TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Failure of the Body Politic

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lewis West looks at Chantal Bax’s “The Fibre, the Thread, and the Weaving of Life: Wittgenstein and Nancy on Community” from Telos 145 (Winter 2008).

In her exploration of Wittgenstein’s elusive and scattered commentary on community, Chantal Bax notes the absence of an explicit understanding of community in the philosopher’s work. Though Wittgenstein often invokes communal concepts, he rarely provides any details regarding the exact nature of a proper community, or the maintenance and governance a just society requires. Bax highlights the one place where Wittgenstein succumbs to the “unfortunate metaphor” of the body politic: he suggests the Jews, marginalized by European society, resemble a “‘kind of disease, anomaly,'” a “‘swelling'” which can “‘only be considered to be a proper part of the body when the whole feeling for the body is changed'” (105). Bax reads this as a tragic and empathetic lament: Wittgenstein doubts the possibility of a renewed, welcoming society that nonetheless adheres to this same vocabulary of the political body. And it is this prophetic doubt that intensifies the crisis of community that reiterates the necessity of Wittgenstein’s rethinking of life together.

Bax quickly moves on from this particular passage. She treats it as an outlier in a body of work that more often deliberately avoids the language of the body politic. Yet we can also read this passage as underlining the importance of Bax’s piece: Wittgenstein’s use of the metaphor of the body politic does not demonstrate a coherent theory of community, but rather points to the fraught relationship the philosopher had with the politics that dominated his time. The passage reflects a deeper uncertainty in his work, and emphasizes what is at stake when we talk about the ideal community.

The language of disease, pollution, and difference, which Bax places in conversation with Wittgenstein’s wider unease over the body politic, has a history marked by blood. It is at once ancient and modern. Blood itself—as a signifier of both familial and religious solidarity—characterized the politics of kings and crusaders, and the elimination of “disease, infection, infestation, putrefaction, [and] pestilence” formed one of the key elements in the Nazi ideology of extermination.[1] The body politic works with fluids, with pathogens, with uniform subjects eager to cast out intrusions and abnormalities. It implies at times a horrifying logic—to call it an “unfortunate metaphor” only hints at the terror that has plagued its past.

Yet the past of the body politic haunts more than a single passage from Wittgenstein’s writings. Bax notes the inability of a “classical corpus model” to account for complex understandings of responsibility as well as the subtleties of Wittgenstein’s own work (106). Wittgenstein refuses to resolve the tension between individual and collective responsibility. The individual does not dissolve in face of the whole, yet true solitude is also illusory. We are forever drawn toward one another, and often our innermost thoughts and feelings carry traces of our surroundings. Even our loves and hopes may make little sense removed from their social context (103). Wittgenstein does not abandon the body politic for the individual. Rather he remains in between; he dissents from the norms of his time while never quite proposing a definitive alternative. His statements are decidedly apolitical, yet we can also find in them numerous, important fears: that the power of the single person remains partial, that to insist on total individuality breeds loneliness, and that to dilute accountability leads to an abdication of real responsibility.

To turn this vague but deliberate protest into a theory of community, Bax turns to Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy, like Wittgenstein, rejects the possibility of any absolute and closed community or individual:

It [the logic of the liberal subject or the pure collective] leads to a contradiction when applied to the singular being, for it must depict the individual as not merely isolated or alone, but as moreover, ‘alone in being alone.’ Absolute ‘ab-soluteness’ can only be achieved by ruling out each and every plurality and relation, whereas being absolute or disconnected implies that there is something else to which one bears a relationship of dissociation. The logic of absolute individuality must thus deny exactly what it needs to presuppose.

The metaphysics of closure or totality similarly leads to a dead-end when it is applied to community. (108)

Nancy mirrors Wittgenstein in suggesting the impossibility of a being without relation. A community or individual must, according to the logic both thinkers refute, exist entirely without relation to the outside for either to maintain an internally coherent sense of self. Yet this very negation of connection and relation presupposes the possibility of similarity and comparison.

The absolutist inability to eliminate all forms of interaction provides the foundation for what Bax reads as Wittgenstein’s proposal for a new, alternative vision of community. She finds a productive analogy in Wittgenstein’s invocation of the “fibre and thread”:

Just as a thread does not consist of one single fibre but derives its strength from the overlapping of many fibres, community is not a matter of individuals sharing one essential characteristic but of being both like and unlike each other in many different ways. Participating in the weave of life is therefore as much a matter of reformation or innovation as it is of conformation. (114)

Community and individual do not form isolated entities. Individuals twist and turn and overlap, creating an ever-changing and intensely complex group. This group—the thread—lends its strength to single individuals—the fibers—but it does not preexist them. Its definition is a constant work-in-progress, a set of qualities whose boundaries are never fixed. Neither individual nor community takes priority. Both remain in constant conversation.

Bax reads Wittgenstein as offering a radically different form of community, one that eschews traditional language of inside and outside for a vocabulary of interrelation and dependence. We should prize this style of community for its potential: in embracing difference it opens new avenues for thinking about diversity and identity. But it is also valuable in that it departs from the language of the body politic at a time when such a break was sorely needed. In Wittgenstein’s lifetime, theories of community would justify massacre and unprecedented violence. That Wittgenstein reacted to these theories with a marked unease makes his voice all the more essential.


1. Gil Anidjar, “Blood,” Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon 1 (Winter 2011); Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 70.

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