(By the way, the logic of “with” often requires a heavy-handed syntax in order to say “being-with-one-another.” You may suffer from it as you read these pages. But perhaps it is not an accident that language does not easily lend itself to showing the “with” as such, for it is itself the address, and not what must be addressed.) –Jean-Luc Nancy
An interesting discussion has come up between me and Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects (here and here). It seems to get at a genuine differend between Levi and me, which I would like to explore. The topic, broadly speaking, has to do with entities/beings and how they relate, how they are or are not in a world, and additionally, if there is any sense to the expression “the world.” His position is that unless a being is in relation with something, it doesn’t share the world with it; and each things’ “world” is its mass or mesh of relations. My position is that even when something is not related to something else, they still share this world, sharing in the coming of the world, our world. (I might also challenge anyone to show me something that isn’t related to anything else…) If I could have kept my response to the space of a comment, I would have, but since not, I’m posting it here. Insofar as the following piece is part of an on-going discussion (and so partly addressed directly to Levi or those familiar with object-oriented ontology (“OOO”)), I hope my readers will forgive me for writing a bit looser, a bit less fabulously and free than usual.
As a preliminary remark, I am never more challenged in the area of expression than when it comes to these direct questions of ontology. I have no less than five drafts trying to relate my position (informed by Nancy, as you all would guess) to object-oriented ontology. None of them have ever satisfied me; and yet I know the link is there, or I would have long ago given up. Thus, I hope that my words are not reduced to “my position,” insofar as I’m testing waters more than I’m advancing theses. In any case, I don’t wield the kind of theoretical prowess that Levi does; I only hope that this does not betray an immaturity on my part. As Nancy writes, “The strict conceptual rigor of being-with exasperates the discourse of its concept,” and I believe I know this exasperation well. (Perhaps this is what I share with Levi more than anything; but this very exasperation is our being-in-common.) If ontology becomes an explicit theme here, it can only do so at the cost of a kind of general confusion, a general going-haywire in my discourse; and on the other hand, all of my posts have to do with “fundamental ontology,” because ontos is always a question of ethos and praxis. In that sense, the tone of a thing tells us more than anything else what it is, for its tone is its ethic, its practice, its ontology, its rapport.
1 – “co-”
Fundamental to any adequate expression of ontology is the prefix “co-.” We can think what we will of Heidegger, but his philosophy in Being and Time registers a profound shift in our thinking of Being, precisely at the point where he discovers this: to be WITH is not a categorical but an existentiel of being-there. This means that the “with” is not “added on” to a being encased in itself, but that “being-with” [Mitsein] precedes or founds “being-there” [Dasein]. Simply put, to be oneself is eo ipso, precisely thereby, always already to be in-common. In a word, to be-there is already to be-with. But let’s be quick to emphasize that this does not determine anything about whatever being is in question. It is a statement regarding the structure of being-the-there as being-with. Whatever is there is with, with itself and/or with others, even in the absence of all relation (if that is possible), even in utter withdrawal (I’ll return to this).
Where Nancy comes in here is very precise. Heidegger, as we know, never developed his existential analytic into a co-existential analytic, he never developed this Mitsein to its full extent; and where he did return to it, it was always in the form of a “people” [Volk] endowed with destinal qualities, etc. For Heidegger, this would mean that every being is a unique expression of some With that transcends it, a race, a people. But in making this move, Heidegger mistakenly transfers the structure he uncovered (being-there exists in being-with) into a kind of communal substance that each being would then express. This is how Heidegger registers both facism and communism, the whole rupture of his age, an age that felt the demand of the “social” more than any other, but did not know how to think this social without the idea of a common Subject, Substance, Nation, or Group. But we shouldn’t give up on the coexistential analytic or a thinking of being-with because of the mistakes of Heidegger and his age.
While I can’t take much time with it here, Nancy both starts and takes his distance from here, when he first differentiates “common-being” from “being-in-common” (see The Inoperative Community). I can only emphasize that when he and I write “with,” and if I say each thing or being expresses “with” equally, this means that each thing expresses this common structure of being-with as being-in-common simply in its being-(the-)there. It never expresses a common-being, substance, essence, world, etc. There’s nothing behind it, and this “with” is “nothing at all,” “nothing in particular.” This is where we take leave of Leibniz if we take him to mean that each thing is one particular view point of the whole world, or of God. No, I couldn’t agree with Levi more here, because there is no “the world” that each thing expresses. In my view, however, the focus or locus of the matter is on this being-in-common of each thing, which does not take anything away from the fact that each thing is absolute (or withdrawn), but rather makes it so. Each thing is in-common insofar as each thing is “with,” but precisely to the extent that each thing is the origin of the whole world. This is the idea I will try to develop here.
What makes this so difficult to discuss is that this “being-with” does not negate the “ownness” of a thing, but in fact even makes it what it is. This coexistential analytic is only the next step in a long process of being withdrawing into the intimacy of “its own.” All of this talk of withdrawal in objects is not unconnected to the idea that the gods themselves have withdrawn. Furthermore, there is a certain type of theology that says it is only through withdrawal of the gods that something like “the world” or “existence” can begin in the first place. Christianity mobilizes this most radically in the notion of kenosis: God’s absolute withdrawal totally empties Him of absolutely everything; and this emptying-out-of-God literally “is”… “the world.” We won’t get into that, but simply note that the emergence of the “subject” is tied to this withdrawal (and also note in passing: there is a historicity to this emergence). At the heart of any “ownmost” we discover the structure of being-with. The point applies most readily to what we call the subject, ego, or self, but it applies likewise to any object. It is a question of the structure of that ownness, or how ownness is not an egoity but rather a hidden intimacy that draws the thing deeper into itself than it imagined it could go. Object-oriented ontology says: object are withdrawn. The question for me simply has to do with the “with” in this “withdrawn.”
This would be the heart of the differend, perhaps: For me, everything is “related” because we all share this common structure of being-related-to, even if this just means being-related-to-myself. Because we are all there, we are all also with something else, even if that something else is myself! Not “related” in some scheme of interconnection, not “forged together” in some purposeful collaboration between humans and/or nonhumans, but simply being-related-there by dint of the fact that being-there is structured (“internally,” if you want) as being-with — as being-with-its-(other-)self (withdrawn, subtracted, split, divided, etc.). This is a “with” that cannot be destroyed, since its always literally there wherever any being is. The implications are deep (ontologically and politically), because it is only by dint of sharing this common structure (which says nothing about “what” we share but only that we share this structure “in that we are there”…) that we can speak for ourselves as “us,” the only reason we can have a discourse like OOO to begin with, which aims to speak for neutrinos, airplanes, etc. In other words, for me and Levi and OOO general, what’s at stake is this commonly-shared-structure of being. Theoretically, my only stated aim is to inject Nancy and my understanding of him into this discussion and to suggest that others do the same.
2 – “world”
Now to move on to the question of “the” world more specifically. When I say “Right now, I’m in the world, sharing in the world’s coming, etc.,” I’m not saying anything radical. When taken theoretically, however, it’s easy to read that “in the world” as if I meant “in this big container called the universe/world.” I do not mean that. I mean that I am in a place where beings and things touch and depart, come close and separate, obviously without ever making a unity but always doing so commonly, in-common. I am in a place that we all share (even the inanimate, the distant, the dead). As for what “sharing” means, French comes much closer with the verb partager which means “to share,” “to distribute,” but also “to part” or “partition,” or “to set apart.” So when I say that I’m sharing the world with everything and everyone else in the world, I don’t mean that we make “one” or that there are fixed borders, not at all, but that the part of the world apportioned to me is not for all that just a “part.” It is (for me and for each thing) “the whole thing,” “the whole deal,” “the whole world,” each time. But this each time happens in-common. This “it is absolutely there” of each being or thing is what we all share in-common. Strange way to say it, but it is as if each thing is “a part apart” without for all that being “apart,” since each thing nevertheless shares this common structure of with, and so shares in the common coming of (the) “world(s).”
In being “a” world unto itself, each thing or being is “the whole world.” Worlding is what each being does, but not as if it were acting out some essentially or forging relationships. Again, this is not Leibniz insofar as there is not some Something preceding “things themselves” that each thing then expresses. No, it means that each thing is an origin of the whole world, infinitely withdrawn from “the” world and yet in it — but only in it because making it or making it up, as its “one and only” origin, each time. (Strangely enough, it is as if each thing, just by being-itself-there, expressed the Christian motif of “being in the world but not of the world”; again, we have to set this aside for now.) There is only world insofar as everything in it withdraws from it, is subtracted from it, and yet subtracts itself from it “in” it. In this sense, I’m in total agreement with Levi: “the” world is what never takes place and never could take place. If it did, it would simply be another totalizing or transcendent God, Subject, or Nation, fully interpellating its subjects and all things, etc. Levi and I are in total agreement contra any omnipotent common-being of this sort. As I see it, “the” world is only the taking-place of this plurality of origins/worlds/things, and this “that it all takes place”… never itself takes place. “The” world is mediately/immediately a plural articulation of worlds, with no common denominator save for the “fact” that they “are.” But this facticity, this “are,” means “with,” “are-with.” And so the thought of “the world” is even more demanding, the question of the creation of the world no less enigmatic.
