“The real outside is 'at the heart' of the inside“ - An interview with Jean-Luc Nancy
ATOPIA: Jean-Luc Nancy, you are—in numerous respects—a survivor…
Jean-Luc Nancy: “In numerous respects,” you say… I feel like asking the questions right away : what do you mean by that? But you will specify that for me later. I will try, first, to understand you, or to guess what you mean. A survivor—I certainly am in the sense that I would have died in 1991 if it hadn’t been possible for me to have a heart transplant. Which means either that I would have died ten years earlier, or that without a the availability of a transplant on time I would be dead (I had, when I received the transplant, about six months to live). In 1997 as well, I could have died from lymphoma provoked by the transplant treatment (it’s one of the possible effects, fortunately quite rare, of ciclosporin, which as you know prevents the rejection of the rejection of the transplant…the ambivalence of the pharmakon!), if a partly new treatment hadn’t been in the course of being tested.
But in responding to you like this, beyond still asking myself about your “numerous respects”, I eventually tell myself that these two forms of “survival” are after all really banal: who couldn’t say “at such a moment, if such a circumstance hadn’t been avoided, I could have, or should have, died”? for example someone who did not go, because he was held up, to the World Trade Center on “September 11th”; or who cancelled a trip to Indonesia during the tsunami; or else who has pulled through from a serious illness. For example, at this very moment, an inhabitant of Réunion, exposed to chikunguya (I have a friend who just returned from there). So I can tell you that at the age of 15 I could have died in the sea, having fallen from a little boat capsized in a stom, had they not come looking for us from the coast (I was with my father). But what then? I’ve often been told that I was born strangled by my umbilical cord and that it was necessary to disentangle me and restart my breathing—no sooner found than lost! I imagine that more than one newborn has died in a similar manner…
So, what does “survival” mean? Isn’t life always an escape from death? And this escape from death—which at the same time doesn’t cease moving towards death, of course—what is it if not life itself—that is, not the grand movement of all the living of the world, vegetable and animal, which for its part integrates into itself the death of individuals, all the dead, from the most premature to the most belated, but rather the quite small, the slight, singular movement of a “some one” that accidentally slips it “own” life to the heart of and to the edge of this great living thing? This “some one,” this “anyone” in the accident [fortuité] of its singular escape, always accompanied by the great life-death of everything [l’ensemble], doesn’t live in the same sense: it sur-vives, that is, it is always on the escape, skimming non-existence, contingent, and which, at the same time, is beyond the great life of all. It is in “survival” in the sense Derrida gave that word: more than life. But this “more” is a “less”: less than Life as a meeting between self and auto-affection, but more than Life as exposure [exposition] to chance, to the accident of existing [l’exister]…With that, I doubtless still haven’t guessed all the “respects” you were thinking of….
A: At bottom, if I understand you correctly, it is necessary to understand this double “à” in every survival. “Survivre à” is at once an a quo and an ad quem, a “from” and a “towards.” That reminds me of a Persian story of a man from the city of Shiraz who, learning that death was to come looking for him the next day, harnesses his horse to get away from Shiraz as quickly as possible. That evening, exhausted, he comes upon the gates of Ispahan, where death is already waiting, obviously surprised: “But what are you doing here already? I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow…” You eveoke something similar in the new postface to L’Intrus/The Intruder. Time’s passing would be at once what distances you from and what brings you closer to that to which you, that which we, survive.
JLN: Yes. But you had hinted at a second question, and I don’t discern it in your response, which I find on the other hand develops quite well one of your thoughts. Perhaps I could only add this: death one encounters inevitably, and fleeing it only leads to it, but even then in an unpredictable fashion. Now this unpredictability, which is also the reason we can’t believe in our own death, and which remains what it is even though all concrete signs can be gathered to make a short-term prognosis (I’m not talking about myself here, but of people I know or have known) and which even a doctor can only give for an extremely short period, this unpredictability which only the administration of a lethal substance can cancel—and in that case, what is there of “anticipation,” of “prediction” [prévision]? What is really “foreseen” [prévu]? What do you see coming?—this unpredictability, thus, is also what forms “survival” ad quem according to your expresion (or ad quod, for it is remarkable that, mistake or not, you used a masculine and not a neuter…). As I can’t go “toward death,” I go “towards” something else, knowing all the while that life goes toward death. In me something other than the living being, or the living-knowing being, goes towards… what? (or whom?—to come back to your masculine, which could just as well be a feminine!) Perhaps one could say that this “survivor” goes towards… survival itself: if the latter is “more than life,” it is the non-relation to self, the neither-conservation-nor-transformation of self, the departure of self towards an absoluteness outside of space and outside of time—this eternitas that Spinoza says we feel is provided for us, that is itself our experientia..
