Commentaries, Contemplation

Unworking the Work: Jean-Luc Nancy and The Disavowed Community

Before we begin, I would like to quickly remark on the highly anticipated intellectual debate between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson that went on yesterday in Toronto. I will share my detailed thoughts in another post. For now, I just want to say that both of them did great.

I think the debate clarified some of the misunderstandings on “postmodernism” and “Cultural Marxism”, as Zizek pointed out that people like Michel Foucault are not Marxist. The truth is, there is a huge complex intellectual history behind continental “French” philosophy that many people who are not trained in it will not immediately understand. While both Peterson and Zizek have many commonalities and differences, I agree with Peterson that what we should be getting out of the debate is the importance of communication between differences. Not only was the debate an excellent example of such claim—what we are about to examine in this post is precisely, communication as the establishment of the common.


Derrida (left); Nancy (right)


The Disavowed Community (2016) is my first encounter with Jean-Luc Nancy. The text is hard in the sense that it is full of paradoxes, but it was not as hard as some made it out to be. Nancy’s writing style resembles a lot like Derrida’s, which is not surprising. In it, Nancy assumes that you already understand what went on between Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Marguerite Duras, Emmanuel Levinas and his own works. He also assumes you are familiar with the giants of 20th century thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. While I have not read any of the texts that Nancy mentions on Blanchot, Duras, and Bataille, I have read enough of Derrida, Heidegger and Lacan that I understand the gestures Nancy is trying to make.

The Disavowed Community is a response to a dialogue Nancy partook with Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community from 1983, and Nancy’s The Inoperative Community in 1991. To understand The Disavowed Community, we have to understand an important gesture that that Derrida makes on Heidegger in regards to the discourses on “history”, “metaphors”, “myths” and “telling stories”. We also have to understand some of the Lacanian psychoanalytical allusions Nancy brings into this book on “Woman’s writing” (Woman’s writing is a big contemporary academic theme in both deconstruction and psychoanalysis). In this post, I will try to summarize my close readings on Nancy which might be a little convoluted because I will assume you have read the book along with most of my other posts on Derrida and Lacan.

A Metaphorical History: “Myths” and “Telling Stories”

The notion of “telling stories” began from Martin Heidegger that was famously deconstructed (unworked) by Derrida. I will not dwell on the details in this post. I will simply provide a rough sketch of such “story”—just enough for us to pass over to Nancy’s thoughts. Indeed, what I am about to do is to tell you a story.

Without going into any meticulous analysis, let us say that all languages are metaphors which is the fundamental nature of stories. The moment we speak or write, we are in metaphor (Nancy will confirm this for us later). For Derrida, this was the main reason why Heidegger spoke of the famous passage “language as the house of being”, which was an attempt to make us recognize the origins of metaphoricity in language that made Heidegger cross out the word, Being.

Since all languages are metaphors, to speak of truth is to speak of what it is not. Yet, it is through this inauthenticity of metaphor where we discover truth. Throughout history, these metaphorical truths are found in all forms of rhetoric (i.e. myths)the most prominent example resides in literature and philosophy. The danger is when we fail to recognize this metaphor (which happens all the time in our lives)—and this is what Nancy sees from Derrida which leads to his criticism of Blanchot. 

How can one speak of the object and truth without a metaphor? The ultimate destruktion is to deconstruct, to interpret, solicit and de-structure this concept of metaphor, which is to—in Nancy’s term—“unwork” writing. Yet, the paradox lies in how the “deconstruction” of metaphors requires the use of metaphors (i.e. this text). To deconstruct / unwork a story is to work out a new storyDeconstruction is always already at “(un)work(ing)” when we read (i.e. you are doing it as you read this text). In other words, for one to deconstruct a writing, one must begin with writing (i.e. that one writes about writing). In order to deconstruct / unwork a metaphorical “story”, one must enclose themselves within a certain metaphor whilst trying to break away from it. Hence, the trick is to—as some Derrideans would say—“erase one’s writing”. The unworking of works is the unworking of its own metaphor. The common mistake people make is how they tend to unwork a story and leave it in pieces (many academics seems to do this which misses the point). Deconstruction is not only about destruktion, it is also about the creation of something new from the unworking of the story. This is how Nancy creates the disavowed community from Blanchot’s unavowed community.

