“Infrapolitical Action: The Truth of Democracy at the End of General Equivalence”

I. Extroduction

Jean-Luc Nancy refers to general equivalence, in his short book La communauté affrontée (2001), a bit counterintuitively: “What arrives to us is an exhaustion of the thought of the One and of a unique destination of the world: it exhausts itself in a unique absence of destination, in an unlimited expansion of the principle of general equivalence, or rather, by counterblow, in the violent convulsions that reaffirm the all-powerfulness and all-presentiality of a One that has become, or has again become, its own monstrosity” (12). Only a few pages later he speaks about the increasing “inequality of the world to itself,” which produces a growing impossibility for it to endow itself with “sense, value, or truth.” The world thus precipitously drops into “a general equivalence that progressively becomes civilization as a work of death;” “And there is no other form in the horizon, either new or old” (15). If the loss of value organizes general equivalence, it is the general equivalence of the nothing. Nancy is talking about nihilism in a way that resonates with the end of Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Age of the World Picture,” where Heidegger discusses “the gigantic” as the culmination of modern civilization in order to say that quantitative-representational technology can also produce its own form of greatness. It is at the extreme point of the gigantic that general calculability, or general equivalence, projects an “invisible shadow” of incalculability (“This incalculability becomes the invisible shadow cast over all things when man has become the subiectum and world has become picture” [Heidegger 72)]). Heidegger’s invisible shadow could be compared with Nancy’s hint of “an obscure sense, not a darkened sense but a sense whose element is the obscure” (20). Let me risk the thought that this obscure sense, as the invisible shadow of an undestined world, is for Nancy the wager of a radical abandonment of the neoliberal world-image, a notion that has become commonplace in political discourse today. But we do not know towards what yet—the invisible shadow within nihilism that projects an obscure sense out of nihilism is a political alogon whose function remains subversive, but whose sense remains elusive.

In The Truth of Democracy (2008) Nancy says that, in 1968, “something in history was about to overcome, overflow, or derail” the principal course of the political struggles of the period (15). This statement is probably not meant to be understood as springing from any kind of empirical analysis. Rather, the book makes clear that “something in history” is precisely the truth of history, understood as the epochal truth of history along classically Heideggerian lines (“Metaphysics grounds an age in that, through a particular interpretation of beings and through a particular comprehension of truth, it provides that age with the ground of its essential shape. This ground comprehensively governs all decisions distinctive of the age” [Heidegger, “Age” 57). There was a truth that the Europeans, for instance, could only obscurely perceive under the veil of a “deception,” and such a truth is, for Nancy, the truth of democracy that titles his book. My contention is that Nancy’s insistence on that truth of history, or truth of democracy, preserves a Hegelian-Kojèvian position that Nancy proceeds to overdetermine from a critique of nihilism. In other words, for Nancy, a truth of history was about to overcome and derail the main course of political struggles from the left in 1968, and it was the event of true democracy, only accessible on the basis of an opening to an epochal mutation of thought whose necessary condition would have been, would be, the renunciation of the principle of the general equivalence of things, infrastructurally represented by the Marxian Gemeinwesen, money, as the unity of value and as generic unity of valuation. The truth withdrawn under the veil of disappointment is the possibility of overcoming the nihilism of equivalence. Such is the modification Nancy imposes on the Kojévian thematics of the end of history, which now becomes understandable as the history of nihilism. Against it Nancy wants to offer a new metaphysics of democracy. Nancy’s understanding of democracy coincides with his “obscure sense” of the incalculable. In this essay, I will try to explain it, first, and then raise a question at the end.

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Derrida’s Heidegger: la question de l’Etre et l’Histoire. Second Session. Second Set of Notes. By Alberto Moreiras.

Notes on Derrida´s Heidegger: la question de l´Etre et l´histoire

Second session–Second set of notes.

Derrida calls our attention to two words in the Sein und Zeit manuscript, that is, “ontic metaphor,” two underlined words, as a comment to the end of the Introduction, where Heidegger is making a difference between the great difficulty of thinking the being of beings and “telling stories” about beings (ueber Seiendes erzahlende zu berichten).

