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Faith, Belief, and The ‘Ungraspability of Being’: Nancy Reads Gérard Granel’s “Far From Substance, Whither?”

Heartfelt thanks to François Raffoul (Louisiana State University) for organizing a panel on Nancy’s recent work and for inviting me to participate in Mondes Francophones, and to David Bertet and Dominique Scarfone (Département de philosophie and Département de psychologie, Université de Montréal, respectively) for making this paper possible.


 1.     An Insubstantial Faith

To examine Jean-Luc Nancy’s conception of faith, which is the central concept in his Dis-Enclosure: Deconstruction of Christianity, we should begin from the exemplary illustrations he provides, rather than from the concepts he adapts from Heidegger and Derrida. Operative throughout this collection of essays is the pursuit of an ontology that would have the lightness, or openness, of Heidegger’s Lichtung or clearing, but without making the ontological commitment to a difference between beings and Being, the ontic and the ontological. In Nancy, we find a resolute identification of faith with action, which is certainly not original, though it takes a strong position against the “gospel” of Paul, the thirteenth Apostle. Following Nancy’s initiative, then, I will turn to his most striking example. This is the deformalization of the “world” that Gérard Granel (1930-2000) sketched-keeping in mind that this approach to Being highlights the aesthetic rather than the moral or fideistic dimensions of it. Thereafter, I will turn to the claim that faith is not belief, but action. This is clearly a polemical claim that reduces the wealth of connotations in the concept of belief itself. Moreover, it draws on the opposition of the Judaism of James versus the early “Christianity” of Paul-a more complex opposition than Nancy indicates, and one that may imperil his conception of the source of the “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

The following lyrical description comes then from Gérard Granel:

Sub-stance…is, in effect, nothing other than the thetic profanation of the most banal of evidences, that of the presence of the real. That upon which I open my shutters each morning, that in which I attend to the affairs of life, that in which I fall asleep without concerning myself with what holds Hypnos and Thanatos together…and, despite all that, that of which I am never aware.

Save perhaps in the mode of a sort of mise en arrêt, a tiny and silent recoil before the nothing of that primitive All-let us say, a sentiment of the World, or of existing (this is not an alternative…). It is always a detail, nothing but a detail in the immense population of things that provokes this infinitesimal suspension: the cry of a harrier streaking across the gray sky; a sudden chill that sends me back inside my skin; …A red sun that sinks vertically down the far side of things…

“One will probably say that all this concerns the poetry of the World, and that philosophy is not poetry. For my part, I would say that there reigns here…nothing less than a logic of phenomenality, a fabric of a prioris that readily put to shame the formula we used earlier (“the presence of the real”), just as much as the one metaphysics uses. (1)

A student of Husserl’s phenomenology after Heidegger, Granel was working out modalizations of existence that recall the work of the later Heidegger, but also that of Merleau-Ponty. It is noteworthy that Granel’s final thought experiment deformalized existence past even presencing and absencing. Painterly, he worked with and through a critique of formalist space and totalizing logics. We may say ‘all’ about ‘things’, but not “the all”-what stands before “me” (he writes prae-ens) “disappears the moment I distribute it into a matter and a form” (DDC 165). Moreover, spaces and objects given or lived through the senses “oblige us to conceive all form as an arrangement of sensations in space.” But arranged how, asks Granel, “brought about in what way?” (DDC 165). If space were a formal a priori, then thinking these forms would “break up” the validity of the pair: form and matter. Following Kant, Granel agrees that space cannot serve as the universal concept for things and their relations. In experience, if the evidence of material things clearly precedes the evidence of form, then effectively space would be an a priori-where a priori does not mean temporally first-but it would be an a priori form of nothing. Or again, when we think about things, we agree that a manifold and its spatial relations (as it were) “rest…on limitations” (DDC 165). But limitations, Granel adds, “[are] frontally opposed to [the concept] of the ‘part’, in other words, of ‘matter’…” (DDC 165). If the evidence of matter precedes that of form, and form is understood as arrangements of parts, then we are thinking things in two types of space-the one, relative to things; the other, to absolute space. It then becomes impossible to “think space itself” formally, as deriving from what deploys areas or spaces around itself. Kant introduces “limits” to explain how we distinguish matter in the manifold, from form. By contrast, parts belong to matter in a way that does not deploy space as exteriority. So Kant’s “limit” would be superimposed on interpenetrating fields, circumscribing relations between them, delimiting transitions, and permitting a kind of calculus of spaces. All this, within a greater space that is metaphysically presupposed. We may thus speak of “all,” but if we speak of “the all,” then we place matter and space, limitation and relations, in an encompassing abstract spatiality. “That this concept of limitation is opposed to that of … ‘matter’,” Granel writes, “and that, in consequence, the notion of ‘form’ used to qualify space itself (e.g., as an “a priori form of sensibility”) would thus become totally enigmatic-this is what Kant seems to want to smooth over by merely ‘exposing’ this novelty (i.e., his “transcendental exposition of space and time”)…as though [Kant] feared having to expose himself…to a novelty for which ‘words are lacking us'” (DDC 165). Space cannot be a universal concept for things, and as pure form, space becomes the form of the unthinkable. What can this possibly mean?

