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Roberto Esposito

Flesh and Body in the Deconstruction of Christianity

Condensing into a single formula a more complex argument already presented elsewhere, in The Sense of the World Jean-Luc Nancy clearly distances himself from all philosophy of the esh by opposing to it the urgency of a new thought of the body. In this sense, the passion of the esh, is nishedand this is why the word body ought to succeed on the word esh, which was always overabundant, nourished by sense, and egological (149). This is not to say that this anti-carnist stance has isolated him in todays philosophical landscape. In France alone, for example, Nancys position is not far from that articulated by Lyotard, Deleuze, and Derrida, albeit in dierent registers. I would say that, despite the obvious heterogeneity of their philosophical presuppositions and intentions, these authors share a certain mistrust of the modality in which phenomenology from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty and up to Didier Franck on the one hand and Michel Henry on the otherhas dealt with the question of esh. While for Lyotard the phenomenological perspective, despite or even because of the declared reversibility between sensing and sensed, comes down to a philosophy of intelligent esh closed to the eruption of the event (22), Deleuze perceives phenomenological carnism not only as a deviant path in relation to that which he denes as logic of sensation, but also as both a pious and a sensual notion, a mixture of sensuality and religion (178). But in the very book he dedicated to Nancy, Derrida gives the anti-carnist position its most solid philosophical support. This support strikes neither at phenomenology as such (which on the contrary Derrida recognizes as playing a decisive role in the genealogy of touch) nor at the Christian religion, but rather at the point or line of their tangency. In its most intimate essence, the notion of esh is the directional vector through which Christianity penetrates modern philosophy and is contemporaneously the linguistic symptom through which phenomenology reveals an unavowed Christian ascendance. In his long and erudite critical study of Francks proposed translation of Leib by esh and its derivatives and independently of the indisputable accuracy of his observations, Derrida reveals a sort of antipathy or allergy to the vocabulary of esh, such that in the end the study takes a tone of true annoyance. He concludes that By making esh ubiquitous, one runs the risk of vitalizing, psychologizing, spiritualizing, interiorizing, or even


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reappropriating everything, in the very places where one might still speak of the nonproperness or alterity of esh (238). One could say that it begins to make sense that Derrida accords extraordinary importance to Nancys work, at the summit but also beyond the phenomenologically derived haptic tradition, precisely because he places it at a distance from the carnal or carnist semantics which, in contrast, characterizes all of the other authors he discusses. On his part, Nancy seems to allow such an interpretation. Even more explicitly than for Derrida, for Nancy also the vocabulary of esh (in its double meaning, Christian and phonological, the one in the other) constitutes the semantic burden from which the new thought of the body must liberate itself. It is only in this way, emancipated from the spiritualist debt of esh, that the analytic of the body can escape from a certain appropriative tendency or temptation that, even where it purports to alter it, winds up identifying the body as without deviation from itself. For Nancy this closure inevitably results from the logic of this presupposed signication that locates in the spirit incarnate the point of metaphysical chance encounter between the sense of the body and the body of sense. Just as the divine enters the body of mankind [l homme] through the gure of the incarnation, the former becomes the absolute sign of itself, the signier of its own signied and the signied of its own signier. This dialectic set in motion by the carnalization of the body results in its innite disincorporation. Reduced to signifying only its own organic gure and turned toward its own interiority as toward the primary and ultimate essence of itself, the body ends up losing the exteriority, multiplicity, and opening that make it thuspartes extra partes, body among bodies in a world of bodies. Pursued and continually seized by the ancient Eucharistic formula, hoc est corpus meum, it seeks itself precisely in the gure that resolves and dissolves it in its own absolute interiority (Corpus 66-74). If that is the dissolving outcome of incarnation, concludes Nancy, then the path toward reconsidering the eective life of bodies, of each body and all bodies, passes through the denitive abandonment of the vocabulary of esh. It is only in cutting the knot that Christianity tied between esh and body that the latter can again nd its own weight, its own material consistency and consistency of thought, which is to say a comprehension at once ontological, technological, and political. It is no accident that for Derrida the ecotechnics of the body (of which Nancys work now constitutes what I do not hesitate to call the most epochal statement) is one with the deconstruction of Christianity. But can one really say that the problem has thus been resolved, that its solution or resolution lies in a line of reasoning for which the opening



