Priceless presents

A subtle, little book by Jean-Luc Nancy came to me in the mail today, L’Équivalence des catastrophes (Après Fukushima), which condenses quite nicely Nancy’s “outlook” on the state of the world and the task of thinking today.

First of all, Fukushima represents the interconnection of levels: technology and nature, politics and military, economics and social life, local and worldwide. A natural tremor in the ocean sets off a catastrophic tsunami; this tsunami causes the catastrophic crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant; combined, these natural and technological disasters put a whole region of people at risk (incalculable); this agitates a socio-political crisis in Japan between their centralized power and subjugated peripheral regions; all of this combined disrupts economic markets in Europe and elsewhere and renews the conversation regarding “safe” nuclear power and regulation, etc. Fukushima thus stands for a world increasingly wound up in itself, increasingly bound to the endless proliferation of technologies, strategies, discourses, and “ends.” But it also stands for a world whose human calculations, decisions, and preventative acts no longer safeguard it from the most devastating catastrophes, which needn’t even be sparked by human hands. In other words, it stands for a technologized world that has, in a sense, made every existent of the world, human or otherwise, subservient to it in a mode of generalized catastrophe, the effects of which can never be calculated, even though the system seeks to reign in this incalculable.

The phrase “generalized equivalence” or even “generalized catastrophe” is the hallmark of such a civilization. It is a civilization at war with itself — partisan wars, guerrilla wars, economic wars, etc. It is a world where action requires a reaction: the car is built, and soon highways must be built, speed limits must be set, laws against drunk driving must be written, regulations for emissions must be set, petroleum markets must be created, etc. This circulation of “ends” is endless, such that ends becomes means and means become ends — just as one crisis becomes the unforeseen catalyst for another crisis. This equivalence is what forces every element of our existence to circulate “equally.”

The hallmark of this general circulation, where everything is equal to everything else, is money, upon which this general interconnection depends. It makes our world function the way it does, subsuming everything under the regime of fabrication, exchange, distribution, and profitability. Everything is absorbed in to it, from iron ore to pop music. It is a world in which any and everything gets roped in — and it gets roped in, most generally, to the regime of profitability, accumulation, progress, and advance. In this regime of generalized equivalence there is no room for, or attention payed to, the singularity of each thing; everything is simply evaluated in light of some other end, some accomplishment or goal. For example, oceans are no longer oceans, but simply routes for cruise ships and oil tankers to take, regions to be excavated for oil and fish, nemeses that bring us hurricanes and tsunamis. But the same thing happens to everything: everything gets roped into a calculation that makes it measurable, manageable, and therefore fixed — and equivalent.

There is no sense in such a world, which now does little more than constantly go to war with itself — even though there are no longer “opposing sides,” but simply the generalized manufacture and maintenance of a terror (or competition, rivalry, etc.) that prevents any and all relation between sides. In this erasure or confusion of sides and the maintenance of a generalized terror, everything is more and more interconnected while also being less and less related in the proper sense of the term, for relation always has to do with the incommensurable — namely, with how the terms of the relation remain “inequivalent” to each other–and with how the relation itself, each time singular, remains incomparable. We have to think how this inequivalence-between is what makes them, or lets them, relate to each other, to all others, in the first place.

For Nancy, it’s not a question of looking to our civilization to solve the same problems that it has created. In fact, it is perhaps not even a question of “solution-problem” anymore. Nor is it a question of changing this civilization, or of some transformation or regeneration of humanity that Marx once spoke about, according to some model or dream of utopia. Nothing less is at stake than discovering a civilization entirely other than this one, it is true, but only through a “difference” that is absolute, and each time absolute — something totally subtracted from the regime(s) of generalized equivalence, for which the indifference of money gives us the paradigm — some mode of relation which could do justice to the singular-inequivalent value of each and every thing. The only way to subtract ourselves from this regime of interminable equivalences is to avoid the regime of “finality” itself — the regime of goals, projects, aims, gain, realization, and accomplishment. We have to learn to look otherwise, to escape from the “look to the future” as such. Only when freed from this regime of “finality” and “projects” will we be able to perceive the singularity of each thing, subtracted from both its technological-economic “ends” and/or its natural “roles.” Stated otherwise, it means liberation from the whole regime of necessity as such, whether it be political, economic, natural, or technological.

