From Sacrifice to Speech
Jean-Luc Nancy and the sharing of finitude
Let me begin with a few observations on Jesus’ saying from John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” What is expressed here is a certain logic of sacrifice which says: it is only by dying that we participate in the life of the community and help it grow. Unless I deny myself and my life, I remain encased in an egotism equal to hell itself. But I don’t make my sacrifice for my sake or for me, but rather for an “Outside” that’s greater than me: God, life, the harvest, the community. That is, sacrifice is in service. Through it, I “commune” with an essence greater than myself, contribute to a project bigger than my own. Finally, it is important to note that this call is universal and addressed to everyone. Everyone must make a sacrifice.
Let’s briefly try to formalize this logic. In such a model of life in the community, everyone is asked to adhere to a common calling, to head in a common direction, to seek to reach a common destination. They agree upon what is of ultimate value; they imitate a common desire or practice oriented by that value; and through this mimesis commune in a common essence or identity with all the others. Now, the saints and martyrs of the Church, who commune in the mystical body of Christ, or the regular evangelical who communes in the social identity of “being a Christian,” are only examples of this logic. I would argue that all communal projects imply this conformity of value, desire, direction, and practice, for the sake of “communion” (methexis), whether it be in an identity, a cause, a land, or some other ‘catch’ for shared meaning. From Nazism to contemporary military mobilizations, terrorist groups to corporate organizations, professional sports teams to human progress, this logic is at work: one communes with the common body by giving oneself up to its desire and its purpose. One sacrifices one’s autonomy in service. “Inclusion” is impossible otherwise; and those who are unable or unwilling to make the sacrifice are excluded, ostracized, marginalized, excommunicated, jailed, or killed. In each example, one must sacrifice oneself to a necessity that, although commanded and imposed from the outside, one accepts, thus participating in whatever figure of the “Outside” one believes has summoned one.
Although we no longer sacrifice human beings on sacred altars, we have inherited and internalized this logic. Hegel gave us its canonical statement, writing, “…the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being.”
What we have here is a vision of life as being sacrificial through and through; a life of stress, constantly stretched thin: unable, incapable, and forbidden to just be. Here, a being cannot just be what it is; it has to “tarry with the negative” in order to participate in Being at all. Finitude has to destroy itself, or let itself be destroyed, in order to ‘win’ its truth and participate in the life of the community. Only by becoming a functionary of some truth, or of some communal project, do I have any meaning, do I exist at all. There is no better example of this than Jesus, who was most glorified in heaven for having emptied himself most; but whether I interpret this in Christian, Muslim, fascist, revolutionary, artistic, hedonistic, humanistic terms, the logic is the same: I must be emptied out, must give up my life, in order to put myself in service of a commandment and thereby to win the reward of participating in the community (in God, the revolution, and so on). I have to respond to the external demand, I must take on our necessity as my own; and whoever would like to participate in our community must imitate the same, even if we ruin ourselves realizing it.
Giorgio Agamben has analyzed this notion of the functionary in relation to being itself in his recent book, Opus Dei, where he shows how the West has always been crossed by two contradictory ontologies. The first addresses being in a denotative way, saying, “it is,” while the second addresses being in an imperative way, commanding, “be!” As this unhappy union develops, being starts to coincide with having-to-be, with a duty to be, such that being = being-effective (productive, operative, useful). Being becomes indebted to the supposed purposes of being. In order to fulfill its debt, being is asked to deny itself, to negate itself in the process of becoming. It’s not enough to just be; one has to become somebody. In this situation, which Agamben criticizes, all our potentiality is subordinated to actuality, to the commandment to “actualize” our potential, which usually means, to sacrifice ourselves to some end that isn’t our own (some ‘end’ or ‘reason’ imposed on us from outside). If we do not obey this necessity, we’re useless: we are not allowed to not be, and there is no room for being unproductive either: one has to be “effective.” Even the humanities succumb to these pressures, arguing for how useful a liberal arts degree is on the job market. Everything is sacrificed to this necessity which summons us to action universally: do something worthwhile, produce some real meaning, don’t appear useless. Just think of how someone who has just met us will ask, innocently enough, “What do you do?” The fact that we do not first ask, “What are you?” tells us a great deal about the extent to which the ontology of duty rules our lives. It shows that we conceive of being almost exclusively as being a function of something, as a support for an operation outside us. In other words, as a kind of sacrifice.
