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A Forward-looking France: Jean-Luc Nancy on National Identity

The following paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

Should national identity be considered to be an outdated concept in this day and age? Have the adjectives “French,” “Italian,” “German,” and so on become meaningless terms over the last couple of decades? Both practical and theoretical developments may seem to suggest that this question should be answered in the affirmative. Processes of globalization, including increased mobility and migration, have made it unmistakably clear that the human world cannot be divided into discrete social units. In addition, much philosophical effort has been devoted to destabilizing notions like “community,” “sameness,” and “identity.”

Neither of these developments, however, has made national belonging a thing of the past—far from it, as many of the responses to the euro crisis demonstrate. This is not to condone the populism and xenophobia that continue to hold much of Europe in its sway; it is only to observe that merely undermining the concept of collective identity cannot capture the complex situation in which communities find themselves today. Yes, societies have shown themselves to be fluid and porous, but no, this does not mean that all small-scale social bonds have disappeared into a harmonious global village. Instead of unreservedly undercutting the idea of communal identity, the task for theory as I see it is to conceptualize the simultaneous transience and persistence of such belonging.

In what follows, I will turn to the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in order to see how a more balanced concept of collective identity could be developed. Now my choice for Nancy may seem somewhat surprising, for is he not precisely one of the thinkers responsible for the recent undermining of concepts like nation and collectivity? Indeed, is Nancy, author of The Inoperative Community, not the opponent of all notions of unity and identity par excellence? On my reading, this need not be said to be the case, but I will not defend that by offering a close reading of Nancy’s influential text from 1983. Instead, I want to have a look at one of his more recent writings: a short book entitled Identité: fragments, franchises, published in 2010.

Identité was written as a response to the French debate about national identity, and on the face of it, it simply rejects each and every discussion of belonging for being inherently exclusionary. Yet as I will show, something more or something else is happing in the fragments that make up Nancy’s text. Regardless of the fact Nancy has become known as someone who only wants to think community by doing away with all things communal, his recent book tries to think identity beyond the twin extremes of inflation and deflation.

Let me start by giving some information about the debate to which Nancy responds in Identité. At the end of 2009, basically the whole of France was engaged in a discussion of what it means to be French (or at least in a discussion about that discussion). This was instigated by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who had already made national identity a prime issue in his presidential campaign. Sarkozy had his minister Éric Besson arrange an online survey as well as numerous town-hall meetings on topics ranging from prototypically French cuisine to the importance of Republican values like egalité and laïcité. Yet before the government was thus able to identify the essence of Frenchness once and for all, it had to shut its project down. Both the town-hall meetings and the internet site had turned into platforms for unabashed anti-immigrant and (more specifically) anti-Islamic xenophobia.

This, then, forms the background to Nancy’s observations in Identité: fragments, franchises. He opens the book with the confession that it was written out of sheer bewilderment: French thought has for decades been instrumental in questioning notions like “nation” and “identity,” and now the government of this very country wants to discuss what it means to be French as if psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and deconstruction never happened? This explains the first part of the book’s subtitle: it consists of a number of fragments, Nancy states, written in haste, to prevent his head from spinning too much and from going round in circles.

Yet even if Nancy rejects the simplistic ideas that underlie the project of the Sarkozy administration, he explicitly denies wanting to reject the concept of identity altogether. In fragment six he states that “being French” is not a wholly empty expression to him, and in the first fragment he explains that if he contests the right-wing understanding of national identity, he does not want to be put aside as a left-wing relativist either. Nancy rather wants to “[recuperate] the concept of identity for left philosophical thought,” as David Nowell Smith puts it in his review of Identité. Hence, the aim of Nancy’s recent book is not simply to criticize the project of the Sarkozy administration. The goal is also to offer an alternative perspective on collective identity—and these two aims go hand in hand.

This can for instance be seen in the fourth of Nancy’s fragments, in which he investigates the meaning of the word “French” and its implications for the concept of belonging. Rather than denying that the word “French” has any meaning whatsoever, Nancy discusses the etymology of this term. As he explains, the French derive their name from the Franks, a group of Germanic tribes who lived in the Lower and Middle Rhine region in the early Christian era. (So the French are actually German in origin, an irony Nancy cannot resist pointing out.) Now like the English word “frank,” the French word “franc” is used to denote straightforwardness and honesty. And honesty, Nancy argues, is precisely a necessary condition for saying who one is, what one’s identity is. A declaration like “I am a Christian,” after all, does not mean anything when it is extorted by means of torture. Elaborating on this example and on another connotation of the word “franc,” Nancy explains that statements of identity have to be made from a certain place of freedom and independence: “une zone franche.” So with their very name, the French point to two requirements for identity: the free character of one’s position and the honesty of one’s declaration.

