Jean-Luc Nancy’s Critique of General Equivalence: After Fukushima. (Alberto Moreiras)

The critique of general equivalence has long been a tenet of the infrapolitical project.   See below “Infrapolitical Action,” for instance. We also had a working group on “Kapital y Equivalencia” in early days, about a year ago.   It is perhaps our more explicit connection to the later work of Karl Marx, and certainly also our theoretical bid for a critique of exploitation.   But it is more than that. Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent After Fukushima. The Equivalence of Catastrophes (Fordham UP, 2015) brings the point home.

In the “Preamble” Nancy says “Marx called money a ‘general equivalent.’ It is this equivalence that is being discussed here. Not to think about it by itself, but to reflect that the regime of general equivalence henceforth virtually absorbs, well beyond the monetary or financial sphere but thanks to it and with regard to it, all the spheres of existence of humans, and along with them all things that exist” (5).   The implication is clear: if general equivalence is today the totalizing principle of life administration, a subtraction from it destroys the totality.   Hence the importance of its thematization, even if it is just a conceptual and not practical thematization. But all conceptuality is practical too, as its elaboration belongs necessarily to infrapolitical life.

Nancy wants to situate equivalence today within a catastrophic horizon. Or rather, “it is . . . equivalence that is catastrophic” (6). Not all catastrophes are the same, and we cannot compare Auschwitz to Fukushima, or global climate change to the 2008 financial crisis. However, there is a comparison to be made, since equivalence is the catastrophe. General equivalence preempts the possibility of non-comparison.

This small book, originally a lecture, is powerfully premised on the later Heidegger’s critique of the technological gigantic.   The gigantic, which takes globality as inception, is interconnectedness. But it is the interconnectedness of that which has crossed a limit: “What is common to both these names, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, is a crossing of limits—not the limits of morality, or of politics, or of humanity in the sense of a feeling for human dignity, but the limits of existence and of a world where humanity exists, that is, where it can risk sketching out, giving shape to meaning. The significance of these enterprises that overflow from war and crime is in fact every time a significance wholly included within a sphere independent of the existence of the world: the sphere of a projection of possibilities at once fantastical and technological that have their own ends, or more precisely whose ends are openly for their own proliferation, in the exponential growth of figures and powers that have value for and by themselves, indifferent to the existence of the world and of all its beings” (12).  The indifference across the limit marks a threshold.   Within the catastrophic gigantic names do not pass beyond but rather “fall below all signification. They signify an annihilation of meaning” (13).

Not all catastrophes are the same, but the inevitability of catastrophic comparison based on equivalence turns the principle of equivalence into the principle of the annihilation of meaning.   Within the principle of general equivalence all words and all bodies fall below signification.   Calculability fights the incommensurable, which alone grants meaning. “Forces fight each other and compensate for each other, substitute for each other. Once we have replaced the given, nonproduced forces (the ones we used to call ‘natural,’ like wind and muscle) with produced forces (steam, electricity, the atom), we have entered into a general configuration where the forces of production of other forces and the other forces of production or action share a close symbiosis, a generalized interconnection that seems to make inevitable an unlimited development of all forces and all their interactions, retroactions, excitations, attractions, and repulsions that, finally, act as incessant recursions of the same to the same. From action to reaction, there is no rapport or relation: There is connection, concord and discord, going and coming, but no relation if what we call ‘relation’ always involves the incommensurable, that which makes one in the relationship absolutely not equivalent to the other” (26).

Not just Auschwitz and Hiroshima calculate, not just Fukushima and the 2008 financial crisis are the results of catastrophic calculation. We live our entire lives, increasingly, with little margin, within a horizon of exhaustive calculability.   Even hegemony theory is little more than a methodology for political calculability at the service of an administration of the republic.   Even research today, at the university, is nothing but accumulation and quantification. Even our facebook posts are produced, or not, according to the number of projected “likes.”   Could we change our lives in favor of the incommensurable? “[The incommensurable] opens onto the absolute distance and difference of what is other—not only the other human person but also what is other than human: animal, vegetable, mineral, divine” (27).