of the discourse on technics depends on the closing of the Christian horizon and the silencing of its esh? In On Touching but also in his more recent works, Derrida himself in fact raises a distinct doubt as to the possibility of nding a way out of Christianity. Indeed, not only does the category of deconstruction not at all coincide with that of a way out, or even a decision or break, but on closer examination the very idea of the end of Christianity proves to be of Christian origin. Derrida says that this is why Just as it is neither enough to present oneself as a Christian nor to believe or believe oneself to be a Chrisitan in order to hold forth in a language that is authentically Christian, likewise it is not enough not to believe or believe oneself and declare oneself non- Christian in order to utter a discourse, speak a language, and even inhabit ones body while remaining safely sheltered from all Christianity (On Touching 220). Hence the conclusion that the project of de-Christianizing the world is in essence as necessary and fatal as it is impossible. Derridas formulations belong to Nancys texts commentary on the deconstruction of Christianity. The two philosophers present this commentary as a continuation of a deconstructive discourse already begun in Corpus. Nonetheless I have the impression that beyond an overall continuity of inspiration there is between the two essays a subtle deviation directly related to the evaluation of Christianity. I would say that this deviation is certainly related to its style, a less sharp and bitter tone than that used in Corpus in regard to the mysteries of the esh and of Christs blood, but that it is also equally related to, I think, the content and substance of the question. Nancy acknowledges that The only Christianity that can be actual is one that contemplates the present possibility of its negation, given that all our thought is Christian through and through (DisEnclosure 140, 142). However, clarifying and intensifying Gauchets interpretation of Christianity as a religion for departing from religion (Gauchet 101-107), Nancy ties such a tight knot between Christianity and secularization that he locates in secularization not only a line of ight, but also the very essence and presupposition of Christianity itself. Insofar as it is a production of sense so turned in on itself that it implodes in a sort of nal incandescence, Christianity is the drainpipe, at once the form and content of its interminable self-surpassing. Beware, not simply a religion open to the other of the self but a religion indeed constituted by this opening, from the beginning inhabited, cut up, deconstructed by its own other as demonstrated by the specically Christian character of the successive deaths of God which have followed one another over time. These deaths are always and exactly of God in the at once objective and subjective sense of the genitive. After all and even above all, these


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deaths have belonged to Him from the beginning, with the gure of God dying on the cross. This means not only that the deconstruction of Christianity is an impossible project, as Derrida says, but also that it is not even a project but rather a fact, an event that has already been in the works for two thousand years and therefore is neither desirable nor producible as such. How can we get out of something that in the nal analysis coincides with its own exteriority? Christianity is not deconstructible because it is nothing more than its own deconstruction. Similarly, it could be concluded that deconstruction is an essentially Christian procedure, at least if Christianity is interpreted not as a doctrine or faith but as the opening point of our history, or rather of the very idea of history, like this extraordinary deployment of sense that made the entire West possible. Deconstructing Christianity can thus have no other sense than the locating and interpreting of the source element, this burning core, this ash of sense that made everything else possibleevery other accumulation, withdrawal, or deagration of sense. Nancy goes on to say that this core has nothing to do with a so-called authentic and originary Christianity which was then normalized and betrayed by its dogmatic-ecclesiastic crystallization. On the contrary, the core must be sought at the very center of dogma, there where an interminable doctrinal elaboration tried to dene the kerygma without ever succeeding in exhausting the still uninterrogated possibilities. This is precisely the heart of Christianitywhich we must still think about if we wish to understand its history as well as our own, which is no long Christian precisely because it has been crossed, touched, and deed by something from which this same Christianity proceeds. Nancy does not hesitate in identifying it in this doctrine of incarnation from which he seems to distance himself in Corpus: It is well known that the heart of Christian theology is obviously Christology, that the heart of Christology is the doctrine of incarnation, and that the heart of the doctrine of incarnation is that of homoousia, consubstantiality, the identity or community of being and substance between the Father and the Son. This is what is completely unprecedented about Christianity (151). Let us pause to consider this community of being and substance. From this perspective, incarnation refers not just to the disincorporation of the body but also and especially to the alteration and dividing up that takes place within it. In the body of Christ a naturea divine naturecomes into contact and cohabits with another radically dierent nature. What counts here is the dierence, but also the contrast, that opens up inside the unity of the body, of the body as the very place of unity. I know very well



