Abendland: on Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger. By Gerardo Muñoz.

nancy-banalityJean Luc Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger (Fordham, 2017) is yet another contribution to the ongoing debate on Heidegger and Nazism, in the wake of the publication of the Black Notebooks in recent years. Originally delivered as a conference on Heidegger and the Jews in 2014, Nancy’s brief essay expounds on other contributions on the topic, such as those by Peter Trawny, Donatella Di Cesare, and the Heidelberg Conference of 1988 (now also available) between Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jacques Derrida. Nancy’s intervention in the debate is important for several reasons; one of them being that the essay maps the strange career of the ‘banality of antisemitism’ into philosophical discourse. And not just any philosophical discourse, but Heidegger’s discourse, which remained ambitious, as we know, in unleashing a destruction of Western metaphysics for the recommencement of thought. Moving beyond Arendt’s own characterization of banality, Heidegger, in Nancy’s view, is not an administrator that followed the categorical imperative immunized by a bureaucratization of moral judgment. The banality of antisemitism in Heidegger is the displacement of the juridical register into the proper philosophical one (Nancy 2). This is why, for Nancy, the catastrophe of Heidegger’s philosophical antisemitism is a failure that also happened to us in thought, and that it is still very much open as a possibility for us today (Nancy 62). In a certain way, Nancy’s essay also reads as a timely warning for anyone wanting to commit to thinking at all.

Nancy’s point of departure shares Peter Trawny’s hypothesis elaborated in Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy (2015) that the Jew possesses absent historiality that does not allow for destinial movement towards soil, decision, and people (Nancy 25).  The technical term for historial, as Jeff Fort reminds us in the Preface, corresponds to weltgeschichtlich, and could also be translated as “world-historical”. This provenance explicitly thematizes the banal anti-semitic myth coming out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but also from Theodor Lessing’s “Jewish Self-Hatred” published in the 1930s. It is hard to know how Heidegger would have not known these works, although harder is to think how they arrived as such a central place in his philosophy. In fact, this is the ‘knot’ of the banality of antisemitism in philosophical thought. The Jew in Heidegger’s thinking becomes metonymic for machination and gigantism, democracy and Americanism. In fact, according to Nancy, Heidegger’s anti-jewish trope might have fallen into what he has called the principle of general equivalence, in which humanity is flattened out by generalities of particular traits that come to represent the total abendland or decline of the West. Nancy writes, rehearsing here arguments from his previous Truth of Democracy and After Fukushima:

“But the machination that gives rise to such a naturalist principle leads in the direction of a complete ‘deracialization’ of a humanity reduced to the undifferentiated equality of all, and in general of all beings. It is interesting to note that the argument is not very far removed from the one in which Marx qualifies money as a “general equivalent” in which productive humanity is alienated from its proper existence and therefore from its value or meaning…[..]. The Jewish people is the identifiable agent, property identifiable (or more properly, a bizarre notion that must no doubt be recognized), of what at the same time is a broad composition of masses and identities, America or Americanism, communism and technics, French, English, Europeans, Germans, even, and “Abendland”, evening, decline, collapse. At bottom, the “decline of the west” is a pleonasm.” (Nancy 15-18).

The consequence of such operation is clear: the principle of general equivalence entails an extreme and unprecedented form of evil. Hence, Nancy concludes, rightly so, in my opinion, that no generality can contain or exempt a true opening from its system. Then, we must assume that there is really no authentic “letting be” in Heidegger’s thought. In fact, the exclusive-inclusive status of Judaism in heideggerianism is hyperbolic to the disastrous limitations of the ‘letting be’ in his philosophy. This will also be consistent with Giorgio Agamben’s reservations in L’uso dei corpi (Neri Pozza, 2014) of the gelassenheit as shorthand for the logic of the political ‘ban’. The philosophical status of the Jew in Heidegger, starting in the thirties onward, is marked by the assumption that the Jew is the main figure (and its gestalt, meaning that is also giving shape) of Western decline. This formulation is only possible from the standpoint of the condition of equivalence. The kernel of equivalence in Nancy’s Banality of Heidegger is the strongest critique, as far as I am aware, directed against Heidegger’s anti-semitism. I say this for two reasons, which are connected to Nancy’s argument, but that I will try to push towards a different direction.

