Download pdf

Jean-Luc Nancy, Identité: Fragments, franchises, Galilée, Paris, 2010. 69 pp., €14.00 pb., 978 2 71860 820 4.

One of the ironies of the ‘debate’ launched in late 2009 by the French government on national identity is that it has been ‘French thought’ that has done so much to call the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘identity’ into question over the last century. This irony is one not lost on Jean-Luc Nancy, whose own œuvre has constituted a singular contribution to such thought. Indeed, he writes, it generated the ‘stupefaction’ that led him to intervene in the ‘debate’ with the handful of ‘fragments’, cast off ‘in haste’, that make up Identité. Yet if the ostensible aim of these fragments is simply to prevent the debate ‘from going round in circles’, there is a far more ambitious thread running through them: a possible recuperation of the concept of ‘identity’ for left philosophical thought.

The government-stage-managed ‘debate’ on national identity is one of the sorriest chapters in recent French political life. On 2 November 2009 President Nicolas Sarkozy, with one eye on the upcoming regional elections, instructed his minister of immigration, integration, national identity and development (the link between the various briefs of the ministry being itself questionable), Eric Besson, to inaugurate a debate that would take place in town halls across the country. Besson himself is a highly divisive figure: a Socialist deputy, he was campaign manager for Ségolène Royal’s 2007 presidential campaign before jumping ship three months before the election with a highly personalized parting shot directed at Royal. Sarkozy rewarded him with a place in his government, and he has recently been at the heart of some of the most aggressive measures designed at repatriating illegal immigrants, or sans-papiers. The ‘debate’ itself coincided with the ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa, and both measures were widely seen as an attempt to play on insecurity and latent xenophobia in order to save Sarkozy’s ailing UMP party from defeat in the Régionales, in particular by scapegoating French Muslims for the country’s various economic and social ills. Predictably enough, the subsequent town hall meetings, boycotted by groups on the centre and the left, became a platform for unreconstructed racist vitriol directed towards immigrants, and especially towards the ‘Islamicization’ of France; amid much consternation with the direction it had taken, the ‘debate’ was abruptly called off in February. The upshot of all this was electoral disaster for the UMP, and the resurgence of the extreme-right Front National, which had until then been in decline, something attributed to Sarkozy’s co-opting of populist stances on immigration and crime since his time as Interior Minister. The ‘debate’ on ‘national identity’, it seemed, was one triangulation to the extreme right too far.

Nancy initially presents Identité as a corrective to both right- and left-wing approaches to the ’causes’ that would render any debate on national identity somehow necessary. Of course it is simplistic to complain, as does the right, that ‘these people don’t want to let themselves be integrated into the national identity’; but so, he says, is the left assertion that ‘the conditions given to [these people] do not allow them even to work out their own identity’. If this might give the impression that Nancy wishes to escape a right–left political spectrum, Nancy’s description of ‘the most visible causality’ should quickly disabuse this:

Without work, without places or conditions of life other than the by-products of an urbanism without urbanity, without education or training conceived as more than the patching up of an outdated model, it is impossible even to envisage a horizon of ‘identity’. … Let’s be deliberately simplistic: either there is work, or there isn’t. If, by structure, there must not be any – or enough – we need to be open about this and take into account what the structure engenders. If by contrast there could be work – but in a reformed, transformed, structure, … we need to bring it [i.e. reform or transformation] about.

If companies, in other words, are going to be able to lay off workers in times of recession as a means of keeping afloat, then so be it, but then we have to accept the social consequences. And if the most vulnerable are also going to be from second- or thirdgeneration immigrant families, trained for non-existent jobs and then left to fend for themselves in glorified ghettos where they’re rendered invisible, then don’t be surprised if they ‘don’t want to let themselves be integrated’ into the very society that has conferred this fate upon them. Any attempt to resuscitate the political concept of ‘identity’ must start from this fact, and from its corollary: ‘In either case, we’ll have to make room for what cannot be compressed: not work, nor capital, but people, all of us included.’

This latter gesture is striking, given that most recent questioning of the concept of ‘identity’ – especially on the part of that ‘deconstruction’ with which Nancy is, perhaps precipitately, associated – has also generally belonged to a ‘post-‘ or ‘anti-humanist’ current in philosophy. It is also striking because, turning towards ‘people’ and away from work and capital, Nancy apparently wishes to distance himself from a Marxian Left that would interpret problems of ‘national identity’ as symptoms of a primarily economic predicament. Nancy’s claim is that even if such problems of identity arise from an economic structure that treats ‘these people’ as surplus, they are subsequently irreducible to this structure and must be approached from the perspective of ‘identity’ itself.

Nancy’s aim is thus to recuperate the concept of ‘identity’ as a political category for the ‘Left’, in the light of that current in ‘French’ thinking which has spent over half a century probing questions of ‘the relativity of identities, the intimate interweaving of this notion with an internal difference, the impossibility of assigning shatterproof identity markers as much to a “territory” as to a “culture”, a “person”, a “language”‘. But he also suggests that ‘identity’ as a concept has for a long time been particularly fraught within France, above all, and to this end Nancy not only offers a genealogy of a self-identity already aware of its internal alterity, but points to France’s singular place within Enlightenment universalism, and to the ‘republican’ values born of the 1789 Revolution. When this universalism realizes that it is not quite as universal as it thought, a country that defines itself by such universality finds itself shaken to the core. Nancy observes:

the thinking around identity … was not an intellectual fashion: it took on that which European culture had called into question. This was a series of identities all of which were in solidarity with one another, that of man, of woman, of animals, of God, of a rational order founded on a ‘principle of identity’, and that of a Europe that had never before identified itself this much – distinguished itself from others and recognized itself – as when, before it propagated this desire for ‘nationalities’, it had believed itself able to impose itself on the world as the very identity of civilization.

