Tom Dommisse, Amsterdam
Absence in Common
Towards a Post-modern Notion of Sensus communis
Absence in Common
Towards a Post-modern Notion of Sensus communis
Let us start with an ontological supposition: an uncritical pre-understanding of ‘being as presence’ has dominated the inheritance of the Kantian notion of sensus communis. However brutal, this conviction lives from an ambition that cannot be fulfilled here: to perform a deconstructive lecture of the Critique of Judgment, and all its ambivalent hesitations which mark the Kantian text with respect to the either constitutive or regulative character of this notion. Take for instance the passage where Kant says: ‘ob es in der That einen solchen Gemeinsinn als constitutives Princip der Möglichkeit der Erfahrung gebe, oder ein noch höheres Princip der Vernunft es uns nur zum regulativen Princip mache, allererst einen Gemeinsinn zu höhern Zwecken in uns hervorzubringen ...: das wollen und können wir hier noch nicht untersuchen’1.
The hypothesis which inspires this article is that any decision taken with respect to the ontological status of sensus communis always threatens to reproduce a hidden complicity of a transcendental (aesthetic, moral, political) discourse and some form of empirical ‘euro-centric’ culturalism (This is, of course, partly based on a parafrased remark by Jacques Derrida in La vérité en peinture2).
This complicity seemed already originally inscribed in sensus communis as a liminal notion, which transgresses the demarcations between nature and culture. We must be careful in our interpretation not to repeat once again 19th century philosophical dualisms: they are based on a foreclosure with respect to the ontological status of this notion. Sensus communis has been read either as regulative idea for a future orientation of human culture (inspiring the romantic notion of an ‘ästhetische Humanität’ from Schiller and Schelling up to Nietzsche3) or it was conceived as a constitutive element of human nature (related to notions as ‘common sense’ or ‘moral sense’ within anthropological or psychological studies, dominant in an Anglosaxon tradition). Communis was thus either some promised ideal of culture, or some natural habit of man. However sketchy these remarks may be, it is not difficult to trace the echos of these janus-faced 19th century notions of community in a current split in our geopolitical reality. Nowadays a renewed interest for ‘natural commonality’ emerges in reaction to the emptyness of a ‘culture of universalization’ and ‘tele-techno-logical globalization’ and a distrust in the cosmopolitical state of humanity: but this tendency often leads to nationalist or ethnic manipulation of the notion community, to subtle forms of neo-colonialism or discriminating practices, masked as political correctness. All these elements force us to think a postmodern (and intercultural) actualization of sensus communis, based on a deconstructive attitude towards oppositions of nature/culture, or constitutive/regulative.
Within a larger project, the necessity of a deconstruction of sensus communis would include the task of an interrogative delimitation from some major positions taken within the ‘liberalism-communitarianism debate’ (Rawls, Habermas, Taylor, Walzer4), where a naive pre-understanding of the ‘being of communitas’ as ‘being in presence’ also seems dominant, and where both opposite sides are in the danger of absolutizing either an empirically embedded minimal juridical person, or some present cultural or communal identity. It would also include a confrontation with two influential 20th century philosophical interpretations: the hermeneutical approach of H.-G. Gadamer5 and the political theory of Hannah Arendt6. But this ambition, too, can only be announced here.
But, apart from these all too pretentious ambitions: can we imagine some deconstructive sensibility in common, for us, now, here? With respect to the notion of sensus communis this would imply at least two things. Firstly, the awareness that its temporality breaks with linear chronology, and that doesn’t indicate either a return to an original unity present in the past, or some projective schematization of a future community to be present in a promised time to come. Deconstruction involves here an entwinement of a work of mourning (in relation to an immemorial past, a trauma which was never actually present), and an endurance for the messianic (towards an ‘à venir’ which will never be present or experienced7). Secondly, it would imply the awareness that the being of a deconstructed sensus communis involves an ‘ecstatic opening to making present’ and that it can no longer be conceived as something which presently is, here, ‘present at hand’: neither as feeling or affect, nor as ‘sense’ or as something ‘in common’. For the sake of this, deconstructive mourning and messianicity imply a plea for ‘passibility’ and a recognition of our being inscribed in and exposed to an inhuman exteriority.
In this article I will capitalize ‘beyond’ deconstruction some of the connotations Kant already denoted with respect to sensus communis. These will be elucidated in an analysis of the two composing elements of ‘sensus’ and of ‘communis’, by refering to an interpretation given by J-F. Lyotard (which focusses on the elements of ‘Einstimmung’ and the ‘allgemeine Stimme’8) and by extrapolating a notion of community as developped by J-L. Nancy which echos the Kantian connotation of ‘Mit-teilbarkeit’9. My guiding thread will be the question whether such a deconstructed and intercultural sensus communis has any correlate in a philosophical politics: for this, I will finally focus on an aporia of its exemplary status and its possible incarnations.
1. A promising voice: Lyotard on the sensus
In his interpretation of sensus communis Lyotard focusses on the always fragile, imputed ‘Einstimmung’ Kants speaks of, emphasizing the connotations of ‘Stimmung’ and ‘allgemeine Stimme’ (S.c., 11ff, 17ff). How about this voice? It isn’t the voice of any individual: the harmonious agreement doesn’t concern any empirical consensus, since what is at stake here is not the articulation of any distinct phrases, insights or opinions circulating in an artistic discours, in disputes between ‘experts’, appraisals by artists or artlovers (S.c., 8f., 10f.). We are on a transcendental level: the instantaneous harmony or disaccord in a polyphony of voices is never an anthropological or sociological phenomenon; it isn’t a phenomenon at all.