First, if antisemitism is integrated in the principle of equivalence, this allows for thinking the problem of democracy, not abandoning it. This implies that the principle of democracy is not surpassed by Heidegger’s own convergence of the term as identical to the event of the “masses”, “people”, “race”, or “technical development”. Nancy asks the question in light of the “Jew”, but one could also alter the term by asking for the status of “democracy” in Heidegger’s thought. In fact, Heidegger’s politics in the Black Notebooks advance a strong position for a metapolitics of the people, which Nancy does not get to discuss in such a brief essay.  This is consistent with Heideggerian emphasis on ‘original beginnings’ (in the Greek sense, which Nancy does overtly emphasize), amounting to a rhetoric of reversibility. In fact, Heidegger’s position on the Jew is equally grounded in what I would call a metapolitics of reversibility, that is, a firm belief that capitalist democracy is reversible and that there is a, or some, originary beginnings. Heidegger’s antidemocratic metapolitics points to his most extreme failure, since democracy as a practical political arrangement in the name of the singular is always fissured, evolutionary, and opened to contingent configurations in its divisions of power without reassurance for the destinial [1]. This is also why only democratic republicanism can be a politics without metapolitics and without arcana. Heidegger’s thought in the Black Notebooks and elsewhere is anti-democratic as much as it is anti-semitic, or it is anti-democratic because it is anti-semitic.

My second reason: any talk of the past presupposes a sense of history of the human. At one point in the essay, Nancy rightfully points to something not always discussed in Heidegger: “It was important to him [Christianity], therefore, above all not to retain the traces of other beginnings throughout the history of the West, and especially not at the points of its most perceptible inflections (Christianity, Renaissance, the industrial and democratic revolution). At the same time, the rejection or exclusion of the Jews by Christianity aims to reject and exclude something could complicate even disturb the strict Christian initiality” (Nancy 56). Nancy concludes that in Heidegger’s work there was never an attempt to flesh out the differences between Christian dogmatics and non-apologetics, the Church and its forms of communizations. Thus, Heidegger remained oblivious to the survival of Christian forms. In the indiscriminate package ‘Judeo-Christian onto-theology’, the equivalence surfaces as yet another form of emphasizing the course of the destinial sending of the West, while leaving aside a more complicated history proper to the human. Also, since destination was always thought as an aftereffect of errancy, Nancy suggests, following Rigal, that the Heideggerian errancy never abandoned the arcanum of an originary proper beginning and a possible recommencement. This is even stranger if we are to consider Judaism’s provenance in errancy without territory.

But this slight neglect is the place where Heidegger is closer to the doctrinal philosophy of Hitlerism. Since, as historian Timothy Snyder has shown, Hitler believed that the Jew was a vicarious agent of technology and capital, lacking territory and place, which only after its destruction could the notion of the ‘struggle of the species’ reappear in truth and proper light [2]. It does nothing to the argument to respond that Heidegger remained detached from the racial or biological assumptions of Hitlerism. It only matters that he shared the belief of the destruction of the Jewish people, and the Jew as one of the ‘oldest figures’ (sic) of self-destruction.

The essay concludes with Nancy’s two pleas to continue thinking with and through Heidegger: first, to break away with the historical mode of progress as a world conquest made by man with “exponential finalities” and second, to reject any substantial intromission into a new “ontology”, while opening errancy against any destinial metapolitics (Nancy 58). One wonders to what extent the late Heidegger came to subscribe the second position, or if the Ereignis is the continuity of thought in banality and bad faith (Nancy seems to think the latter). It is much harder to accept the rejection of the idea of progress. Although, this is the common ground that both Nancy and Heidegger share as reject sons from the project of the Enlightenment. Yet, as we remain alert to ways of questioning its irreversibility, we know that this is still today a strong antidote against common banalities.

Notes

  1. I sympathize with José Luis Villacañas’ critique of Heidegger’s return to the Greek beginning in his Teología Política Imperial: una genealogía de la división de poderes (Trotta, 2016).
  1. Timothy Snyder. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Dugan Books, 2016.
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Esse extraneum: on Emanuele Coccia’s Sensible life: a micro-ontology of the image. (Gerardo Muñoz)

coccia sensible lifeLa vita sensibile (2011) is Emanuele Coccia’s first book to be translated into English. Rendered as Sensible Life: a micro-ontology of the image (Fordham U Press, 2016), it comes with an insightful prologue by Kevin Attell, and it belongs to the excellent “Commonalities” series edited by Timothy Campbell. We hope that this is not the last of the translations of what already is Coccia’s prominent production that includes, although it is not limited to La trasparenza delle immagini: Averroè e l’averroismo (Mondadori, 2005), Angeli: ebraismo, cristianesitimo, Islam (co-ed with G. Agamben, 2011), and most recently Il bene nelle cose: la pubblicità come discorso morale (2014). One should take note that in Latin America – particularly in Chile and Argentina – Coccia’s books have been translated for quite a while, and have been part of a lively debate on contemporary thought. We hope that a similar fate is destined in the United States. For some of some of us working within the confines of the Latinamericanist reflection, an encounter with Coccia has grown out of our continuous exchange with friends like Rodrigo Karmy, Gonzalo Diaz Letelier, and Manuel Moyano. It would be superfluous to say that Coccia’s work is nested in the so called contemporary ‘Italian Philosophy’ (pensiero vivente, in Roberto Esposito’s jargon), although one would be committing a certain violence to reduce it to another ‘theory wave’ so rapidly instrumentalized in the so called ‘critical management’ within the North American university.