Attempting to think back, as it were, from parts and wholes, form and matter, Gérard Granel argues in the phenomenological-hermeneutic way that he no doubt learned from Heidegger (though he was mainly familiar with the Heidegger of Being and Time), that the a priori forms, space and time, are certainly forms of “the world.” Yet, our world itself has no form. The painterly examples he gives provide instances, sorts of still lifes for the indeterminacy about which we say, “everything” or “it is x-ing; it is y-ing.” Worlds unfold in modes that escape even acute phenomenological sensitivities-atmospheric modalities, adverbial modes show kinds of “how”: “it is so fresh today,” “oppressed by the heaviness around me…,” “weakened by the stormy blast.” Also evinced are boundaries, limits-all the unnoticed perceptions that deploy “space” so called. It is familiar to the point of being uncanny: the shape of a university building, says Granel, which rises in reds, is underscored by a “trail of vegetative green,” and then ascends to a height in “a kind of notching that thrusts forward” (DDC 168). If Granel were to paint the building, it would lose its function as pedagogical structure. When and if we speak of it, it grows banal-but its function is restored, or it becomes a geographical marker. Before conceptualizing it, however, we treat it as a whole. Yet, “what are we aiming at when we designate, as a perceptual “whole,” something that owes nothing to the pragmatic notion of a “building,” or to a transcendent concept of an “object,” but which unfailingly distinguishes itself from the other “wholes” represented by the trees around it, the cars…the sky?” Granel asks. What are we aiming at? Space? Or, how is it we are aiming at all?-No doubt, we aim through Merleau-Ponty’s conception of perceptual faith; no doubt, we aim thanks to the power of synecdoche to polarize things into wholes, and the silent work of grammar in all our perceptions. Recall Merleau-Ponty’s observations from 1964.

It is indeed true that, in order to disentangle myself from the complexities in which the perceptual faith casts me, I can address myself only to my experience of the world, to that blending with the world that recommences for me each morning as soon as I open my eyes, to that flux of perceptual life between it and myself which beats unceasingly…and makes my own secret thoughts change the aspect of faces and landscapes for me… (2)

Here we are aiming with neither intentional nor ideational exclusivity, and the circuit of our so-called perceptual wholes is shot through with memory and associations. At work here are Husserl’s passive syntheses of association, which he explored along with instincts in the 1920s when, late in his career, he thrust intentional analysis into the dark horizons of what he called, aware of his paradox, “empty retentions.” There, in what promised to be “a phenomenology of what we call the unconscious,” a sedimented past shapes the presence of a plethora of wholes thanks above all to the force of affect. (3) Recall his example of the string of lights perceived ‘in the flesh’, in the Rhine Valley near Freiburg, as a train passed along the river’s edge. Alongside of these, yet ex nihilo, arose the mnemonic association of another string of lights carrying or propelled by an affective charge, resembling yet detached from the first string: “That in a single stroke, a string of lights affects us as a whole, is manifestly tied to the pre-affective laws of the formation of unity” (SP 221, emphasis added). For these “pre-affective laws” we can only suggest comparisons, and the comparisons concern their effects-effects corresponding to geometries or painterly structures, but in no way explaining the rise of these affects. Thus, Husserl was led to the uncanny fabric of association, recollection, and affectivity. He muses, “How can the I become conscious of the fact that it has behind it an infinite field of past experiences, insofar as they are its own, that [the I] has a unity of a past life in the form of time…[ever] liable to be awakened afresh…?” (SP 196). The answer is enigmatically clear: every present is also a past reception, unity is firstly affective and only subsequently formal or architectonic; the energy of the overlapping geometries from which we too quickly deduce objective space derives its energy from a continuum uniting sensibility and affectivity. Here, the addition of association stabilizes yet complicates the phenomenological awareness Granel discussed as his present perception beneath awareness. Granel’s prae(s)ens thereby proves complex beyond discursive presentation, and the presence of the real proves simultaneously to be one of the imagination. As Merleau-Ponty put it, “any theory of painting is a metaphysics.” The same is true of the worlds I inhabit in the perceptual faith. (4) Again we find the logics of wholes and parts, lined or doubled in Husserl by affective modes that condition these in a way that thickens, as it were, the so-called presence of the real. (5)

Granel is working less from an interest in epistemological conundrums than from a concern that opens toward the affective source of our reflex to reverence and our fundamental confidence in ‘what-is’. (6) Foreshortening his remarks, he turns to the difference, the limitation he conceives to be the easiest to approach. Having argued that the approach to presence would be better thought as the basic reserve of the world, or as the way in which wholes variegate amongst each other-and not just kinaesthetically, as Husserl himself realized in the 1920’s as he expanded his phenomenology of constitution. Granel evokes the atmospheric “giving” of the sky and the dynamic limiting of light and dark. “[It] is true that the light of day, gradually erupting out of nocturnal chaos, ‘engenders’ the first duality of the visible, according to which it ‘divides itself’ into the non-thing that is the Sky, and an Earth-of-things” (DDC 169). Here, with the sky, is an Open that needs no ‘way out’, no point of exit; an opening inaccessible and ungraspable-“for not being,” Granel adds. This open region and the clearing of beings, the sky, says Granel in deliberately Heideggerian language, self-differentiates as a whole, and as “justly original,” though we have to allow that it both is and is not. “For, ultimately, the difference between this whole [of the university building] and the sky…[is] the easiest to grasp. The sky, precisely, never presents itself as a ‘thing’, in whose regard forms and qualities would stand in some relation of belonging. The sky is the paradigmatic non-thing. And in this way it is emblematic of the World as such” (DDC 168, emphasis added). Note that here space and non-things are deployed in relations of reciprocity. So much for the deformalization of space as relations between things, or as an overarching “here.”

