chapter  24
12 Pages

Jean-Luc Nancy

ByMARTIN COWARD

Jean-Luc Nancy’s thought was referred to by Jacques Derrida as ‘one of the immense philosophic works of our time’ (Derrida 2005a: x). Born in 1940, Nancy graduated in philosophy in 1962 and went, after a period teaching in Colmar, to work in Strasbourg where he ultimately became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. Nancy’s influences and interlocutors during the span of his career are many. However, several are worth noting in order to situate his work. Nancy’s early philosophical work (after an association with Christian Socialism in the 1960s (James 2006: 5)) was written in collaboration with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. This work, which spans the period from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, comprised critical engagements with, among others, the work of Jacques Lacan (Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe 1992) and Jacques Derrida (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1997). Indeed, this period was characterised by a sustained engagement with deconstruction under the auspices of the Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. During his time as co-director of the Centre, Nancy engaged with philosophers such as Christopher Fynsk, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jean-François Lyotard and Claude Lefort (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1997). In the late 1980s, after the Centre had been dissolved, Nancy published the book for which he is probably most well known: The Inoperative Community (Nancy 1991). The arguments advanced in this book inspired reflections by Maurice Blanchot in his The Unavowable Community (Blanchot 1988). In the 1990s Nancy underwent a heart transplant and then fought against cancer. However, he maintained a regular publishing schedule, further developing his thought on community, co-existence, politics and art. His work during this later period was recently the subject of sustained reflection by Jacques Derrida in his On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy (Derrida 2005a). Nancy’s published work encompasses a diverse set of concerns: philo-

sophical commentary on, for example, Kant (Nancy 1993b), Hegel (Nancy 2002a), Heidegger and Bataille (Nancy 1991); research on the relation of the philosophical and the political (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1997); an ontology developed out of an original investigation of the nature of beingwith or community (Nancy 2000); meditations on visual art (Nancy 1996)

and the experience of undergoing a heart transplant (Nancy 2002b); and (more recently) reflections on war, monotheism and globalisation (Nancy 2000, 2003a, 2003b, 2007). It is impossible in this chapter to give a comprehensive overview of this

‘vast and heterogeneous’ (James 2006: 1) body of work. Instead, I want to note three distinctive and yet interrelated themes in Nancy’s work that should be of interest to those studying international relations: his investigation of the relationship between philosophy and politics under the auspices of the Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political; his elaboration of a co-existential ontology in the landmark books The Inoperative Community and Being Singular Plural; and his discussion of the manner in which the contemporary world is shaped by the forces of globalisation and monotheism. These themes could be said to trace a trajectory that corresponds to three historically consecutive phases in Nancy’s career: a trajectory that starts with the early work under the auspices of the Centre and proceeds, via the elaboration of a mature co-existential ontology, to the recent discussions of the contemporary global condition.