Of course, we are fascinated by all this– fascinated by the God who demands the full allegiance of our emptiness; fascinated by the spirit demanding dismemberment in the name of knowledge; fascinated by the leader who demands the devotion of all our energy to his wiles; fascinated by the market which seduces us into dreams of wealth and profit; fascinated by the promise of a career of influence and great reputation; fascinated by strip-clubs and bars and drugs luring us to ecstatic filth and cleansed doors of perception all at once… We’re all gripped by these images, these fires, these dreams of an existence transfigured, transported, transcended. In Bataille’s words, through sacrifice I become “the same as the magnificence of the universe.” Whatever its avatar may be, that’s the bargain: to be merged, fused, lost in the Outside, to participate in the obscure Desire of the God, the Community, the Other, even if that desire is all projection and fantasy.
In a world where no one feels good enough, when “work” and “daily sacrifice” define our lives, perhaps its time to reevaluate the notion that finitude has to be sacrificed in order to be meaningful and participate in communal life. If we end up destroying ourselves for the sake of realizing causes and projects, for the sake of producing meanings and identities, perhaps it is time to find a different starting point, to invent a new mode. In 1938, Gaston Bachelard could still say that, “The funeral pyre of Hercules continues, like a natural symbol, to portray to us the destiny of mankind.” But after the fires have shown to us what great sacrifices and horrors man will commit in the name of his so-called destiny, perhaps it is time to admit, with all its consequences, that the Phoenix has had its day, and that this sacrificial logic is finished.
I would like to take the second portion of my paper to discuss Jean-Luc Nancy’s work and especially his notion of “adoration.” Guiding my thoughts will be his word: “Existence isn’t to be sacrificed, and can’t be sacrificed. It can only be destroyed or shared.” Whatever we do from here, let us at least try to not destroy each other, but to leave each other intact, and to share.
Nancy begins from the naked fact of existence, not “how” it is, but “that” it is. This “that it is,” each time, is an event that can’t be programmed or controlled. It is not the world as it is or should be, nor is it simply one part of the world. It is the very opening of the world as such, in all its unprecedentedness: its first opening, each time. “This opening of the world, this event, is, from inside the world, its outside.” At each instant, this “that it is,” this event of existence, surprises us with the gift of the world, and it is this gift which calls for adoration.
Everything here revolves around our conception of and relation to the “Outside,” which I tried to formalize above as that to which and for the sake of which finitude is sacrificed. What is at stake here is a deconstruction of that “outside”: to no longer turn it into a figure, to no longer try to possess it for our purposes, identify it, signify it, or project our desires on to it. Adoration begins from the fact that the outside, the opening of the world, is each time inappropriable: it can’t be spoken, it can’t be figured. In a sense, there’s nothing to know about it, and nothing to say. After all, it isn’t any thing…
It is this “outside,” this opening, that opens us. It opens our mouths prior to every project in speech, prior to every meaning-to-say. Adoration is speech open to this opening of the world, open in its very speech, not imposing itself on the world, but remaining exposed to it–exposed to the fact of existence, to the naked event, each time, “there is.”
The “there is” precedes us and goes ahead of us. It cannot be mine and will never be mine. It can’t be yours or mine, but happens. As such, we remain impenetrable to ourselves and to each other. I can’t know what it is for you to be. Adoration honors this inability to know the other by listening. It implies respect for the fact that each fact of existence is unique, absolute, unconvertible, inexchangeable. Our worlds don’t match up, our desires don’t conform, and we don’t commune in any common essence. Adoration respects this distance between us, and between us and ourselves. There can be no imitation, and ultimately, we won’t be ourselves. Because we are each an absolute origin of the world, and this origin, for each of us, each time is always different–as different as every moment of our lives. Adoration exposes itself to what Derrida has called the “heterogeneity at the origin”– this difference in events, persons, and voices– every instant.
If we attend to existence as it is, as it comes, sacrifice can no longer make sense. Along with it, all the projects modeled on the form of sacrifice, which we have seen take the form of effectiveness and duty-to-be, no longer make sense. That is, it’s no longer a matter of constituting a community through sacrifices, or of striving to commune with a common essence, not even that of humankind, but of letting ourselves be exposed to the community that is existing, to the unpredictable event of being-with, spaced out in the event of existence. For adoration, coexistence matters in and of itself. It does not require an operation, it does not need to be forged or organized, it does not need to be given meaning; and rather than fusing us together, coexistence demands the tact of distance, spacing, and separation. That’s what adoration does: it opens a space, makes room, invents a distancing. It guards that distance, that space, and in that way it acknowledges the infinite distance between us, which can never, must never, be collapsed. But it is this very distance that opens up in us the possibility for intimacy, and for sense. For adoration.