that Nancy radically contests this last denition, the coactive link between body and unity, unity as the necessary form of the body. I know very well that on the contrary his entire oeuvre tends to open up the experience of the body to this alterity and dividing up mentioned above. However, this is precisely why it is surprising that he positions his concept of the body in direct opposition to the logic of incarnation, which in fact constitutes the archetype most characteristic of this corporeal alteration and dividing up. It has been said that this opposition is motivated by the spiritualist characterization that Christian doctrine has imprinted on the concept of incarnation. But if, as Nancy himself has urged us to do, it is necessary to go back to the pre- (and thus also post-) Christian core that characterizes Christianity without coinciding with it, and if, as Nancy concedes, this core is indeed constituted by the doctrine of incarnation, then it is a matter of adopting a method of reading which comes from beyond the Christian horizon without being completely exterior to it, but which is instead situated on its ipside. Otherwise, rather than opening up a gap in its conceptual lexicon, the deconstruction of Christianity winds up leaving intact the very categories that it sets out to deconstruct. It is no accident that, despite having the opposite intention, the spiritualist denition Nancy gives esh in Corpus does not, deep down, dier from that which, in his recent book on incarnation, Michel Henry proposes from the opposite point of view: there where Nancy rejects and Henry adopts the spiritualist denition there lies the common, orthodoxly Christian interpretation of a esh connoted by the presence of an element which is spiritual but lacks a body. But there is a risk here of losing the very antinomic, aporetic, and paradoxical quality of a esh which on the contrary is one with the body exactly to the extent that it wrests it from its traditional meaning in order to open it up to its unimagined reverse. In short, as Nancy says, it is true that the notion of esh reproduces itself by hyperbolically exchanging meaning with its own sign, but it is a self-contradictory sign which is purely contradictory and thus a contradiction of the sign. This is why, in the esh, the re-ination of meaning always takes the form of a leakage, such as that which happens on the cross through Christs bleeding wounds. Henry himself had indeed underscored the irreducible quality of the idea of incarnation, as much in relation to the Hebraic conception as to the Greek. Whereas the Hebraic isolates God in an absolute distancing, the Greek usually uses the term esh (sarx) in reference to the animal sphere. In any case it is completely out of the question that God and man can cohabit in the same individual. Absolutely inconceivable for all ancient culture would