Is this voice an analogon of the brazen voice of (practical) reason, ‘which speaks to each without equivocation’10; which doesn’t describe anything, but only dictates, prescribes, orders...? There are similarities: both are uttered in a ‘language’ which communicates only its communicability: ‘ein reine Sprache der Mitteilbarkeit’ as Walter Benjamin has named it11. Both voices precede every cultural embodiment, every idiom, every national language. Parafrasing the Kantian ethical formula in which reason gives itself the law, Lyotard writes that in sensus communis ‘the subject gives voice to itself’ (S.c., 13). But, contrary to the autonomy of practical reason, there is no determined law or rule given, nothing is prescribed or postulated. Kant carefully distinguishes the immediacy of aesthetic commonality from the one he calls ‘Verbindlichkeit’ in the moral claims of reason, always mediated by concepts. Aesthetic judgment doesn’t oblige others to agree. This is revealed in the terms chosen by Kant to express the criterion of universality: it is enjoined (‘ansinnen’) to everyone, it is imputed (‘zumuten’), and the judgments make a demand (‘Anspruch’) to be shared12). The universal voice is thus a ‘promising’ voice. And here is no autonomy but he-autonomy (KdU, XXXVII): a situation in which the subject gives rules only to itself, gives voice to itself, even ‘before it sees or conceives itself’, as Lyotard says (S.c., 13).
Is the voice a matter of auto-affection then? Lyotard denies this (S.c., 20), and designates the affect as ‘tautegorical’. The feeling is index sui: at the same time ‘a state of mind and the signalling of this state’ (S.c., 13). It signals a suprasensible commonality that may happen but for which one is always unprepared. It happens on occasion. Tautegorical reflection is indeed an intimate auto-affection, but one in which thought is exposed to a radical hetero-affection. Subjectivity is born (S.c., 22, 24) in being addressed by a voice as a radical alterity within itself.
The sensus now is ‘a seat’ of a capacity for pure tautegorical reflection (S.c., 6, 14), and its universal voice implies a hetero-affection within auto-affection: a voice which the subject gives to itself, but at the same time as a witnessing remembrance of something immemorial (S.c., 22), confronting thinking with its natality or infancy.13 Sensibility or ‘passibility’ for this voice implies for thinking attunement, re-orientation (in the euphonic experience of the beautiful): at the same time it dismays and disrupts the human, all too human selfcomplacency of thinking (in the disaccording experience of the sublime). In this immediate experience it is, in Lyotard’s words, ‘only a matter of letting oneself be guided by the suprasensible, inhuman substratum of nature of the pre-subject’ (S.c., 24). This interpretation advocates a ‘receptive thinking’, beyond the metaphysical opposition between activity and passivity14: it is not entirely ‘irregular’ (out of rules) but steers only on the ‘feeling of itself’ when it thinks.
Lyotard’s strategy of uncovering an ‘inhuman’ region of an intimate, natural alterity, may seem as nothing but an exercise in a purely aesthetic reading of Kant. A ‘hyper-transcendentalism’ perhaps, open to the reproach that it repeats once more the ‘depoliticization’ Gadamer already rebuked in the Kantian transformation of the notion of sensus communis from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson15. But it is highly unjust to criticize Lyotard of a non-political approach to the Kantian notion.
Obviously Lyotard takes distance from Hannah Arendt’s more ‘direct’ political reading16. Where he stresses the connotation of ‘Ein-stimmung’, Arendt’s interpretation seems to focus on the element of ‘comparison’ through ‘Abstrahierung der subjektiven Privatbedingungen’ (KdU, 157). The comparative, imaginative, dialogical and communitarian aspects of Kant’s famous second maxim of the ‘enlarged thought’ (‘think by putting oneself in any other’s place’ KdU, 159) are highly praised by Arendt, because of the importance of publicity, which Kant captures in terms of a virtual audience of spectators. It motivates her choice of Kant’s aesthetics as a model of political judgment, and the sensus as a specific political ability to ‘see things not only from one’s own point of view, but in the perspective of all those who happen to be present’17. Political evil, for Arendt, is there where the imperatives of a totalitarian regime are interiorised by citizens, and silence is imposed on their conditio sine qua non for plurality in the political community. The banality of this evil is exemplary embodied in the figure of Eichmann18.
Lyotards hesitations on this, too anthropological a reading of the regulative ideas and the cosmopolitical situation of humanity19, are however no less politically motivated. But political evil, for Lyotard, manifests itself not only in the domination by a communal sensus privatus of a totalitarian ideology or a fundamentalist regime. There is political evil on a more radical level: in the omni-present politicization of a juridico-pragmatic model of deliberation, where politics intrudes all cultural areas of life. This development at the same time shows a tendency towards ‘an-aisthesis’20, an insensibility to an alterity which can never be appropriated: a deafness towards an ‘unmanageable’ transcendence. In this state of affairs, which Jean-Luc Nancy named ‘immanentism’, Lyotard subscribes the interest of retracing something as ‘the essence of the political’ (although this seems to him an all too Heideggerian expression).21
Is it a philosophical questioning of the political that inspires Lyotard’s hypertranscendental interpretation of the sensus communis aestheticus? Does this motivate his eagerness to focus on those passages where Kant ‘doesn’t let himself be carried away by the anthropological reading of what he is trying to think’ (S.c., 12, 14)? Does an anti-anthropological, let’s say ‘inhuman’ or ‘de-humanized’ idea of the essence of the political motivate Lyotard’s full emphasis put on sensus as a seat for tautegorical reflectivity: as a pre-subjective ‘passibility’ through which thought, ‘resolving to be irresolute, deciding to be patient, wanting not to want’ (Inh., 19), orientates itself only on the signals of its own he-autonomous feeling?
