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Chris Morales

March 25, 2016


Nancy, The Inoperative Community
In The Inoperative Community, Nancy critiques nostalgic and futural notions of
community, sketching out a model of community as incomplete and incompletable along the
lines of Heideggers conception of being-toward-death. The problem with nostalgic,
Rousseauean conceptions of community is that they are based on a fictitious image of primal,
pre-social unity between people. FuturalCommunist, or more broadly, humanistconceptions
of community base themselves on a rigid definition of the human, as a project to be brought
about, which stands at odds with humanity as it actually is. At root, both problematic conceptions
of community require a metaphysics of immanence and presence. Community, according to this
metaphysics, is a thing that can actually exist. That community is absent from our present society
does not mean that this thing did not exist in the past or that it cannot be brought about in the
future. Nancy critiques these fantasies of immanence, arguing that community should be
understood to have an ontological structure analogous to Daseins being-towards-death: never
complete, never finally brought about and present, but always outstripping us. This is the
meaning behind a community that is inoperative, since community is unable to be operated on
towards the bringing about of some ideal. Community is not something that can be put to work
nor something we can go to work for, rather it is something that happens to us and always
according to the logic of loss.
Communism was an attempt to rediscover community beyond social distinctions and the
subordination to technopolitical domination (1). The problem with communism was that it
attempted to define the human and human community at all, but specifically as beings
producing in essence their own essence as their work (2). In communism we do not only
produce ourselves (metaphysically), but we produces ourselves precisely as producers

(economically and socially). A community of human beings receives its understanding of the
human from economic ties, technological operations and political fusion (3). By defining the
human as properly equal in certain ways and engineering society to bring about that equality,
humanist social projects attempt to bring into presence a merely specific form of the human,
which claims to be universal. Merleau-Pontys critique of Communism in Humanism and
Terror advances the same fundamental thesis, but with a greater emphasis on the violence done
to actual humanity in the name of the ideal. In Contingency, Hegemony and Universality, Judith
Butler issues a critique of contemporary human rights along similar lines, particularly in debate
with Martha Nussbaum, over whether Nussbaums capabilities approach might provide a ground
for a universal humanism that does not do violence to more local and culturally specific
articulations of the human.
If Communism is to be understood as an attempt to fill the present absence of community,
then nostalgic models of lost community are to be understood as attempts to explain how
community has been displaced. Modernity is supposedly engendered by a breakdown in
community (cf. Rousseau, Origin of Inequality), a breakdown in relations of love, familiarity
and fraternity (9-10). Nancy says this imagined community is framed around an ideal of
communion (10). Such a community is built up around a natural bond formed by living together,
rather than on the economic dependencies between people that hold contemporary society
together. Rousseaus distinction between communion and economic dependency is further
developed by Durkheim, in his theory of organic and mechanical solidarity. Nancys claim is that
a primal community brought close by relations of love is a myth. Society does not displace
community, community happens to people who already live in society (11). Because community

is a happening, it is not something that can be understood as a thing that exists here and now
according to the metaphysics of presence.
Nancy claims that community ought to be understood against these metaphysics of
immanence, which describe community as some really unified group of people the possibility of
which has been lost or degraded in the modern world. Rather, loss and absence are what
constitute community. This claims follows the logic of space and communication that Nancy
develops in much of his work, particularly Shattered Love and The Intruder. According to
this logic, complete presence, familiarity or communion, effaces the distance between things that
makes communication, love and community possible. Immanence is precisely what is lost in
community. Community is always constituted around an irreducible loss and distance between
people that makes their coming together possible, but never complete. Immanence would
suppress community, or communication, as such (12). It is on these grounds that he develops
the idea of death as that around which community is most acutely revealed. In an ontic register,
death reveals community by bringing us together around the loss of one of our own. In the
ontological register, death reveals the open-ended structure of community as it is constituted
around a nothingness and an impossibility of immanence, like the being-towards-death of
Dasein. Death is what takes away the possibility of completion for Dasein, and Nancy applies
this logic to community as a whole. Thus Nancy makes that claim that the being-towards-death
which makes impossible the subject, has not been adequately conceived in Daseins mit-sein
particularly in Heideggers own work where Nancy finds him to impart a kind of subjectivity to
historical communities (14). Nancy draws out both the immanence of Daseins being-there and
the open-ended structure of Daseins being-towards death.

In order to develop this model of community, Nancy first critiques the metaphysics of
immanence in regard to the individual, arguing for ecstasy in place of presence, and singularity
in place of individuality. Modern thought, championing the individual, seeks an incarnation of
humanity, aggregating its absolute being beyond relation and community (5). This is how the
individual shows up according to the metaphysics of immanence and presence, as a selfsufficient atom existing among other self-sufficient atoms. Against such a Cartesian model of
subjectivity, Nancy argues that the individual is merely an abstraction from the actually always
communal self that exists as a being-in-common. He claims that such an atomic logic contradicts
itself since the boundedness of a self-contained entity always presupposes the rubbing up against
of other bounded entities. To actually be an absolute individual, one would need ones boundary
but also to enclose within oneself the relationality inherent to that boundary--the space around
the boundary--which one can never do (4). Having already shown how Communism operates
according to a logic of immanence, Nancy now shows how individualism operates according to
that same logic. True immanence would destroy community since it would fill in or negate the
space between people which is itself the possibility of communication. Opposed to the
solipsistically present individual, Nancy posits subjectivity as an ecstatic singularity operating
according to a logic of a sharing that divides and that puts into communication (6). Besides
this, being just is relational through and through, a claim Nancy makes on the basis of
Heideggers ontological difference. Being is inherently relational since it is something other than
the totality of things that exist, standing out from that totality and thus in relation to it.
Community is similarly relational since it is something other than the totality of individuals in a
society.