Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jean-Luc Nancy "Being Singular Plural"

I apologize to those of you that like to drop-in for a read as I've not written anything in about a week. I am preparing for the Annual Meeting of the Georgia Sociological Association being held this weekend. I am presenting on Friday around 3 and I'm having a tough time shifting gears.

This will be a brief post that's been inspired by a recent friend and administrator/editor/head-honcho of the blog Prōlogus, Nathan Everson in Australia. Nathan posted a quote from Nancy's book "Being Singular-Plural" on Facebook and there was a question of what all those words meant. Philosophy and "Theory" tend to be dismissed immediately for being too obtuse, too full of jargon, which is unfortunate since I think the most important thinkers of their times always tend to write as clearly as they can. Thinking is not just one thing, some may think in terms of music, or of colors, or of relations between objects - thinking as it is communicated in what has to this point been called Philosophy uses words as its currency. But already I am having a difficult talking in these terms because already we'd have to explain, then, symbolic logic, cinema, architecture, painting, etc. Let's stay simple for a moment and accept that words are problematic but they beat the alternative: no words.

Here are the confusing words that inspired this writing:
Compassion is not altruism, nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness -- Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural (xiii)
Someone commented on Nathan's post that this was not very clear and so I feel compelled to write a lil' bit here. In part I'm writing about this because my background in thinking is inspired by the East Asian Traditions, particularly Classical Confucianism and Mahayana as well as Zen Buddhisms. Compassion has a very rich and radically different meaning between these traditions and the West. This is primarily due to how these two cultures understand agency, in other words, how we understand the self when we say (in English) "myself" or "I" is not universal; in East Asia there is a radically different notion of the self. The best introduction (and frankly a book I return to frequently) to understanding how these two forms of agency can transform a culture is found in Thomas P. Kasulis' Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy & Cultural Difference (2002). As Kasulis states, culture is a recursive pattern, like a fractal; once we can get a purchase on what the general pattern being repeated is, we can begin to understand more deeply why these cultural differences exist. As an added bonus we can also begin to revisit assumptions within our own tradition and perhaps propose different ways of being, maybe find ways of changing institutions that seem to no longer be generating the results we'd like to see.

Kasulis' argument is greatly enhanced with that most boring technology, the venn diagram. Those of you that attended my presentation at the European Graduate School will chuckle again as I bust out these images again:

In Figure 1 to the left here we have the most common way of referring to oneself in English and the West. This is agent A, an autonomous unit that is able to make decisions for herself, possesses a soul that she must care for (in order to have eternal life after death), and similar to the idea of soul, agent A also has a unique essence that makes her an individual and thus capable of expressing her uniqueness. This unique individual has the ability to be rational and has a relationship to truth and what is knowable based on the assumption that what is true is publicly accessible - meaning that what is true can be verified by anyone else.

To understand what I mean by this publicly accessible truth think of how the scientific method is advanced: by publishing all the steps I took to arrive at this conclusion you can do the exact same thing and get the same result. What is true for me is necessarily true for everyone. The truth is external to me, it is not within me. This is how we in the West tend to relate to others and it is the foundation for our concepts of how society ought to be. The idealized form [Figure 2] for this manner of relating can be visualized in the contract.

So when we think about ethics in this orientation (Kasulis calls it the Integrity Orientation, as in a ship that is water-tight is said to have integrity, it can't be penetrated) we form an ethic that would protect the assumption in Figure 1. Thus, when we created the contract [Figure 2] the thinking was that a contract is the ethical way to interact because when we break the contract or the contract's terms are met and so no longer binding both parties would return to the same state they initially came from [Figure 3].

The contract is great in many ways but one of the obvious drawbacks to the contract model of ethical interactions is that it cannot account for all the dimensions of human life. The contract is great for business relationships: I need to make money, you need to make widgets, the contract states you'll pay me for making widgets under these conditions and the contract exists to reduce the likelihood that you will exploit me or I exploit you by acting as a guarantee that these terms will be met.

Of course there is one contractual relationship that is getting a lot of attention in the U.S. these days: marriage. Right now the argument for those in favor of marriage equality is that because homosexual relationships are not allowed to have a government-recognized contract (or publicly verifiable contract), they are being exploited. Homosexual couples are not able to rely upon the same legal mechanisms that exist to protect heterosexual couples: if a hetero- family loses a spouse, the survivor has a contract with the State that guarantees (as rights) the ability for the surviving spouse to have access to medical records, real property, etc. Homosexual families under these same conditions do not have rights granted to them because there is no marriage contract recognized by the public. Thus we can see a compelling argument in support of granting access to homosexual families to the marriage contract: if we support the recognition of rights in this way we are simultaneously supporting the belief that rights exist and they are best recognized and legitimated through the contractual model.

But is a marriage a contract? Does the contractual model best represent or protect us? Marriage is a great example for pointing out the radical difference in the East Asian Traditions of defining agency, Kasulis calls this [Figure 4] the Intimacy Orientation. With marriages, or perhaps close sibling relationships, or deep friendships (and not just to other humans, I'd extend this to pets), the relationship feels less like two individuals and more like a coming together. This coming together is not necessarily a unity, but how I understand myself is fundamentally shaped and repeatedly informed by my interactions with my loved ones.

What happens when I break-up with a girlfriend, we lose a sibling or parent or life-long friend? Can the contractual model account for what has been lost? Am I returned to a state like what is described in Figures 1 & 3? Or is it something more like Figure 5?