As originary, and as the evidence of evidences, the sky acquires-perhaps always already has, a divine quality-in multiple traditions. Dius and divus: the association of light, the bright non-place of sky, and the divine. Granel also writes, “sub divo,” under the light and beneath the divine; this informs theogonies and creation narratives. If these were to ‘belong’ to philosophy as well, then it would be as informal a prioris, as non-things-as styles eliciting modalities and non-synthesizable regions of what-is (DDC 169). “The unity of appearing, from which arises invariably the dispensation of the sensible, has rarely the style of what is ‘thing-like’ [chosique]: for example, a tree that gleams as the daylight breaks over it confirms under our eyes the unity of a profusion in which it is obvious that the light does not pile, one upon the other, some ‘thing’ that would be the trunk, other ‘things’ that would be the branches, and then the twigs, all the way to a moving…multiplicity of those little-leafy-things. The tree is a unity of appearing of a non-thing-like type. There are many others, totally different from the vegetal profusion…” (DDC 169). Merleau-Ponty meant nothing else when he argued that each theory of painting opens a metaphysics. Why would we suppose that metaphysics stands radically separated from narrative, or even from a certain mythology?

The beauty of Granel’s other examples obscures the moment of concentration in light, which unfolds as phenomenological deformalization. This same beauty obscures the transition from presence-absence dynamics to their multiple hows, familiar to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, as well. Insisting on the reticence of perception leads Granel to argue that his adverbial profiles-“rising, notching, running”-all point to the “ungraspability of Being,” whose other pole is the body. Now, to the perceiver, the body is a blind site that deploys positions or ‘space’ around its own obscure core, like Malevich’s black rectangle on a background of white.

2. “Faith” in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure

Before we conclude too quickly that Granel, the one-time Marxist then Catholic Heideggerian, is guiding his teacher, Heidegger, in the all-too-French direction of aesthetics and sensibility, we should know that the godless, subjectless occurrences that Granel describes, like touches of color or light on a body, represent a fundamental faith for Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy’s recent Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity (2008) is not unearthing the formal conditions of possibility of Christian faith, much less deconstructing them. It is exploring the simplest constituents of faith without objects or purposes. To that end Nancy follows Gérard Granel. Curiously, having abandoned Christianity as corrupted by the “domination of a ‘Christendom’ carefully disguised as modernity” (DDC 63), Granel never explicitly discussed the “destiny of his [own lost] ‘faith'” (DDC 63). (7) Pursuing what he calls Kant’s “‘transcendental emptying out'” of Being, Granel follows this kenosis or “red-thread of modern thought from Kant to Heidegger.” He understands it as parallel with the “finitization of being,” or recognition of “the pure and simple finitude of being itself” (DDC 64). In this way, Granel works around Heidegger, evincing “a primitive mode of being that is different from the one described by [Heidegger’s] existential analytic, that is, the perceptual mode in which [things] are…’given'” (DDC 66). The destiny of Granel’s own faith thus persists in his “perception créatrice,without mystery or sublimity, but not without the beautiful, and not without the paradox of non-objective giving, which repeats through ongoing variations (DDC 67). We have here something like “aesthetic idea” in Kant, conjoined with imagination-and called “spirit” when it lent itself to communication. (8)

In addition to Granel’s late work, Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure also works with the nearly apocryphal Epistle of James. This is the famous “Epistle of straw” by James the minor, which was derided by Luther (DDC 48). (9) Together with the deformalization of presence in Granel, Nancy’s own project frames faith as a poetics of finitude-as so many ways of moving and being in a ‘world’ emptied of things, wherein transcendence belongs to immanence and is neither precisely temporal (“now”), nor “spatial” (here versus there; above versus below). Nancy uses Granel’s chiasm of sky and body to imagine the eventuality of a faith without belief. In Granel, the self-giving of light rests on a there, or a Da, that is corporeal, that is our body, even as it is blind to itself. “There results ‘this utterly surprising consequence…that the very thing that constitutes the purest field of thought [the sky] is, as it were, laid [posé] upon our body”; as such, body-perception or perception créatrice replaces a pure subject of consciousness, and even “the idea of some ‘incarnate spirit'” in Granel (DDC 68). Perception créatrice expresses the multiplicity of how in which “the principle of the world is…laid upon this [bodily] void: nothing else organizes [that principle]” (DDC 68). What we thus call the “world” is the groundless Open, without transcendence, surrounding an active, self-modifying blind spot-the body. And all this is an aesthetic venture, the attempt to think through, or into Heidegger’s ontological “er-eignis,” the active event(ing) and it appropriation.

To supplement Granel, then, Nancy reads faith through Saint James’s Epistle, devoid of the Pauline Christology, in which God is conceived as an engenderer of humans, themselves creators and creative. Saint James’s creator would be one that likewise gives light, emptying itself in its gift. Nancy writes-and this sums up what he has in mind for a philosophical approach to faith: “to give and to withhold…are not contradictories here and…to be and to appear would be identical: a phenomenology that is theological but not theophanic” (DDC 49, emphasis added). In short, where faith is confidence or trust, but ‘is’ without representation. Faith here becomes a way of perceiving, which seeks a ground different from Merleau-Ponty’s “perceptual faith” even as it is the deepest stratum of precisely that faith.

