Wickedness inscribed in freedom Jean-Luc Nancy on evil

Chapter 5
Wickedness inscribed in freedom Jean-Luc Nancy on evil

Sami Santanen

Does wickedness have something to do with the world becoming more and more crowded with bodies? Let this general question remind us that when in what follows I discuss the views of Jean-Luc Nancy on evil, his subtle analyses have in any case what he calls ‘the world of bodies’ as their context. This notion crystallizes Nancy’s conceptualization of our current world.1

In addition to context, Nancy’s views have a background. It consists of some particular key ideas, such as the inscription of evil in freedom as well as the so-called positivity of evil. The former implies a certain conception of freedom as freedom to good and evil; the latter makes it clear that evil is not to be understood as privation of good but as something that has its own peculiar reality. Nancy draws from this Kantian and Schellingian legacy, but his orientation differs from it in one important respect. In his opinion evil has nothing to do with perversion of good. For him, what is at stake in evil, or, to be precise, in wickedness, is the question of decision.

In addition to these key ideas there are some relevant matters worth mentioning, that are often associated with the phenomenon of evil, e.g. the abyss and fascination with it. I bring these issues up in this presentation, and I think that they can be discerned quite clearly in Nancy’s thought.

My curiosity arose some years ago when I stumbled upon a perplexing question in one of Nancy’s texts: how can we distinguish one nothingness from another? This question is extremely interesting, particularly with respect to evil, the context of its appearance.2 Could the abyss and the network provide us with an answer? Be that as it may, they are the fixed points in my presentation, because they bring us closer to the problem of decision. And it is the problem of decision, in its concreteness, which summarizes the examination of evil for Nancy.

The emphasis on decision is something that Nancy shares with (for example) Kant. But there are also differences between the two. Nancy examines decision on the existential level, that is to say, ontologically, whereas for Kant it is an issue of morals. It should also be noted that Nancy’s focus is on malice, or rather on wickedness, meaning an existent’s possibility to refuse and destroy existence. According to Kant, this kind of evil, evil for the sake of evil, is something quite impossible and incomprehensible as far as human beings are concerned. Kant excludes wickedness, the diabolical evil, from the field of radical evil. But does radical evil then become slightly too human?

Considering the thematic of evil, another important figure for Nancy is Heidegger.3 This may sound strange, if we consider e.g. the objection made by the Italian philosopher Luigi Pareyson. According to him, the Heideggerian notion of Nichts, the nothing, entirely lacks the destructiveness proper to evil, and has nothing to do with the kind of negation that is destructive.4 One is tempted to think that this objection is caused by a well-known formulation by Heidegger. He says that the nothing is – as other than the being, Seiende – only the veil of being, Sein, that arouses anxiety. This setting changes, however, if we focus on the implications that Nancy draws from the Heideggerian notion of Nichten, nihilation. Below I will try to illuminate how he unveils the possibility of devastation from this concept in the context of Letter on Humanism. The nothing proves to be double-edged.

On the whole Nancy takes the destructiveness, the positivity of evil or of wickedness seriously, because at its worst it has caused the extreme negation of existence. Faced with a fact like this, our culture of freedom has proved powerless and even worthless. Evil is something that is unjustifiable.5 Nevertheless, we cannot avoid its inscription in freedom. Wickedness is freedom, in a sense.

Before I go deeper into these reflections I must sketch a background for Nancy’s constitutive ontological viewpoint mentioned above. I will do this with two facts. The facts in question are the fact of being and the fact of freedom, and – as one may guess – we are not talking about facts in the everyday meaning of the word. The first fact, the fact of being, originates from Heidegger’s thinking of being, in other words from the notion of withdrawal or concealment of being understood as the condition for the unconcealment of the being. Nancy reads Heidegger’s existential analytic from this angle. For him the notion means the existentiality of existence, that is the withdrawal of being in Dasein and as Dasein.6 Thinking of being, then, is thinking of existence. The second fact refers to the Kantian notion of the fact of freedom, as defined in the last pages of Critique of Judgement.7 However, Nancy revises this notion with the result that the fact in question comes quite close to the fact or factuality8 of Dasein in Heidegger.

