TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Death and Community

Zrinka Božić Blanuša (University of Zagreb)



The idea of community is in crisis. At the beginning of his famous La communauté désoeuvrée Jean-Luc Nancy states that all contemporary writing should be seen as a response to this crisis. According to him, our (Western) civilization has misinterpreted the concept of community. But the question is: what has really been misinterpreted about community and why? The traditional notion of community as a communion of individuals joined in some higher totality (nation, culture, religion, race, or class) results from the inability of western philosophy to think community beyond the subject as its organizing principle. In Nancy's view, conceiving community as a subject means that we perceive community as having an identity that is immanent to it, and that needs to be brought out and put to work. Andrew Norris believes that: „If one's "true" or  "higher" or "more universal" self is found in one's shared communal identity, it becomes the work of politics to acknowledge and bring forth that immanent communal identity. This will entail not merely conflict with other political identities, but the purification of one's own community“ (Norris, 275). In order to understand contemporary questioning of community, one has to take into account the consequences of Heideggerian critique of metaphysics of the subject as well as his analytics of mortality. The dialogic exchange with Heidegger will be taken as the point of departure for my examination of Nancy's and Blanchot's deconstruction of community. With respect to that, it is important to point out that their reconceptualization of community assigns an important role to the moment of death. While Nancy regards community as constitutively „calibrated on the death of those whom we call, perhaps wrongly, its ‘members’” (Nancy, IC:14), Blanchot emphasizes the death of the Other as a fundamental social relation; the one that makes all social relations possible (Suglia, 54). This is opposite to Heidegger's definition of death as a solitary event. Heidegger makes death into the warrant of Dasein's authenticity, the only proper end of individual Being-in-the-world.

According to French historian Philipe Ariès(1), the nineteenth century was the turning point in Western attitude towards death. For the first time since antiquity, the idea that death was pure negativity or nonexistence became a generally accepted cultural attitude(2). As a result, a new understanding of subjectivity arose in relation to mortality. The idea that death might be defined as a positive state (Strauss, 91) has been repeatedly rejected. Death as nothingness is a sheer absence, and according to Strauss part of the horror of death is „its terrible intellectual poverty“ (91). Nevertheless, one has to wonder about its relation to life and consciousness. Hegel considers death as „an active nonbeing that affects life as a force of personal and historical change“ (91). This means that Geist recreates itself through the power of death, it destructs what was in order to make what was envisaged to be made. It is „the terrifying work of subjectivity, to know itself through an ongoing confrontation with nonexistence (...)“ (91).

Instead of deriving the force of nonbeing from the negative itself, Heidegger derives it from a congenital human attitude towards nonbeing which is evidenced in the way we experience possibility (97). The concept of Dasein (being-there) is the term Heidegger uses to designate individual human consciousness: „Understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein's Being“ (Heidegger, 12). Since Dasein puts Being itself into question, it is unique among entities. According to Heidegger, the essence of Dasein lies in its existence (67) and its essential structure is Being-in-the-world (das In-der-Welt-sein, 83). The world is here conceived as a characteristic of Dasein itself, and not as a way of characterizing entities other (different) than Dasein (92). The world of Dasein is a with-world (Mitwelt, 92). According to that, being-in-the-world is being-with Others. By "Others" Heidegger does not mean those over and against whom the "I" stands out, but those among whom the I is. This is why he proposes that we understand these "with" and "too" existentially (not categorically) (154/5). Therefore, just as being is an issue for Dasein, nonbeing „puts the whole of Dasein's own being at stake“ (Strauss, 97). As Heidegger puts it:

It is essential to the basic constitution of Dasein that there is constantly something still to be settled [eine ständige Unabgeschlossenheit]. Such a lack of totality signifies that there is something still outstanding in one's potentiality-for-Being.

But as soon as Dasein 'exists' in such a way that absolutely nothing  more is still outstanding in it, then it has already for this very reason become “no-longer-Being-there“ [Nicht-mehr-da-sein]. Its Being is annihilated when what is still outstanding in its Being has been liquidated. As long as Dasein is an entity, it has never reached its 'wholeness'. But if it gains such 'wholeness', this gain becomes the utter loss of Being-in-the-world. In such a case, it can never again be experienced as an entity. (Heidegger, 279)  

According to that, at the same time when Dasein achieves its wholeness in death, it loses the being of its "there". Death deprives Dasein of the possibility of experiencing this transition to no-longer-Dasein and understanding it as something experienced. It is important to underline that this is denied to any particular Dasein in relation to itself. This is the reason why death of Others becomes more impressive (281). Since Dasein is, after all, Being with Others, it can, in some way, experience the death (of Others). But this is not something we can experience in the genuine sense „at most we are always just 'there alongside'”(3) (282) When Heidegger argues that death is nonrelational he means that no one can take the Other's dying away from him. One can sacrifice oneself for the Other, but it does not imply taking upon oneself the Other's death. This is because death is by its very essence mine. By separating me off as finite, death „makes me capable of being a whole to myself, and I actually do become whole to myself through my attitude towards that death“ (Strauss, 97). In other words, only through the anticipation of death, our existence becomes authentic and whole. Anticipation turns out to be „one's ownmost and uttermost potentiality-for-Being - that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence“  (Heidegger, 307).

