Jean-Luc Nancy, Ego Sum: Corpus, Anima, Fabula, trans. Marie-Eve Morin. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016; 138 + xxv pages. ISBN: 978-0823270620.

Reviewed by Ian James, University of Cambridge.

This excellent English translation of Ego Sum by one of Nancy’s most expert readers, commentators, and philosophical interlocutors, Marie-Eve Morin, is long overdue. Published originally France in 1979, the book occupies a singular place in Nancy’s early works and, as both the author’s new preface and the translator’s introduction indicate, it resonates in manifold ways throughout Nancy’s mature thinking such as it has developed up to the present day. Its arguments are recalled in some of the most important subsequent moments and works that define Nancy as a philosopher: the thinking of experience and of freedom (in The Experience of Freedom), of embodiment and embodied space (in works such as Corpus), of sense (The Sense of the World), of exposition in the Nancean ontology of the singular plural (in Being Singular Plural and elsewhere), and, more recently, the thinking of un-groundedness and void central to the (auto-)deconstruction of Christianity. Indeed, as Nancy himself puts it in his preface, the thought of Ego Sum: “has never ceased reworking, repeating and renewing itself within me.” (vii). The book is therefore an indispensable point of reference for anyone wanting to understand the core dynamic of Nancy’s thinking in general and its development from the earliest phase of his career in particular.

It is also, as the translator’s introduction begins by emphasising, a book whose concerns remain very much our own. Arguably the status of the subject (be it embodied, haptic, transcendental, or surpassed as such and rendered redundant in the work of the speculative realists) continues to preoccupy us; Nancy’s own question posed in 1991 in Who Comes After the Subject? remains as pertinent and open today as it ever did, as is witnessed by outstanding recent works such as Irving Goh’s Nancy-inflected The Reject: Community, Politics and Religion after the Subject. Perhaps most interestingly, Nancy’s 1979 book takes the question of the subject and its moment of foundation in the early modern period and traces that foundation in an intersection of thought, speech, and an ungrounded body, one which is materially spatialized and therefore exposed in a shared world. This intersection is figured in the motif of the “mouth” which can give us an image of the subject not simply as embodied but as also, in very specific manner, biologically naturalized. The mouth as Nancy says in his preface absorbs, ingests and therefore serves the biological organism in digestion and metabolization and the coordination of “muscular, nervous. and hormonal capacities.” (xi) Arguably, then, and as these comments suggest, the subject of Ego Sum prefigures the naturalising of post-deconstructive thought of the kind that is now most evident in the ongoing work of thinkers such as Catherine Malabou and Bernard Stiegler.

This is all achieved by way of a singular and highly original return to the foundation of the subject in Descartes in a reading that is inflected and influenced by a number of thinkers, most obviously Heidegger and Nietzsche, but also Blanchot, Derrida, and Nancy’s close friend and colleague Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. It is, as Nancy himself puts it:

a matter of reaching the place, indeed of going back to the instant of a foundation, that of the Subject—in order to lend an ear to what only the foundation can make audible, because it triggers it and brings it about: the whisper of the subject that utters itself there, and collapses there. (11)

The reading of Descartes that Nancy develops here is firmly embedded within the context of his collaboration in the 1970s with Lacoue-Labarthe around the question of the relation of philosophy to literature, a collaboration pursued in journals such as Poétique. As with the later Nancean thinking of the deconstruction of Christianity, the crux of the argument turns around an instance of auto-deconstruction that can be discerned as operating at a point of origin, in a moment of originary or inaugural foundation. So whereas in the later thought this inaugural moment is that of Christ’s incarnation as flesh, in Ego Sum it is the enunciation and foundation of the subject in the cogito (with embodiment being central to both). The Cartesian establishment of the subject, Nancy writes, “corresponds, through the most binding necessity of its own structure, to the instantaneous exhaustion of its essential possibilities. The very erection and inauguration of the Subject will have brought about the collapse of its substance.” (16) The subject does not need to be deconstructed or toppled since it has always already undermined itself from the outset. It is just matter of discerning the logic of this “collapse” and, in the context of Nancy’s thinking of the 1970s, this logic is one which is articulated in the impossibility that philosophy encounters when it tries to separate itself from its discursive and literary mode presentation in order to establish or found itself as philosophy (an exact same logic is also discerned in Nancy’s reading of Kant in Logodeadalus).

