‘Doing’ by Jean-Luc Nancy: An Excerpt

In Doing, one of the most prominent and lucid articulators of contemporary French theory and philosophy examines the precarious but urgent relationship between being and doing. His book is not so much a call to action as a summons to more vigorous thinking, the examination and reflection that must precede any effective action.

Translated by Charlotte Mandell
‘A Coming Without Past or Future’ translated by Nikolaas Deketelaere and
Marie Chabbert

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An Excerpt: The Weight of Our History [Written just after the 2015 Paris Attacks]

One would prefer to remain silent. Faced with the horror and the emotion. Faced with the effects of proximity—for what has happened in Paris has not stopped happening for a long time in Bombay, Beirut, Kabul, Baghdad, New York, Madrid, Casablanca, Algiers, Amman, Karachi, London, Tunis, Mosul and so on. Faced with the poverty of our indignation (justified but hollow) or our protests (‘we should . . . ’ ‘we just have to . . . ’)—and the cross fire of points of view (opinion, rebuttal . . . ).

One would prefer to remain silent also because of the intense awareness that seizes us as soon as we imagine the inextricable complexity of geneses, causes, chains of events obviously intertwined and enveloped in a global conjunction of great economic and geopolitical clashes. On the level of thought, too, now is not the time for ‘we just have to . . .’.

We must, however, try to speak, for the same reasons. Not just because emotion calls for it, but also, and especially, because the power of this emotion stems from something other than the magnitude of the attacks. Which is nonetheless remarkable—all that coordination, the choice of times and places, say much about the work that went into it beforehand—but there is more: there is the magnitude of a long sequence begun about 25 years ago (to remain within the limits of immediate perception) in Algeria in the 1990s with the creation of the armed Islamic Group. Twenty-five years, a generation: this is not just a symbolic calculation. It means that a process is unfolding, a maturation is taking place, an experience is being defined. Outlines, tonalities, dispositions have been set in place; nothing fixed or definitive, of course, nothing on which a lid of history labelled ‘century’ could be fastened; still, a configuration or at least the shape of a turning point, the energy of an inflection, even an impetus.

The force with which the evening of 13 November 2015 in Paris was charged stems from this energy. That is also why it seems immediately to involve a perspective either of a decisive turning point, or of the beginning of a new generation: 25 years in front of us to reach another landing stage, or to pass another threshold. Many of the people shot in this savagery haven’t yet had their 25th birthday; they enter this threatening darkness dead or wounded.

The force in question was drawn, essentially, elsewhere than from the resources we call ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘fanaticism’. Indeed, active, vindictive, aggressive fundamentalism—whether Islamic (Sunni or Shiite), Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu (even at rare times Buddhist)—characterizes the last 25 years in a way that cannot be overlooked. But how can we not notice that it will have responded to what we can designate as the economic fundamentalism inaugurated with the end of the Cold War and the extension of a ‘globalization’ already underway and indicated almost two generations earlier (McLuhan’s ‘global village’ dates back to 1967)? How not to point out also the haste to erase totalitarian experiments, as if simple representative democracy accompanied by technological and social progress responded perfectly to the anxieties raised long ago by modern nihilism and to the ‘discontent in civilization’ of which Freud spoke in 1930?

Liberal fundamentalism asserts the fundamental nature of a so-called natural law of limitless competitive production, equally limitless technological expansion, and especially the tendentially limitless reduction of any other kind of law—political law first and foremost, especially if it means to control natural law according to the particular demands of a country, a people and a form of communal existence. The state so-called of law represents, paradoxically, the both necessary and tendentially lifeless form of a politics deprived of horizon and consistency. Our productivity-oriented, naturalist humanism is itself dissolving and opening the door to inhuman, superhuman, too-human demons . . .

Religious fundamentalism can be limited to the observance of an inflexible doctrine and ritual, with no interaction with the sociopolitical context. When it wants to be active in that context, it presents a twofold demand: On the one hand, it’s a matter of rediscovering the force of its mystical foundation; on the other, of allowing this force to cohabit with technological and economic interests so as to enter into their relationships of power. The most eloquent symptom of this undertaking is the adaptation of banking to Islamic law—and vice versa. Another symptom is the war of religions: the Iranian revolution of 1979, while it marked the awakening of a political Islam, also carried to this terrain the major division within Islam. Like those of ancient Europe, the wars of religions respond to social and political clashes. One could say, to simplify things, that the present conflicts in the middle east— aside from the one connected to Israel—stem from the failure or derailing of the seemingly progressive attempts of postcolonial revolution (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria).