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Jean-Luc Nancy - Biography

Jean-Luc Nancy, Ph.D., Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Chair at the European Graduate School EGS, was born on the 26th of July, 1940 in Caudéran, near Bordeaux in France. His first philosophical interests were formed during his youth in the Catholic environment of Bergerac. Shortly after he graduated in 1962 with a degree in philosophy, Jean-Luc Nancy began to publish. From the beginning his work is marked by diverse influences, from Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot to René Descartes, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. The influence of these thinkers is already evident in the very first books that Jean-Luc Nancy published: Le discours de la syncope (1976) and L'impératif catégorique (1983) on Immanuel Kant, La remarque spéculative (translated as The Speculative Remark, 2001) on Hegel, Ego sum (1979) on René Descartes and Le partage des voix (1982) on Martin Heidegger. After his aggregate in philosophy in Paris and a short period as a teacher in Colmar, Jean-Luc Nancy became an assistant at the Institut de Philosophie in Strasbourg in 1968. In 1973, he obtained his Ph.D. under the supervision of Paul Ricoeur, with a dissertation on Kant. Soon after, he became the 'maître de conférences' at the Université des Sciences Humaines in Strasbourg, the institute to which he is still attached. In the seventies and eighties he was a guest professor at the most diverse universities, from the Freie Universität in Berlin to the University of California. As a professor in philosophy, he was also involved in many cultural delegations of the French ministry of external affairs, particularly in relation to Eastern Europe, Great Britain and the United States of America. Together with his ever-growing publication list, this began to earn Jean-Luc Nancy an international reputation. The quick translation of his work into several languages enhanced his fame (Jean-Luc Nancy mastered, besides his mother tongue, German, Italian and English).

Jean-Luc Nancy's first book Le titre de la lettre (1973, trans. The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, 1992), co-written with his close friend and philosophical partner Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, brings a critical reading to Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic theories in light of the Heideggerian deconstruction of metaphysics. In many of his texts, Jean-Luc Nancy refers to psychoanalysis, often in a critical way arguing that Jacques Lacan questions the metaphysical subject, but does so in a metaphysical way. This deconstructive reading of psychoanalysis has continued through Jean-Luc Nancy's oeuvre. The concepts of psychoanalysis, such as the Other, the Subject, the Law, and the Father, are revealed by Jean-Luc Nancy to be the residue of theological metaphysics. In spite of this stinging critique, Jean-Luc Nancy thinks that many of the concepts of psychoanalysis are worth philosophical contemplation.

The book that brought Jean-Luc Nancy notoriety is La communauté désoeuvrée (The Inoperable Community, 1982), at the same time a work on the question of community and a comment on the work of Georges Bataille. Besides revealing his strategy of thinking, in this text one can also discover the main philosophical themes that Jean-Luc Nancy is concerned with in his later work. These often circle around social and political philosophical problems, such as the question of how to develop our modern society with the knowledge of political projects that began by trying to build society according to a well-defined shape or plan having frequently led to political terror and social violence. Jean-Luc Nancy examines community as an idea that has dominated modern thought and traces its relation to concepts of experience, discourse, and the individual. Contrary to popular Western notions of community, Jean-Luc Nancy shows that it is neither a project of fusion nor one of production. Rather, he argues, community can be defined through the political nature of its resistance against immanent power. This text led Maurice Blanchot to discuss the question of community, and also to consider Jean-Luc Nancy's comments on Bataille, in his La communauté inavouable (trans. The Unavowable Community, 1988).

Inspired by Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy affirms in several interviews that after Jean-Paul Sartre, something new and contemporary was born in philosophy. Jean-Luc Nancy organized, along with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, the famous conference in 1980, Les fins de l'homme, in Cerisy-la-Salle on Jacques Derrida and politics, a conference which helped to establish Jacques Derrida as one of the foremost figures of contemporary philosophy. This conference constituted for Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe a starting point for an in-depth discussion of contemporary politics. Together, they formed the Centre for Philosophical Research of the Political (Centre de recherches philosophiques sur le politique) in the same year as the Jacques Derrida conference as a response to the demand for rethinking the political outside of the terms of contemporary political categories. Over the years, several philosophers have given lectures on this topic, for example Claude Lefort and Jean-François Lyotard. The books Rejouer le politique (1981) and Le retrait du politique (trans. Retreating the Political, 1997) emerged from these discussions. In 1984, the activities of the Centre were brought to an end because its role as a site of encounter 'had become almost completely dissociated from that as a place of research and questioning', according to Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. In spite of the closure of the Centre, Jean-Luc Nancy has been continuously concerned with questions of community and politics ever since.

