Just published: Nancy and Visual Culture. Here is the abstract for my chapter, entitled “Dancing Equality: Image, Imitation and Participation”.
‘We are facing a very new demand in terms of art’ remarks Nancy in Allitérations, ‘the demand that art be “made by everyone”’. And yet we also know very well that the arts require individuality, singularity and difference. How can art satisfy both of these two demands: that it issue from the collective or the common and that it also satisfy the requirement for isolation and secrecy? The question becomes broader and more pressing with Nancy’s conclusion: ‘We have here an aspect of our general difficulty with equality and democracy’.
Taking Nancy’s remark as a provocation, this chapter probes how dance in particular, and visual culture more broadly, not only perform or reflect but also develop and advance Nancy’s thinking and writing on equality. Throughout Allitérations, Nancy is careful not to reduce thought to dance or movement to description, nor simply to translate between the two, but to give each its singular and untranslatable sense. Though dance is visual, Nancy repeatedly distances it from the image, which he associates with a mimetic paradigm, in order to develop an understanding of dance as a visual methexis that is neither object nor image.
The performance recorded in Allitérations seeks to work at the limit between movement and text, with exscription and bodily sense sitting at the threshold of thought and dance, but Nancy’s own movements as recorded in Allitérations – both physical and philosophical – not only resist being reduced to signifying thought but also place themselves at the foremost limit of his thinking of equality as it is elaborated in Être singulier pluriel and elsewhere. This, then, is the pattern for our investigation of equality: how can the visual methexis of dance and art more broadly ‘speak’ and ‘think’ about equality without being immediately reduced to thought, and beyond the customary limits of thought? How can thought and dance together elaborate and, in so doing, move beyond the terms of an equality that marries the demand for the ‘by everyone’ with the requirement of secret individuality?
Photograph: Durham University/PA
Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.
That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.
Ex uno plures!
I have thought for some time now that the next big rights issue for our society will be fought over the status of animals. Reading a short piece by David Wood this morning entitled Kinnibalism, Cannibalism: Stepping Up to the Plate reminded me just how “locked and loaded” this issue is today. The philosophical justification of the mass killing of animals for food–to take one of the most salient examples of a multi-faceted issue–is, on most currently valent positions, vanishingly small if it exists at all and, as with the pronouncements of Nietzsche’s madman, it is just a case of how much time the lightening, thunder and light of the stars will take to arrive.
One issue I have with Wood’s reading of ‘kinnibalism’, though, is the recourse to genetics as a way of arguing against the eating of certain species. He writes:
Genetic overlap between man and the mammals some of us eat is considerable: pigs (86%), cows (80%). The old understanding of cannibalism understood autophagy as ‘humans eating humans’. For many today, when we eat mammals, we are no less eating our kind, our kin.
Is the principle here that the more genetic “code” we share with species x, the less we should be ready to eat it? That seems to be preserving a human exceptionalism through the back door. Why should our code be the yardstick by which other species are measured? And why should genes be a determining factor rather than, for example, the equally problematic measures of animal “intelligence” or even “cuteness”?
Perhaps Wood’s “kinnibalism” is a staging post for a society that is not ready to swallow a completely vegetarian or vegan diet quite yet. First move against kinnibalism and then, once that argument is won, bring people the rest of the way. Such staging posts are not uncommon in these types of debates, and more often than not they are effective.
My article ‘Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy’ has just been published in French Studies. You can click through to a PDF version from this page.
The article is part of the project on humanism and anti-humanism I am working on at the moment. I argue that Badiou and Rancière both end up, despite themselves, with problematic understandings of equality because they both hitch their understanding of the human being to the wagon of a particular determinate capacity. Nancy, on the other hand, in seeking to decouple the human from any determinate capacity or capacities, has to address a different set of problems in relation to equality. In the article I conclude with a preference for Nancy’s set of problems, but the wider question raised by the article’s analysis, and that I deal with in the broader project, is whether it is possible to understand the human neither as hostage to determinate capacities nor as detached from capacities altogether, and so avoid both sets of problems laid out in this French Studies article. I think you can, but I don’t think that Badiou, Rancière or Nancy give us the tools to do it.
Abstract: Recent work on Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière has rightly identified equality both as a central theme in their own thinking and as the key notion in contemporary radical political thought more broadly, but a focus on the differences between their respective accounts of equality has failed to clarify a major problem that they share. The problem is that human equality is said to rest on a particular human capacity, leaving Badiou’s axiomatic equality and Rancière’s assumed equality vulnerable to the charge of having a blind spot for some of society’s most vulnerable. This article introduces an alternative understanding of equality drawn from the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, an equality that does not rely on a human capacity to guarantee or verify it but rests on Nancy’s notion of sense. The article explores the advantages of Nancy’s account of equality in relation to sense over and against an alternative reading that focuses on Nancy’s evocation of the suffering human body, before addressing, in conclusion, the problems with which Nancy’s idea of equality will have to grapple, and why, despite these problems, it is still preferable to the Badiouian and Rancièrian approaches.