Therefore, the keyword in the title — “After” Fukushima — has nothing to do with “what comes next,” in the mode of succession or anticipation of a new civilization that would come from our progress in this one, but rather with the order of an absolute rupture with this one, a suspension of generalized equivalence as such — all of which proceeds from a kind of stupor at the lack of sense of our globalized-monetized world. Again, it has less to do with finding “solutions” for this world, ones that would come from this world, than it does with developing our capacity or sense for a world entirely otherwise in this one — a world utterly incommensurable with the whole regime of generalized equivalence.

It is with this intent that Nancy tells us, “What will be decisive… will be to think in the present and to think of the present… the present as the element of the neighbor, the nearby.”   Now, the “neighbor” here is not merely our human neighbors, but all our neighbors, all nearby presences, in their radical singularity and incommensurability with any order or hierarchy in our technological world; beyond that, it is the “nearness” of the absolutely other within myself, which is what opens my relationship to infinity. So this is not the “immediate” present of some frenzied reason looking for solutions, nor of some headlong desire anticipating later fulfillment, but rather this present without past or future, the present without an “eye” to anything but itself, for the present is always its own endits own finality, a finality “without end.” This is the present in which something presents itself, where something unheard of occurs, where something utterly foreign comes close and is allowed to come close: the present as or of a singular, “incommensurable” occurrence, never to be absorbed by any scheme of value, meaning, representation, or signification, for each is absolutely valuable “in its own right.”

Here, every thing, every moment, every motion, every person, every address, every hour, every wave — is radically “inequivalent” and singular in or as what it is or is happening to be. The singularity of a voice, of a color, a look, a shape or a smell. To think the present is to gain an appreciation for this: the inappropriability of each as the incommensurability of each as the singularity of each. And then, from my own or our own locus of incommensurability within, to relate ourselves to this and to these and to all the singularity about — each, impossible to be absorbed in the regime of generalized equivalence:

Each time, it has to do with one particular consideration, with an attention or a tension, with a respect, or even with what we could go so far as to name an adoration turned toward singularity as such.

What is at stake, therefore, is an esteem that goes infinitely beyond any estimation, where the former has to do with the height of the singular, or the height of a singular mode of coming or presenting, and the latter has merely to do with the regime of generalized equivalence, calculation, and circulation (such that estimation amounts to monetization). Here, the worthiness of each thing and each one is inestimable, the esteem of and due to each. This esteem turns vigiliantly away from any evaluation having to do with past and future time, with the accumulation of social capital or social goods, with the construction of projects and goals. Here, the present, or the present of whatever singular, is not roped in to anything; on the contrary, it is liberated from being a mean or an end, that is, it is liberated into relation.

Here, the present is the approach and point of passage of a singular presence, which is and which remains incommensurable, be it a starfish, a star, or a day of fishing. All in all, it has to do with what is without price, the irreducible value of each thing as it is, valuable simply because it is a present point of passage and presence, or even a present point of the passage of presence.

To sense the world in this way is already to let “another” world enter this world, even if it is a world that “this world” will never be able to recognize — at least so long as it adheres to the regime of valuing-according-to, of estimating-with-an-eye-to, of pricing-in-relation-to — because this “other” world is incommensurability with that regime. This is the “radically other” of our civilization that, perhaps, is already “here” in some sense. Perhaps we can already sense it, detect it, feel it coming close. Perhaps it is already “here.” The task of thinking, therefore, would be to think this way, subtracted from projects and goals of consciousness, subtracted from equivocal estimations, turned toward the singularity and the “sans prix” of each and every. To think, quite simply, an unprecedented mode of being-there…


Nancy, Jean-Luc. L’Équivalence des catastrophes (Après Fukushima). 2012. Paris: Galilée.

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2 Responses to Priceless presents

  1. Hello,
    I am instructor at a small college and I am currently teaching ‘After Fukushima.’ Would you mind if we read your essay in class?


    • tmlavenz says:

      Hi Robert,

      Glad to hear from you. It’s great that you are reading Nancy’s book with your student, and I certainly don’t mind if you read my essay alongside it–in fact, I would be honored. If you end up doing so, let me know how it goes, if you have the time–and if not, enjoy all your reading- and thinking-in-common.


      P.S. Since the essay is a bit old, I read through it and made a few minor edits, mostly grammatical and/or for the sake of clarity. It doesn’t make a huge difference, but just so you know, it has been cleaned up a bit.

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