In 1987, Jean-Luc Nancy was elected docteur d'état (doctor of state) in Toulouse with the congratulations of the jury. His dissertation handled the topic of freedom in the work of Kant, Schelling and Heidegger, and was published as L'expérience de la liberté (trans. The Experience of Freedom) in 1988. His supervisor was Gérard Granel, and members of the jury included Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. Since 1987, Jean-Luc Nancy's thought concentrates primarily on a reorientation of the work of Martin Heidegger. In The Experience of Freedom, for example, Jean-Luc Nancy's study of the notion of freedom within Martin Heidegger's work is not only a discussion of Martin Heidegger, but also of Kant, Schelling and Sartre. Jean-Luc Nancy is looking for a sort of 'non-subjective' freedom, a concept of freedom that tries to think the existential ground from which every freedom (thought as a property of the individual or a collectivity) starts. Freedom, instead of being, seen as the classical 'liberum arbitrium' or the subjectivistic free-will, lies in one's being thrown into the world and into existence. As Heidegger had done, Jean-Luc Nancy accentuates the fact that freedom in Kant's work is a sort of unconditional causality. In 'the second analogy of the experience' of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (The Critique of Pure Reason), Kant argues that the specific form of causality that is human freedom – that the subject acts 'spontaneously' – means that the subject must withdraw itself from time and not be determined by empirical causality. Therefore, as in Heidegger's Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit, Jean-Luc Nancy determines Kantian freedom as an autopositional freedom, the freedom of a subject who 'forgets' that it is always already thrown into existence, even before it can decide to be free. So, one has to think freedom from its existential ground, its finite being. As long as one thinks of freedom as the property of an 'infinite' subject, every form of finite being will appear as a kind of heteronomy, as a restraint of my freedom. My freedom, says Jean-Luc Nancy, does not end where that of the other starts, but the existence of the other is the necessary condition of being free. There is no freedom without the presupposition of our being-in-the-world, and of our being thrown into existence.

Jean-Luc Nancy also discusses in his work political themes like justice, sovereignty and freedom, and how they may apply in our increasingly global world. In 1993, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote his book Le sens du monde (The Sense of the World), in which he searched for what we mean when we say that we are living in a world, or in one world; about what we mean when we say that the sense of the world is no longer situated above but within the world. The world, existence, is our radical responsibility, he says, but by this he does not mean that we are always responsible for everything and everyone. He wants to make clear that the political, juridical or moral responsibility in concrete situations is based on a preceding ontological responsibility. From the moment that the measure for our responsibility is no longer given by a metaphysical or divine order, we are living in a world where we are exposed to a naked existence, without the possibility of falling back upon a preceding fundamental cause of the world. For Jean-Luc Nancy, the contingency of our naked existence is not in the first place a moral problem; it is an ontological question. Whereas in a feudal world the meaning and destination of life was clear and fixed, contemporary existence can no longer refer to a general metaphysical framework. Nothing other than this contingency is the challenge for our global existence today.

In Être singulier pluriel (trans. Being Singular Plural, 2000) Nancy deals with the question of how we can still speak of a 'we' or of a plurality without transforming this 'we' into a substantial and exclusive identity. The fundamental argument of the book is that being is always 'being-with', that 'I' is not prior to 'we', that existence is essentially co-existence. Jean-Luc Nancy thinks of this 'being-with' not as a comfortable enclosure in a pre-existing group, but as a mutual abandonment and exposure to one another, one that would preserve the 'I' and its freedom in a mode of imagining community as neither a 'society of spectacle' nor via some form of authenticity. The five shorter essays translate the philosophical insight of 'Being Singular Plural' into discussions of national sovereignty, war and technology, identity politics, the Gulf War, and the tragic plight of Sarajevo. The essay 'Eulogy for the Mêlé', in particular, is a discussion of identity and hybridism that resonates with many contemporary social concerns. As Jean-Luc Nancy moves through the exposition of his central concern, being-with, he engages a number of other important issues, including current notions of the 'other' and the 'self' that are relevant to psychoanalytic, political and multicultural concepts. He also offers original reinterpretations of major philosophical positions, such as Nietzsche's doctrine of 'eternal recurrence', Descartes's 'cogito', and the nature of language and meaning.

Jean-Luc Nancy is also an influential philosopher of art and culture. Besides his interest in literature, film, theatre and poetry, Jean-Luc Nancy writes about contemporary art and contributes regularly to art catalogues. Not limiting himself to theory and criticism, Jean-Luc Nancy has written poetry and theatrical texts, including an adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethee's Faust, Part One for an installation by the artist Claudio Parmiggiani. Some of Jean-Luc Nancy's work has been displayed with that of the French artist François Martin. His philosophical reflections on the status of art in today's world can be read in the book Les Muses (1994, trans. The Muses, 1996). Hegel's thesis of the death of art plays a central role in this text. Another of Jean-Luc Nancy's texts on the philosophy of art, which was published in an issue of Paragraph dedicated to Nancy's work in 1993, deals with the Italian painter Caravaggio's painting 'The Death of the Virgin'. The text was adapted from a lecture Jean-Luc Nancy gave at the Louvre Museum in 1992. Here, Jean-Luc Nancy describes the painting as going beyond representation based in Platonic metaphysics into the presentation of sensation and existence. Jean-Luc Nancy's book The Evidence of Film (2001) covers the work of Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian filmmaker. He has also published texts on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, the status of literature, techno music, and the relations of image and violence.

Jean-Luc Nancy's active career had to take a break when he became gravely ill at the end of the eighties. He was forced to undergo a heart transplant (which Derrida talks about in his recently released book on Nancy, Le Toucher) from which his recovery was inhibited by a long-term fight with cancer. Out of sheer necessity, he put an end to all of his courses at the beginning of the nineties and quit his membership of almost all of the committees that he participated in. He has recently restarted most of his activities, but during these troubles Jean-Luc Nancy never stopped writing and publishing. Many of his main works, most of which are related to social and political philosophical topics, were published in the nineties, and he even wrote a text on his disease. It was published as a book in 2000 with the title L'intrus: the intruder. This book served as the inspiration for the 2004 film by the same name directed by Claire Denis. Today Jean-Luc Nancy is a remarkably active philosopher. He travels around the world as a popular speaker and thinker on many philosophical congresses and writes one text after another. He is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and a member of the faculty at the European Graduate School EGS.

Jean-Luc Nancy is a Professor of Political Philosophy and Media Aesthetics at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.