Finitude, Existence, and Community: Letting the Individual Die

By Nicole Billitz
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 1/3 |

Addressing finitude as it relates to existence and community, Jean Luc Nancy and Martin Heidegger recognize finitude to be both the impossibility of being at one with oneself and the radical fragmentation of Being, in terms of mortality. Nancy contends that there is a fundamental relationship between the community and death, which necessitates an ethical imperative to the other, and by association negates violence to the other. For Nancy, existence or “being-with” is necessarily ethical because we are constituted by other beings. For Heidegger, ethics is dwelling in closeness to Being. He does not go beyond that – to the dwelling in closeness to other beings. This paper examines how Nancy’s concept of mortality expresses existential sharing, which conveys a being toward, where Heidegger’s singular death reinforces the traditional, Western metaphysical “community of the individual” which posits a necessary subjective identity and maintains the ideology behind immanentism, totalitarianism, and genocide.

Nancy contends that existence, or “Being-in-the-world” is constituted by Being-with. In fact, “a single being is a contradiction” (Nancy, 200, p. 12). To imply “single” is to necessarily imply the idea of another. Nancy uses the word “singular” to signify that which is “irreducible to any possibility of gathering, identity, or propriety – but its singularity is also constituted by its multiplicity and relationality. It is singular only insofar as it relates to or articulates a movement or passage toward other singular instances of sense” (James, 2006, p. 103). In other words, Nancy understands Being from the origins of singular-plurality, from being-with. And for Nancy (2000), the “plurality of being is at the foundation of being” (p. 12). Being-with can occur “only on the basis of a relation with death which is always already shared, such that the being of the world itself is given or opened up as a primary being-with, which only subsequently allows for individualization or the singularizing of being-there” which Heidegger largely emphasizes (James, 2006, p. 103). Nancy articulates a radical togetherness in death where Heidegger conceptualizes a secondary sense of death, where the death of Others to never the same as my own death. Although Nancy also writes extensively on this understanding of death as existentially one’s own, or that I can die only for myself, he relates that we all experience it, whereby Heidegger states others are simply “alongside.” Nancy’s articulates that it is exactly in the death of others that our “own mortality is revealed” (James, 2006, p. 180). Sharing, or partage, then becomes crucial to Nancian philosophy. Sharing is the event of exposure to others, the among of Being, the event of being shared, ruptured and divided by others. This exists necessarily alongside finitude. Nancy says, invoking the idea of finitude, or the impossibility of not being one with oneself, “in principle, being-with escapes completion and always evades occupying the passage” (Nancy, 2000, p. 95). In the absence of a final signified, or an immanent meaning (such as God), there is a non-discursive imperative that cannot be named, cannot be justified, and cannot be finished. This duty is in fact what all previous philosophy has been trying to justify.

Nancy (2000) articulates that “it is the exposure of each singular existence, its being-outside-of-itself, to a death which is revealed in and through the death of others. Community reveals, or rather is, our exposure to the unmasterable limit of death, and thus our being together outside of all identity, or work of subjectivity” (James, 2006, p. 185). This shared existence is a radical, endless openness to the other and conveys the idea of an impossible immanent identity. In this way of being-with, it is impossible to kill the other because to kill the other is to kill oneself. Thinking of violence is rendered unthinkable in this philosophical and existential domain because we are all shared. In fact, Nancy (2000) begins the first page of Being Singular Plural as such:

“I want to emphasize the date on which I am writing this. It is the summer of 1995, and as far as specifying the situation of the earth and humans is concerned, nothing is more pressing than a list of proper names such as these: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnian Serbs, Tutsis, Hutus, Tamil Tigers, Krajina Serbs, Casamance, Chiapas, Islamic Jihad, Bangladesh, the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, Hamas, Kazakhstan, Khmers Rouges, ETA militia, Kurds, Montatarire, the Movement for Self-determination, Somalia, FNLC, Haiti, Taiwan, Burma, PLO, Iraq…” (Nancy, p. xii).