As it is well known, the ontology of phrases, elaborated in The Differend22, already served as prolegomena for a philosophical politics of anamnesia: a proces of remembrance for those ‘unheared’ voices which are forced to silence by the dominant technological and cultural pattern of rational discours-genres. It underlined a fundamentally Kantian, transcendental task for philosophy. In a juridical process of witnessing and uncovering ‘differends’, an affective reflective judgment diagnozes the transcendental illusions of anthropological, communicational or instrumental perspectives on language (D, § 32). At stake is the testimony of injustices done to victims whose silence is a sign that they don’t even possess the means to prove that they have been subjected to a wrong, faced with a culturalism of discourses, and imperalist-minded idioms, in which their wrongs could never be articulated (D, § 9, 12). Reflective judgment thus aims to guarantee the conditions for plural participation in idioms, to saveguard the heterogenity of speechacts and the plurality of discourses. Sensible for the always fragile, irreducibly contingent passages between discourses and cultural borderlines, reflection is here accompanied with a plea for a creative imagination: to invent and establish new idioms (D, § 22), to create conditions for the silent to speak for themselves, and to promote suitable linkages between affects and phrases.
So far, this juridical and therapeutical task can still be understood by appealing to a sensus communis politicus, conceived as ability to ‘see things in the perspective of all those who happen to be present’23. The sensus in the anthropological interpretation which was the model for Arendt, and which seemed to be the exemplary way to let a philosophical politics remain faithfull to the Kantian maxim of the ‘enlarged thought’: a sensus endowed with the tasks of ‘sich wegsetzen über die subjektiven Privatbedingungen' (KdU, 159) and ‘comparison’ in front of a virtual tribunal of reason.
But, however much refined the sensus of the judge may be, ‘differends’ in the Lyotardian sense often limit by their own nature the competence of such a tribunal (D, § 7, 13). As a supplement to the juridical and quasi-pragmatical side, Lyotardian philosophical politics must also accomplish a more tragical task in this drama. It is simply not enough to ‘see things in the perspective of all those who are present’ or to invent new idioms and give, through witnessing or representation, a public voice to those who are presently absent. In bearing witness to ‘differends’ and thus to suffering, the witness is also a traitor (Inh., 204). Thus, the politics of anamnesia has to fight a more severe forgetfullness: an indifference towards some irreducible ‘inhuman alterity’ or transcending absence within all presencing of the presence, all presentation of phrases in language. Something unmanagable at work within thinking itself (D, § 119, 132)24.
This implies an attestation for sublime, unrepresentable interruptions; for contingencies of links within discourses, the abysses of ‘nothingness’ (D, § 100, 102) between phrases. Philosophical politics involves a highly ‘aporetic affirmation’ or ‘endurance non- passive’25 of these sublime disruptions of cultural projects and horizons of discourses, for instance in intercultural encounters. For the ‘event’ of these encounters we are always unprepared (S.c., 1): sometimes accompanied by feelings of joy, but also by the experience of an inevitable desorientation and dislocation.
An authentic philosophical politics is thus always a thinking in response to this feeling, from a ‘soul haunted by familair but unknown guests who are agitating the mind, but who are also making it think’ (Inh., 2). It requires (with a reference to Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history) a certain ‘anamnestic’ solidarity with those haunted souls who are presently absent (the unborn, the dead), in order to save nameless generations of oppressed and overwhelmed subjects from forgetfullness by imperialistic historians 26. For Lyotard, this solidarity has its exemplary incarnation in the sublime art of modernity, which, as Adorno has said, ‘remains loyal to humankind uniquely through its inhumanity with regard to it’27. This solidarity inspires to a ‘micrological writing’ (Inh., 31f.) by an affective thinking in search for its own rules, in service of the unknown. Modelled by writers as Kafka, Orwell, Benjamin and Adorno, this micrological writing inscribes what happens ‘before’ we know what it is (Sens. 24) and lets itself be guided by a sensus for shocks of sublimity in the encounters which are at stake28. It dramatizes ‘passibility’ of critical thought for the relation between discourses and the ‘unsayable’, between representation and the inevitable betrayal of the ‘unrepresentable’ in these shocks. It is ‘entirely turned towards the incessant, interminable listening to and interpretation of a voice’, as Lyotard writes in The Inhuman (Inh., 77). Micrological writing transgresses limits of an always culturally imbedded language to that which is ‘otherwise’ than language.
Forgetfullness and indifference, and thus, radical political evil starts where this feeling that something ‘unsayable’ nevertheless must be said, something ‘unpresentable’ must be articulated, is conjured; or it starts where the traumatizing event of something ‘unheard of’ in this inhuman voice (which possibly only prescribes: ‘you must resist, to the extent that you must think or write’(Inh., 77)) is forgotten, or exorcized like a ghost. Forgotten, conjured and exorcised as unharmonizable for that other ‘inhuman’: the cultural tendency of universalization which, under slogans of ‘internationalization’, ‘globalization’, and ‘geo-politics’ regulates the development of a tele-techno-system, a system of pure human immanence, which causes to forget of what escapes it (Inh., 61ff).
