Almost twenty-five years ago, Jean-Luc Nancy published The Inoperative Community, a work that tries to avoid the mystical authoritarianism of communitarianism without falling into the lonely oppressiveness of individualism. The book confirmed Nancy’s place as a philosopher who would continue a productive deconstruction without ever pretending to resolve a philosophical problem, establish an identity, or build a foundation. Nancy’s version of deconstruction has been more tactile, engaged with flesh and material, than that of many other of its followers. But like his more abstract colleagues, he has never wanted to reduce the ambiguities that he seems to think are faithful to the complexities of how we live in the world. If there is something that appears to operate smoothly, one can count on Nancy to explore the illusion of its efficiency.
For Nancy, the arts offer an alternative to efficiency and also to the quest for unity or foundations that often animates philosophical inquiry. Art “is itself disquieting, and can be threatening: because it conceals its very being from signification or from definition.” Art tells or makes visible truths that resist systemization or even a unified response, but the arts can be shared. In other words, for Nancy artistic practices are embedded in an irreducible heterogeneity that does not preclude forms of community.
Multiple Arts: The Muses II is a collection of disparate essays on literature and the visual arts, almost all of which were published between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s. The Ground of the Image offers more recent and more focused reflections on the nature of representation and art, especially painting. Taken together, the books hardly constitute a “philosophy of art,” but they do show how a thinker continues to sound themes in the wake of deconstruction that sometimes reverberate meaningfully with contemporary art and aesthetics. The art practices that resound with Nancy’s writings are those that combine a deep investment in Conceptual investigation with a care for the material, the feel or touch of a work that is brought about by knowing techniques. Nancy rejects aesthetic discussions aimed at defining art or probing its ontological dimensions. “There is no such thing as art as such,” Nancy writes, “there is always art as the plurality of the arts.” Against the Hegelian notion that art is the sensuous form of the Idea, Nancy figures the arts as variously signaling “presence in passing,” absence, the presence of absence, and how the image makes absence a presence. For this philosopher, there is no Idea to be given sensuous form, and his essays on aesthetics are concerned with how art can have philosophical import without having as its task the embodiment of Truth. “We must not make what suspends sense make sense,” he writes. By recalling to us absence, and passing, the arts ensure that we don’t make too much (of) sense.
Both books contain extended discussions of painting, especially portraiture. “To be lost in a look; isn’t this what we mean by painting?” Nancy is drawn to what he considers painting’s radical incommensurability with discourse. Language can never capture what painting has to show, for this medium undermines any pretense to referentiality. The look of painting is its lure, turning us to experience our own process of seeing: “Painting doesn’t make itself seen in the same way as everything else that we can see. It makes itself seen as a reversal of seeing, as the ability to deceive all sight, in order to make us see precisely the opposite: not what we see, but the fact that it is seen.” Portraits offer an interesting problem for Nancy, because they seem so referential. In his view, though, portraits refer to themselves alone, though he also asserts that they convey not identity but intimacy. Nancy insists that portraits, as with all artistic genres, can never be translated into another form; the kind of presence they achieve is always a reminder of absence. A strong portrait actually undermines its connection to its subject because it announces that this subject is not there. “The role of the portrait is to look out for . . . the image in the absence of the person,” he writes. “The portrait recalls presence in both senses of the word: it brings back from absence, and it remembers in absence.”
Absence (or “absense”) is a key word for Nancy, pointing to a gap, a lack, never to be overcome by Truth or representation. The opposite of absence is not presence but completion. Completion for this philosopher always carries with it the aroma of tyranny, because something that is complete has cut off possibilities, the exploration of which might lead to new ways of being, new forms of pleasure, of looking, of life. The idea of absence suggests a form of return, of longing and movement; the idea of completion suggests, at least in Nancy’s world, a finality that denies change: “Absense condemns the presence that offers itself as the completion of sense.”
Art abides with absence, is comfortable with missing sense, even when its images seem to (as with portraiture) make something present. “Notice,” Nancy emphasizes, “that by drawing sense out of absence, by making absense a presense, the image does not do away with the impalpable nature of absence.” To do away with absence is to annihilate difference, and this would be a form not of art but of violence. Nancy defines violence as “the application of a force that remains foreign to the dynamic or energetic system into which it intervenes.” He must be aware that the interesting questions arise in regard to how one could determine which interventions are truly foreign. “Where does violation begin, and where does the penetration of the true end?” For Nancy, this is a crucial question, but he does not offer any criteria or context to distinguish a violent intervention from one that is creatively transformative. How can Nancy celebrate heterogeneity and difference while condemning as violent an application of foreign force? This philosopher falls back on his own tastes in the arts and on his fundamental position that any form of completion, any attempt at a solidification of identity (or presence), is itself violent. “The unity of the thing, of presence and of the subject, is itself violent.”
With this metaphysical notion of violence as an elemental force that irrupts from a primordial multiplicity, Nancy has certainly abandoned the capacity to contribute to a political discourse. One either shares his picture of cosmic diversity or does not. How about aesthetics? Nancy writes that art, while it cannot avoid this elemental violence, can be contrasted with “violent and violating violence.” Come again? Art is “violence without violence” because it has nothing to reveal: Its only “point” is that there is no ultimate point, that immanence and absence always remain; there is no accomplished telos, no completion. “Art,” Nancy concludes, “is the exact knowledge of this: that there is nothing to reveal, not even an abyss.”
The reader will notice what Nancy might call an “oscillating unity” beneath this vision of the multiple arts. He may speak about “exact knowledge,” but what we really get is oracular rhetoric with a tendency toward extraordinarily general pronouncements whose “groundlessness” does not work to their advantage. When we ask ourselves whether a particular claim is true, the rhetoric often seems empty or obscurantist.
Nancy never makes arguments for his claims about poetry, painting, or the image, but he does find some interesting ways of repeating by-now-familiar ontological claims and metaphysical prejudices associated with deconstruction. Sometimes these claims open doors for thinking about the arts, but I can hardly imagine anyone who doesn’t share Nancy’s prejudices being convinced by the essays in these volumes. They won’t change anyone’s mind. But if you start off with Nancy’s assumptions, if talk of absence, heterogeneity, and groundlessness helps you to make sense of painting or poetry, then you will find your views reinforced here. While you are having your views repeatedly confirmed, you may even believe you are being penetrated by the True. Enjoy it, but don’t imagine you are becoming more open to difference and heterogeneity.
Michael Roth is author of Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France (Cornell University Press, 1988) and president of California College of the Arts. This summer, he will become president of Wesleyan University.