Nancy is interested in the way in which Descartes, in texts such as the Discourse on Method in particular, seeks to both ground the philosophical subject in a moment of autonomous self-foundation (the cogito) and give a portrait or narrative account of that moment in order to hold it up for appraisal and judgment. There is a necessary interplay or doubling here between the supposedly autonomous and self-sufficient moment of foundation and its presentation or representation in discourse. This necessary interplay means that the foundational moment is never in fact autonomous or self-sufficient but always reliant on a kind of self-imaging in a discourse which, in the end, remains fictive. As Nancy points out, Descartes very famously presents the Discourse on Method as a fable.  He notes that: “it is given as a fable and must be used as a fable.” (68) This means that the foundational moment of the subject never really coincides with itself as a self-identity which founds anything at all. It is only ever a fiction, mask, or fable that is never self-coincident, always exposed in excess of itself, and, as a result, is un-grounded in the very moment of its self-grounding. As Nancy puts it: “The author of the method can only present himself in painting—and this painting is at the same time its own original and the mask of the original who conceals himself, two feet away, behind his portrait.” (43–44) Or put another way, with the emphasis being on the articulation of the cogito in speech, “Within the uttering, the subject loses all finish, all finition or figure…in the end I must give up the desire to define it….I encounter it within the in-finite fable of the uttering.” (85)

As indicated above, it is not too much to say that all of Nancy’s subsequent thinking can be seen to flow from this auto-deconstruction of the subject that is discerned in the arguments of Ego Sum. Similarly some of the key questions that Nancy’s thought in general provokes are raised here. Perhaps most notable amongst these in the context of contemporary debate is the question of the way Nancy relates philosophical subjectivity and a thinking of being to the human capacity of speech. This in turn raises the question of the status or place of the animal and the non-human in his thinking and of whether he remains an anthropocentric thinker. These are issues that Nancy raises explicitly in the new preface when he notes that in Ego Sum: “the sense of ‘being’ is the act of speech,” and that at such a point, “it becomes impossible not to consider the ‘I’ of every sensing existence, hence of plant and animal existence—at the very least, and without excluding a more extensive reflection on the mineral as exposed to actions outside and within itself.” (ix) The exposure or exposition of the human speaking subject outside of itself as discerned in the reading of Descartes is, as a (or indeed the) structure of being, immediately generalizable to all beings and things and this exposition is “always and everywhere mutual” and thanks to it “a sense circulates, the sense of the world.” (ix) So Nancy is clear that sense passes or circulates from all beings to all beings independently of the speaking of being in human utterance and speech. Yet human speech, when uttered or articulated as such, speaks necessarily for all being since it speaks being as such:

The sense of being-saying is not a sense imputed by the human being to the other beings that are incapable of expressing themselves. It is the sense that is said from all beings to all others through the speech that is not so much reserved for one of these beings than carried by this one being for the sake of all, in the same way that mineral concretion is carried by another being, or coloured profusion, sonorous emotion, etc. (x)

This is a difficult thinking that is easy to misconstrue as anthropocentric or residually Heideggerian in its co-articulation of speech and being. Yet what it says is something about the speech that humans have and that other species do not (the possibility of some having their own forms of speech not withstanding) and the specifically human relation to being that this instantiates. Yet, to repeat, with or without humans and their speech, “sense circulates” in a way which is “always and everywhere mutual.”

The importance of this cannot be underestimated, for it places Nancy in a unique position in relation to contemporary debates surrounding the question of post-Kantian correlationism and speculative realism. It shows that Nancy’s philosophy is non- (if not strictly anti-)correlationist avant la lettre and that it accounts for the human relation to being and sense whilst not allowing singular plural existence in general, as the circulation of sense, to flow from, or be dependent upon, that relation. The long overdue English translation of Ego Sum and its new author’s preface bring these issues into a very sharp light and make Nancy’s unique contribution to this debate accessible to a contemporary Anglophone readership. As such this volume provides an invaluable service to the reception of this most important of contemporary philosophers.