It is in fighting the inhumane tendencies of this indifference or forgetfulness that Lyotard tries to find a region of the saving ‘inhuman’, a zone for experiencing and experimenting29. In this ‘inhuman’ he tries to locate elements of resistance (S.c., 24) for his politics of anamnesia: in the passibility for ‘debts which each soul has contracted with the miserable and admirable indetermination from which it was born’, a debt marked in liminal notions as ‘sexual difference’, ‘infancy’, ‘unconscious affect’, ‘anima minima’.30 This is why Lyotard emphasizes the Kantian sensus communis as a sign of a ‘natural substratum, a supersensible nature within the subject’ (S.c., 17, 20): through the tautegorical affect as a playfull effect index sui of a polyphony of colours and a polychromatic spectrum of tones, thinking signals its debt towards a donation given to thought.
Retracing the sensus back to a passibility towards the inhuman voice, or (hinting at Derrida) towards the injunctions of spectres31, this transcendental reading introduces a hyper-political private-public interval both within as well as exterior to our most intimate, bodily self. A ‘Zeit-spiel-raum’, a sacred ritual zone, which is never (as the liberalist Rorty wants it) only a sphere for private edifying, but a place for staging traumatic remembrances in a work of mourning imposed upon us by lost voices, wanting for an idiom in a shock of recognition. So, Lyotard’s emphasis on ‘de-humanizing’ apriori elements in aesthetics, in the beautiful and in the sublime, reveals itself as part of a re-inscription of transcendence of the political: it remains however far off from restoring transcendence by founding ‘the political’ on some transcendental signified, on God, Man, the Good, Humanity, the nation, historical tradition or cultural identity. This strategy doesn’t advocate any aesthetico-political act of a transcending instauratio of a community32, but it also keeps aloof from an anthropological grounding of political abilities in the comparative faculty of an enlarged thought, present-at-hand for man. If one still wants to speak of ‘the political’ one must recognize its spectral status in the omnipresence of politics (D, § 192): it shelters in the alterity of an ‘absence within presence’.
I shall not speculate on the question, whether it is possible to respond to the political and the aesthetical in the same way, that is, in terms of a response to a feeling. Instead, I will make a passage to an important work of Jean-Luc Nancy, who, although he hardly mentions Kant’s notion33, has elaborated a concept of community adequate to the Lyotardian sensus communis and its politics of anamnetic resistance to all cultural discourses, institutions and establishments.
2. The voice exposed to partage: Nancy and the communis
I will elucidate the element of communis step by step, starting by asking ‘what is in common', and orientating the questions towards the status of the community. In this process the notion of communis is involved in a double deconstruction: with respect to its ‘being’ and to the temporality which dominates our ideas of the community.
If we start by asking ‘what is here in common’ we’ll find a straight answer: in common in the sensus communis is certainly not feeling! Lyotard is most outspoken on this: there is no affective consensus, no ‘feeling in common’. He adds a political warning to this: ‘If we claim to have recourse to an affective consensus, we are victims of a transcendental illusion and we ae encouraging impostures’(S.c., 24). The danger is obvious: all fundamentalism and political obscurantism tries to legitimate its power through a ruling cast of priests authorized with privileged insights into the ‘common feeling’. In this way, poor and infatuated souls are reduced to being nothing but the executing instruments or organs of some proclaimed commonality, and are manipulated to commit themselves to atrocious actions in name of this community. However: what is at stake in the sensus communis, the feeling of pleasure in the beautiful, but also the feeling of dislocation in a sublime encounter, or that of enthusiasm with regard to a historical event, is perhaps mutual, reciprocal, but it is in no sense ‘in common’.
Perhaps we may suppose ‘passibility’, an ‘affected subjectivity’ or a ‘minimal soul’ in common? But terms like these are liminal notions: always singular signs of an experience of aporias in the access to something ‘incommensurable’. One might conceive them as quasi-transcendental terms34, for a finite transcendence. On an artistic level these terms resonate that the sensus is affected by un-seen ‘nuances’ or un-heard ‘timbres’, marking our bodily access to ‘immaterial matter’ (hardly visible or audible differences in colours and sounds (Inh. 140)). The ‘voice’ which the subject gives to itself in sensus communis has no meaning except in relation to these singular transcending events which are at stake in the experience of a work of art, but also, on a socio-historical level, in the deregulating encounters between cultures or in the responses by spectators on historical events. ‘It happens always on an occasion’: a this, here, now (S.c., 17). An analogon of this event on a linguistic level is the ‘phrase-affect’, the feeling that something unsayable has to be phrased. All these terms are marks of singularities: but marking is already exposing them to a generality, sacrificing the singular, iterating it (a discussion between Lyotard and Derrida has to focus on this point35). However: all these terms only gather round something irreducibel singular: to parafrase Kant one can say that they remain ‘empty’ as soon as they are generalized as aspects ‘in common’.
Let’s look for another entrance to answer the question ‘what’s in common?’. The common is promised, but never to be obeserved in experience (S.c., 10) as something existent. But we exist in relating ourselves to the ‘non-existent’, traced by Lyotardian terms as: ‘sexual difference' as mark of an incompleteness; ‘infancy’ which accompanies us as a luminous shadow of our past; ‘unconcious affects’ as traumatizing, unbeaten tracks of something immemorial. And we exist in relating ourselves to «non-being»: in our ethical response to the Kantian ‘voice of Reason’, but most of all in our existential being towards birth and death. We are thus exposed to an exteriority (CD, 205, 211ff) within our most intimate ‘ineffabile’ singularity. Here, on the limits of all subjective signification, we may have a certain openness in common, a sensus for ‘sense’, but as a mark of our finitude (lets say: our being in common) this sensus in common promisses us as much as it prohibits us to speak of a sense of being in common. In Nancy’s words: ‘the sense of being is not “in-common”, but the “in-common of being” trembles all sense or meaning’. (CD, 208) The meaning of Being is not in common, not even as a horizon of an ecstatic temporality, as could be demonstrated by refering to Heidegger’s ‘Kehre’36. So it becomes pretty problematic to speak as if we do have a common horizon as a constituens for thinking about community in intercultural philosophy.
