“Infrapolitical Action: The Truth of Democracy at the End of General Equivalence”

I. Extroduction

Jean-Luc Nancy refers to general equivalence, in his short book La communauté affrontée (2001), a bit counterintuitively: “What arrives to us is an exhaustion of the thought of the One and of a unique destination of the world: it exhausts itself in a unique absence of destination, in an unlimited expansion of the principle of general equivalence, or rather, by counterblow, in the violent convulsions that reaffirm the all-powerfulness and all-presentiality of a One that has become, or has again become, its own monstrosity” (12). Only a few pages later he speaks about the increasing “inequality of the world to itself,” which produces a growing impossibility for it to endow itself with “sense, value, or truth.” The world thus precipitously drops into “a general equivalence that progressively becomes civilization as a work of death;” “And there is no other form in the horizon, either new or old” (15). If the loss of value organizes general equivalence, it is the general equivalence of the nothing. Nancy is talking about nihilism in a way that resonates with the end of Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Age of the World Picture,” where Heidegger discusses “the gigantic” as the culmination of modern civilization in order to say that quantitative-representational technology can also produce its own form of greatness. It is at the extreme point of the gigantic that general calculability, or general equivalence, projects an “invisible shadow” of incalculability (“This incalculability becomes the invisible shadow cast over all things when man has become the subiectum and world has become picture” [Heidegger 72)]). Heidegger’s invisible shadow could be compared with Nancy’s hint of “an obscure sense, not a darkened sense but a sense whose element is the obscure” (20). Let me risk the thought that this obscure sense, as the invisible shadow of an undestined world, is for Nancy the wager of a radical abandonment of the neoliberal world-image, a notion that has become commonplace in political discourse today. But we do not know towards what yet—the invisible shadow within nihilism that projects an obscure sense out of nihilism is a political alogon whose function remains subversive, but whose sense remains elusive.

In The Truth of Democracy (2008) Nancy says that, in 1968, “something in history was about to overcome, overflow, or derail” the principal course of the political struggles of the period (15). This statement is probably not meant to be understood as springing from any kind of empirical analysis. Rather, the book makes clear that “something in history” is precisely the truth of history, understood as the epochal truth of history along classically Heideggerian lines (“Metaphysics grounds an age in that, through a particular interpretation of beings and through a particular comprehension of truth, it provides that age with the ground of its essential shape. This ground comprehensively governs all decisions distinctive of the age” [Heidegger, “Age” 57). There was a truth that the Europeans, for instance, could only obscurely perceive under the veil of a “deception,” and such a truth is, for Nancy, the truth of democracy that titles his book. My contention is that Nancy’s insistence on that truth of history, or truth of democracy, preserves a Hegelian-Kojèvian position that Nancy proceeds to overdetermine from a critique of nihilism. In other words, for Nancy, a truth of history was about to overcome and derail the main course of political struggles from the left in 1968, and it was the event of true democracy, only accessible on the basis of an opening to an epochal mutation of thought whose necessary condition would have been, would be, the renunciation of the principle of the general equivalence of things, infrastructurally represented by the Marxian Gemeinwesen, money, as the unity of value and as generic unity of valuation. The truth withdrawn under the veil of disappointment is the possibility of overcoming the nihilism of equivalence. Such is the modification Nancy imposes on the Kojévian thematics of the end of history, which now becomes understandable as the history of nihilism. Against it Nancy wants to offer a new metaphysics of democracy. Nancy’s understanding of democracy coincides with his “obscure sense” of the incalculable. In this essay, I will try to explain it, first, and then raise a question at the end.

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