Nancy can subsequently be said to use these etymological findings to criticize the 2009 debate about what it means to be French. His point is not so much that discussions on belonging should be ruled out tout court; in line with his reflections on the meaning of the word “franc,” Nancy’s objection to the 2009 debate is that this did not make for a true or honest discussion. It was imposed on the French people by their administration, yet it is not up to an administration to define the identity of a people, Nancy maintains. For in so far as an administration concerns itself with naming and identifying persons—and the word “administration” is really the only right term in this context—it does so in the form of files and stamps and censuses. Yet this rigid and formal way of categorizing persons does not come close to capturing what their identity is, Nancy maintains. It’s the difference between what Sartre called en soi and pour soi, or between what Ricoeur called idem and ipse identity—the difference between identity as something thing-like and identity as something that is always already in motion and that therefore does not lend itself to neat compartmentalization and categorization.

This brings me to another respect in which the 2009 debate did not make for a free discussion: Nancy explains that the Sarkozy administration framed the debate in such a way that only a very narrow and in fact outdated concept of Frenchness could result. Sarkozy was very clear about the results he wanted to see: “Je veux du gros rouge qui tache,” he stated at one of the first meetings about the national debate, referring to the cheap red wine that used to be a staple among the poorer classes in France. Yet as Nancy points out, this plonk has gradually disappeared from French viniculture, both as a result of improved production processes and as a result of changes in the tastes and preferences of the French public. So one of the quintessentially French things that Sarkozy wanted to see identified by the discussants is in fact no longer part of everyday French life. The framing of the debate was thus bound to limit and distort what it nowadays means to be French beforehand—not just for the numerous Muslims in France who do not drink alcohol to begin with, but also for those contemporary Frenchmen who do enjoy the occasional glass of fine wine.

Hence, Nancy criticizes the 2009 debate for being imposed from the top down and for moreover trying to make something as alive and multifaceted as French identity into a static and archaic thing. Taking his lead from these points of critique, Nancy then tries to offer an alternative perspective on communal identity. In fragment five, he invokes Nietzsche’s famous “Become who you are!” as an antidote to Sarkozy’s restrictive and repressive nostalgia. The reference to Nietzsche serves to underscore that identity is never given but is always in development, and that trying to pin it down at a particular point in time flies in the face of this dynamic process. For as Nancy explains, there is no pre-given point at which the self finally finds itself. Once you become who you are, after all, you are no longer your original self. A similar point about the fundamentally fluid nature of belonging is made in the sixth and final of Nancy’s fragments. Here, Nancy tries to bring his foregoing reflections together by suggesting that the best model for understanding identity is an index finger. Identity is not some thing that can be grasped or clearly circumscribed, he states, but has always simply been a finger pointing forward, in the direction of what is coming and what will never cease to come: “dans la direction de cela qui vient et qui ne cesse de venir.”

Now this admittedly does not make for a fully worked out account of national or collective identity; given that Identité only consists of a number of fragments, this should also not be too surprising. Yet if Nancy’s recent text does not provide a full-blown theory of collectivity, it does offer a new starting point for thinking about matters like national identity—one that radically differs from the way the French government has approached this issue. For according to Nancy, identity is never a matter of looking backward but is always a matter of looking forward, never a matter of who we have been but always a matter of who we are in the process of becoming.

This does not mean that, on Nancy’s view, national identity may never become a topic of discussion. It simply means that debates about identity should remain open and ongoing, that no perspective on what is means to be French can be excluded beforehand and that the outcome cannot be known or stipulated in advance. Indeed, according to the picture that emerges from Nancy’s text, collective identity can itself be said to be a kind of conversation, one between a multiplicity of voices and one that always remains underway. To the extent that it becomes static and archaic, this results from individuals or governments trying to halt the process of becoming. Yet to keep the conversation of belonging going is, to end with a quote from The Inoperative Community, “an infinite task at the heart of finitude.”

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