A brief note on Jean-Luc Nancy’s conception of the relation between aesthetics and politics

“The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade” an essay to be published in: Jean-Luc Nancy and the Political. Edited by Sanja Dejanovic, Critical Connections Series, Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2014.

My essay is about the ways in which Jean-Luc Nancy has conceived of the relation between the political and the aesthetic. It is in large part based upon my reading of his essay important recent essay, “The Truth of Democracy,” in order first to underline that the aesthetic, art and the artistic are not political as such, meaning that they are neither the ground upon which a “politics” can be articulated, nor are they the materialized product and result of some political determination. Instead, I am guided by what Nancy argues to be a political necessity, namely: “to think the manner in which these spheres [art, friendship, knowledge, etc.] are heterogeneous to the properly political sphere” and yet, without which, the space opened up by the political would not be affirmed.

To do so, I turn to the work of the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and argue that his work (quoting from my essay) “enables the affirmation of the political as a spacing that is not a pre-given readymade ground, but instead is always the taking place—or better, a partaking place—that is already-unmade.” Meaning: kept open and sustained as an exposure to the infinite, which is the space formed by the political.

“A Space Formed for the Infinite” is the title of one of the chapters of Nancy’s text on democracy, and it opens with the following statement:

The condition of nonequivalent affirmation is political inasmuch as politics must prepare the space for it. But the affirmation itself is not political. It can be almost anything you like—existential, artistic, literary, dreamy, amorous, scientific, thoughtful, leisurely, playful, friendly, gastronomic, urban, and so on: politics subsumes none of these registers; it only gives them their space and possibility.

In stating that the condition of nonequivalent affirmation is not political, I understand Nancy to mean that it is not an archē/ground/origin and rule/law/principle, upon which any or all subsequent action (praxis) is determined and dictated.

For unlike the ancient Greek conception of the condition of the political (and the space of the polis), in which the architect and the legislator “make” (poietically) the walls and laws of the polis, by simply executing the model or blueprint created and provided by the “philosopher-king” (master planner), such that this poietic production is not political but is understood as prior to political praxis, for Nancy, the political is—as Nancy makes clear in this chapter—this very drawing and sketching of the outline and contour of space. A sketching that as drawing is poiesis that is also praxis, and a praxis that is also poietic.

In other words, the political for Nancy, as I understand him, is a praxis that is as much mise-en-scene as mise-en-acte, in which the political act is staging the scene of nonequivalence (the non-mimetic, non-productive fabrication of model) that is affirmed by art, friendship, knowledge, etc. as the sharing in this incommensurability.

Yet as I argue, to affirm this nonequivalence, and to sustain and stand in this (political) space formed for the infinite, calls for a non-poietic aesthetic praxis, the manner and technique of which is inoperative, and as such, affirms that that which is taken to be readymade, is already-unmade. It is the separated gesture (and gesture of separation) that is the gesture that affirms the political by underlining the patency of the political. Patency, which literally means: the condition of being open, expanded and unobstructed. A patency that we might further qualify, as infinitely open in its exposure as finite—right on the contour and outline that is the spacing of finitude.

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