So far we must conclude that what is ‘in common’ in sensus communis has a merely (quasi-)transcendental status. As long as we don’t know, how to conceive the being of a ‘being in common’, and remembering that a deconstructed sensus communis can not be something present, we are forced to set out from another perspective, that is from the remark that sensus as ‘tautegorical feeling’ is in principle ‘communicable’.(KdU, 27)
This communicability (in Kantian terms ‘Mitteilbarkeit’) of feeling, differs from that of a formatting medium for discursive linguistic transport or an exchange of meaning between partners. It does neither concern any vocalizing between human beings, nor any competence for communicative action by actor-subjects, nor intersubjectivity between several subjects already ‘present at hand’(CD, 74). At stake is a more ample communicability which also provides an access for the community to communicate with the cosmos, gods, ancestors, animals etc., through rituals within holy places (CD, 34). All narratives, languages, institutions and nations are incarnations which manifest themselves through grafting and inscription conditioned by the ‘arche-trace’ or ‘arche-ecriture’ of communicability. Communicability of feeling in the sensus communis is thus a touching detachment of the subject from itself, through the stretching effects of an ‘inter’ at work before any present forms of subjectivity; the workings of temporalization and spatialization denotated in Derrida’s notion of différance, ‘before’ all finalized forms of time and space37.
How can we, in our search for the communis of the sensus, conceive communication on the basis of this communicability? Contrary to Lyotard, Nancy doesn’t follow the Kantian connotation of ‘Ein-stimmung’ as attunement. Certainly: subjects may attune in a thinking of art, philosophy or literature, endowed with a strange status between myth and community, articulating a social bond with elder forms of community as well as forming a circulation of an anonymous act of communal speaking (CD, 177ff.). But in this, every ‘timbre’ or ‘tone’ of the attuned voices resonates in its own, most intimate way the plurality, and communication is also subjected to a process of iteration and dissemination of these voices. In order to account for these processes it seems more fruitful to follow another line in the Kantian heritage: to conceive communication as ‘Mit-teilung’ (KdU, 27ff.) or, as we shall see with Nancy, as partage. This communication is not in tune with an already present communial bond, a system of relations (CD, 74), but it is there where the affective, minimal souls (in Lyotard’s terms) are exposed to partage in a plurality of voices, in ‘differends’ between phrases, in the quarreling of judgments (CD, 72, KdU, 233f.). The notion of partage is crucial for Nancy (CD 71ff): on the one hand it marks a difference, dividedness, as essential for plurality of discourses, and for the singularity in our ‘passibility’ to sense; on the other hand it refers to an unrepresentable affinity. A communicated sense thus gathers as much as it separates the members of a community (CD, 209).
With respect to commonality then, this demands a work of mourning to be done with respect to some Hegelian and Heideggerian notions. Commonality can no longer be understood as some higher spiritual bond between mortals (CD, 41): sensus communis is no medium for the selfconsciousness of a subject, attaining through ‘Aufhebung’ an access to ‘Geist’. But, likewise, commonality is neither a deeper form of consubstantiality (with the soil, earth, ethnic identity, bonds of communal blood), or some shared historical destination (‘Geschick’) of a people, a nation or a culture (CD, 41)38. Commonality is based on partage: we share the commonality of a sense which is always that of the community, but which presupposes difference, alterity, diffusion. Commonality is in the movement of différance, characterized by an opacity, never coinciding with itself. The ultimate commonality of mortals, however, is their exposure to ‘death as the impos sible communion’ (CD, 42). Commonality is thus revealed in death (and in birth). Blanchot writes, in a close response to Nancy’s text: ‘there can be no community unless the first and last event (birth, death), events in which all possibile commonality ends, are not communal for us all’39.
The community inscribes itself in this ‘commonality as alterity’: into the traces of an impossible communion. Neither as a promised fusion, nor as a projected telos. The community doesn’t have the structure of a ‘sittliche Welt’: it does not garantuee any form of immortality ‘or weave any bonds to a higher life between subjects’ (CD, 41). It is neccesary grafted on the death of its partners, but doesn’t operate any transfigurations of these deads. Neither is it ‘Gesellschaft’: it doesn’t imply the dissociating association of technological forces, needs, desires (CD, 34). Community includes a more divers, fractured segmentation than can ever be realized in social bonds and proceeds form a richer communication: with the gods, cosmos, animals, ancestors, the ‘unknown’. It continiously parasites on every institution, and detaches itself from every description.
The community as ‘grounded’ on the abyssal ground of this commonality, is a finite community, or better: a community of finitude (CD, 68), since finitude is the essence of the partage of singularities being exposed to this commonality as alterity. In this community no communion takes place, but only ‘Mit-teilung’ (injunctions, interpellations, dislocations): it is never based on appropriation or identification with some being in common (a common feeling (S.c., 6, 24), a common horizon of our lifeworld, culture in common, religion, ‘nationality’, ‘ethnicity’, a holy book, a tradition, a canon in common etc.).