Those that are against homosexual marriage seem to be making the claim that homosexuals cannot have a relationship as described in Figures 4 & 5. Perhaps this is why their arguments seem so flat and are thus typically dependent upon religious claims. The irony, of course, is that religious claims are based on an Intimacy model of truth, so evangelical Christians are forever going on about their Personal Relationship with Christ, and how we must accept Christ into our hearts (a place decidedly not publicly verifiable).

So let's return to the Nancy quote about compassion, "Compassion is not altruism, nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness."

Nancy seems to be discussing the distinction between the Integrity and Intimacy orientations as introduced above. To be clear, as Kasulis himself has often said, these models of relating are not descriptive only of two different cultures, but rather these two orientations are present in both the East and the West. It is a matter of which orientation is foregrounded and which is backgrounded (which adds a new layer of resonance with another contemporary French thinker, Jacques Rancière). Because these orientations are present in both cultures, mutual intelligibility is possible between the East and the West, we just have to be able to identify the recursive pattern to begin to understand why these cultural activities are being expressed as they are.

So let's say, then, that Nancy's statement above is a call to reevaluating our dominant orientation to one another. As the blurb on the back states it, this collection of essays is a call to a new form of community that is not grounded in a notion of selfhood like what we see in Figure 1. Thinking about compassion and these two models helps us to see some of the limitations of the Integrity orientation. a quick click to Merriam-Webster gives us a definition of compassion as "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. SEE ALSO PITY." Sympathy implies a unity of feeling, which is tricky if we hold that Figure 1 is correct. If we go a little further down this rabbit hole, the definition of pity includes,
implies tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress pity for the captives>. Compassion implies pity coupled with an urgent desire to aid or to spare.
It's worth noting here that although there is the general thrust of aiding another, there is this element of contempt. How is that possible? I think this is exactly what Nancy is apprehending in his discussion.

Not discussed above but necessary for understanding Nancy's statement is the violence inherent in the contract. The contract is a technology that was developed to attenuate the ability of those in power. The contract itself, however, is of no consequence if there is not force underneath it. The social contract of Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau has no teeth, as Hume pointed out, if there is not the viable use of force against those that breech the contract (whether it's people en masse or a military, etc.) So we see that violence is a given in our living together. Is it possible to be together in a manner that is not predicated on violence? This is the question for Nancy here.

Compassion is not simply, "being nice to someone," and it's not simply seeing myself in you (because that would be me imposing my sense of self onto you and thus ignoring you essentially). Rather, compassion is taking a path in our relations that isn't already predisposed to the violence that is inherent within how our society's are organized. So to act with compassion, it would seem, is to find a way to interact with others. But, what makes acting with compassion difficult is that the ground conditions, the everyday affairs of which we are so accustomed and which seem so natural are founded upon violence.

We should note that Nancy does not state that compassion is the overcoming or cessation of violent relatedness, he states it is the disturbance of violent relatedness. I am inclined to say, if we were to consider the whole of his argument from just this statement, that Nancy is willing to admit that there may not ever be an absence of violence altogether (the silence is ended by the violence of sound; the night ends with the violence of the sun rising, etc.) Rather than getting rid of violence, Nancy is referring to our ability to disturb violent relatedness.

Disturbance is defined by the local unbalancing of winds, it is from the Latin root turba. From turba we also inherit the word turbid, meaning to make opaque to thicken, to obscure. Turba itself is from the Greek tyrbē suggesting the confusion of being in the thrall that can be a crowd. Confusion and thrall are synonyms, meaning to become a part of something else. Thus Nancy seems to be making a call for us to understand compassion as not only wanting to do something nice for someone but to recognize that who we are is necessarily more like Figure 4 than what typically governs our days, like this contractual notion of the self that we see in Figures 1-3.


  1. thanks for this, paul. i enjoyed reading it, nancy´s thoughts resonate w the little i know about buddhism, except for Fig 5. i don´t know if Fig 5 is supposed to have some buddhist influence in it or now, but the idea i gathered elsewhere was that "true" buddhists were supposed to remain relatively whole and independent after something has been taken away from him/her. ¿? this is related to a very sad experience i had once with a buddhist-leaning housemate who asked me to move out, maybe i´ll tell you some time.

    i liked the part about violence or what i like to call a THREAT behind every contract. for me this is multi-applicable in a capitalist society and behind most rules, but at the same time, if we think of democratic rules, rules that we create mutually (as a society, as a partnership...) they seem fine and not-violent...don´t they¿? or i guess it´s just a matter one´s subjective interpretation. maybe it comes down to size of those who make the contract? the larger the group, the less likely a democratic contract/rule will please everyone, and the more possibility of violence... ¿?

    i have a question for when you have time. i didn´t understand the logic of the parragraph to the left of Fig 5, specifically the sentence that starts with "The irony" (i´m not able to copy-past for some reason). what do you mean? how does their relationship w Christ differ or reflect the relationship between two people of the same sex? (it seems to me that the argument that most anti-gay religious people make is that (homo)sexuality is a "choice, something one can control.)

    thanks and if you´re busy don´t worry about responding now!

    un abrazo,

  2. i made a mistake, in my first parragraph i meant to say: for buddhists "true love" is a feeling and experience that is able to maintain itself relatively whole and independent after the love object is gone. like simply taking icing off a really delicious cake. i don´t believe that...