Politics, Community, Communism, and History

As we have learnt from my previous readings of Derrida, it is through a certain force of history (i.e. force as desire—or in certain ways, the mode of Dasein / Being) which influences the way we interpret a certain piece of writing. For Derrida, since history is written, metaphors are the beginning of “hi(story)”. Our written history is told through stories where we acquire “truths” about history as such. For example, an English literature course is essentially a history class taught through stories; in the same way that for Hegel (in Derrida’s view), to study philosophy is to study the hi(story) of philosophy. As a result—we are leaping into Nancy’s book—for Blanchot and Nancy, all “communities” (societies) are organized around these historical stories and myths that must be “unworked” (i.e. deconstructed and interpreted through the act of reading and closely reexamining and rethinking its contents).

For Nancy, Blanchot’s attempt to formulate the new idea of “the unavowable community” was born out of the “exhaustion of communism” (failure of communism). Therefore, all the stories that are told in regards to “real-communism” must also be exhausted. The terms “communism” and “community” must be radically reconcieved. In other words, both Blanchot and Nancy are challenging us to think of communism and community independent of the traditional history of communism and politics in general—all of which are told through stories (it is easy to misread this and say that we should ignore or forget all the disasters that went on every time someone attempts to establish “communism”—this might be something that I will address in another post).

The Works of Unworking and the Unworking of Works

The difference between Nancy and Blanchot is that Blanchot thinks of his writing as a “works of unworking”. On one hand, Blanchot’s works are an attempt to unwork the historical force that determines and fixes the meaning of community and communism. Thus, he proposes the unavowed (i.e. undeclared) community that would be freed from its historical pre-determinations. On the other hand, Nancy attempts to reverse this by “unworking the works” of Blanchot. Nancy is concerned on how Blanchot’s “works of unworkings” is in-itself a work that has become a story / myth which forces a closure on Blanchot’s own discourse. Therefore, Nancy attempts to unwork the work of Blanchot without turning his own unworking into a work of unworking (story):

“What can be called mythical is that for which one cannot know if the event is produced, but for which the appearance of a figure communicates an actual meaning. Myth is the speech whose subject is none other than itself, configuring itself in speaking of itself—of its own free accord and of its own ipseity.” [my italics and underline]

Nancy’s main task is to reduce his own story (speech / writing) of unworking Blanchot—to unwork (deconstruct) his metaphor and erase his own writing. For Nancy, Blanchot’s unavowable is about avowing the unavowable, and therefore avowable (and not completely unavowable). This means that Blanchot’s unavowable is still determined as an avowable work—even if it is a work of unworking. Nancy saw how Blanchot actually wanted to disavow the community that has been carried out by metaphors and stories. Blanchot wanted to disavow the avowing of the unavowable.

Being as Unworking and the Transmission of the Impossible

In order to erase writing, we must understand the reduction of metaphor. Nancy achieves this by trying to draw the reader’s attention towards the community of the common that is experienced as solitude by the reader as they read his unworking of Blanchot (your experience of reading a text and unworking of your own being). However, Nancy also wants us to recognize what precedes and grants the possibility of solitude through the reader’s unworking of Nancy’s text of unworking (i.e. the reader’s interpretation of Nancy’s text as a speech constituted by the primordial necessity of communication). This gesture of unworking qua unworking done by the reader should not be conceived as a story, but the erasure of the story which leads to the indeterminacy of “the disavowed community”. For Nancy, this unworking of being through communication is what we all have in common as a community.

Nancy and Blanchot points out that the most fundamental form of community is the community that consists of a relation without relation—the transmission of the impossible. Here, we must conceive of the reader’s own unworking of Nancy’s “impossible” that is transmitted through Nancy’s writing. In other words, writing is the transmission of the impossible—it is the relation of non-relation, the sharing of the unsharable for the reader. Nancy wishes to emphasis that all communications (i.e. an “element of speech”) are caught within the problem of inter-subjectivity, and that the only way we can communicate to others is by speaking / writing out words that functions as metaphors. Thus, the reader and Nancy’s writings is caught within the relationship of a non-relation, between the reader and the transmission of the impossible (the text), which functions as a form of communication (speech / writing) that draws our attention to a non-relation (a relation between the reader and themselves via the text). The gesture of reading is the unworking of the reader’s own being as they read Nancy’s book. I will not dwell on this any further because I have explained this many times in various ways through my other posts herehere, and here.