This community has to be thought as a ‘gift’ (CD, 89) : as something which exists only in so far as that which is donated, in sensus communis, requires at the same time an act of abandonment by subjectivity. Remember that in the harmonious play of the faculties, the subject is born (S.c., 22) by abandoning its conciousness of selfpresence: in Kantian terms the ‘Belebung der Erkenntniss-vermögen’ (KdU, 31) is never ‘possesed’ by a subject, but something to which the subject is subjected. In this respect sensus communis denotes an excess of subjectivity, in which subjectivity touches its ‘inhuman’ limits: limits of resistance (Lyotard) as well as limits for ‘desistance’ (Lacoue-Labarthe). Limits working on thinking in order to de-constitute subjectivity.40 The sensus confronts us, as ever ‘unprepared’ (S.c., 1) with an ‘ecstatic communis’: although the similarities are close, for Nancy this community is not to be found in any form of erotic fusion, and it is not exemplary in the love couple (as can be demonstrated in his critical notes on his great inspirer Bataille). (CD, 44f, 89ff)41
Thus far, we have followed a deconstruction of the being of communis, which we developed through questioning the ‘in common’, the ‘communicability’, ‘communication’, ‘commonality’ up to the notion of community. Finally, in elucidating two critical lines which Nancy stresses in his notion of community, we can recognize the outsets for a deconstruction of temporal chronology of the communis.
On the one hand, Nancy posits that this community is not constituted upon some lost commonality from the past (CD, 28ff). History has its paradigmatic figures of this ‘broken’ community: in the natural family, the Greek polis, the Roman republic, the first Christian communities, Medieval villages, etc. Nancy depicts christianity as the equivocal conciousness of a lost communion, which has taken place in the mystical corpus christi. By Rousseau, as a modern thinker of community, culture and society are conceived as the loss of nature as a more intimate commonality. In the 19th century philosophy ‘the organic communion with itself as its most proper essence’ served as a paradigmatic model (CD, 29). But there is never any essence exempt from différance: to speak of an essence of community is based on the forgetting of an impossible communion, and on the illusions of an operation of selfconstitution, a sort of ‘Selbstbehauptung’, which generates community as a work (see Inh., 75f).
The community to which a sensus communis refers, has no interior (S.c., 22) and no constitution: it is, coming from an immemorial past, inscribing itself in an empty place left open by the withdrawal of the divine. It is, in a traumatizing event, in the incessant listening to the voiceless voices. It is only in promising itself, in the resistance of a playful work of mourning, of which it is highly doubtful whether it is a work in any artistic sense of this word42. It is in ‘memorizing as an act to restore intimicy, as an act of love’.
On the other hand, community is not a regulative telos, projecting for history a promised communion in the future. There is no master narrative or techno-teleological horizon for community of the sensus communis, no dialectics, no cosmopolitical state for humanity, no fraternity is guiding us here43. In his analysis Nancy focusses on how millions of deaths are justified by the promise of a community: justified perhaps, but never relevated, ‘aufgehoben’ in any form of commonality (CD, 38f).
Community is not based on an Aristotelian actualization of some innate potency, nor on the Platonic idea of the (technical) production of an ideal essence in a ‘work’. It is most of all not to be conceived as a question of culture (S.c., 6) or a project of an aesthetic community (CD, 24,40,78f.)44: a national aestheticism, the ‘ästhetische Humanitäts-Idee’ which from Schiller and Schelling up to Nietzsche and Heidegger has contributed to a fatal marriage, not only resulting in politics as art (Nazism), but also constitutive for the current aesthetisation of all parts of Western society, the design of its lifeworld, the angelical status given to its succesfull inhabitants, the ‘galvanic’ figure of the human body45 and tele-technological dreams of a managable, operational system in the global village. Of course, these sketchy remarks remain rather superficial in respect to this aesthetico-political tradition. But as a background they illuminate the central, critical focus of Nancy’s book: that ‘community’ is ‘désoeuvrée’, ‘inoperative’, ‘workless’, and does not belong to the domain of an ‘oeuvre’ (work)46.
Sensus communis does not produce but touches on a communis in absence, a community in the experience of finitude, which crosses through all cultural horizons of expectations of a communis.
3. Sensus communis in absence: an orientation for thinking?
It is time to bring our elaboration on sensus and communis to a conclusion. Within a politics of anamnetic solidarity and resistance, the sensus denotates a ‘passibility’ towards a messianic voice which says nothing but a ‘come’, opening for a communis in absence: a community as a gift, whose communis is neither constituted on any examples in the past, nor regulated by any incarnation in a future community. This is the postmodern echo of the critical ‘suspension’ in the Kantian remark on the status of sensus communis, as neither a natural, jurisdictional, political or artificial constitution nor embedded in a regulative teleologie for cultural orientation.