Nancy seeks a faith that has nothing to do with a truth believed, he insists. “Faith resides in inadequation to itself as a content of meaning….This is not sacri-fication but veri-fication. This is also the contrary of a truth believed. This faith, above all, does not believe. It is neither credulous nor even believing in the current sense of the term…. It is a non-belief whose faith guarantees it as un-believable,” writes Nancy (DDC 53-54).

At this level of deformalization, it seems superfluous to ask, What does faith not believe? What is the content that is bracketed here, or undercut? For Saint James, this faith is practical, an ergon (DDC 53), and for Nancy the epistemic challenge is to keep the logoi of persuasion out of the picture. “… [T]he work of faith, the poiēsis-praxis of pistis, presents itself…under three aspects: the love of the neighbor, the discrediting of wealth, and the truthful and decided word. In each of these three aspects of work, each time what is in question is exposure to what cannot be appropriated, to what has outside [or beyond] itself…the justice and truth of itself” (DDC 55).

Nancy’s deformalization moves back toward a pre-Christian confidence, or to his conception of Judaism, albeit without or before the Law. The work he is attempting wants to pass behind Paul, just as Granel passed behind Heidegger’s ontology. Yet there is something not wholly convincing about the diremption of faith and belief. To demonstrate what I mean by this, let me take a step outside Nancy’s deconstruction, to illustrate the complexity of the pair, faith and belief. Nancy sets belief on the side of Paul and of orthodoxy. He makes belief an affair of conviction, like something lying between dogmatic utterances and rational arguments. It may be that these two dimensions of dogmatism and rationality work like polarities in Paul. The point here, however, is that Nancy’s distinction, faith and belief, freezes what are really more paradoxical senses of belief itself. He thereby creates the impression that there could be a faith that was more spontaneous and more profound (metaphorically) than belief itself. In fact, much of the argument in Nancy’s book depends on that distinction. For instance, the hyphen between “Judeo” and “Christian” depends on Nancy’s polarization of faith and belief; not to mention the way in which their separation restructures the symbolic and phenomenological fields, so that James opposes the doctrinaire, more ‘Christia’ Paul, while Granel, the Catholic Marxist, is understood to be talking about faith, because he is talking about the ‘simplest’ perception. Yet Granel never uses the concept of faith in his aesthetics of experience.

I am arguing firstly that these ambiguities, which have made possible the deployment of Nancy’s logic, are already present in the term “belief,” itself. However, to acknowledge this would undermine the possibility of Nancy’s elements of a proto-Christianity, in which a rarefied faith is supposed to precede theological debates about the status of the Christ, or the justice promised by the resurrection of the dead. The complexity of “belief” is what I want now to bring out by following Nancy’s intuition, stated much earlier in the book, that “Christianity is by and in itself a deconstruction” (DDC 35). Let us look, then, at the concept of belief through the uses of the French verb croire, since Nancy writes and thinks in French. I will draw parallels with the English “to believe,” wherever possible.

3. The Senses of Belief and its Cultural ‘Situations’

Approaching the concept of belief from the perspective of cultural anthropology, Jean Pouillon of the Institut d’Anthropologie culturelle at the Collège de France, reminds us that the French verb, “to believe” breaks into three basic constructions: “croire à…”, “croire en…”, and “croire que…” The first two constructions take an indirect object and belong grammatically to objective constructions. “Croire” by itself, or “croire que…,” is the subjective form that takes a direct object. This plurality of constructions is neither accidental nor irrelevant to English, which itself breaks “to believe” into “believe in” and “believe that.” We must be clear about the nature of the difference. Croire à implies a belief in the existence of something. It carries an ontological commitment. Croire en expresses firstly confidence, or trust. Croire que introduces acts of representation; “I believe that” means I represent something to myself. Now, I can croire en, or believe in a friend, or a god, but I cannot believe inle démon,” in French. This is because, no matter what my belief may be in the existence of demons, or evil spirits, I do not place confidence in them. In contrast to the existential, ontological commitment of croire à, the expression croire en translates a confidence in which the existence factor is implicit. This is basically the case in English as well, where we say “I believe in evil forces” as a kind of ontological claim, without implying trust in evil forces. However, if we say “I believe in you“, we clearly imply that we are engaging in a moral or aesthetic relation, entailing trust. With that, there is little question about existence: I believe in you not because you exist, which is clear, but because of what you are capable of, because of what you have done. “I believe in God” is likewise not about existence, except when it becomes a riposte in an argument. More important is the fact that the believer does not so much believe self-consciously, she just perceives, or sees things in a certain way. Therefore, “to believe in” (croire en) immediately entails two possible modes of perception and two implicit modes of existence: the perceived, trusted friend and the trusted god whose ‘appearing’ may or may not require representation. In both cases, existence never functions as an attribute attached to a substance. Existence is implicit in the perception, conditions it, and for monotheisms existence is situated at one of two possible levels, the immanent or the transcendent. Those are what Granel and Nancy both attempt to merge.

Into this linguistic ambiguity, which in English is greater in English because English possesses no distinct form for the French croire à, comes the following, additional equivocation: belief as an utterance of conviction versus belief as an expression of doubt: “I believe that 2 plus 2 equals 4” as against “I believe it will rain.” Jean Pouillon points out that when belief involves conviction and affirmation, the content of the belief may well be a representation. Yet, representation and assertion of existence (or conviction about existence) are separable from each other. “The assertion [of existence] can be bracketed-as in Husserl’s epochē-and this is what allows us to study beliefs as such: one does not have to believe [the existence of, or content of] what one believes in order to analyse it. The ‘I believe’, which often precedes a host of utterances of diverse types, is precisely the mark of distancing and not that of adherence” (RVC 45).

When representation accompanies an assertion of existence; notably, when representation cannot be disentangled from the conviction about its existence, “we are often enough “on the side of ideology,” Pouillon argues. “There are no isolated beliefs, each representation is, more or less clearly, more or less consciously inserted into a global system, which can be religious but equally well philosophical, [or] political…” (RVC 45). It is the representation that polarizes confidence, with its implicit assumption of existence, toward various aesthetics or fetishes. Representations are especially valuable in mobilizing desire, or willing, toward a given end. Think of the representations of hell in Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas, or the Revelation of John, found in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Yet, ethnography shows that the confidence dimension expressed by croire en, “to believe in,” is actually the oldest form of belief. Confidence need not require representation, and it arises out of a horizontal dimension of exchange and reciprocity. Thus, the term “credit” in its relation to credo. Pouillon writes, “In his Lexicon of Indo-European Institutions…, Benveniste treats belief in the section devoted to ‘economic obligations’ and not in that devoted to ‘religion’. Moreover, [Benveniste] sees in this credit accorded, which must also return to the creditor, the original sense of belief. Should we then see belief-as-representation as a derivative sense? [Should we see, here,] a meaning added later on? [But that] would make the verb ‘croire’ into a conglomeration without [possible] unity?” (RVC 45). (10)

The ‘economic’ origins of belief as credere, meant as an act without representation, are the original ones. But probably they could not long stand alone, as it were, without the sanction of authority, and eventually representation itself. Belief with representation, as in a representable God, authorizes and legitimates the horizontal economy of confidence, as if “from above.” Psychoanalytically speaking, it may be that the horizontal relation is too fragile (believing in the borrower or trusting in the movement of goods and words) to survive unsanctioned for long periods, without a vertical axis being superimposed on it. This is because the vertical plane fixes the horizontal one as it legitimates it, opening still other types of exchange-of a more dangerous kind, perhaps, where God or the gods are party to the exchange itself, pre-eminently as witnesses. Think of the Potlatch, which is without vertical legitimation; compare this with contracts or litigation with divine sanction. This means simply that belief can be as thin as Nancy’s “faith,” or it can be as symbolically incrusted as belief-with-representations and a credo that gradually comes to be taken as the object of the belief itself. Remarkable in Granel’s exercise is his struggle to set the high, the divus, of the sky as resting upon the body, as though sky and body, the vertical and the horizontal, were entwined in an intimate relationship. Inspired by Heidegger, yet criticizing him, the sky is Granel’s Open-an immanent transcendence. For his part, Nancy seems less concerned with the symbolic and political risks implicit in the vertical axis, though the political risks clearly pose questions of justice and the justification of believe-eventually faith too. He does not wonder its return would undermine his logic of faith as poiēsis and praxis; that faith which Nancy reads out of James, and which he understands to be action free of representations. After all, Pouillon makes it abundantly clear that belief as confidence already entails an ontological conviction with no apparent need to declare itself. It is the non-believer who says that believers believe, whereas believers appear dogmatically to believe when they invoke arguments of authority defensively or out of ressentiment. Thus, before others, before so-called non-believers, the believers invoke the vertical axis for purposes of legitimation. There too, or there again, begins the political gesture.

A great difficulty lies in that we tend to suppose that everyone believes in much the same way. However, the awkward combination of believing as confidence, believing as existential presumption, and believing bonded to representation and credo-this awkward combination is found mainly in monotheism. It is out of monotheism that a two-world vision arises. And I do not think that deconstruction can protect immanence from the kind of endless stretching or struggling it wages, in order to produce a perspective outside it (above it) from which to view, or to present, itself.

For Pouillon, that is an essentially Western problem. His ethnography of the Hadjeraï of Chad presents a belief in spirits, called the margaï, to whom the Hadjeraï devote a cult. The margaï elude representation because they are invisible and there is no need to materialize them. Why? Because their cohabitation with humans is already a natural thing, so that disorders and troubles caused by them are never supernatural, but rather part of the ordinary course of the natural world (RVC 49). Hadjeraï empiricism also recognizes that their margaï may not exist in other parts of the world. However, this does not cause them ontological dilemmas, any more so than the absence of palm trees in Québec causes difficulties. The this-worldly empiricism of the Hadjeraï proceeds from their cosmological monism. Polytheistic religions are frequently one-world religions, which means that they may dispense with revelation, witnesses, and the guarantees of doctrinal transmission by a church or an explicitly political institution. It is for that reason, too, that this people uses translates “faith” with the verb abidè, according to the Dictionnaire Dangaleat (RVC 46-47). Abidè means “to serve,” “to devote a cult to.” It is sometimes supplemented by another verb, amniyè, meaning to give something one’s trust to,” “to rely on” (RVC 47). The latter verb, amniyè, corresponds to our believing in, or croire en. It has a Semitic root from which the liturgical “amen” also comes (RVC 47). What is important here is that the philologically first sense of religio, meaning to perform faithfully one’s obligations to a cult or an ancestor, is effectively expressed in abidè. (11) The confidence connotation of amniyè prolongs the dimension of believing-in something, but no representation of that something seems necessary.