Nevertheless, we can now understand Nancy’s critical passage:

“The Unavowable Community and “Intellectuals under Scrutiny”, written by an author who signs his name and expresses himself in the first person. The name Blanchot may appear destined in advance to efface itself with an undeniable pallor. It nevertheless remains that it is inscribed and presented in an imposing manner and that a book that emphasizes several proper names as structurally related (through their conjunction)—Bataille, Duras, Levinas, Nancy—does not refer to the name of the author without force. And this author excludes himself from any individual community with each of the other names, instituting himself rather as the interpreter of all others but also as the one who takes their texts further [the interpreter (reader) takes these texts further through their own unworking], in the process of ‘reflection, never in fact interrupted’, for which it must be understood that this reflection has preceded—and will be pursued in-an irreducible singularity. The ‘others’ to which this book also confides its future—and for which at the same time it outlines certain characteristics—these others are at once very uncertain and ‘constrained’ in advance to share the unshareable, the heart without law of a passion in which ‘Maurice Blanchot’ at once vanishes and (like Duras) ‘implicates himself’ in an irreducible solitary manner” [my italics, parenthesis and underlining].

What Nancy writes in this passage nearly summarizes the entire book. The being (author) who writes and inscribes themselves into words through their own unworkings (interpretation) of other authors, is unworked by the reader as the writing is reflected back into the reader as the unworking of their own being (which may turn them into an author who responds to Nancy, such as this blog post). Nancy goes on further:

“Alone, avowing, disavowing, without avowal—owing nothing to anyone other than to that very thing which allows avowing and disavowing, and to speech, this primordial necessity according to which “one has to speak in order to remain silent”. In order to unavow, one must avow, be it by disavowing what could pass as the object or theme of the argument—namely, community. However, in order to speak, one must be in the element of speech, and this element precedes all possibility of determining the nature or properties of the “common” since the principle of speech establishes the common. Its sharing is prior to all possibility of distinguishing between relation and the negation of relation, between communication and solitude. Blanchot is well aware of this, ceaselessly recalling for us the relation of readers to the author and readers between themselves. Even more, this ceaselessly brings us back to this relation as to the place of a common avowal of our allegiance to…speech itself [speaking / communicating to ourselves as we read]. He thus wants to remind us of what precedes and makes possible the common, communication.

In order to speak, which establishes the common—something that I always already do as I write this text—one must already be within the “element of speech” which is that of communication, “a primordial necessity”. In this sense, communication becomes a sharing that is “prior to all possibility of distinguishing between…communication and solitude”. Thus, Blanchot writes, “one must speak in order to remain silent”—one must communicate in order to remain silent. This primordial necessity of communication is the gesture of unworking qua unworking. In other words, the common is not only about a communication to oneself, but most importantly, it allows for our communication to the other.

The disavowed community is the sharing of the unsharable—the transmission of the impossible known as the “common”, which is the sharing of the unworking of being through communication (speech / writing). This text is another story that must be unworked by the reader—something which you are always already in the process of doing as you read through this text. Communication is what we all have in common.

In the Margins: Death, Woman’s Writing, and Jouissance

Nancy (and Blanchot) does not stop here, he transgresses into the territory of Lacanian psychoanalysis by turning towards the idea of jouissance from the “self” to the “other” which consists in a certain form of double binding—at least in my eyes, since the two terms a divisive, but are also interchangeable.

Let us take a look at what Nancy means when he speaks of this relation of non-relation and the sharing of the unsharable under Lacanian psychoanalysis. We must understand the concept of jouissance—a French word that is usually left untranslated (there are many reasons for this—my intro to psychoanalysis is here and here). Jouissance is a psychoanalytical concept used to describe the ultimate form of (sexual) pleasure that knows no limits. Jouissance will take us infinitely beyond the pleasure principle where such pleasure escapes its own boundaries towards self-destruction (death). But what escapes this pleasure principle also appears to be a pleasure (p. 73). I will not spend much time around this, since the psychoanalytical discourse is complex (Nietzsche, Hegel, Lacan, Freud). I will simply point out that, it is feminine sexuality which consists of this infinite and indeterminate form of jouissance which allows for the interpretation of the community—as what Nancy calls, the “evasive” community (one can even link this to an allusion to Hegel’s famous passage on woman as “the eternal irony of the community”).