It goes without saying that the question of freedom has an important role also in Heidegger’s thinking. The concept of freedom as such, however, is replaced by him with the thought of the history of being, but this conception is followed by themes like the ‘free’, das Freie, or the ‘free space’.9 In this context it is nevertheless interesting that also Heidegger, in his Schelling Lectures, speaks about the fact of freedom.10 In these lectures he traces real human freedom as a capacity for good and for evil and accordingly opposes the conception of moral decidedness, Entschiedenheit, for good or evil.11 This is worth keeping in mind in view of what follows, because Nancy, who studies wickedness ontologically, here ends up with ‘for good and/or evil’ – and finally with a solution to the benefit of the latter: freedom decides for good or evil.12

In what follows I will try to clarify the facts of being and freedom, albeit rather schematically. Even if I examine these facts separately, it should be noted that they overlap, because freedom turns out to be an element of being, as Nancy claims.13 It is well grounded to examine them as facts that are not to be taken in the usual way, that is as given or empirical. They introduce a paradoxical, non-empirical reality marked by a tensional differentiality in its concreteness. Nancy calls this paradoxical reality aréalité, areality. It means finite transcendence, and that is what the facts of being and freedom are all about.

At this point I should sound a note of warning. In the following descriptions of these facts very few – if any – traces of evil or wickedness can be found. This could give rise to an impression that wickedness is of secondary importance in comparison with the reality that is being described. However, I have just claimed that wickedness, for Nancy, is not a perversion of anything preceding or ‘originary’. Following this partial point of view I will try to introduce a level on which wickedness can be discussed as inscribed in freedom. It is my aim to complement the point of view further on.

First, the fact of being. As stated above, Nancy thinks of existence – Dasein’s way of being – from the Heideggerian viewpoint of the withdrawal of being. Besides the categorical determinations, it is essence as the preceding and grounding instance in particular from which being withdraws. At the same time it draws the being to the nothingness of its freedom. Being, then, offers existence, which in itself, as groundless, constitutes essence – instead of preceding or following (from) essence. At that point the concepts of existence and essence lose their traditional, metaphysical meaning and opposition and, according to Nancy, end up in a chiasmatic relation with one another, to which being in its withdrawal is abandoned. In Being and Time this is formulated as follows: ‘The “essence” of Dasein lies in its existence.’14 Nancy holds this assertion as central to the whole existential analytic. Simultaneously he claims that the chiasm between existence and essence implies freedom.15 ‘Existence as its own essence is nothing other than the freedom of being.’16

Existence is thus offered as factual, as the factuality of Dasein. Nancy emphasizes that the essence of Dasein lies in its (having)-to-be, Zu-Sein, or in its possibilities, which are each time possible for it to be.17 These possibilities are existential and factual, in other words, they have to be existed; they don’t float free, nor are they anything appropriable. Deciding for them, or ‘to choose oneself’, means to decide ‘to be one’s own as the existent that one is, which means always, as this being whose existence surprises it, as existence and as its own’.18 The surprise clearly brings out the difference of existence to itself, which is what the fact of being is about. In the following it is precisely the relation to these possibilities that will be of crucial significance, but things get complicated by the fact when freedom is introduced, it will bring along with it the possibility of evil.

Second, the fact of freedom. Nancy’s point of departure is the Kantian, that is the practical, non-empirical version of this fact. However, he emphasizes the point that if freedom is real, it has to be viewed ontologically, as an element of being; not causally as Kant does, but as liberated from the causality (of freedom). Understood in this way, freedom deals with ‘the reality of man’. Heidegger, who uses this expression in his Kant interpretation, also gives a hint about the existential dimension of the reality of this freedom.19 He speaks about the categorical imperative and emphasizes the inner function of this law for Dasein.20 Nancy follows Heidegger’s thought, with a quite unconventional interpretation as a result.21

According to Nancy, in the light of Heidegger’s idea the fact in question proves to be the reality of the ought-to, the duty of being-there, Sollen des Daseins. The abandonment of existence to obligation is due to existence not having an essence as given, but having to receive it as alterity, as the law of existing. Freedom is given as a law of singularity, as Nancy says, that is to say, as the categorical imperative: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.22

The reality of the ought-to, then, means a situation of being exposed to the imperative as well as being responsible to it. This does not imply, however, that the existent could not disobey it or act against it. Freedom allows for radical evil (Kant) or the maxim of wickedness (Nancy).23 In any case, being subject to duty means a situation in which a decision in favour of the ‘ought to’, Sollen – having to will one’s existence – is called for as a ceaselessly recurrent task: one ought to legislate in a universal manner. Freedom means a destination to this universal legislation.24 Praxis, enjoined by the imperative – Act! – is reduced to this kind of decision of existence. However, the universal, here, is not given, which means that it is set as a task.25 The universal has to be found in the decision itself, in an unpredictable way – that is to say, without preceding instances (e.g. general law), as Kant has shown in his analysis of reflective judgement. Nancy is ready to see in the not-given universal a determination of the other existent. But this other existent is to be understood as plural.26 The determination, then, means existents sharing their singular alterity.27 Each time, however, it is dependent on decision, whether we permit our alterity to coexist.28 Such viewpoints lend themselves well to emphasizing responsibility, especially if we take into account the aforementioned possibility of evil.

