Crisis of The World
Àngels Miralda Tena
‘Changing of the World’ as a Condition of Contemporary Culture
Talk given at conference “Culture in Crisis,” Sociology and Theatre Group, Goldsmiths University, London.
May 31, 2013

In this paper I would like to argue against the concept of crisis as a finite entity. To think of crisis as a closed autonomous event is to negate the construction of crisis, which is not at the point of disaster but in the causal temporal prolongation of invisible existing ruptures. To call a crisis “1968,” “1989,” or “2008” is to confuse the structure of crisis which is not an event but a sense of the impending, an anxiety related to the temporal, a heightened perception of the nature of the contemporary.

I am approaching crisis from Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Changing of the World” found in his book A Finite Thinking. This short text is able to combine many of his theories, while he speaks about a specific crisis – a paradigm shift that affected his generation, that of “68.”

But saying 1968 is precisely the problem. We create ruptures where there is, instead, a fluidity. The divisionary act of assigning names and numbers “fixes ideas” where in fact, nothing is fixed. Nancy recognizes the need to systematize, but writes that this fixed event, the one marked by naming, “while sensible, gives a poor account of itself when marked as an evidential point.”①

We can note how the notion of crisis is a border of its own, it is a border that hinges on time, it is a border that connects the singular plural ② to the dérive of history③. To the constant crisis that is the contemporary or the lived present that in the words of Merleau-Ponty “holds a past and a future within its thickness.”④

Nancy describes the nature of crisis thus: “A crisis appears to a continuum that it affects and that it perhaps deforms or reforms, all the while keeping it as its point of reference.”⑤ And so a crisis is not a hard-line border, it is not something we cannot cross, or penetrate. It is soft, a ripple on the surface of water. It disrupts but it does not end. In fact, culture and community, emerge from crisis like a subtle trembling, always surviving, but changed, and incapable of escaping the grasp of crisis for much longer. The nature of time is to shake-up, it’s a trembling, a coming-forth.

Nancy describes this presence in front of the continuum as a dérive or the drift. The dérive is the impossibility of a border; it is a stretching across time, a conflation of time, a permeability of event, a lifespan. It is the connection between the historical present and presence. The oscillation between the coming forth and the constant withdrawal.

[“Yet we are talking about major ruptures that affect everyone, every generation and all their images, languages, ways of life. From one moment to the next, this opens in us, allowing us to see this vast drift [derive] of the world. From one moment to the next, we find ourselves sensibly and physical outside ourselves, outside the blind slipping away of our little stretch of time. We see the night that borders our time, and we touch on some aspect of it – not the future, but the coming of something or someone: the coming of something that is already of us and of the world, but that has to come from somewhere else, displaced elsewhere into an unimaginable elsewhere.”]

It’s not the future that provides change, it is the unknowable present. It is things that lie hidden but within sight. Things that can only be identified by a sort of “sense.”

But let’s go back to 1968 and apply the dérive of history. This is when discourse cracks. The crisis of discourse happened at the moment of its exposure. The cracksappeared at the same moment that discourse seemed to grip the community. And it was only in this moment that “we could actually begin to discern the first traits of another space and the beginnings of another, unprecedented sovereignty.” It was in the moment spurred by the need for a revolt, a reform, and a revolution, that all three of these possibilities were extinguished.  And as Nancy writes: “What actually took place (and went mostly unnoticed) was the retreat of various modes of political organization and signification.” The crisis happens at its moment of exposure.

The crisis, for Nancy, is not 68 alone and it is not 89 alone. It is 68-89 and it continues, and it began before. “A general malaise, a paralysis, if you like, has taken hold of discourse.” Sense, the maker of discourse, “turned out to be a crazed machine and the demand for it a senseless one.” Without sense or discourse then, our base of knowledge is endless, our attainment of knowledge is endless, and our vocabulary floats and language itself “needs now to be received naked, the prestige of sense stripped away, and put back to work, to invention.”

I would like to posit the notion Crisis alongside a particular idea of Disaster. Maurice Blanchot, one of Nancy’s major influences, wrote in The Writing of the Disaster that “We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are in the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future – that which is yet to come – if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival.” The ever-arriving disaster implies a constant state of crisis.

Crisis is found at the heart of our society, as Nancy asks: “What is the “historical mission” of capital of which Marx spoke, a mission that we have ended up forgetting all about simply in order to think another mission entirely, that of another Subject of history?” A Marxist crisis theory recognises the destruction of capital to be found within the heart of capital, its own destruction lies within itself. The subject of history is the search for the knowledge of the self, but Nancy describes it as a “hallucinated self” or “the knowledge of a self that has to ruin itself in order to be itself, of a richness that can only produce its own equivalence and hence its own annihilation.”

