Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World.Trans. and foreword by Jeffrey S. Librett.Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997; xxvi+206 pp.; ISBN: 0816626103 (pbk.); LC call no.: B2430.N363S4613


Jean-Luc Nancy is for us, here, now, a more important thinker than Derrida,if only because of a relative distancing from certain Heideggerian problematics (which have recently been taken up again by the latter in a text on "the Question"). In the wake of deconstruction, Nancy - who was born in France in 1942, studied under the ubiquitous Derrida, and currently teaches at the University of Human Sciences in Strasbourg - has written extensively and brilliantly on the major figures of Western philosophy, and is now emerging as one of the world's foremost philosophers. Accordingly, the steady flow of translations over the last ten years of such books as The Literary Absolute (with Philip Lacoue-Labarthe, 1978/English trans., 1988), The Inoperative Community (La Communauté désoeuvrée,1989/1991), The Birth to Presence (1993), The Experience of Freedom (1988/1993), and The Muses (1993/1996) testifies to the increased and intensified interest of English-speaking audiences in Nancy's sagacious probes into the thematic quandaries of community, nihilism, freedom, psychoanalysis, subjectivity, and so forth. The Sense of the World (originally published as Le sens du monde in 1993 by Galilée in Paris), having arrived in English at a particularly crucial and felicitous moment just prior to the jointure of two millennia, co-mingles these themes (and many more) with a staggering analysis of sense that articulates a schismatic trembling of the ancient and time-honored quest for redemption or Enlightenment, and offers in its place a joyous release of thought from the ars dialectica of question and answer. It is here that Nancy's work unfolds its full exigency and indispensability for us, by exposing the acosmic opening of the world through which the non-millenarian affirmativity that links together the disparate modulations of Nietzsche, Benjamin, Deleuze, and Agamben shall soon come to pass.

Nevertheless, and for this very reason, there is a peculiar inanity and violent tedium in asking again and again: Are we going beyond metaphysics? Is the collapse of philosophy imminent? Does a desolation of meaning truly stand before us? Such questions are never overcome by incessantly returning to them, viz. by obsessing and sentimentalizing, for nostalgia always bespeaks a crisis ineluctably exemplified by the very discourse which attempts to diagnose it (that scission which Plato could already, and perhaps somewhat affectionately, call a palaias enantiôseôs). Thus beyond any discrete desirability for solutions, it is no longer even possible, Nancy maintains, to articulate what Jan Patocka termed a "crisis of sense" (2): all sense has suffered an irreparable abandonment. Yet the paradox which intrigues Nancy, and with which the entirety of his singularly exceptional book concerns itself, is that the very world which no longer makes sense to or for us, nevertheless flaunts - from nebula to galaxy, jungle to ocean crevasse, amoeba to monkey - a bewildering excess of sense. On the outskirts of its orbit around rationality, at the utter fragility of its apogean limit, sense thus ruptures and overflows its subjugation to what is "sensible," disseminating itself excessively across the thin border that divorces absolute return from absolute escape, and dissolves the world in an "absolute absolution of sense" (167).

To let go - gently, singularly - of the desire for a given sense, to render thought transparent: this, therefore, is the task and obligation of philosophy. If it is true that, according to the paradoxical logic of the border (which partakes of both of its sides without surrendering itself to either), sense participates in both presence and absence, absolution and relativity, the circular perfection of myth and the nihilistic Öde, the incorporeality of language and the depth of bodies, or proper signification and the a-signifying delirium that threatens it, then it does so only marginally, unexpectedly, playfully. To reach this diaphanous edge of being, with all of the liability that such an endeavor entails, is thus not to cease saying "God" or "philosophy" or even "I" but instead to render such locutions utterly insignificant: to see the world, that is, as an acosmic, impersonal, and pre-individual emission of nomadic singularities-events. Yet further, if it is we, the "plural singular," who respond to the question of "the sense of the world," the response nevertheless responds to nothing and to no one in particular. The world does not pose a question (it is, despite New Age hype, neither a mystery nor an enigma), hence a response cannot be "the solution to a problem or the appeasement of an interrogation or the conclusion of a search," but instead only "a given guarantee, a promise, an engaged responsibility" (70-1).
Under the aegis of this responsibility, Nancy concocts a series of knots, folds, and quagmires within which this new sense of the world is made to endure multiple extrications and entanglements. Dancing about in a rhizomatic rhythm that befits its topic, Nancy's book exhibits its incommensurabilty through a profusion of eclectic explorations (along with requisite sections on "Sense and Truth,""Politics [the subject, sovereignty, community, speech],""Labor,""Psychoanalysis," and even "Différance") into the relationship between the impersonal quality of sense and that which seems to us to be most personal: "Pain. Suffering. Unhappiness," "Gift. Desire. Agathon," "Music," "Painting," and "Touching," as well as that preponderantly destructive force, mentioned only in passing, which looms constantly upon the nihilistic horizon: boredom. Yet in addition to those things closest in proximity, Nancy also makes use of that which is farthest away: some of the most beautiful passages of the book are indeed given over to musings on the "Constellations" and "Confines" of space, for sense is neither myth nor creation, he maintains, but a spacing (a differing and deferring) that denies any privation of the finite from the infinite, and instead maps out a finitude which, within the very deprivation of all privation, nevertheless "affirms itself" (30). 
What, then, of the spiritual ascension to the infinite, of its liquid remain(s) at the very threshold which paradoxically marks, beyond all comprehension, the entrancing of sense? If the deconstructive collapse of the nostalgic quest for a pure subjectivity, an other world, a proper dwelling, or an intimacy-in-community occurs at the very moment when secular Enlightenment realizes its object has finally evaded all thought, then it is there too that the figure of the quest is quietly reasserted as a crisis-passing-out-of-itself, a disaster of sense which assures, through its incessant transformations, the very conditions of its inaccessibility. The mystical or psychedelic, in constant tension against their etymologies, are thus not the experience of an esoteric and ineffable communion, but rather the simple communicability of a transitive being-together (the almost fifty years that have passed since the publication of Jean Hyppolite's Logique et existence, the very book which has made Nancy's ontology of sense at all possible, now allow for a slight alteration of his lapidary formula: "the secret is [out] that there is no secret"). Like the flux of consciousness which, throughout Molly Bloom's interior monologue, resonates between the odyssey and the "yessydo" (yes I do), Nancy's The Sense of the World makes clear that the very exscription of meaning which now plagues us must be understood, beyond any lived experience, as an exoteric opening onto a "becoming-worldwide" (mondialisation) of the sensuous world. Neither affirmation nor negation, the existence and exposition of this sense requires an incipient disposition which has no logical name, but which simply passes over into a thought that continually exposes, in its radiance, a singular life rendered eternally and irreparably thus by its ecstatic being-toward one planet / one life.
David Patrick
University of Western Ontario