Coccia’s tropology (not entirely a set of fixed “categories” or “concepts” for a philosophical program), such as imagination, the sensible, and the averroist intellect are signatory relays for a potential history of thought against the grain of grand conventional histories and historiographies of Western philosophy, or even more so, against the reaffirmation of a principle of philosophy of history in the wake of nihilism and biopolitics. It is most certainty true that Coccia’s investigations share a horizon that we can call the “form of life” – some of us also call it “infrapolitical existence”, which for Coccia himself has translated as the vita sensibile – although both his approach and condensation of thought always presuppose an efficient interrogation of the singular indifferent to “influences” or “schools of thought” (even when Coccia moves deep into scholastic and medieval philosophy). Perhaps no less important of a metacritical index is the unreserved service for a reconsideration of the philosophical tradition – and more importantly, the transmission and disposition of a thinking that remains unwritten – beyond the history of metaphysics and political theology.

Sensible Life is not a book about the ontology of the image in the pictorial or phenomenological sense, but an investigation into the metaxy of existence and being in the world. As Coccia argues early on in the book, ‘the sensible life is a world given to us, and only as sensible life are we in the world’ (2). Against biopolitical or vitalist (neo-positivist) remnants of understanding as fated in the subject (or the persona), Coccia prepares the ground for a physics of the sensible that affects, without really transforming, the human as subject, although it does seek to exhaust itself in subjectivity. Coccia argues, as if implicitly taking up Simone Weil’s suggestion, that the form of sensation is always a modal relation with the outside, an improper distance (metaxu) of the ‘in between’, necessary for any schematization of concrete existence [1]. Hence, perception or sensing is only possible because there is metaxy, and not because there is a subject as the producer and commander of capacities and substances. Against distributive ontologies that design complex arrangement and division of ‘life’, Coccia’s sensibly maps out a region that has always already been there, and that turns to another relation with ontology and language.

In a large part, Sensible Life is vastly informed by his prior study on Averroes and the averroist tradition Averroè e l’averroismo (Mondadori, 2005), where Coccia studied the ways in which conventional Christian history of philosophy convicted the twelve century Iberian philosopher for the madness of positing a common and universal unity of the intellect. What Coccia thematizes in that study, but also in Sensible life with greater speculative freedom, is the extent to which reason depends on the potentiality of the intellect understood as the capacity for imagination. What is common and at the same time ‘improper’ to all beings is the potentiality of imagination that remains outside of life, never constituting a principle of sufficient reason nor the ground for dogmatic belief. The ‘scandal of averroism’, as Rodrigo Karmy has called it, was followed by the Scholastic ban on teaching averroism and removing averroists from the university. It is no surprise that this coincided with the development of the category of the person as a secondary reserve of Christian political theology and Roman Catholic ratio [2].

This is what lays bare in Coccia’s explicit condemnation of the Cartesian cogito, and his affirmation of the sensible as a de-metaphorized image without proper location, since it only dwells ‘where one no longer lives and where one no longer thinks’ (17). This impersonal drift of the sensible is what allows for an extreme de-localization in multiplicity of reproduction of images that serve to dislocate the very inside and outside of the constitution of the subject, but also of any constitution of life itself (31-32). Indeed, the first part of the book is said to write a physics of the impersonal and immaterial ‘third space’ (sic) – what in Aristotle’s vocabulary is the relation with the ‘externals’ [tōn exōthen], and in medieval scholasticism is the esse extraneum – that like marrano existence, it dwells on a dual exteriority. In a key moment of the development of Sensible life, Coccia writes:

“How, then, can we define an image? In his work on perspective John Peckham held that an image is “merely the appearance of an object outside its place (extra locum suum) because the being appears not only in its own place but also outside its own place”…Our image is nothing but the existence of our form beyond what makes up, the substance that permits this form to exist in an entirely extraneous matter to that in which one exists and mixes with. Every form is born from this separation of the form of a thing from the place of its existence: where the form is out of place, an image will have a place [ha luogo]. […] Thus, an image is defined by a dual exteriority: the exteriority from bodies and the exteriority from souls – because images exist prior to meeting the eye of the subject who observes a mirror” (19).

