“The Prehistory of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Deconstruction of Christianity”
from An und für sich by Adam Kotsko
At this point, though, there seems to be a divergence from Derrida, insofar as Derrida always privileges the derelict, subordinate item in a given pair (writing over speech, most famously), while Nancy seems to be favoring the more "authentic" item.
Writing in the Western world in 1983, however, Nancy is in an environment where authentic "community," in the form of international communism, has long since turned out to be a nightmare and "society," for all its faults, seems to be the only live option remaining: "all ventures adopting a communitarian opposition to ‘real communism’ have by now run their course or been abandoned, but everything continues along its way as though, beyond these ventures, it were no longer even a question of thinking about community."5
Nancy’s next step is to argue that liberal democracy and the totalitarian danger of communism are two sides of the same coin. First, both of them share in the same overarching "metaphysics of the absolute," which centers on some principle supposedly exempt from all relationality, making both dangerous and destructive. Second, the absolute principle of both, what makes them both so destructive, is, paradoxically, humanity. That is to say, the problem with communism was that it was too humanistic, meaning in this case too centered around the concept of species-being, which for Marx was a matter of "human beings defined as producers (one might even add: human beings defined at all), and fundamentally as the producers of their own essence in the form of their labor or their work."6
This emphasis on the human as the ultimate authority, no longer reliant on any form of transcendence for meaning, leads to the quest for an "absolute immanence of man to man—a humanism—and of community to community—a communism."7
Again, within the modern Western frame, this insistence on immanence seems to be a good thing, but Nancy complicates this valuation by claiming that in fact "what we have called ‘totalitarianism’ … might be better named ‘immanentism.’"
What distinguishes "immanentism" is its continual production of the human essence, setting humanity to work in order to produce humanity as a work. Where communism sought to produce this human essence on a collective level, liberal democracy turns to the individual—but both take the human essence to be "the absolutely detached for-itself, taken as origin and as certainty." Modern experience show us, however, that "the individual can be the origin and the certainty of nothing but its own death." The individual attempts to achieve immortality through its "works," but this "operative immortality remains its own alienation and renders its death still more strange than the irremediable strangeness that it already ‘is.’"8
The implication here—brought out perhaps more clearly in the liberal version—is that "immanentism" involves some kind of working, necessarily unsuccessful, in order to avoid death. At best, this produces alienation, but at its worst it can produce a furious working-out of death, as in fascism. What we need to think instead, therefore, is a community not centered on the absoluteness of some essence, human or otherwise. Acknowledging the necessary link between "essence" and "working" or "producing" within the immanent frame that he believes we cannot go back behind, Nancy proposes that we attempt to think a community that would be désœuvré, which literally means "unworked," or as the translator has it "inoperative."
Additionally, in everyday usage, désœuvré has reference to unemployment or idleness; a "lazy rascal" is a voyou désœuvré. (Whatever might happen to the value of work or humanism, then, it seems that this new form of community would share with communism at least its anticapitalism.)
Communism is the privileged example of what one might call the "bad" form of community, one focused on the working-out of the human essence, but Nancy seems to think that Christianity has a certain privileged status when it comes to the link between community and the avoidance of death. Fully teasing out Nancy’s largely implicit view of Christianity here is probably not necessary for the present purposes, but it is clear that Nancy sees the divinization of humanity in Christ as Christianity’s key strategy for avoiding death. And it is in fact this question of death that comes to preoccupy Nancy for most of the essay, as he attempts to work out another relationship between death and community, in critical dialogue with Georges Bataille. The alternative that emerges is the abandonment of any attempt to give "meaning" to death—making of death a kind of work—and instead acknowledging it as the limit to which the finite community is constitutively exposed.
5 Nancy, Inoperative Community, 2-3.
6 Nancy, Inoperative Community, 2. Nancy italicizes "defined"; I italicize "work."
7 Nancy, Inoperative Community, 2.
8 Nancy, Inoperative Community, 3.