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  • Spectors of Sartre: Nancy’s Romance with Ontological Freedom
  • Steve Martinot
Jean-Luc Nancy. The Experience of Freedom. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

If there were a movie version of Jean-Luc Nancy’s book The Experience of Freedom, the scene would be a dark cabaret and dance hall. In it, the air is smoke-filled and murky, though there are few people in the place. In the background, one hears Heidegger’s music; it has his tonality, his phraseology, his syntax, played in his favorite key. On the dance floor, Nancy is dancing with Heidegger himself. They dance closely and intimately. In a dark corner of the cabaret, someone is leaning against the wall, watching Martin and Jean-Luc dance. He is thin, gaunt, tough looking, in a black beret and turtleneck sweater; a Gauloise hangs from the corner of his mouth. He slowly approaches the dancing couple; his walk is lithe, like a boxer. It is Sartre. He taps Heidegger on the shoulder, as if to cut in. Nancy turns on him shrilly, “Oh go away! It is dead between us. I’m with someone else now.” Sartre smiles. “But I taught you that dance which you’re trying to make him do.” Nancy cuts him off, with an expression of disdain, arrogance, and piety all at once. “Why don’t you just leave us alone?” Sartre shrugs, and wanders over to the bar to continue watching the dancers, who dance more stiffly now and with some space between them. Heidegger begins to look a little out of place. Nancy sighs and says to no one in particular, “I wish I knew some more worldly people, a poet perhaps in a beret and cigarette; I could really go for one of them. Too bad there aren’t any around.”

In The Experience of Freedom, Nancy maneuvers between two languages, that of Heidegger — of being, presencing, withdrawing, and the ontological difference — and that of Sartre — of freedom, nothingness, precedence, and transcendence. The secret charm of this book, behind its patina of rigor, is that while Nancy owns one language and disowns the other, he ends up speaking them both. But there is an aura of hesitancy, of appearing to “reinvent the wheel,” in dispensing with Sartre (a tradition, it seems, that has become self-defeating) that truncates Nancy’s project.

In the last chapter, which is a series of “fragments” (culled perhaps from the “cutting room floor” of other chapters), Nancy tells what he knows about what he has done. Speaking of the difference, forgotten by metaphysics, between being and beings, he says:

But this difference is not — not even the “ontico- ontological difference.” It is itself the very effacing of this difference — an effacing that has nothing to do with forgetting. If this difference is not, it in effect retreats into its own difference. This retreat is the identity of being and beings: existence. Or more precisely: freedom.


That is, freedom is to be the arche, the deconstruction of the ontological difference (and of Heidegger with it). Furthermore, Nancy has just asked, “How might a discourse of freedom correspond to its object? How might it ‘speak freely’ in speaking of freedom?” (148). To be still asking this at the end of the book suggests that his project of “setting freedom free” is really a question of language, one whose central problematic is not articulation but the inarticulable; that is, the problem of freedom is one of textual form.

Nancy posits the following. With Heidegger, who taught philosophy how to move anterior to subjectivity, anterior to beings and to thematization (philosophy) itself, the thematization of freedom came to an end. Nothing can happen except in freedom. “Existence as its own essence is nothing other than the freedom of being” (23). The problem becomes how not to abandon existence and essence to each other; existence must be “freed” if thought is to have anything left to think (9). Freedom must be thought again. Yet the means to do so have been exhausted. The ontology of subjectivity traps itself between principles of freedom and the freedom that founds subjectivity. The freedom reflected in history, evil, liberty, etc., cannot be made...

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