged from such closure and end of onto-theology, in a state of abandonment from its principles. Being, which is said in many ways, now only says abandonment and the exhaustion of its predicates: Being is said abandoned by all categories, all transcendentals.9 We are summoned to an ontology deprived and stripped of all metaphysical principles, deprived of ground, of the ruling of the so-called transcendentals: Unum, verum, bonum all this is abandoned. In fact, the abandonment of the univocality of being does not even give us access to a simple plurivocality. Rather, we are summoned to attend to an irremediable scattering, a dissemination of ontological specks!10 Nancy insists on this sense of abandonment: abandoned being, he tells us, corresponds to the exhaustion of transcendentals (BP, 37, tr. slightly modified), and in this way corresponds to a suspension, an interruption and a ceasing of the various discourses of onto-theology and its categories. For instance, abandonment is said to immobilize dialectical thought (which Nancy characterizes as the one that abandons nothing, ever, the one that endlessly joins, resumes, recovers); abandonment is also said to prevent or leave the determination of being as position (as one finds in Kant), and to prevent the return to itself of an identity (a logic of appropriation or reappropriation that one can follow in the history of thought all the way to Kant, Hegel, and even Heidegger through his privileging of the proper in his work). Abandonment thus also designates the inability of the subject to procure


a ground on which it can support itself and it demands the abandonment of the idea of subjectivity in favor of the thought of abandonment, of existence, of freedom.11 Abandonment is also a certain loss of all projects of mastery, including when they are disguised in their contrary. To be abandoned is to be left with nothing to keep hold of and no calculation. Being knows no more safekeeping, not even in a dissolution or a tearing apart, not even in an eclipse or an oblivion, Nancy writes, which explains why for him Heideggers notion of oblivion of being remain inadequate to a thinking of abandonment: it is not being that is forgotten (that would safeguard the being of being, withdrawn in its pure, remote presence), but beings abandonment! Oblivion is inscribed, prescribed promised in abandonment.12 Abandonment names an oblivion without recovery, the end of all projects of appropriation, a loss of ground as well as a loss of self and identity in the very motion of existence. It is order to contrast abandonment from any project of mastery that Nancy insists that all our spirituals exercises must be rid of the will and that we would have to finally let ourselves be abandoned.13 This exhaustion of transcendentals and principles is at times taken up by Nancy in terms of what he calls the withdrawal of essence and ground to which we are abandoned. Abandonment is the abandonment of essence, and this abandonment is the gift of existence, a gift or giving that must be taken also as a giving up!14 Nancy thus speaks of a pollakos in which an interminable abandonment of the essence of being interminably exhausts itself15. Abandonment is the withdrawal of essence, and such withdrawal constitutes existence. That existence is understood as an event deprived of essence appears in Nancys characterizations of existence as exposure, an exposure which implies a leaving or abandonment of a prior nonappearing essence. One finds this elaborated for instance in Being Singular Plural, where we read: Being absolutely does not preexist; nothing pre