The reproductive machine of the sensible image does not ground itself unto the subject or the purely sensorial; a movement which would have produced yet another schism between mind and body, senses and reason, the visible and the invisible. Against the categorial arrangement of the persona (and its attributes, genus, and divisions), Coccia pushes forth a general theory of productions of forms that could account for the natural life of images (31). What is really at stake here is a medial process (provided by the medieval intentio) of multiplicity beyond being and substance, property and the proper of ontological assertion. Instead, Coccia affirms a cosmological understanding of the One. In fact, one could stress this a little bit further and argue that the averroist potential intellect is a singularization of the henological neo-platonic substance into one of pure externality beyond metaphysical structuration. But the question of henology and the overcoming of metaphysics is one that we cannot raise in the space of this commentary.

For Coccia the medial extension of the image (and the imagination) leads to a metaxy of coming together (simpatizzano, which is Italian ‘third person’ indicative for sharing, is the word he choses) that conspire to form a sort of clinamen effect of singularities. Not long ago Fabián Ludueña thematized this negative community in his important La comunidad de los espectros (Miño & Dávila, 2010) as a ghostly disfiguration that, vis-à-vis the nature of mediality, enters into relation with what is always unhomely and foreign (extraneum). That is the only possible form of the communitas in the sensible life.

The second part of the book made up of seventeen scholion unveil the way in which the sensible immaterial metaxy also provide for the man’s body that accounts for a mundane relation that exceeds and subceeds the psychological and the culturalist materialisms. By reassessing vita activa and mediality, dreams and the ‘intra-body’ (Ortega y Gasset), clothing and cosmetics, Coccia situates the sensible incarnation on the very surface of the body as momentary dwelling (52). As a general anthropology of the sensible, Coccia recoils back to the ‘subject’ and even ‘identity’, but only insofar as one recognizes in this an intention that he calls an ‘ontological indifference’ that allows for an outside projection of an “infra- or hypersychic consistency – a consistency that is almost hyperobjective. Here, “the intentional sphere does not coincide with the sphere of the mind even it includes the mind; it is, rather, the state of existence of all forms when they keep themselves beyond objects and on this side of subjects, or vice versa” (55). This “infra-subjective” solicits a concrete intentional relation of dwelling in the world.

Although the space of the political is not elaborated explicitly – and perhaps for Coccia there is no need for embarking on such a task – one could say that this region is consistent with the infrapolitical relation of the non-subject vis-à-vis the ontological difference. In fact, the marrano whose existence is necessarily infrapolitical in nature is consistent with the multiplied imposture that clothes every identity and every oikos an un-homely as being-in-the-world (91). In fact, Coccia is correct in taking this cue to the limit: “only those can make up and disguise themselves can truly say “I” (86). Marrano life is also the life of the outside, a borrowed life. It is in fashion understood as a tropological site of existence, where according to Coccia a style of the multiple is given its proper place, precisely because it lack costumes, essence, or meaning. On the contrary, fashion brings to bear that only modal relations can constitute forms of life (habits). Fashion has freed life to the sensible, through a suspension of all meditation with the metaphor as its end. Indeed, it is style and not metaphorization what provides for the sensible life.

The dwelling of the sensible is also incarnated multiplicity: it is the improper relation between man and animal, between living and dying. The sensible life as pure immersion, as Coccia has argued in another place, is a flow where movement and detention, action and contemplation become inseparable [3]. It comes as no surprise that Sensible life closes with a meditation on images for life and with a general economy of natality. Here perhaps one could raise the question about averroism as philosophical transmission, but also regarding its staging of ‘living with images’. Coccia argues that life is, above all, ‘what can be transmitted, the very being of tradition” (98). But to transmit is to re-enact a style that never took place: it is a becoming of singularity. In this sense, continues Coccia, ‘Life never stops producing and reproducing, and multiplying’. However, can there be ‘inheritance’ or even ‘legacy’ of that which lacks proper place, and that is always alocational? Is not the becoming of the reproduction of the sensible the very end of transmission, the very form of dis-inheritance from any nomic determination?

It is in this aporia where Coccia’s account of the sensible life (perhaps as a flight from the form of life) touches on the question of natality as a central problem for thought, which is fundamentally a question for the history of thinking. This is also the problem that Reiner Schürmann contemplated in his posthumous Des hégémonies brisées (1996) without really unrevealing its major consequences (except in the problem of finitude posed by the tragic denial). Coccia’s invitation is for us to reimagine imagination (la vita sensibile) outside of its proactive and transcendental saturation into a region that co-belongs with thought. To this end, the vita sensible cannot amount to another anthropology, since its taskless work is to render a life that is no longer one for labor and action, but affected by the immanence of what can be imagined.

 

 

Notes

  1. Simone Weil. “Metaxu”. Grace and Gravity. New York: Rutledge, 1999.
  1. Rodrigo Karmy. “La potencia de Averroes: para una genealogía del pensamiento de lo común en la Modernidad”. Revista Plèyade, N.12, 2013.
  1. Emanuele Coccia. “Speaking Breathing”. New Observation, N.130, 2015.