“Survival” consequently seems to me to be a risky term, which can slide towards a “super-life,” [“super-vie”] a life beyond, in short an insidious return to a religious belief. (Assuredly, it is necessary just as well to reinterpret this type of belief, to tear it away from the representation of a “second” or “new” life. But let’s leave that for the moment.) It is necessary to say “other than life,” precisely instead of an “other life.” For the other-than-life is death… It is a matter of thinking death, or rather in death this other-than-life that is itself other than the cessation of life, the extinction and disappearance of a “self.” And thus the departure of this self beside itself [“hors de soi”].
What comes with the experience of the “intruder” ["l’intrus”] could be the feeling that this “other” that is not an opposite, not a negation, although an absolute other, is already sensibly inserted in me. However, it is not a matter of saying that I will encounter this other in death. Precisely not, for by its nature as other it is cannot be encountered. Unpredictable and unknowable, inappropriable death means this: the alterity of this other…
Of this other that is “me beside myself” [moi hors de moi], or even the outside-of [hors] in the middle of me [hors au milieu de moi], opening it, opening me to the outside [dehors] as well as to the truth of “me,” but truth as unappropriable. That comes back to saying differently what Heidegger says about the “ownmost possibility” of Dasein as the impossibility of living its death. It remains, without a doubt, impossible to go further –except on this point: that “the ownmost” in this case is precisely improper and depropriating, and that qualifying it as “ownmost” tempts us to a sort of insidious superappropriation, particularly in a heroic mode. We can’t avoid dreaming of and wishing for a heroic, or even sovereign, death, which is to say not pulling back before death (to return to Hegel’s words on “the life of spirit”).
So in the end, this dream to the contrary, we have to leave death to its unpredictable work and ourselves to our weakness, to our fear, to our unconsciousness. (It’s the model of consciousness that torments us…) On the other hand, we have to “survive” at every instant: always to relate to the other-than-life and to the other-than-self. Thus to confide in others as well, in the sense of the concrete, determinate others who are the reality of the absolute “other.” Not only other people, their thoughts of us, our place in their their lives, but the other beings all the way to the earth to which we will “return”, as pulvis in quem reverteris…
Yes, to go towards… dust as towards the absolute, to go towards the dust of the absolute…
A: I’d like to come back to your expression of the “outside-of in the middle of me” [hors au milieu de moi]. In “L’Intrus,” this incomparable autobiographical (but wouldn’t it be better to say xenographical?) testimony, you point out that the intruder is not so much what penetrates into the proper as what, as intruder, is already lodged there. Its work would then consist less in an intrusion than in what you call an opening “extrusion.” I seem to notice a recurrent attention in your work to the question of the opening character of “work”[ouvrage].What link is there between your reflection on worklessness [désoeuvrement] and this opening [ouverture] of extrusion?
JLN: “Outside-of in the middle of me,” yes: let’s make it clear that the only “outside” that there really is is never the one we see out the window, which is only “outside” due to its difference from the “inside.” The real outside is not another inside than this inside: it is at the heart (you can say that again!) of the inside. My model here would be Wittgenstein’s sentence: “The meaning [sens] of the world is outside the world.” As this sentence is not that of a believer in another world transcending ours, in a “world-behind,” to speak like Nietzsche, it can mean nothing but this: the meaning of the world is an “outside-of” “in” the world. That is, an opening, a gaping hole that can be understood as a wound or as an access route—of entry and exit—or even as mouth, ear, nostril, anus, sex, eye. You can easily imagine how each of these openings can give rise to ample variation on the proper modality of the outside-of it evokes: the outside-of of the breath, of desire, of excrement, of speech, of all kinds of sensations, and in the end in each of these modes a modalization of “sense” [sens], that is of reference from “me,” to other, to “outside” [du renvoi de “moi” à de l’autre, à du “dehors”]. More precisely, I would say: to that of the other which is outside or is done outside, that is, not the presence of another before me (with its own “inside”) but non-closure, non-return to the self, neither of the other, nor of me.