At the same time, there is a second myth of origins that implicates France in particular in questions of identity: its status as the country of the Franks (le pays des francs). Nancy plays on this word to argue that one can only identify oneself by being ‘frank’ in two senses. To assert one’s identity requires both (i) that one assert it truthfully, that one be ‘frank’ (franc), honest, to the point, open; and (ii) that there be ‘a free space [une zone franche] in which no authority is exerted’ in which to make the assertion, a franchise. This is not merely etymological opportunism; rather, franchise directs Nancy towards thinking an openness in which we can trace identity as an identificatory movement. This sets in motion a train of thought that one might feel tempted to dismiss as a series of standard deconstructionist tropes: we must ‘enter into the interstice, into the dehiscence that identity opens from itself into itself’, and thus find an ‘inscription’ at the source (Nancy’s preferred term is point de chute, literally ‘point of falling’, but with the colloquial meaning of a ‘port of call’ or temporary abode) of this identificatory movement, a ‘point of infinite leakage, gathering, and dispersal’ which ‘frays a path’ into singular–plural identity(ies), and yet which, dispersing infinitely, ‘we can never reach’. Yet Nancy aligns this ‘excess of origin’ with ‘a far more originary profusion: that of existing [éxister]’. Simply by existing, that is, we, as ‘individuals’ and as members of a ‘people’, are involved in plural identities, plural not only because each identity is defined in relation to other identities, but also in that each identity is plural internally, a tension or movement, reflecting the fact that ‘being is plural or it is nothing’. The question of identity is thus traced back to an originary plularity in ‘being’, such that Sein is conditioned in advance by the Mitsein through which it can articulate itself.

This means that a second ‘deconstructionist’ concern is also refigured with specifically political valence: how to ‘name’ identity in such a way as not to deprive it of the movement that characterizes its excess over origin or point de chute. If identity is nothing ‘extractable’ from a person or people, as this would be to tear it from the tensions and processes through which it identifies – if, as Nancy puts it, it enters into language never as ‘a thing nor a unit of meaning’ but as the tracing of a multidirectional movement – then we find a tension between the identificatory movement that happens simply by virtue of existing, and the civil identity through which the subjects of a nation can be ‘placed’. Whilst insisting that this is not in order to set up a ‘Manichean’ scheme around these kinds of identity, or of the analogous distinction between a self-identifying ‘people’ and an institutionalized ‘nation’, the civil state is nevertheless, Nancy argues, ill-equipped to grasp the infinite excess of human existence. The current fashion for official documentation, ‘identity cards’ and the like, if anything, makes this more, and not less, apparent – and more, not less, inevitable.

Any attempt to fix ‘identity’ as the object of a ‘debate’ will thus prove not merely fallacious and irresponsible, but obsolete. In this light, Nancy subjects to close analysis an instruction Sarkozy reportedly gave his ministers: Je veux du gros rouge qui tache (I want cheap red plonk that leaves a stain). Gros rouge, Nancy points out, no longer exists, a consequence of commercial pressures from globalization and changes in drinking habits which have led French wine producers to improve the quality of their produce (the gros rouge that remains, he notes, is almost exclusively the preserve of alcoholics swigging on the streets). Beyond the violent tone and the obvious exclusion of those people, notably Muslims, who do not drink (although, in fact, Sarkozy is himself reputedly teetotal), the statement is striking for invoking a piece of France that no longer exists, and has not done for a generation. That the central tropes of French ‘national identity’ should be clichés of an irretrievable past is, however, not simply unfortuitous irony, nor the evocation of nostalgia, but arises from a fundamental misrecognition, and disfigurement, of what identity is and does. The attempt to render the metastasis of identity simplistically static contravenes the very temporality through which identity identifies itself. To ‘debate’ an identity or complex of identities is necessarily to deal in anachronism.

The fragments that make up Identité, then, for all their modesty, demonstrate the by-no-means-modest achievement of using the national identity debate as the catalyst for that which was lacking in the debate itself – a thoughtful consideration of ‘identity’ as a political category. This is a politics of identity far removed from any ‘identity politics’, a term conspicuous by its utter absence from the book, but which is the implied recipient of one choice dig: Nancy dismisses the ‘multiculturalism that a “progressive” discourse exalts like a Dionysian invention, when this feeble and clunky term was forged merely to try to hold together different strands of a patchwork whose pieces, for the most part, remain in spite of all caught in the “monocultures” whence they came’. If each identity – of an individual, a people, or a ‘culture’ – is fatally entangled with, and conditioned by, its exposure to a plurality of identities from within and without, then the very basis of identity lies in a community or communality that would antecede ‘monocultures’. To reconstruct multiculturalism after the fact is to remain blind to the originary plurality through which the categories of culture, individual, and even person, first become possible. The project of reconstructing plurality from an individual identity is no more than the futile gesture of a ‘Left’ which will not give up its ‘liberal’ assumptions, even at the cost of remaining in perpetual self-contradiction. And here we see the ultimate stakes of Nancy’s politics of identity: a thinking of the communal that must do justice to the maxim ‘being is plural or it is nothing’; where communality is both the fundamental condition of politics and its ultimate end. No longer the preserve of liberalism of whatever stripe, identity reveals itself to depend on, and to exact, a renewed philosophical communism.