So if I continue to speak of “the” world, it is to address the non-totalizable rather than to define a totality. When I address the world (you, anything), I address it from one outside the world (“me”) to another outside of the world (“you”). Clearly the world is not a container for us outsides, no more than a casket can contain a person. Here, world = spacing, dispersal, deposition. Here, every “thing” is not only withdrawn, but in its withdrawal it is itself an absolute origin of the world. There would be no “the” world that mediates all these origins; but neither would “world” be something added on to “things.” Each thing or being is the origin of the world and thus not related “secondarily.” Worlds don’t come secondary: we might say they are existentiels of objects, not categoricals. This is what we all have “in-common”: we are all equally absolute and priceless origins of the world, so absolute and priceless that the world we seem to take place in never, itself, takes place.
All of these disparate (or disappearing) worlds/things/origins share in the coming of the world, or in the becoming-world of the world (yes, whatever this means, our world). Each outside of the world (each entity, being) divides the world from itself in coming. They each partition the world infinitely, making it a world that is “definitively” there in being not-all, in always being to-come and in never stopping with coming. The very facticity of the “that it is there” of anything whatsoever is its absolute “relationality” (on the one hand, because where there is one thing, there are always many other things also; and on the other, because even when utterly withdrawn and in the absence of all external relations, I am still “with myself”). There is no thing that is not with other things, no world that isn’t exposed to other worlds, exposed as an origin of the world, in-common. This doesn’t mean that relations precede or succeed relata, that interconnectivity precedes or succeeds things, but rather that no matter what, each “relata” instantiates relation as such, each thing instantiates the/a whole world, each time for the first time. We’re all in the same boat in doing this, and we are all singular-plural origins of the world. We “relate” qua our subtraction-from-the-world, which we are (in the verbal sense); and nevertheless this subtraction makes a world, makes it come.
3 – “with-drawn”
In that sense, the question, “Which comes first, being or relating?” can no longer hold up. To be is to relate-to, even if this means to withdraw-utterly-from. There’s no mandate or obligation on relating, but neither is there any escaping it, since to go into exile (or die) is also to relate, even if it means to relate-away. In withdrawing, the “with” is still drawn to it, even if it is drawn to it in drawing away. If I stopped responding, if I turned off my blog, shut off my G+, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, this would sever countless relations. But I’d still be relating nonetheless, relating in being absent. Admittedly, some would miss me more than others; but missing isn’t a relation? and what about those who only stumble upon these words years later? If I stopped editing this post, or if you stopped reading it, that’s still relating. I don’t see anyway that anyone can jump out of being-with anymore than one could jump out of being-there. I am (or each instant is) a unique origin of the world in being totally withdrawn from every world (or in being totally withdrawn from every spatio-temporal matrix). To stop reading here changes nothing about the ontological composition of the world. Withdrawal cannot help but open up the world ever more, opening it up to the “outside of the world.” To exist is to go into exile, so go, if you must. From time to time, perhaps instantly, it demands that we stop articulating this ontology, despite the fact, or even knowing that, wherever we go, we are articulating it – with, with-drawn.
Even stranger: I can only “stop” insofar as I’m represented to others or to myself. Death itself only happens in representation, because no one can ever take away the origin of the world that I am. This is a bit like Graham Harmon saying that even when a cotton ball is devoured by flames, the fire only touches the flammable part. Thus even in utter obliviation and death, the fact that “I” am an origin of the world cannot be taken away. And insofar as I am an origin of the world to the very extent that I’m withdrawn from the world, “death” would only seal up the enigmatic nature of me-as-origin even more. Therefore, I am totally unafraid: death has been conquered, vanquished, resurrected insofar as the origin that I am cannot be erased, because it never existed anywhere save in my withdrawal from the world and all things. Paradox of all paradoxes: withdrawal is genesis!
I am immortal (escaping whatever spatio-temporal matrix) because no one can take away the fact that I am being: “subtracted” (Badiou), “withdrawn” (Heidegger), “inscribed” (Derrida), “exscribed” (Nancy). The uniqueness of “me” is this “immortal” origin. Personally, I am indebted to OOO for bringing to light the fact that what I say here about “me” also applies to any and all things (but trust me, OOOer’s, this is also in Nancy); and that’s all I have been developing here, despite the difficulty I am having. From this perspective, OOO is a discourse about the immortality of objects, or the material immortality in or of all things. Whether or not you jive with that lingo matters little. For all of us, I think it is a matter of giving the respect due to each thing, as it is, before it gets caught up in any “worldly” scheme, including space and time itself.