For Lacan, sexuality is a position that one takes through writing (or language in general). The reader’s interpretation of words is always already sexed (masculine or feminine—a position that the reader takes as they unwork Nancy’s text). There is always jouissance from every word we articulate, a certain form of pleasure both within and beyond the signifier (i.e. the “negative” side of the signifier). There is no such thing as a writing (i.e. a written being) without a sex.

For Nancy, Blanchot’s work of unworking becomes a myth when he cannot distinguish between the “real’ and “imaginary”. Yet, it is through such works of unworking—of unworking such work—between the indeterminacy of the “real” and “imaginary” which allows for the indeterminacy of the community. Most importantly, for Nancy, the common of unworking qua unworking escapes and precedes Lacan’s determination of sexual differences. And it is from this communication which allows for a being unworking—as being undetermined which determines whether one approaches a man’s or a woman’s writing:

“There is a common, if not a community, that precedes all solitude and all exception, all sexual differences or people, a common without which no isolation or separation would take place—a common which has nothing unified or is single, which displaces itself, within itself, dividing and diffracting itself, a common which pleases and displease itself to itself, having perhaps only little ‘self'”.

Where Blanchot thinks jouissance is shared from the self to “self”, Nancy thinks jouissance is shared from the self with “others”: the sharing of the unsharable jouissance. Nevertheless, where Blanchot thinks that man is excluded from the “sharing” of jouissance (sharing of the unsharable) in Duras’ story, Nancy thinks neither man and woman are excluded from each other. This is because (1), the common precedes sexual difference, and that (2) sexuality is a position one takes after the primordial necessity of communication (i.e. speech / writing). Thus, woman’s jouissance can be experienced by both man and woman since they both share the common of communication (unworking qua unworking). This is why Nancy asks: “How can the man desire the woman or even only want to represent this desire to himself if she wasn’t already in him, already open in him outside of himself?” (71). To unwork Nancy’s text is to take position of both the binding of masculine as a closure of the work, and the unbinding of such work through feminine jouissance which escapes the very principles of masculine binding, towards an unworking. Since the disavowed community is an unworking of Blanchot’s work that seeks to prevent itself from becoming a work, the unworking must unbind and exceed its own story from the limits of jouissance as constrained within the bounds of a work. Thus, it is woman’s writing (woman’s jouissance) that takes the reader towards a pleasure that escapes the boundaries of pleasure: of unworking the works of unworking. This infinite escape of jouissance as jouissance, brings us towards a certain “death” through the interpretation of the impossible:

“If death is understood as separation from others rather than from self, the impossible [writing] is understood as that which excludes itself and excludes everyone from all relation [the relation of non-relation towards the reader]; the impossible can be understood in quite a different way, as that which, being absolutely certain, does not linger but in an instant opens itself absolutely to the absolute—in other words, to pure unbinding [writing opens itself to unworking by the reader who interprets writing]. But the unbound is not the separated. It is that which relates itself with each to new possibilities of binding and unbinding.

For the reader, the transmission of impossibility through Nancy’s writing is a communication—a relation towards the non-relation with the common which allows for a pure unbinding. This is to say that, pure unbinding is a pure unworking of what is bound (the myth; the story) through the impossible (writing) which allows for new possibilities of binding and unbinding as the reader interprets Nancy:

“And so the pleasure that escapes—escaping each and everyone—escapes me in that it happens to the other and escapes him or her in turn. There is a something in common to us in its escaping [escaping out of jouissance as jouissance—the unworking of a work that is bound]. It is neither communion nor perhaps even communication that fills up ’empty intimacy’ [it is an “empty intimacy” because jouissance exceeds its own boundaries which leaves it empty, yet intimate]. But this intimacy finds its sense of intimacy there [“within” this exceeding; of this “beyond”], that is, in resonance of silence and speech that withholds it self. Resonance gives proximity to that—to those—which are neither unified or separated, but bound in such a way that at this movement the binding is prioritized over what is bound. The binding unbinds itself within this priority. More than attachment, it appears as an autonomous escape, a pleasure that forgets its subjects.

What goes beyond the pleasure principle and escapes its limits is an unsharable pleasure that also occurs to the other person (the reader; you). And it is through this communication and its possibilities—that of sharing the unsharable jouissance, this unbinding of binding, of unworking of works which turns the disavowed community into a vanishing community.