Adoration holds to the nothing of the opening, the interval between us. It makes its address without knowing to whom, without figuring the outside or community to which it’s sent. Simply said, it doesn’t know, it’s intimacy is dark. And so it makes its address without intention, and in this sense, is tension itself: the tension of an existence suspended over nothing, the tension of a speech addressed to what lies outside any possible speech.
It is in this sense that adoration decides for existence and for existence alone. It decides for what exists presently in all its impenetrability and inaccessibility. It refuses every closure of the world, every supposition of ultimate meaning or final sense gained. It refuses to accept every given reason for the world, which is why it also calls for a “dis-enclosure of reason.” Adoration is addressed to what is in excess of every reason and end. In other words, to existence itself, to a value without equivalent. The sense of this event of existence, of each coming event, can’t be measured or adequated in any way. Adoration honors this inability to measure, or to know, what is happening out in the open. It suspends itself there, refusing to let the opening of the world close up around signs and projects and identities. Its task is to hold itself exposed to what happens to it in time, in the unpredictability of its event; and so to remain passable to a sense that only comes and goes, here and now or never, a sense that only passes, a sense that isn’t for anyone or for anything, a sense which is without finality, accomplishment, or effectiveness. Such speech does not function. It’s measured only by the excess of the gift.
To be sure, finite existence is still offered, but it is not offered by anyone or to anyone, and above all: it is not offered as a sacrifice. It offers itself, offers nothing, for nothing. It’s offering is its own end, without any purpose or goal save to offer. In other words, it is simply shared–the sharing of nothing. Such is why adoration never proceeds from necessity, never demands destruction, but always comes from nothing. This nothing is priceless existence itself. It has no transfiguration in mind, but strives only to stay open to the generosity of existence, this nothing of existence, as it comes.
No one will deny that this speech still troubles us. It’s a matter of holding ourselves to a lack of answers, a lack of certainties about the open. It’s a matter of facing up to an absence of meaning in the event, to how each event makes us responsible for the sense of it, to how we are abandoned to this event and to our responsibility. It’s a matter of showing how meaning can’t be fixed, but can only pass through. We’re trying to be responsible for this absence or passage of sense without reducing it or explaining it away– or saving it. We’re trying to enter all these passages and passings-away of sense, to sense how sense exists nowhere but in these passages, in this exchange between us inexchangeable existences, where each relation, each exchange, is in itself inexchangable. The fact that we exchange the inexchangeable, that some sense passes through, is the generous surprise of being an existent of the world, each time real, each time passing.
So here is all the joy and misery of our adoration, the source of our grateful tears and our gentle exhilaration: everything, as gift, remains inappropriable. Existence remains open, vulnerable, outside. Everything I love remains not mine. Everything real, is elsewhere. But here, in steady adoration, we learn how to say that it is so, how to respect existence in its infinite distancing from itself, how to hold open this space where things can happen, where some sense can pass through.
Our hearts are still broken by the fragility of finite existence, by the precariousness of our relations, by the fortuitousness of a life abandoned totally to itself. Humanity has always sought to overcome this fragility with its countless salvific projects, which would fix finite existence or consecrate it to an infinite one. But we have learned that to try and save finite existence only destroys it. The transfiguration of humanity has no end but sacrificial horror at the funeral pyre. Such is why Nancy’s thought, following Derrida, calls for a “salutation without salvation,” for an acknowledgment of the “irreparability” of beings and things, as Agamben writes. This is not a call to resignation, but to make sense of the irreparable. It’s a call to find the immeasurable in the very contingency of the world, infinity in the opening of finitude. It’s a call to life as relation, to the world as a creation of relations. It’s a call, in a word, to love.
What matters here is not to recover from our misery or to keep ourselves from weeping over the fact that existence passes away and only passes. What matters here is to salute each other, to salute all the existents of the world, human and nonhuman alike– to address each other from the place in us which is incommensurable with the world, to the place in the other, in you, which is incommensurable likewise. Each “hello” bears with it this affirmation and recognition of the other as an unsacrificeable, finite existence, and for that very reason open to an infinity of sense. Adoration is no more complicated than holding itself open to this, to a word of relation without motive–offered, but not in sacrifice. It’s as simple as a hello that doesn’t destroy, a hello which leaves the other intact. Indeed, it’s as simple as the hello we are sharing today, for there is no greater truth than this: that we remain suspended in this gesture of adoration, infinitely.