However, the question as to whether this notion of community or of sensus, has any concrete, exemplary consequences for politics or aesthetics is still left open. Is there an exemplary figure for this community in absence, doesn’t it need its paradigms, its models? Must we retrace those models in Lyotard’s idea of ‘the jews’ as exemplary for a community without a community47? Or in a ‘writing’ which detaches itself from the illusions of an ‘oeuvre’, as elaborated by Blanchot and Nancy48? In philosophy as the micrological ‘Flaschenpost’ of Adorno’s Minima Moralia49, in Derrida’s speculations on a ‘nouvelle internationale’50. This question of the exemplary confronts us with an aporia of incarnation: our conceivement of community as communis in absence seems to detach itself immediatly from every cultural incarnation, every concrete mark for orientation, every illustration, every example. The Kantian idea of exemplary necessity, which was always linked with exemplary incarnations as models (KdU, 62-69), doesn’t seem to find an echo in this communis in absence. It is ruled by the Derridian quasi-logic of exemplarity51: an aporetic logic in which the unavoidable concrete example, every witnessing illustration, as a representation betrays what it wants to examplify. This ‘para-logic’ motivates Lyotard’s politics of anamnesia (in search for an ‘inhuman zone of resistance’) to detach itself from every specific discursive elaboration or phenomenological description of its quasi-transcendental liminal notions (‘infancy, sexual difference, immaterial matter, unconscious affect’) in the same way as Derrida always speaks of a messianic ‘sans messianisme’, detaching it from every specific cultural tradition. Is there not an almost allergical fear for culturalistic contact: as if every contamination of this quasi-notion opens it up to the manipulations of culturalism? Is there anything in this communis in absence to ‘orientate our thinking’, as Kant would have put it: is there anything that can give us a ‘measure’52?
Or must we stop searching for exemplary models and start asking in another direction? In his Politics of Friendship, which deconstructs all Western historical models for the concept of friendship (familiarity, affinity, suitability, proximity, citizenship, the political compatriot, and finally the model of fraternity which captures all), Derrida shows how all models are in the end politically dictated by a necessity in the question ‘What to be done?’. ‘What is to be done, today, politically, with this vertigo and its necessity?’ - Derrida asks: ‘What to be done with “What to be done?”’ And what other politics can this other communality of ‘the common’ dictate us?.53 But if there is a question of ‘another politics’, doesn’t there remain too much pathos for defensive distancing in the ‘otherness’ of this ‘other politics’ of a communis in absence in these formulas, be it in Derrida’s ‘politics of friendship’, or in Lyotard’s ‘politics of anamnesia’? And doesn’t that lead us to the paradoxical result that this ‘other politics’ which must always be something ‘outside politics’, even if it conjures all snares of being in a strategy of de-politicization, still finds itself dictated and orientated by politics?
I. Kant: Kritik der Urteilskraft. Hamburg 1954, p. B (=second edition of 1786) 68. (Hereafter cited as KdU.)
2. J. Derrida: La vérité en peinture. Paris 1978, p. 42
3. For a reconstruction of the genesis of this notion, see: R. Gleissner: Die Entstehung der ästhetischen Humanitätsidee in Deutschland. Stuttgart 1988.
4. J.Rawls: ‘Jusitice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical’, in: Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 14, 1985; Ch. Taylor: ‘Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate’, in: N. Rosenblum (ed.), Liberalism and the Moral Life, Cambridge. MA 1989. M. Walzer: ‘The Idea of Civil Society’, in: Dissent, spring 1991; J. Habermas: Diskursethik - Notizen zu einem Begründungsprogramm. Frankfurt/M. 1983.
5. H.-G. Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen 1986, p.48ff.
6. H. Arendt: Lectures on Kants Political Philosophy. Chicago 1982.
7. The notions of ‘messianique’, deconstruction as ‘travail du deuil’ and ‘à venir’ are keymarks in the later work of Derrida; see J. Derrida: Spectres de Marx. Paris 1993 and ‘Foi et Savoir’, in: J. Derrida and G. Vattimo: La Religion. Paris 1996, p. 9-86, especially p. 27ff.
8. J.-F. Lyotard: ‘Sensus communis’, in: A. Benjamin (ed.), Judging Lyotard. London 1992, p. 1-24. (Hereafter cited as: S.c.)
9. J.L. Nancy: La communauté desoeuvrée. Paris 1990. (Hereafter cited as CD.)
10. Kant: ‘Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie’, in: I. Kant: Werke. Ed. W. Weischedel. Frankfurt/M. 1956, vol. 5, p. 392.
11. W. Benjamin: ‘Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen’, in: Angelus Novus. Frankfurt 1988, p. 11.
12. KdU, p. 20f; see also the analysis by P. Guyer: The Claims of Taste. Cambridge 1997, p. 123f. On the notion ‘tautegorical’ as identity of self-legitimacy and referentiality see Lyotard: Leçons sur l’analytique du sublime. Paris 1991, p. 26ff, 49ff.
13. In this dimension feeling and thinking are close together; thinking feels itself.
14. On ‘passibility’ and the deconstruction of the opposition between activity and passivity see Lyotard: The Inhuman. New York 1989, p. 110f. (Hereafter cited as Inh.)
15. Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode, loc. cit. (note 5), p. 32f.
16. Arendt: Lectures on Kant’s political Philosophy, loc. cit. (note 6), p. 27, 68ff.
17. Ibidem, p. 71.
18. Ibidem and Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York 1965.
19. For Lyotard’s criticism of the anthropological elements in Hannah Arendt’s reading of the Kantian Ideas see his essay: ‘Le survivant’, in: Lectures d’enfance. Paris 1988, p. 59-89.
20. For the political implications of the (artistic, psychological) theme of ‘an-aisthesis’ see also Lyotard: Heidegger et «les juifs». Paris 1987, p. 77.
21. Ph. Lacoue-Labarthe and J.L. Nancy: Rejouer le politique. Paris 1981 and Le retrait du politique”. Paris 1983.
22. Lyotard: Le Differend. Paris 1983. (Hereafter cited as D, § nr.)
23. Arendt: Lectures on Kant’s political Philosophy, loc. cit. (note 6), p. 71.
24. The Idea that thought itself is always a ‘passible’ respons to a transcending alterity, at work within thinking itself is a guiding thread through Lyotard’s work after Le Différend: see: The Inhuman, loc. cit. (note14) and Lectures d’enfance, loc. cit. (note 19).