4. The Perplexities of Nancy’s Reduction of Faith

To be sure, Pouillon is not Nancy; he is not deconstructing anything. His exploration of “belief” shows clearly that the ambiguity of the word is distributed between two terms among the Hadjeraï. And, even if we utilize other terms, ourselves, like “credence” or “confidence,” it remains the case that they all stand in the signifying universe of the verb “to believe.” To this, Pouillon argues: “the ambiguity is not simply the [verb’s] polysemia; it is not the fact that the verb [“to believe”] takes one meaning then another, each of which would be univocal. It is that they are all intrinsically interrelated, even when they are contradictory…” (RVC 48, emphasis added). This over-determination-along with the presence of representations and a credo or dogma-is what Nietzsche’s “death of God” destabilized. Nancy acknowledges clearly his debt, “Nietzsche tells me nothing without also communicating an experience to me. This contagion between the discourse and the ordeal thoroughly marks an oeuvre that…does not cease to exasperate…The experience is always that of the death of God. The death of God is always the fact of this immense destitution of the representation of the premise…of representation in general” (DDC 75). By leading belief back toward (his conception of) faith (independent of representation), Nancy would return us to something like the originary horizontal economy of confidence, and the practical exchanges which turn on trust, thereby supposedly dispensing with the need for vertical legitimation, representation, or ontological arguments. But it is not so sure that the two-world logic of monotheism vanishes along with its representations. Nancy argues that that deconstruction precedes him. “Nietzsche knew, first, the agitation that takes hold when presence comes to tremble as the premise withdraws…. (12) We should understand Nietzsche’s Umwerten in this sense. It is necessary to um-werten [“re-value”] the Werte [“values”]…we must rethink value’s price, considering it as an absolute price and one no longer dependent on a principle that sets it fast, fixes it” (DDC 76).

Indeed, Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity implies that there is something to deconstruct; and as such this monotheism remains an epistemic object and a kind of subject of history, in which other religions are set up as erroneous, with false gods. Unlike Hadjeraï animism, it has been essential to Christianity to deploy a credo, with or without representations, in light of which other beliefs are illegitimate. That does not mean that the content of Christian faith need to be fixed once and for all. However, it does suggest that the ambiguity of the verb croire, with its three aspects held together in Christianity, translates the ineradicable chiasm where the horizontal economy of exchange and confidence crosses the vertical economy of sanction and authorization. This may not be peculiar to monotheism, but Pouillon holds the animism gives more latitude to the horizontal, allowing what is vertical in monotheism to perfuse nature as a whole-invisibly and for the community of Hadjeraï.

We might ask whether Granel “sees” a kind of Hadjeraï world? Or we might say that he is thinking of a post-modern religion with neither credo nor phenomenalization; one that does not devalue the body of flesh and blood, and keeps an eye on the history of semantic cohabitations like: dius divus, light and height here below. Yet what Nancy seeks in his deconstruction is an answer to the crisis of civilization accompanying world wars, the death of God, and the sapping of ethical visions. Dis-Enclosure is Nancy’s response to Heidegger’s “nur ein Gott kann uns jetzt retten.” It is also a rejoinder to Horkheimer’s observation that to preserve an unconditional meaning in the absence of a god is from the outset a vain endeavor. This is how we should understand Nancy’s justification: “I will call ‘deconstruction of monotheism’ that inquiry that consists in disassembling and analyzing the constitutive elements of monotheism, and more directly of Christianity…in order to go back to (or to advance toward) a resource, which could at once form the buried origin and the imperceptible future of the world that calls itself ‘modern'” (DDC 34).

On balance, I think his effort may generate new, ancient values. I do not believe that deconstructing Christianity leaves us with something like a purer monotheism on the horizon. I am sceptical about the aesthetics of vertical axes that remain invisible, or “open,” or are lifted off of horizontal axes of exchange. Pouillon does not tell us enough about the kind of life the Hadjeraï lead with their margaï spirits; that is not his purpose. He does show that the polysemia of “believe” or croire, is diminished in religions where ontology neither proceeds from, nor elicits jealousy about competing beliefs. He says, “Whereas the encounter with alterity relativizes Christian belief, which concerns an extra-worldly absolute, this encounter confirms the Dangaleat grasp of the world, which is from the outset relativist, and which [seems less] troubled by diversity. That is why religions of that sort ignore the proselytism inherent in religions founded on beliefs whose vulnerability gives life to their fearsome dynamism” (RVC 50, emphasis added).

If it is the case that the vulnerability of belief in Christianity-a vulnerability precisely reflecting the polysemia of “believe”-animates Christianity’s dynamism, whether proselytic or imperial, should we assume that a simplification of this polysemia, even an unearthing of the Ur-faith, allows us to preserve that dynamism without the vulnerability? I cannot see how. What is more painful, in this century and since Nietzsche’s Gay Science at least, is this: the respective resurrections of monotheism, which privileged one or another ontology, combining it with the confidence ingredient in the polysemic “believe”-the recurrent revivifications of some “one God that could save us now“-have invariably proceeded toward representation and credos, as though the self-deconstruction that Christianity is, or carries, could never remain at the rarefied aesthetic level Granel was proposing. The theological founds and for centuries justifies the authority of political concepts and logics of rule. But how readily too does the theological protect itself with theophanies, even those we today consider “secular.” To representation belong the organization of space (which is also its symbolic and social construction), the propagation of selective symbols and signs, and the social-imaginary productions never simply limited to the gravitas and might of “the Leader.” The sheer complexity of representation itself-as spaces, symbols, and social imaginaries- invariably overhangs the simpler “belief” that is practice and trust. But that implies that Nancy’s deconstructed faith cannot perform the work he would have it do, because the “fearsome dynamism” of Western monotheism insists in the vulnerability of its over-determined, tripartite “belief.”


