Nancy is a Thinker of Radical Emancipation

Angelaki 26 (3-4):225-238 (2021)
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Nancy has been criticised for rejecting the politics of emancipation that characterises the thought of some of his more militant contemporaries. To be sure, he does distance himself from the rhetoric of emancipation. He considers that the grand modern emancipation narrative of the Enlightenment, and of the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, expired with the end of the Cold War, and that the ideal of emancipation carried by this narrative is dangerous insofar as it imposes “ultimate sense” on history and assumes an “essence of humanity” that is to be liberated. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Nancy’s rejection of the modern, linear account of emancipatory politics is a refusal of emancipation per se. Indeed, his reason for rejecting modernity’s simple narrative of emancipatory progress is that this framing of history is by a long chalk not emancipatory enough, and that it has far too much in common with the identitarian politics against which it seeks to set itself. So it should come as no surprise that Nancy uses emancipatory language in his very rejection of the politics of emancipation, arguing for example that we need “emancipation from a certain thinking of emancipation.” This article makes the case for Nancy as a rich and radical thinker of emancipation whose thought, far from being apolitical when it comes to liberation, offers us a broad, robust and practical account of the emancipatory. This case is made by weaving together two important strands of Nancy’s thought. First, his deconstruction of Christianity is examined in the light of the claim that Christianity is “in itself and by itself in a state of surpassing” and that Christianity’s self-surpassing is “perhaps its deepest tradition.” This leads, secondly, to a consideration of Nancy’s frequent meditations on Pascal’s statement that “man infinitely exceeds/surpasses man.” When they are taken together, what emerges from these two strands of Nancy’s thought is a pattern of emancipation that goes beyond simple historical ruptures to operate across multiple temporalities at once, each populated by plural vectors of continuity and change. Nancy seeks emancipation from a double slavery: the slavery of absolutising a continuity with the past, and that born of the ideological fantasy of a simple rupture with the past. Instead, he offers us an account of emancipation that is capable of navigating a subtler course through multiple dynamics of continuity and change. The article concludes by briefly examining Nancy’s use of the term ressourcement to characterise this radical account of emancipation, evoking the importance of the gesture described by this term for the biblical prophets, for the magisterial reformers and for Vatican II. Far from being weak in its emancipatory potential, Nancy’s thought takes the modern emancipatory imperative and returns it to us with greater depth, breadth and potency.



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Christopher Watkin
Monash University

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