This is what the outside-of opens: the non-closure of the inside, its déclosion. So—and which is effectively the same thing, since you remind me of it—I thought that the “intruder” in me was less the transplanted organ from another’s body than my own heart’s removing itself from its organic service and “extruding” itself in some way of its own (such that in my case it wasn’t the effect of an illness, but congenital), in the same way my spiritual heart, if you will allow me the expression, or my ontological, essential heart, my mystical heart if you prefer (in the sense of “mystical body”) is what, in me, opens and extracts itself from “me,” that is from the return-into-oneself [retour-en-soi] or as-self that the “me” implies.
We are beside ourselves [hors de nous], essentially. The state that we call in French “being beside onself” [“être hors de soi”]—the exasperation of anger, the extreme irritation of desire, the exaltation of passion, the enthusiasm of admiration, of ambition, or of worship, everything that removes “us” from “ourselves” opens, quite simply, an outside-of according to which we don’t come back to ourselves, we don’t recover ourselves, nor do we find ourselves. It isn’t a matter of invoking madness. The models of madness that have exerted influence recently recall something of what I’ve said—but without implying an alteration of the “self” that remains an alteration of the self. While the outside-of [hors] that opens us and that opens in us opens our “in,” our “in [our]self” to every other thing that doesn’t change it, that only projects it far, very far, infinitely far “to the heart” of it-“self.”
Since you add a question on the oeuvre, the work [l’ouvrage], and unworking [désoeuvrement], I’d say this: unworking opens the oeuvre, it opens it right in the middle. Unworking doesn’t come after the oeuvre, it comes in it and by it. It’s for this reason that an oeuvre always opens a gaping hole in the heart of its “author” by which the oeuvre shows it is not “his,” that it creates itself—it which is not an “itself” [“même”], which is nothing in the end but an opening, an outside-of. The pun with “hors d’oeuvre” is too close to be avoided, but it doesn’t add anything. For one is not “hors d’oeuvre”: one is outside-of in the work [hors dans l’oeuvre].
The greater an oeuvre, the more gaping it is and the less we finish plunging into this gap... How is it possible to keep rereading Sophocles? To keep re-looking at Cézanne? To keep re-watching Eisenstein? To keep re-listening to Beethoven? They are always intruders anew, they work [opèrent] ever-new extrusions in us.
A: Jean-Luc Nancy, your philosophical oeuvre is known for being singularly dense, idiomatic, resistant. I would be tempted to say “somatic.” Jacques Derrida—whose presence is sorely missed today (the pancreas can’t be transplanted, as you remind us)—said of your book Corpus that it was the De anima of our time. It does not, however, treat the body as only an object of thought, nor is it either a prosthesis in Derrida’s sense, rather it penetrates into writing itself. By what necessity is your philosophical writing transformed and exposed to the body, this stranger to philosophy?
JLN: Your question certainly touches on many connected themes or motifs. On the one hand, it touches on the motif, precisely dear to Derrida, of the determinant character of “tone” in a “philosophy.” I wouldn’t be able on a moment’s notice, without special research, to cite a passage of his on the subject for you, but he loved to say that a thought, or a philosophy, is perhaps first of all a tone, a tonality, one could even say a voice (which is to say just as well a writing, to say it in passing and to re-mark this salute to Derrida). Perhaps one could add, since I said “a thought or a philosophy,” that it is in this accenting of tone, in this highlighting [mise en évidence] of mode, that the difference between “thought” and “philosophy” begins, if you would understand that the latter refers to a given order of conceptual discourse (whose privileged examples would be Kant or Husserl), while the former would not make reference to this order and would arise from a conceptual labor that makes it vibrate and resonate more than stringing it into “long chains of reasons.” The examples would then be Lucretius or Heidegger. But we know well that this distribution of examples will prove much too summary… Each thinker oscillates between discourse and timbre, or rather, as Bergson said, between the images he finds to arrange and the mute intuition that animates him—which I would reformulate by saying that the “muteness” of this intuition (unique for each, he says) is exactly what speaks in the voice, the tone. But that also means that ultimately all philosophies speak of some of the same “things,” truths or meanings. Perhaps of just one thing in the end: our presence/absence, our body/mind. One same and single thing, one same and single distance from ourselves that constitutes us and that thoughts indefinitely modulate.