For Marx of course the pure technology of calculation is money. “By designating money as general equivalence, Marx uttered more than the principle of mercantile exchange: He uttered the principle of a general reabsorption of all possible values into this value that defines equivalence, exchangeability, or convertibility of all products and all forces of production” (31).   So we calculate the incalculable.   If my post has less ‘likes’ than yours, we calculate respective values on the basis of the principle of equivalence. If your book sells more than mine, I calculate as well, and my resentment is based on a calculus that throws a deficit that happens to be mine.   “The incalculable is calculated as general equivalence. This also means that the incalculable is the calculation itself, that of money and at the same time, by a profound solidarity, that of ends and means, that of ends without end, that of producers and products, that of technologies and profits, that of profits and creations, and so on” (32).

But—and this marks our difference from Marx and any marxism—breaking away from general equivalence means abandoning the calculations of production.   There was no production at the beginning, and there can be no production at the end. There can be no demystification of production for the sake of a proper communist production—production is always necessarily its own mystification.   The real movement of things may be a movement of production, yet that is the movement that infrapolitics brackets and refuses. “The possibility of representing a ‘total’ human, free from alienation, emancipated from all natural, economic, and ideological subjection, has faded away in the very progress of general equivalence becoming the equivalence and interconnection of all goals and possibilities” (33). “This condition imposed on our thinking surpasses greatly what we sometimes call ‘a crisis of civilization.’ This is not a crisis we can cure by means of this same civilization. This condition algo goes beyond what is sometimes called a ‘change of civilization’: We do not decide on such a change; we cannot aim for it since we cannot outline the goal to be reached” (35).

So what is there to do?   Short of giving ourselves over to thoroughly accomplished general equivalence since there does not seem to be any other thing to do? What is there to do in order to suspend the sway of general equivalence, in order to subtract from the totalizing principle of civilizational life?

We call it infrapolitics, Nancy doesn’t.   But he says something we can use: “I can . . . assert that no option will make us emerge from the endless equivalence of ends and means if we do not emerge from finality itself—from aiming, from planning, and projectins a future in general” (37).   The difference between general equivalence and its critique emerges here as the very difference between politics and infrapolitics.

Infrapolitics would then be “the care for the approach of singular presence” (40).   Nancy refers to persons and moments, places, gestures, times, words, clouds, plants.   When they come, they come incommensurably.

Nancy’s “communism of nonequivalence” is our infrapolitics, where “democracy should be thought of starting only from the equality of incommensurables: absolute and irreducible singulars that are not individuals or social groups but sudden appearances, arrivals and departures, voices, tones—here and now, every instant” (41).

Like my encounter today in the aisle of the supermarket.   Moving, unforgettable, secret, and absolutely nonequivalent.

10 thoughts on “Jean-Luc Nancy’s Critique of General Equivalence: After Fukushima. (Alberto Moreiras)

  1. “Even hegemony theory is little more than a methodology for political calculability at the service of an administration of the republic”. First post-hegemonic trace of the infrapolitical interrogation…

  2. “Nancy’s “communism of nonequivalence” is our infrapolitics”. Indeed, and what is also crucial in this non-equivalencial principle without principle is Nancy’s questioning of the very political as demand, calculability, and horizon….Marx’s critique of money as general equivalence of value is supplemented, in Nancy’s crucial work, by the radicalization of the link between the Mitsein and the in-der-Welt-sein; thus the singular-plural is already the radicalization of Heidegger’s destructive ontology and the proposition of a new thinking (a new ontology? or a post-ontology?) of the singularity of the non-exchangeable, the singularity that breaks away or interrupts the general equivalence. I call this interruption a suspension of the general equivalence’s sovereignty, which is the very philosophy of history of capital. But, in considering the specificity of the Fukushima’s catastrophe, I have moved even further away from Heidegger’s destructive project toward the questioning of the very modern difference between human and natural history (which is at the bottom of the problematic difference between use and exchange value in Marx), between destruction and devastation, beyond what has been called “Dasein-centrism” of Heidegger and his followers, into a new situation which is the gigantic possibility of self-extermiation…is infrapolitics the continuation of destruction or its reversal? How one should reates this infrapolitical insight into the catastrophe with the question about the animal? etc….Of course, it is still too soon to do away with Heidegger, so, let me just say that all these questions are actually pending upon a necessary reconsideration of the question of technology…in a time in which the techné and the technology seem intertwined and indistinguishable in the experience of the nuclear plant, the current version of the modern farm, if you want…