To summarize, we can conclude from these facts that Nancy’s idea is to think of the withdrawal of being as freedom. The fact that there is existence is not due to any necessity but is freely given or offered.

How does Nancy understand freedom, then? His point of departure is that the factuality of existence is a matter of factual freedom. This means that freedom precedes the existential possibilities. It is what makes these possibilities possible. However, freedom is now comprehended in a radical way, as liberation, as e.g. Heidegger has emphasized.29 Freedom as factual is not to be taken as quality or property, as the power of spontaneity, etc., because it is by itself only its own liberation. Nancy finds in later Heidegger the idea of leap, Sprung, and thinks that factual freedom is precisely that kind of leap.30 Another term that according to him characterizes freedom is surprise, which we already touched upon, and this surprise concerns freedom itself: factual freedom surprises itself. Surprising itself is a mark proper to freedom.31

But this surprising relates to existence, as we have seen. We get more clarity to the surprising nature of factuality if we take into account that liberation surprises the course of time. It is not difficult to think that the moment of surprise overtakes at the cost of the past as well as of the future. Besides ignoring both the bygone and the coming present, as Nancy remarks, liberation does not keep itself within its own present or event, either. Surprise is untimely. It spaces time in a manner that brings to mind the Heideggerian notion of the ‘free space of time’. The consequence is a syncope of time and presence, ‘wherein that which does not present itself as present presents itself, namely, the withdrawal of essence in which existence exists’.32 We see here how being, in its withdrawal, can show a surprising generosity.33

Even though Nancy is aiming at the experience and finitude of freedom, he does not limit his investigation to the commonly accepted democratic liberties.34 Today these liberties seem to be so far beyond reasonable doubt that they can be said to be the current representation of freedom in general. Their seeming self-evidence is revealed by the reaction of intolerance which occurs when they are suppressed or even momentarily suspended. This kind of reaction is not caused only by moral values but, as Nancy says, it is due to the fact that those liberties ‘delimit necessary conditions of contemporary human life’.35 The consequence is that evil has started to incarnate itself in everything that threatens or destroys those liberties. The horizon is thus narrowed worryingly, because the potential menace extends also to concerns that are beyond these more or less clearly defined liberties. One such example is the idea of freedom, which is implicated as their common but transcendent concept. Because this kind of idea is unexplainable, the efforts to put it into practice will probably only lead to chaos or terror and jeopardize these liberties. Consequently it is better not to touch upon it by any means.

Nancy doesn’t examine freedom from the point of view of liberties or the idea of freedom. Instead, he aspires to set the stakes of freedom differently, that is ontologically. If my understanding is correct, the background for this is a judgement about the coming to the fore of wickedness in the current world. Evil is neither graspable in terms of privation, as a lack of the good, nor can it be articulated or approached as a perversion of the good, as Kant’s radical evil still was, but as wickedness taken as positive, that is as a peculiar reality.36 But how is the possibility of wickedness effectively present in freedom’s factuality? Following this train of thought is obviously impossible from the Kantian point of view.

If we draw together what Nancy says about factual freedom, we notice that it is characterized by liberation, that is to say, being outside of itself or detached from itself. He thinks that freedom has to be comprehended according to this logic of liberation or detachment, as the ‘self’ of the being-outside-of-itself.37 It is finite, then, if we bear in mind that it is essential to finitude not to contain its own essence in itself. Consequently, finite freedom does not return or belong to itself, but instead it can turn against itself unexpectedly: freedom is precisely what is free for and against itself.38 Nancy claims that the possibility of wickedness lies in this turn of freedom against itself. Hence we can conclude that, for him, freedom is freedom to good and to evil, even as freedom of being.

Thus Nancy considers good and evil as existential possibilities, that is as possibilities of existence. The approach is based on the idea that being offers these existential possibilities in its withdrawal, or, in other words, in its nothingness. Finitude, which is at issue in this offering, is to be understood so radically that it puts also the opening of the possibility of wickedness at stake.39 This conception differs from the view that takes finitude as privation of good and consequentially as evil. The crucial point is that the possibilities of wickedness and good are equally original and evil is not regarded any more as a perversion of the primordial good.40

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