(1) Gérard Granel, “Far from Substance, Whither and to What Point?” in Jean-Luc Nancy, Disenclosure: Deconstruction of Christianity, tr. B. Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York: Ford-ham University Press, 2007), 164. First published as “Loin de la substance : Jusqu’où ? (Essai sur la kénôse ontologique de la pensée depuis Kant), ” Les Études philosophiques, 4, 1999, pp. 535-44. Hereafter DDC.

(2) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and The Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 35.

(3) In section 3 “Association” of his De la synthèse passive, tr. Bruce Bégout et Jean Kessler (Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, 1998), Husserl argues: “Each living present contains an originary constitution of objects, that is ceaselessly new, perceptual data themselves ceaselessly new in extensive articulations, like organized singular data, like a sort of world in order; and consequently, ceaselessly a new source for a new affective force which, in its awakening, is able to recover connections, unities constituted retentionally, [and which] can make possible in each coexistence, syntheses of fusion, connection, contrasts. Effective connection, the formation of effective unity, always necessarily presupposes affective force, or again affective differentiation” (p. 236). Hereafter SP.

(4) Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, tr. Carleton Dallery (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 161.

(5) In his discussion of the “thematic position and delimitation of a phenomenological doctrine of association” (Section III “Association,” Chapt. 1, §26), Husserl marvels at the curious ‘law’ whereby associations are simultaneously mediate and immediate: if an a recalls a b, “and the latter thereupon recalls a c, but we do not remember c immediately, but only in passing by b (p. 194). He adds that the final member of the associative chain “gives itself to us like an eruption (Einfall)” and may be unanticipated and, as an intuition, qualitatively different from much if not all of what was previously given. For example, a seaside image spontaneously ‘crosses our mind’ while we are in the midst of a conversation. This allows Husserl to pose a question whose analytical difficulty surpasses the conceptual wherewithal of phenomenological investigation (although it can be partly described). “How can the I become conscious of the fact that it has behind itself an infinite field of past experiences insofar as they are its own, that it has a unity of a past life in the form of time, and this as a life that is accessible to it through recollection and which in a principial way is everywhere accessible…as liable to be awakened anew in its proper-being?…We recognize, then, [in asking these questions] that it is a matter of nothing less than this fundamental problem: to elucidate the conditions of possibility of subjectivity itself” (p. 196).

After a considerable development of types of synthesis-through resemblance and covering over or through dissimilarity, etc.-Husserl mentions the curiously intertwined effectivity of association, recollection and affectivity: “That every affection might arise through the awakening of another affection is, in itself, understandable. Each case of affection <born> through extreme and isolated contrast, like an explosion, shows this essential possibility. Yet we do not need to recur to such extreme cases. If, during a promenade one evening along the Loretto Heights, a trail of lights suddenly flashes in our horizon in the Rhine valley, then, at that very instant, this trail detaches affectively in its unity, without the excitation having to lead necessarily to a conversion of attention” (221). This affective eruption, accompanied by a partial detachment of the experience from its (utterly distinct) context, the Loretto Heights, poses genetic questions that the young Husserl (of, say, the time consciousness investigations) would not have posed. As he puts it, “It goes without saying that we could give to the entirety of the considerations that we just developed the vaunted title of ‘the unconscious’. It is thus a matter of a phenomenology of what we call the unconscious.” See Husserl, De la synthèse passive, tr. Bruce Bégout and Natalie Depraz (Grenoble: Jérome Millon, 1998), respectively, pp. 194, 196, 221. The unexpected Einfall, and significantly, its affective force, which can isolate it without necessarily occasioning a “conversion of attention,” corresponds to instances like Levinas’s ‘experience’ of the other-in-the-same, although Husserl still insists that “formally, time is a unidimensional and continuous ‘rectilineal’ (‘homogeneous’) succession; while the visual field, still from a formal point of view, is a bidimensional plurality that must be apprehended as a dual, continual succession (a succession of successions)” (p. 215, emphasis added). However, “space” is not equivalent to time in these considerations, and Husserl allows for a nearly infinite plurality of affective fields and a visual plurality, in order to preserve his formal and unidimensional conception of time and the transcendental consciousness that temporalizes.