On the other hand, your question touches on a motif of “our time.” What is a thought “of our time”? One that, at the same time, knows that it picks up at just the same starting point as every other — Aristotle’s, Descartes’s, or Heidegger’s—and that knows as well that this same starting point brings with it today its proper given: that there is no object. There are no longer objects of thought, there are no longer thoughts on or with respect to objects. There is a weight [pesée] (I like to connect pensée to pesée, according to etymology though without etymologism) that is the weight upon us of a world deprived of escape (of transcendence, of meaning, of sufficient reason, etc.). Our situation is that of a metaphysics to which the physical is not longer subordinate but on which, rather, the physical weighs. Physiques or rather the physical weighs: matter, the body, the being-there-given [être-là-donné] and without an outside of the universe. Without an outside, or rather revealing the outside as a real absolute outside—that is, an outside we never penetrate and thus never escape. An outside like that of a house whose doors and windows open on concrete walls or layers of earth stuck to the windows as normally air sticks to the exterior with images of the street or of the fields, of the sky and of birds… A house, then, that wouldn’t open but for which this un-opening would exercise exactly the weight of thought.
Thus “the body,” and thus “the body,” taken as the addressee rather than as the object of writing. When one day I was asked to speak about the body for the first time, I immediately recognized this demand: not to speak about it but to speak to it and to speak right up against it or to let it speak. At first “this is my body,” the old eucharistic formula of Christianty, appeared to me as the very speech of speech, the bearer of the address that opens all speech (or thought): first of all this, here, what opens and what speaks, what in speaking designates itself as the solid point of issue [émission]. Issue in the sense that is itself only a modality alongside others: pleasure [jouissance] or sorrow, the birth-cry or the dying breath. Issue, exposition: what, moreover, leaves before me and goes far ahead, further, so far that sense is lost, the voice ceases to resonate, the body remains vibrating and empty. Reveling [jouissant], suffering, speaking, holding its silence…
So you call it “foreign to philosophy” [étranger à la philosophie]? I would like to reflect more on that. Didn’t everything start with and as an exposed body: Socrates scratching his leg in his prison—and the lover of Phèdre whose desire furiously sets the quills on end ?… I mean: the exhibition [exposition] of the body, that is, exposure [exposition] tout court, being-exposed as being, absolutely, that is philosophy, that is, it is the departure of the gods, and with them the departure of being-placed or being-imposed, if you want to put it that way.
At bottom, the body is has never been diminished, repressed, or denied in philosophy except to the very degree of the account [exposition] that it has seemed to be ever since the gods ceased to inhabit the world. The body is the outside itself: the “inside” as outside. I said “a house that opens onto concrete,” I could say: the body, soul that opens onto matter, which is to say on the outside-of-what. Soul beside itself, and thus soul, yes! “Body” is the weight [pesée] of the soul upon us, today.
That is why I would say that the body is not so foreign [étranger] to philosophy as one would think: “body” is the strangeness that philosophy names because she discovers it, and philosophy discovers the body because the world effectively becomes a stranger to itself. That is what we call the “Occident”…That opens just as much upon the diminution and the rejection of the body as on the exaltation of the body’s power. In one way or in the other, it introduces a fundamental strangeness to ourselves, a strangeness of the world to itself. We have called it body/mind, matter/idea, exteriority/interiority…in reality, it is a matter of the distance between the same and the same, and thus sometimes rejection of one by the other, sometimes a burst [élan], escstatic from one towards the other…Strangeness is none other than this strangenes to ourselves, in ourselves. It is our torment, as tragic as it is erotic.
Questions: Emanuel Alloa
Translation: Peter Jaros
 Following the French (and English) idiom, I translate hors de soi throughout as “beside [one]self”; hors as “outside” or “outside-of” depending on context. “The outside” renders le dehors; “the outside-of” the more unusual le hors.
 Because Nancy differentiates here between œuvre [work, body of work] and ouvrage [work, piece of workmanship, labor], and puns with ouvrir [to open], I have translated ouvrage as “work” and left œuvre in the French, since its English calque shares some of the same resonance .