[This is very significant in light of what will come later. Just keep it in mind.]

[We do not want postmetaphysical, postontological, postphilosophical thought to be a matter of telling ourselves, and others, stories.   We need to break away from novel writing when it comes down to thought.   It is de-narrativization, in a sense, that is called forth. The interruption of narration.] Derrida asks: “why, at the moment when historicity must finally be taken absolutely seriously, must we stop telling stories?”

 A necessary caveat: it is not, as it has classically been, a matter of stopping the story-making in order to access a superior realm of abstraction.   Being is not in the beings, it is nothing outside beings, it is not another being, it is ontically nothing outside its ontic determinations. It is nothing, therefore, outside its own history.   Which is the reason why the thought of (the truth) of being cannot be pursued outside history, and outside the history of ontology, through its destruction.

It is, rather, and this is the difficulty Heidegger proposes, a matter of stopping the story-making from within ontic fields–say, religion tells itself a story, science tells itself a story, metaphysics tells itself a story BECAUSE they have already closed off the question of being in favor of their own internal ontic regionality.

So, to stop telling ourselves stories means to start thinking from the ontico-ontological difference, that is, from the difference that keeps the question of being apart from every ontic determination.

[Simple thing: we tell ourselves stories when we turn being into a character.   Say, I want to teach a class on being and I say, “Hey, remember the joke about two Jewish rabbis . . . ” The example given is the moment in Plato’s Sophist when the Stranger calls for taking the question of Being strictly on its own terms instead of muthon tina diegesthai, telling ourselves stories. Say, being appears as movement, or being appears as force, or being appears as god, or being appears as production. . .   All of this is crucial, because “telling ourselves stories” already in Plato, as Derrida notes, is assimilated to “what men do,” that is, to the natural attitude, to what one does when one finds nothing better to do, that is, practically all the time. Which sets up the theme of the “necessity of the ontic metaphor.”]

[What Heidegger calls for, therefore, is a certain breakaway from the natural attitude, that is, from the necessity of the ontic metaphor.   This is the great difficulty. Because, how does one break away from a necessity? Is the necessity not waiting around the corner every time when one thinks one has escaped it?]  

Once again, through references to Hegel, Derrida explains how, on the one hand, Hegel understood the problem, the philosophical problem of having to break away from the natural attitude, in order to, on the other hand, close it off within metaphysics, which of course turns Hegel into the “plus grand” story teller of all, but still a story-teller.

The step beyond ontological history might resemble a step outside history altogether, but it is, on the contrary, “the condition of access to a radicalization of the thought of history as history of being itself.”   Stopping the story-telling is the condition of access to a radical notion of historicity.

Even in Heidegger it is a long process. For instance, the fifth chapter of Sein und Zeit seems to be devoted to historicity, but it is the historicity of Dasein, not of Sein.   It is still introductory, therefore, preliminary to the question. It is only part of a preliminary investigation into the modalities of historical access for the human being, and it still says nothing about history AND being.

And yet, as preliminary, the question of the historicity of Dasein is already “immense progress.”

Why, then, must the question of the historicity of being go through the question of the historicity of Dasein?

Heidegger must begin somewhere. But that somewhere must be without presuppositions, without “stories.” Derrida says Heideger gives himself at this point two “assurances” in order to proceed.

The first assurance has to do with the “always already.”   There is an a priori that takes us away from mere empiricism, and that must not be understood as a presupposition, but as an entry point.

In order for us to be able to ask the question of being, it must be because the question of being is already obscurely accessible.   The accessibility posits an “already” not as presupposition, but as entry point enabling the question.   Now, this “already” points in the direction of an originary history.   Heidegger calls the obscure accessibility a Faktum.

As such, it is a Faktum of language. Since “being” is a matter of linguistic signification.

So, those are the two “assurances:” there is the possibility of the question, and the possibility of the question is a matter of language.