25. For this attitude of an ‘endurance non-passive’ towards aporias see Derrida: Aporias. Awaiting (one another at) the ‘limits of truth’. Stanford 1993, p. 16f. 32f.
26. Benjamin: ‘Thesen über den Begriff der Geschichte’, in: Illuminationen. Frankfurt/M. 1980, p. 251ff.
27. Th. W. Adorno: Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt/M. 1970, p. 293.
28. Lyotard: ‘Une ligne de résistance’, in: Tombeau de l’intellectuel. Paris 1984.
29. This is how I conceive H. Oosterling’s emphasis on the importance of the ‘zone’ of an ‘inter’ or ‘go-between’ (Lyotard: Sens, p. 8) in Lyotard’s reading of sensus communis.
30. I tend to locate Lyotard’s ‘politics of resistance’ on three levels: the level of ‘witnessing’ within the phraseology of Le Differend, the level of ‘aesthetico-psychological’ resistance ‘otherwise than language’ (‘sexual difference’, ‘unconcious affect’, ‘infancy’, ‘immaterial matter’ etc. ) and the ‘ethico-political’ level ‘otherwise than being’. See for this T. Dommise: ‘Lyotard’s Differend and Adorno’s notion of critique’, Lecture at the IAPL-conference, Fairfax, VA 1996.
31. Derrida: Spectres de Marx, loc. cit. (note 7).
32. Heideggers analysis of the role of the ‘Stifter’ and ‘Staatengründer’ in: Introduction to Metahphysics (1935) demonstrates his highly ambivalent relation towards the aesthetico-political, see Lacoue- Labarthe: Heidegger: La fiction du politique. Paris 1987, and Lyotard’s extensive commentary on this book in Heidegger et «les juifs»., loc. cit. (note 20), p. 121f. and 133ff.
33. Nancy: L’imperatif catégorique. Paris 1983.
34. The term quasi-transcendental designates in Derrida those notions which are, as marks of a singularity, both, conditions of possibility as well as impossibility of transcendence. See R. Gasché: The Tain of the Mirror. Cambrige, MA 1986.
35. See G. Bennington: ‘Index’, in: Legislations. The politics of deconstruction. London 1994, p. 293ff.
36. Heidegger’s ‘Kehre’, away from the transcendental approach in Sein und Zeit, is at least also a turning away from the notion of an ecstatic horizon of temporality, common to Dasein.
37. See Derrida : ‘La Différance’, in: Marges. De la philosophie. Paris 1972, p. 1-34 and Lyotard on the ‘inter’ in ‘Something like: communication ...without communication’, in: Inh., p. 108-118.
38. There is, of course, a highly anti-cosmopolitical tendency in Heideggers notion of community as ‘Volk’ with the shared destination of ‘Geschick’; see Lyotard: Heidegger et «les juifs», loc. cit. (note 20), p. 151ff.
39. M. Blanchot: Le communauté inavouable. Paris 1983.
40. See Lacoue-Labarthe: ‘Typographie’, in: Typographie: Mimesis, philosophy, politics. Cambridge 1989, p. 43-138.
41. Nancy refers to G. Bataille’s L’erotisme. Paris 1957. For the relations between sensus communis and the (im-)possible community in the love-couple see in particular the article of Cornée Jacobs in this volume.
42. For deconstruction as ‘travail du deuil’ see Derrida: Mémoires.. Pour Paul de Man. Paris 1989 and Spectres de Marx, loc. cit. (note 7). Gillian Rose, who criticises Derrida for making a dramatised pose with this interminable process of mourning, completely misses the point and misinterprets crucial aspects of deconstruction, but nevertheless somehow grasps the aporetic element of the status of a ‘work’ within deconstructive philosophy; see G. Rose: Mourning becomes the Law. Cambridge 1996, p. 11-12, 68ff.
43. For the figure of brotherhood as an encompassing teleology in politics see Derrida: Politiques de l’amitié. Paris 1994.
44. For community as a platonic aesthetico-political project and Heideggers ambivalence towards the notion of ‘techne’ see Lacoue-Labarthe: Heidegger: La fiction du politique, loc. cit. (note 32).
45. The notion of a ‘galvanic body’ stems from Ernst Jünger: Der Arbeiter (1932).
46. The esential element of ‘worklessness’ implies a critique on Rose’s conceivement of deconstruction as a ‘work’ of mourning in Derrida.
47. ‘The jews’ function as an ideal-type for a community without communis in Lyotard: Heidegger et «les juifs», loc. cit. (note 20), p. 13-14, 152.
48. See for Nancy: L’absolu littéraire: Paris 1978. In his later essays, Nancy takes more distance to the idea that literature is a privileged medium for a community without communis; see CD, p. 175ff.; for Blanchot see L’espace littéraire. Paris 1955.
49. The notion of ‘Flaschenpost’ in this particular sense is coined by M. Horkheimer and Th.W. Adorno in their Dialektik der Aufklärung. Amsterdam 1947, p. 228, and as micrology practised in Adorno’s : Minima Moralia. Frankfurt/M. 1951.
50. Derrida: Spectres de Marx, loc. cit. (note 7), p. 141-142
51. Derrida: La vérité en peinture, loc. cit. (note 2), p. 44-95
52. Kant: ‘Was heißt sich im Denken orientieren?’ In: Werke, loc. cit. (note 10), p. 267-287
53. Derrida: Politiques de l’amitié. Paris 1994, p. 330.
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