Born free

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Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, translated by Bridget McDonald, Foreword by Peter Fenves, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993. xxxi + 210 pp., £25.00 hb., £9.95 pb., 0 8047 2175 0 hb., 0 8047 2190 4 pb.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, translated by Brian Holmes and others, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993. x + 423 pp., £30.00 hb., £10.95 pb., o 8047 2060 6 hb., 0 8047 2189 0 pb.

‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ With this declaration, Rousseau articulates both the common demand for moral and political freedoms, and the traditional association of freedom with the essence of human being. Yet this philosophical idea of a unitary ‘freedom’ – called for and promised by those plural freedoms – remains as unclear as ever, preserved only by its apparent self-evidence and the conviction that without it we would tolerate the intolerable. In The Experience of Freedom, however, Jean-Luc Nancy proposes abandoning it altogether, in order to escape the foundationalist ontology of subjectivity which treats freedom as the essence of the individual subject. He suggests we understand it instead as ‘a condition or space in which alone something like a “subject” can eventually come to be born’.

Nancy’s text is primarily an engagement with Heidegger. Employing the concept of ‘singularity’ to articulate the ‘each time’ of each birth to existence (which is both the time of birth and the birth of time), and calling on Heidegger’s concepts of ‘mineness’ and ‘being-in-common’ to characterize singular existence as always already in relation, Nancy suggests that it is freedom that gives this relation by withdrawing being. The relation can only happen in ‘the withdrawal of the continuity of the being of existence, without which there would be no singularity but only being’s immanence to itself’. And what we share is this withdrawal of being which opens existence as existence. The withdrawal of being is not an operation but a liberation: the liberation of existence for a world. This is ‘thinking’ – not a property of the existent, but the disclosive structure of existence given by freedom. Thinking is existence delivered to the generosity of the ‘there is’ of a world, and it is, therefore, ‘the act of an in-actuality‘ which cannot appear to itself, but which presents itself in experience as the experience of freedom. Starting from Kant’s description of freedom as a fact exhibited in action, and therefore presented in experience (but not as an object of knowing), Nancy elaborates an idea of freedom as ‘the transcendental of experience, the transcendental that is experience’. This is not the experience of existence (as classical empiricism would have to suggest), for the experience we have is existence. ‘The experience of freedom is therefore the experience that freedom is experience.’ And this experience is always the experience of thinking.

Philosophy cannot therefore produce, construct, guarantee or defend freedom; rather, it is the very ‘folding, in discourse’, of freedom. And from the point of view of ‘action’, thought is pushed to its limit by ‘the unsparing material powerlessness of all discourse’. Nancy proposes an idea of ‘a proper “positivity” of evil’, in which evil is not the perversion of a particular entity – the deficiency or negation of an essential good – but a positive possibility of existence; freedom’s incomprehensible self-hatred, inscribed in the existent ‘as its innermost possibility of refusing existence‘. This displayed itself, at its extreme, in the Nazi concentration camps. But a decision for evil is made wherever existence is prevented from existing; wherever existence is reduced to identification with an Idea.

If thought is powerless against such evil, this is also where Nancy’s proposal might offer hope, of a sort. For his anti-essentialism means that equality, for example, cannot consist in ‘a commensurability of subjects’, or justice involve ‘a just mean’. Both assume a common measure of autonomous subjectivities, against which we could unceasingly challenge the validity of all such established or prevailing measures ‘in the name of the incommensurable‘, and understand ‘autonomy’ as existence’ s self-legislation of its own existence with the imperative ‘Be free!’, or ‘be what you are, that is, freedom, and for this, free yourselves from an essence and/or concept of freedom.’ However, Nancy distinguishes his programme from that of the ‘revolutionary politics’ this would imply, and therefore from the inevitable disillusionment which he believes accompanies holding freedom and justice as regulative ideals. For him, freedom is not the end but the beginning: ‘No one begins to be free, but freedom is the beginning and endlessly remains the beginning.’

In his The Birth to Presence – a collection of essays and fragments, most of which explore the themes of The Experience of Freedom, and complement that text whilst, perhaps, demonstrating Nancy to be the rare thinker more adept and at his most powerful in longer works than in short pieces – he talks of thinking as a matter neither of ‘genre’ nor ‘style’, but simply of ‘a question of knowing, in a voice, in a tone, in a writing, whether a thought is being born, or dying’. Nancy’s is undoubtedly a thought being born. Now the question is where it is going.