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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.3 (2002) 169-187

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The Politics of Intrusion

Anne O'Byrne
Hofstra University

The intruder enters by force, arrives by surprise, or makes his way in by trickery. He enters where he has no right to be and where he has not been admitted. The stranger has something of the intruder about him; without it, he would lose his strangeness.

—Jean-Luc Nancy, L'Intrus

WHAT MAKES A STRANGER INTERESTING IS HER STRANGENESS; WHAT MAKES the foreigner foreign is her foreign-ness; what makes the newborn new and promising is her newness. Once the stranger becomes familiar, once the foreigner is naturalized, once the newborn is socialized or educated into the ways of the world, the threat posed by strangeness/foreignness/newness is dissipated, and with that comes a loss. Without strangers in our midst, without the difference of foreigners, without the challenge of a new, potentially revolutionary, generation, how is the world to be renewed, as Arendt puts it? Without exposure to foreignness, how are we to renew the question of our own identity? How are we to be reminded that it is indeed a question? How are we to be made aware of our own foreignness? [End Page 169]

Jean-Luc Nancy's essay, L'Intrus, is in part an account of his experience of having had a heart transplant and, some ten years later, falling ill with a cancer fostered by the drugs used to suppress his immune system after the transplant. In what follows, I use this piece as a lens through which to read Nancy's work as a contribution to and restructuring of contemporary debates over identity politics, just as he offers the experience as a lens through which to view the question of identity. To be more precise, he describes this experience of his body as the experience of having imposed on him, in an inescapable, incisive way, a practice of questioning identity. "The strangeness of my own identity, which was always very much alive [to me], never touched me so poignantly." 1 I will argue that what emerges from his account of this experience is an understanding of the body as symbolizing the social. On the face of it, this seems quite banal. Are we not already quite familiar with a long history of using the body as a metaphor for society, from Plato (the city as the soul writ large, the divisions of the soul being presented in terms of the division of the body into head, chest and belly), to Hobbes (the depiction of the sovereign's body as made up of his subject's bodies), to the mystical body of Christ, to the usage—common since the seventeenth century—of the term "body politic"? What is important here, however, is not the metaphor or the sign, or even the symbol, but symbolization as a process, and one that can only be understood in constellation with touch, recognition, interiority and exteriority, identity and identification, birth and being-with.

An experience such as Nancy's is, first of all, a particularly dramatic reminder of the divisibility of the individual. If my heart can be taken out of my body and a different heart put in its place, then I have come apart. If my heart, the principle of my existence (and I can say that without its being an abstract statement) can fail and yet I continue to live, then I have become a stranger to myself. If the heart that is beating in my chest, beating against the walls of my thoracic cavity—a heart I cannot but describe as my heart—can also be described as someone else's heart, then the question of who I am will resist easy answer.

At the same time, my skin, the surface of my body, presents an exterior to the world, and this fact calls for recognition. I will show that Nancy's [End Page 170] understanding of symbolization as a mode of recognition cannot be dissociated from the emphasis in his work on touch...


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