The Dérive operates as a separation in understanding and the course of history. Crisis appears as the constant anxiety of an impending but never-arriving Disaster. Here we can start to think about culture and how it works alongside crisis and our experience of the contemporary. Culture is grounded in the past, tradition, while marking a contemporary and pushing it forth into the future. Culture is what remains through time alongside Crisis, it is what the Disaster threatens, it is what the Disaster creates.

Just as culture can refer to our human culture at large in the same way that it refers to counter-cultures or political cultures, a crisis can effect the world at large, or small groups of people, it can even effect the singular individual. How do we read the words “I am in Crisis”? It is the broken identity, it is an uneasiness about our own being, a need to change but lacking a way forth. It is as though we had reached the limits of our being, our body requires another body, we feel something touching the corners, approaching, and invisible.

Culture is defined near community; both hold individual singularities together without being, in themselves, an absolute. Culture can be the frame of reference of a community; a community can be founders, maintainers, and practitioners of a culture. But neither of these can be absolutes because they are formed out of singularities, and similarly, the singular individual cannot be an absolute as Nancy demonstrates in “The Inoperative Community.” “In other words: to be absolutely alone, it is not enough that I be so; I must also be alone being alone – and this of course is contradictory.”

However, a community as an absolute is similarly impossible, it is self-destructive just as the subject goes constantly towards-death. So a cultural community instead, remains as an ideal that lingers somewhere in the past without our ever having access to it as a pure form. “Community has not taken place,” “no Gesellschaft has come along to help the State, industry, and capital dissolve a prior Gemeinschaft.” But maybe this is because community and culture are constantly put in crisis by the turbulence of its constituents.

To structure culture as a stable entity however is to ignore its own death-drive as tradition. Art is what is constantly seeking to break tradition, to reach the limits of human experience. In “The Sublime Offering” Nancy states that “the sublime is tied in an essential way with the end of art… suspension of art” and so it is not that Culture simply tries to resist Crisis, it extends towards it pushing culture further out towards its own limits. The experience of the sublime is similarly a crisis of the imagination, which cannot bridge the gap between presentation and understanding.

At stake here is the possibility of saying “crisis” and who it effects. If we have looked at 68, a crisis of discourse, the inability to proceed forward, how does that apply to our current global-financial-crisis? What disaster is impending but never arriving and who does it effect? The crisis is the shadow of the disaster which is created through anxiety and devoid of an object. It is contingent on the potentiality of disaster while not being, itself, a disaster. Crisis is the fight with time for the survival of a culture and tradition, and in times of heightened crisis we see that culture is one of the alleviants of anxieties of the community. At the same time that it is threatened by disaster, culture is simultaneously the solution.

Ending on themes of the present, Nancy comments that “The present appears devoid of either tradition or future; it has become an unheard-of-enigma.” And yet this structure is the product of the culture that survived the great upheavals, crises, and disasters of the 20th century. It was within crisis and within the disaster that we found community. Disaster threatens culture through death but we find communion out of the disaster; what is left after disaster, after the crisis, is the revelation of community and culture, its own exposition, which exposes its body as an extension, it exists alongside the individual as something untouchable but that, nevertheless, we live within.

I have approached the relationship between these two words, Culture, and Crisis, from the thinking of Nancy. At stake here is the question itself, the interlacing of Culture and its drift through time. The very notion of culture, which is at once tradition as well as the margin of the new. How does this structure relate or differ from the structure of the derive? How do we read culture as a shifting entity in relation to its strong connection to history, to the past. And where is the role of the disaster that crisis always implies?



① And, this is the reason why I have chosen not to give concrete examples in this paper, or at least not to go into depth with them. I wish to discuss the theoretical framework of crisis through Nancy’s text rather than individual crises.
② And, this is the reason why I have chosen not to give concrete examples in this paper, or at least not to go into depth with them. I wish to discuss the theoretical framework of crisis through Nancy’s text rather than individual crises.
③ Dérive, which comes from the French word for drift, illustrates the stretches in time, like a continental drift, which pushes forth with no object until something is transformed, but again, with no mission other than the force of time.
④ Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
⑤ Jean-Luc Nancy “Changing of the World” (pp. 300)
⑥ Jean-Luc Nancy, “Changing of the World” (pp. 301)
⑦ Jean-Luc Nancy, “Changing of the World” (pp. 303)
⑧ Jean-Luc Nancy, “Changing of the World” (pp. 303)
⑨ ibid.