Immortal: each sentence exscribes a body or a thought that can’t be represented; each paragraph tries to get at what cannot be gotten at; each book reaches toward a common sense of being that cannot be represented but only sensed in the trust of the exasperated thought; our world like an instant of writing such that the writings vanish into cyberspace despite the instants’ going-nowhere; nothing can be represented, the instant is absolute, endless in its never-having-started; for there is only meaning in the sharing of this unshareable, this common ontology; the only meaning of all our words in being-sharing-being, where sharing meaning always shares the fact that each thing or being is co-essential in co-existing, or even in being “coexistence” itself, existing the very “co-” it is; co-origination of meaning, things, and world. –Stress, coffee, backlash, epiphany; origin and/in disappearance; sense, non-sense, absence; laughter, love, loss, separation… isn’t it all there? there in this enigmatic world from which nothing can ever be erased, insofar as it wouldn’t be there as it is without us and what we’re bringing to it, constantly, as inexchangeable origins of this, this world always coming/never coming?
Clearly, there is no outside of the world. Industrialized, technologized, computerized, globalized, increasingly we know that we all share this world, without back-worlds, without afterlife-worlds, etc. And yet in another sense, every thing, every being, is outside the world, removed from it. And absolutely so: to the point that I am withdrawn even from myself, withdrawn from my age, my looks, my words, from everything, withdrawn into the inaccessible origin that I am. Inaccessibly immortal. And that each thing is: the outside of the world that makes the world itself come, without any unified border, without any finality, without any accomplishment in meaning or destiny, but being itself the spacing and spacing-out of all things, and thus never even “being” itself. This is why the world, when we feel it, or when we sense it, is pure gift, gratuity, excess, grace. The feeling of being going far beyond itself, yet going there with itself, subtracting itself from the orders of the world, meaning, sense, perhaps even from being itself…
Let me come to a close with these final remarks and leave this disorderly text as it is, surrendered to your careful or careless reading, in any case, it won’t matter much, since everything about being-with exhausts us, even as it renders us such fine joys. Levi mentions the homeless and other entities that “do not share a world with other entities at all,” by which he means that there are no relations between those entities (homeless people) and the world they could be related to and share (their locale, their city, etc.). But isn’t it true that they are nevertheless in that world? Isn’t it true that they’re excluded from the world only from the viewpoint of the world that excludes them? Isn’t it true that from their point of view, they are still in “the” world, still “in relation” to it, even in the absence of any relation and despite the world’s utter indifference to them? And don’t they talk more than anyone about about how terrible the world is, about how cruel the world is, and about the end of the world as such? Don’t they know “the world” in all its callousness better than anyone?
So, Levi, the crux of our disputatio seems to be that, for you, where there is an absence of relations, there is no world, whereas for me, even where there is no relation at all there is sharing, there is an in-common, even if it is cruel and dispassionate, if only because everything, no matter what, is an equal origin of the world, and “the world” only means the common exposure of origin to origin, world to world, inside and out — not a mediator, but the mediation (with) and dispersal (withdrawal), always juxtaposing, always altered. Both of us want to do justice to the excluded entity, whether they be homeless people or endangered sharks, this is sure. My claim is simply that the biggest reason for this is because each person, each thing, is an absolute origin of the world. Hopefully my remarks have made some sense to you, and that they will sink in despite their admittedly unmanageable length. I am finally publishing a text having to do with OOO, and for me, that is something. Cheers my friend.
Addendum: Although I have drawn, always tangentially, from Jean-Luc Nancy’s work, I would hope that my readers extend him the courtesy of attributing every idea expressed here to me and my articulation of the truth, and not to his. It would kill me if, in reading a response, someone used it to make a statement like “Nancy thinks that…”, etc. For both of us, to read is a matter of experience, not a matter of truth-claims, and my articulation is nowhere near to Nancy’s on many levels, stylistically and substantively. And furthermore, without spending some time immersed in someone’s tone, it’s impossible to converse with them on any relevant level, that is, on any level beyond the merely representational (which amounts to heresay). Those interested in Nancy’s texts on ontology and the world would do best to reference Being Singular Plural, The Sense of the World, and The Creation of the World; or Globalization, and definitely in that order, unless you’re interested in starting at the very beginning with The Inoperative Community on the topic of common-being vs. being-in-common.