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be the possibility of an existence situated at the point of intersection and tension between two heterogeneous substances, of an existence constituted by this very heterogeneity. How can a person contain two natures which are not just dierent but entirely opposed, such as the perfect and innite nature of God and the corruptible and suering nature of mankind? Above all, how can a God alter, disgure, and expropriate himself to the point of really assuming the esh of a mortal? Let us emphasize the adverb really, because it is precisely on the reality, the material consistency of a esh completely identical to that of mankind, that for ve centuries the Church Fathers, from Iranaeus to Tertullian, waged a erce battle against a number of heresies. Docetism, Arianism, Monophysitism, and Nestorianism all sought, albeit in dierent modes, to deny, attenuate, and neutralize the irreducible scandal of the incarnation, to eace either the human nature of God or the divine nature of mankind, and thus to eace the very dividing line between them. What appears logically unthinkable, incomprehensible to any logos, is the twoin-one and the one-that-becomes-two through his own bodys escape move, which coincides with the insertion into his interior of something that does not naturally belong to him. The movement, contagion, and denaturing of the notion of esh must be rethought not against but within the very form of the body, as the archetypal possibility of its simultaneously ontological, technological, and political transmutation. The incarnation is the munus par excellence, the gift not only of life but also of the renunciation of individual identity, at its origin the very idea of communitas as the dividing up of our singular and plural nitude. It is true that this horizontal communitas is destined to quickly roll over into an immunitary-type religio that makes the salvation of Christian society dependent on the preservation its dogmatic-institutional form (Esposito, Communitas, Immunitas). But in this regard I hypothesize that this happens precisely when, within the same Christian lexicon, the semantic origin of the body attaches to and then substitutes for that of the esh. There is a series of studies, beginning with Henri de Lubacs on the corpus mysticum, that follows this at once linguistic and conceptual process of transmutation. Despite an initial indistinction, the two terms esh (sarx, caro) and body (soma, corpus) quickly follow non-coinciding and even divergent paths. While the term esh remains linked to the antinomy of the Eucharistic mystery, body tends increasingly to refer to the institutional body rst of the Church then of the State, from which it inherits its unifying role. We cannot here follow in detail the journey of this double signication, or the interlacings and divergences that it generates, but there is no



doubt that these two movementsGods incarnation in the esh of mankind, of each and every human, and mankinds incorporation in the Church, or later in the Stateremain completely dierent. There where the rst movement, Word made esh, refers to an alteration and an expropriation, the second, Christianity made body, has instead the quality of unication and reappropriation. If the rst multiplies the One, the second reunites the multiple. As the rst opens and exposes, so the second closes and protects. Can we therefore conclude that the esh is to community what the body is to immunity? This is probably why modernity expressed its increasing demand for immunization by assigning absolute centrality to the gure of the body. Without here being able to reconstruct, even in broad strokes, a long and complex journey, there is no doubt that the lexicon of the body (from the two bodies of the king as State-body, up to all totalitarian-type corporations and corporatisms) produced a sort of general immunitary system, in the dimension of the real as well as of the imaginary, in relation to all of the disintegration, conict, and scission that over time broke up the unity of the social organism. As Marc Richir (84) and Jacob Rogozinski point out, albeit in dierent registers, all of the corporative reconstructions and forced reincorporations that marked modern and contemporary history, at least until the 1930s but that have not yet ended, show the extent of the true immunitary and auto-immunitary syndrome to which modern societies were and still are subjected. This is exactly why a thought that radically breaks through the modern horizon, as does the thought of Nancy, cannot be circumscribed within the semantic horizon of the body. Despite itself, such thought cannot be also and above all a thought of the esh, understood as that which breaks down into an irreducible multiplicity any identication of the body with itself. This is not because Nancys oeuvre constitutes the culmination of the phenomenological tradition of contact and touch, but because it interrupts and exceeds this tradition, as Derrida demonstrated with an incomparable hermeneutic nesse. Personally, I share the view clearly expressed by Franck that the discussion of esh exposes the exact limit-point of the phenomenological experience. Starting from its presuppositions, the phenomenological experience was never really able to escape, rhetorically or literarily, from the self-aective circuit of the body proper. As engaged as it is in seeking a confrontation with the body of the other, phenomenology has never been able to think fully the relation between body and alterity, the other of the body and the other in the body. This is what Nancy calls ecotechnics. It