It is these two assurances that, Derrida maintains, open up–just open up–the question of being as history, since “there is no language without history and no history without language.” [Derrida’s reasoning seems a little weak here, not persuasive, at least to me.  Something does not quite click here.  Is it just me?]

Derrida’s Heidegger: la question de l’Etre et l’Histoire. Second Session. First Set of Notes. By Alberto Moreiras.

Notes on Derrida´s Heidegger: la question de l´Etre et l´histoire

Second session–First set of notes.

So, Hegel “refuted and totally accomplished metaphysics,” and Heidegger moved toward destroying it “to make appear the thought of being that hides in the ontic depositories.”

 The difference is barely perceptible, from Heidegger´s account of Destruktion, but it is nevertheless decisive.   It avoids the “inversions” (cf. Nietzsche and Marx) that, as inversions, remain prisoners of what they would like to transgress.

 This means, again, that Heidegger´s project is not the offering of a new ontology. “Ontology” for the Heidegger of Letter on Humanism, cannot go beyond thinking the being-being of being.   Whereas Heidegger wants to move towards the thought of the “truth” of being.   This is a thought that would have to be other and more rigorous than “conceptual thought.” [Through conceptual thought being can only be determined as “the poorest concept,” the emptiest, as it can only attempt to think the being-being of being. Conceptuality and ontology go together.]

 The displacement is pointed out in an exemplary form in the 1955 letter to Junger, Zur Seinsfrage, by means of the “kreuzweise Durchstreitung,” the crossed erasure superimposed to the word Sein.   In that erasure or crossing-out we understand a thinking of being that is no longer the thought of the concept of the being-being of being, of the totality of beings, or any thought that thinks being under the subject/object relation.

Which brings up the question of history.   [As a history of being, which incorporates the history of the thought of being but cannot be reduced to it.]

Heidegger produces for the first time the “radical affirmation of an essential link between being and history.”   Hegel did not do it. Why not? Because in Hegel and for Hegel history was still the manifestation of an absolute and eternal concept, of a divine subjectivity/substantiality whose total presence history can only copy. [In other words, for Hegel there is no historicity of being, there is only a history trying to catch up with the eternal concept.]

After Hegel, who came closer to thinking the historicity of being? Marx, with his concept of alienation.

Which is the reason why the dialogue [or confrontation, Auseindersetzung] with Marxism is the essential dialogue of our time, says Heidegger in 1947.

But Marxian alienation is still a prisoner of the Hegelian determination. For Hegel work was still a self-organizing process within unconditioned production. That is, work and the force of production are not to be derived from other conditions, but are the ultimate condition, the very objectivation of the real in the historical process, which it itself defines. But this obviously means: it is an objectivation of the real for human subjectivity, even as it marks and forms human subjectivity.   Man is the subject of work, the subject of production, in both senses of the genitive.   Which links Marxism to subjectivism, humanism, and metaphysics in a terminal way.

Marxism, as an inheritor of the Hegelian determination of work as production as the motor of history, remains caught up in humanist anthropologism.

Marx was unable to raise himself up from and through humanist anthropologism to a thought of the technical as a historico-ontological destination of the truth of being.

By “naturalizing” work [“In the beginning was production,” says Marx at the beginning of the Grundrisse] Marx remained caught up in ontic determinations. [His notion of history is still an ontic history, on the basis of an ontological conceptuality that thinks the being-being of beings and wants to account for the totality of beings as they affect the subject.]

So, what does it mean to posit the radical affirmation of the link between being and history? What does it mean to say being AND history?

[At this point Derrida introduces the issue of the language needed for such a radical enterprise. Can we really think what has never been thought using our existing language? But we have no other.   And yet: destruction is also self-destruction.   So that the Destruktion of metaphysics is necessarily also the destruction of philosophy!] “New words will be forged, new concepts, pushing the resources of the language, certain resources of the language that are, should be younger than philosophy, latecomers to philosophy” [55].