(6) In the 1970s, Granel was engaged in wresting faith from a stagnant, doctrinaire Catholicism, and also from philosophy. He ventures a point that I sense Jean-Luc Nancy overlooks in his own deconstruction of Christianity, which remains a philosophical deconstruction, ending up at the “Open” of sense and at faithfulness to “sense.” Granel argues in 1971: “Theology itself finds itself-for essential reasons whose penetration requires questions scarcely glimpsed today-particularly vulnerable to philosophy. The very heart of our enterprise…requires above all, despite their obscurity, knowledge of the reasons for this vulnerability, because the latter is at the heart of the Western deviation of the Christian Tradition [sic]. A “deviation” [“dévoiement“] in truth as old as the entirety of that Tradition and which affects all its theoretical and practical compartments-which in no way means that there is nothing that has not been…more or less seriously ‘falsified’, sometimes completely occulted by the penetration of what is metaphysical into what is Christian.” What is the penetration of philosophy into Christianity (before it is penetration into “theology” at all)? It is a discourse that approaches the “positivity” of Christianity in a philosophical way. The positivity in question is the structural “weakness” of Christianity, namely that something deemed a revelation could set someone into question. And again, “that man might be legitimately said capax Dei and this, in his very being.” This strange claim, deserted by faith and deviated into Platonism or Aristotelianism, writes Granel, should be “cleaned up and left free for the dual…patience of thought and faith.” While it is clear that Nancy follows such an inspiration, he often pulls even the thinnest faith-that of Saint James-toward philosophy, as part of his deconstructive strategy. See Granel, “La lutte dans l’Église” in Traditionis Traditio : Essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), pp. 288-89, my translation.

(7) We can follow the process of his growing disenchantment with Catholicism in his Traditionis Traditio: Essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 233-302. Also see note 6, above.

(8) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, tr. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1987), § 49 “On the Powers of the Mind which Constitute Genius.” Kant observes there, “an aesthetic idea is a presentation of the imagination which is conjoined with a given concept and is connected, when we use imagination in its freedom, with such a multiplicity of partial presentations that no expression that stands for a determinate concept can be found for it….[When the aim of such judgment is simply aesthetic and not cognitive] then the imagination is free, so that…it may supply, in an unstudied way, a wealth of undeveloped material for the understanding which the latter disregarded in its concept,” p. 185. The difference at which Granel, and in their way Husserl and Merleau, respectively, is aiming is a radicalization of this understanding to a spontaneity and implicitness that does not rule out eventual communication, which Kant associated with “genius.” In a sense, this loosens the distinction between the uses and ends of the aesthetic ideas.

(9) Drawn from a different essay by Nancy, “The Judeo-Christian (On Faith)” in Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, Op. cit., 42-60.

(10) See Émile Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Vol. 1, Économie, parenté, société (Paris: Minuit, 1969), 171-79. In analysing the roots of words like créance and credo, Benveniste proposes a lengthy discussion of *kred (confidence), and possibly the root of heart, cor, cordis. He says, “we are thus moving back toward a distant prehistory whose principal trades at least can be sketched: rivalry of power between clans, divine or human champions wherein one must prove one’s vigour or generosity to be assured of victory or to win a game (the game is a properly religious act: the gods play). The champion needs others to believe in him, that others confer *kred upon him and place it in his charge so that he can spread its benefits over those who have thus supported him: there is, in this way, between man and gods, a “do ut des” [‘I give that you may give’].” We thus see coming together three ostensibly autonomous currents of cultural-economic rivalry and violence, religiosity and ludism, and the dubious association between *kred , confidence, and the heart. Whatever the validity of the *kred-cors association, which Benveniste discusses, belief is indissociably woven together with an affective perception; one not so different from the affect that fuels associative memory and imagination in Husserl and Granel (see Benveniste, Op. cit., p. 177). Hereafter VII.

(11) Benveniste recapitulates the complex history of the uses of “religio” through Latinity, disputing among other things the sole etymology of a “tie” of piety, “which would ‘tie us in [relier]’ to the divinity, uinculo pietatis obstricti et religati sumus” [we are a bond of piety tight-knit and interconnected], as the Christian Lactantius put it. Despite the notion of a tie or connection to certain sites or things, religio “does not denote ‘religion’ in its entirety, that is certain.” (Benveniste, VII, 268-69, my translation). More important is the sense of a kind of scruple, by which one observes one’s cult. At this level it means simultaneously an action whose affective component engenders regularity. From there it moves into a psychological sense of being concerned to act or observe. According to Benveniste, “Religio takes up scrupulous. From there comes the expression religio est ‘to have scruples’ and also religioni est or religio tenet accompanied by an infinitive proposition…’some have scruples (in such and such circumstances) in going out through the Carmental gate’.” This use of religio and its derivative religiosus (‘scrupulous with regard to the cult, making it a case of conscience with regard to rites’) is profoundly psychological or subjective, and will come to be supplemented-as Cicero teaches-by a deformation of legere. Legere, and not ligare : legere is related to “to gather together, bring back to self, to recognize.” Prior to the spread of Christianity, “the Roman religio is, at its origin, essentially subjective.” Christianity will restructure the use of the term such that the tie in question “is remodelled on the idea that man thus develops of his relation to God; an idea altogether different from the old Roman religio and which prepares the modern acceptation” (Benveniste, VII, 270-72). Remarkable here is that abidè is ostensibly closer to Roman religio, while amniyè suggests a potential opening to senses found in monotheism, notably Christianity-unless we are already reading the term through Christian lenses. Most important here-and this is what Nancy wants to deconstruct-is the displacement of the scruple and the connections, to the relationship itself with God; a relationship that had become tenuous in post-Exilic Judaism and which, in Christianity, required a mediator.

(12) “Premise” translates here “le principe.” In order to avoid certain equivocations around “principe,” I have used “premise” in the English translation where underscoring its function in a larger structure or logic is the primordial sense of “principe.” Here, it clearly means a grounding postulate; here, the grounding postulate is the God whose death Nietzsche pointed out as an event.