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is here in his recognition of the bodys originarily technical, hence unstable, quality that I see the juncture between his thought and the non-phenomenological but Christian declension of the esh. Understand that I do not wish to say, as has been said before, that Nancys philosophy on the whole has a Christian framework, except in the already-articulated sense that all modern and contemporary thought is, as such, positively and negatively determined by the relation with Christianity. I am alluding more specically to the semantics of incarnation as place, form, and symbol of the union between human and non-human. I would go so far as to say that technology is the non-Christian, even post-Christian, gure of the incarnation. It matters little whether or not in the latter case the nonhuman that penetrates mankind is divine, since today a prosthetic or implanted organ could be inanimate or from another human. What matters is that the inanimate, divinely so to speak, allows mankind or a single human to continue to live. Not by closing the connes of identity in the manner of an immunitary system, but rather by opening up to a material experience of community which forces and interrupts the immunitary apparatus, as remarkably recounted by Nancy in LIntrus. From this perspective it is easier to explain the signication of the Nietzschean suggestion that philosophy, on a grand scale, has been no more than an interpretation of the esh and a misunderstanding of the esh.1 Heidegger read this suggestion in a double sense. The rst sense is that of being-with or of being-trans, as when Heidegger says, the bodying of life is nothing separate for itself, encapsulated in the body [Krper] in which as such the esh can appear to us; but esh is at once passage and traversal.2 The second sense, closely intertwined with the rst, is that mankind does not even coincide with itself, to the point that it is incomprehensible except from the starting point of the constitutive alterity dened by animality. Without dwelling on Heideggers interpretation (see Franck, Heidegger 88), it seems clear to me that Nietzsches reference to esh enables the passage beyond the anthropological horizon, at least to the extent that the concept of Superman deconstructs the concept of mankind. The notion of animality in the human, and vice versa of the human in the animal, also allows for taking up Artauds motif of the body without organs or, better, the body whose organs do not connect up in organicist form. To think the body starting with the possibility of replacing an organ with someone elses organ or with an inorganic prosthesis is to situate the body squarely in its internal exteriority, to tip it over into an outside that will never be completely reappropriated because it coincides with the inside. To literally



denitively disgure the body by depriving it of its essential gure: according to Deleuze, this is exactly what Francis Bacon does. The esh which overows his frames is the human bodys disguration, which situates it on a threshold of absolute indistinction from animal and thing. Even more importantly, Bacon himself relates this experience of the body escaping through holes poked in the esh to the Crucixion of Jesus Christ, in other words to the harshest and most extreme condition of the incarnation: Ive always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucixion (23). To me it seems more than simply symptomatic that this obsessional presence of esh overowing the bodys limits and hung on a cross is found in the work of the artist who most forcefully gave us the devastated and ambivalent face of contemporaneity. This is the most impressive evidence that something beyond or outside the modern history of the body, the immunitary body of modernity, seems to recreate a link to our origins. If, as Nancy explained with inimitable theoretical force, the primary characteristic of our global world is its lack of a face or gure, then the impossibility of it being gured in a sense other than that of the evacuation of all general sense and therefore of the innite scattering of sense, then there is nothing like the notion of esh for forcing us to confront our present. Nothing like the notion of the esh for putting us in the presence of a lacerated time, drawn and quartered between two possibilities which diverge like the arms of a cross, the possibility of an absolute destruction and of a heretofore unknown liberation, again according to Nancy. It could be said that esh is the hesitant and still indistinct threshold that simultaneously links and separates these two possibilities: the cross or the crossing from which the world can denitively either completely lose all sense or become one with it. Translated by Janell Watson. Originally appeared as Chair et corps dans la deconstruction du christianisme in Sens en tous sens: Autour des travaux de Jean-Luc Nancy, ed. Francis Guibal and Jean-Clet Martin (Paris: Galile, 2004). Published here for the rst time in English with the kind permission of Galile.
1. Gay Science 5 [trans. modied]. It should be noted that KIossowskis French translation renders the German Leib as body (corps) (16). [The new English translation cited here and the older one by Walter Kaufmann likewise translate Leib as body. Trans.]



the minnesota review 2. English 79, trans. modied; French 439, trans. modied. [Esposito modies Klossowskis translation, so I have modied the English to match Espositos French. Trans.]

Works Cited

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Esposito ---. The Sense of the World. Trans. Jerey S. Librett. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Josene Nauckho. Ed. Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. ---. Le Gai Savoir: Fragments Posthumes. Trans. Pierre Klossowski. Ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. Paris: Gallimard, 1967. Richir, Marc. Du sublime en politique. Paris: Payot, 1991. Rogozinski, Jacob. La chair de la communaut. Cahiers de philosophie 18 (19941995).