    • The notion of Dasein-centrism is unfair, I think. Sheehan’s new book may be useful here. There are problems with Heidegger, of course, some of them very serious, but we should take his work as a formal indication of a way, a formal indication that we are far from able to “do away with” in my opinion. He actually never claimed otherwise. Yes, I think the question of the animal is rather impassable for him, and yet at the same time he was the one who first thought of it, of the impassability as such, as problematic, and who first thought of undoing the certainty regarding animal rationale and sought to look for alternative differentiations. So in my opinion we can not cheerfully march into any reversal of the Heideggerian project. We are very far from being able to, supposing one would necessarily want to. Now that the edition of the Gesamtausgabe is coming to an end a different reading becomes possible, away from his own careful administration of it.

      • Agree, actually this critique on Heidegger’s so-called “Dasein-centrism” comes from Graham Harman…which somehow authorizes all the misunderstanding of the OOO and the accusation against Heidegger of confusing Dasein with man… but, on the other hand, Levinas and Nancy make the same observation regarding the under-developed dimension of the Mitsein in Heidegger, who saw what was at stake there but did not take that path, a path that is also related to the question of the open and the Dasein of the animal (which Agamben re-takes in his book on Heidegger and Rilke). And yes, the Gesamtausgabe will change many things, I would say we are just starting to read, not even grasp, Heidegger’s polemos…

  3. Important little book. What to me seems productive of the critique of the general equivalence is that it couls also offer a tangencial critique / flight out of the philosophy of History. This is something that I have briefly asked to some my “benjaminian friends”: isn’t Benjamin’s philosophy of History still grounded in a principle of general equivalence? If Benjamin is the last great idol of philosophy of history, isnt then the destruction of the general equivalent a frontal critique of WB? I am calling out thia question, because it is still for debate what is the WB signature located within the project of infrapolitics. Also a question: is the end of the principle of equivalence analogous to the concept of the “encounter” in Althusser? (it seems to me that it becomes clear at the end this piece).

  4. I would agree with the second…the first one is more complicated…I would say that Benjamin’s critique of emphatic identification is already a critique of equivalence…equivalence is historicism…

  5. I am missing something here, “emphatic identification” is, I suspect, not a good translation of identificación empática…it is Benjamin’s critique of historicism’s empathy what matters as an infrapolitical possibility…not emphatic but empathy…

  6. Thanks, Sergio. I would have to look more into the “empathy” as a critique of historicism, but that is precisely what I was thinking through. Since Nancy’s critique seems to be about catastrophes, I was also thinking if Benjamin’s critique of histocism is not grounded in a (sort of – I would have to be more precise here) equivalence of the catastrophic sense of history. The whole idea of “recognition in the moment of danger” that alludes to the catastrophic reversal of history, is not recognized precisely because the catastrophic (the debris that the Angel gazes at) is equivalent (to others)? It was never to me clear if the Benjaminian jeitzeit has an effect precisely because it accumulates a “history of equivalent catastrophes”, or because of the singularity (monadic) of every catastrophe in history.

  7. I think Benjamin had not seen through productivism, which is a limit in his thought. Or perhaps he had seen through it, but could not formulate his own response. I am not sure Benjamin is not fundamentally a postHegelian.

  8. Re. this discussion on Benjamin’s catastrophe, I would say just this, it is not that the critique of historicism let us see the catastrophic dimension of history in an ontic, empirical way, since that would lead us to equivalence and value, to all the little catastrophes of trauma studies. On the contrary, the catastrophe is the ontological condition of history in its relation to temporality, which we do not see as we are pulled away by the philosophy of progress. In this sense, Benjamin is not just a post-Hegelian thinker, as Nietzsche, but is another thing altogether….Of curse, I do not mean to say that Benjamin is untouchable, nonetheless I do find a strong link between his critique of historicism (Burkhard, Ranke, et al) and what an infrapolitical subalternism would have as a task…which is to break away from any catexis or any subjective identification….(the same libidinal economy informs the investment on the leader in hegemonic thought and the humanist recognition of the victims in the historiographical work….)

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