He attributes these current national, cultural, religious and ethnical identities as the cause of genocide. This is because he understands the idea of a subjective identity, where an identity is a same essential sameness to a multiple of people, to be rooted in ideas of individualism. It is then these individuals that are, by their very identity or construction, against other identities or others. Rather than being constituted by others, the individual, subjective identity is made, quite literally, against the Other. Therefore, a binary is created between Self and Other. This further alienates Other from Self, making essentializing and totalizing ideologies possible. “As a collection of individual subjects who bind themselves together on the basis of a shared identity” (James, 2006, p. 177), Nancy poses the question of whether these so called subjective, individual “identities” or groups are independent or “instrumentalized by other groups who wield political, economic and ideological power?” (Nancy, 2000, p. xii). He is issuing a proclamation that “this earth is anything but a sharing of humanity. It is a world that does not even manage to constitute a world; it is a world lacking in the world, and lacking in the meaning of the world” (Nancy, 2000, p. xii). This is because the sharing of humanity necessarily negates all forms of violence to the Other, and especially the genocide of the Other. By his written list, he understands that we are in a world lacking meaning because we are not acting as Being-toward and for. He also contends the precarious issue of power in identity. Not only is every identity necessarily constructed, but for whom and by whom was it constructed? Being receptive to this idea of power relations in identities correlates then largely to overall institutions such as slavery, colonialism and heteronormativity, which are based for the binary structure of those with power and those without.

Nancy (2000) contends that “It is not a question of an Other (the inevitably ‘capitalized Other’) than the world; it is a question of alterity or alteration of the world. It is not the question of an alien or an other in general as the essential stranger is opposed to what is proper, but of an alter, that is, ‘one of the two’. This lowercase other is ‘one’ among many insofar as they are many; it is each one, and it is each time one, one among them, one among all and one among us all” (Nancy, 2000, p. 11). The ‘Other’ constructs a binary between one Dasein (Heidegger’s terminology for the being for whom being is a question) and an ‘Other’, literally opposed to one another. In contrast, for Nancy, being is constituted by relationality, and this relates a duty toward. A Being-with constituted by and amongst others has a duty toward them. “This is because while “we “ can be “us all” it can never be one that is us “all,” and so each one of us is, in turn, the other origin of the same world” (Nancy, 2000, p. 11). And so at its heart, the other shares me, and I share the other. I have a primordial duty to uphold to the other, a duty that cannot be named or finished. It extends outward and toward the other, just as I extend outward and toward the other and toward finitude.

Nancy bows to Nietzsche’s “horizon of the infinite,” and promotes the individual as the nihilistic horizon of our time. Nancy does so because the individual is its own identity, insofar as it exists completely for and to itself. Ideologically it operates as an indivisible, immanent, radically unified, complete, dead, non-moving (contrasting even Heidegger’s ‘thrownness’) unto itself whole.

“Immanence would instantly suppress community. Nancy is aiming to think about, or give a figure for, an experience of community which would exceed the principle of identity or any figure of totality… Were any absolute identity of community [were to be] realized, if a total immanence were to be achieved, this would mark the very suppression or obliteration of community, since, in the absence of separation, distance, or dispersal, no being-in-common, no exposure of one singular existence (you, me) to another could occur” (James, 2006, p. 176).

This individual does not need others to exist nor to understand itself. The individual is logically impossible because it is totally, inherently immanent, whereby there is no Other, and no difference. This logic denies emancipation because anything completely inherent denies all possibilities and all freedoms; the potentiality-for-Being is impossible, and so an individual is impossible; both infinite and already dead. One that understands oneself to be complete is already unethical towards others because it is unethical to oneself, because it denies all freedoms to itself, it can’t exist or have being at all. It allows itself (were it to exist) no freedom or sovereignty and so operates as an oppressive force. This unethical individual that is not constituted by others does not have exposure to others and so this allows for the sublation of the Other, the denigration of the Other, and the death of the Other. Nancy asserts the genocide occurring throughout the world in 1995, carries a direct correlation from the individual, which maintains a “me against them” agenda. Individual, subjective identity gives way to the murder of the Other.

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