But, what is the relation of Dasein to Other's attitude towards death? According to Heidegger, Dasein takes no part in Other's anticipation of death. The only thing that Daseins share is mutual impossibility of experiencing each other's death. As Suglia notices: “Individuals in the community relate to their respective fates as a series of disconnected possibilities of impossibility“ (Suglia, 50). The question is how to address the problem of death? Heidegger is aware that the analysis of death remains purely this-worldly „in so far as it interprets that phenomenon merely in the way in which it enters into any particular Dasein as a possibility of its Being“ (Heidegger, 292). This is why death can be described as a possibility-of-Being which Dasein has to take over in every case. The main issue in this possibility is Dasein's Being-in-the world or the possibility of no-longer being-able-to-be-here. Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein, it is one's ownmost, non-relational issue that is not to be outstripped (294). What is even more important is that Dasein has already been thrown into this possibility. Dasein has no explicit knowledge of its situation, but this fact of being thrown into death reveals itself as anxiety (the basic state-of-mind of Dasein, 295).

The aforementioned statement, ‘death is by its very essence mine’, needs another clarification. Heidegger's elaboration of the everydayness of Dasein and Being-towards-death emerges from his interpretation of the often used phrase ‘one dies’ (man stirbt): „If idle talk is always ambiguous, so is this manner of talking about death. Dying, which is essentially mine in such way that no one can be my representative, is perverted into an event of public occurrence which the “they” encounters (...) The “they” gives its approval, and aggravates the temptation to cover up from oneself one's ownmost Being-towards-death“ (297). In that way the “they” provides a constant tranquilization about death for those who console the dying person. Since we cannot experience our own death, the only thing we can do is to be there alongside. The Other can witness our dying and perceive our absence from the world. That makes us vulnerable to the Other, since she/he knows more about us than we do. She/he sees the world without us. This is what makes death a blind spot in our relation to ourselves (Strauss, 102).

Nancy in his Inoperative Community (4) argues thatthe problem of metaphysics of the subject (metaphysics of the absolute) makes the essence of the question of community. Therefore, he claims, the individual is nothing more than a residue of the experience of the dissolution of community: „Yet it is precisely the immanence of man to man, or it is man, taken absolutely, considered as the immanent being par excellence, that constitutes the stumbling block to a thinking of community. A community presupposed as having to be one of human beings presupposes that it effect, or that it must effect, as such and integrally, its own essence of humanness“ (3). The question is how to explain this inclination (clinamen) or leaning of one towards the Other without which there would be no one and no us? How to understand this „declination or decline of the individual within community“ (4)? But first of all, how to think community without the individual (subject) as its organizing category?

As an alternative Nancy introduces the concept of singularity. According to him, individuality presupposes a lack of limits that belies the true nature of finite communities: „As an individual, I am closed off from all community, and it would be no exaggeration to say that the individual - if an absolutely individual being could exist - is infinite“ (27). This means that the concept of individuality, arising from the same tradition of thought that regarded community as a matter of common-being (not being-in-common), has lost sight of the particularity of existence (Dalton, 34). According to Nancy, existence is always specific and limited. This is why he designates the singular being as finite. Singularity does not proceed from the isolation of clear forms or figures. It does not proceed from anything and it is not a result of an operation (extraction, production or derivation). In other words, a singular being does not emerge  against the background of an undifferentiated identity of beings, or against the background of their unitary assumption or that of will (Nancy, IC: 27). Instead, it „appears, as finitude itself: at the end (or at the beginning), with the contact of the skin (or the heart) of another singular being, at the confines of the same singularity that is, as such, always other, always shared, always exposed“ (28). In Nancy's view, the Cartesian subject „would form the inverse figure of the experience of community and of singularity“ (31). Therefore, the subject discovers itself only when it manages to isolate itself completely from others and from the rest of the world. The singular being, on the other hand, always discovers itself by facing the other (Dalton, 35). There is no singular being without another singular being; they are always exposed together. This enables him or her to say that singularity takes place at the level of clinamen, not at the level of atoms (as individuals). Heidegger (156) has similarly argued that Being-with is an existential characteristic of Dasein even when virtually no other is present-at-hand or perceived. This is so because Dasein is essentially Mitsein. In his essay Of Being-in-Common (written after The Inoperative Community), Nancy explains how being-in-common or being-with cannot be added in a secondary way to Dasein or being-oneself. Just as „the “mit” does not modify the “sein”, it does not even qualify the “Dasein”. It constitutes it essentially (Nancy, BC:2). In other words, Dasein implies being there, being thrown down, offered up by existence.

The question is how to understand this concept of existence? In respect to Nancy, existence is the simple positioning of Dasein. This is why community, as the position of existence is in fact the position of the position. Few lines later he adds: „In the position, (...) in the ex-position, in the being-abandoned-to-the world, essence is exposed“ (3). Therefore, it is possible to say that we are always already within a community. Since this community has no common essence, it is grounded on the event of exposition of the fact of human finitude. It is an exposition that „leaves the self exposed to its own limitations and cut off from the interior infinity that it desires“ (Dalton, 33). This implies that community is nothing more than the sharing of finitude: a singular being shares the fact of its finitude with the Other. Its finitude is, actually, its inability to be self-sufficient, to have a substantial identity. Being-in-common assumes sharing this lack of identity. This is why he considers the loss of immanence as constitutive of community itself. In other words, immanence obstructs community (Nancy, IC: 12).

In his description of collective enterprises oriented towards the ideal of absolute immanence Nancy recognizes the truth of death as its basic principle(4). Generations of   individuals (citizens, workers, militants etc.) have imagined their death reabsorbed or sublated in a forthcoming immanent community. Instead, the communion to come „does not grow distant, it is not deferred: it was never to come; it would be incapable of coming about or forming a future“ (13). In his view, community does not come of death, it does not weave a superior, immortal, or transmortal life between subjects. The community, as he sees it „does not operate the dead being's passage into some communal intimacy, nor does community, for its part, operate the transfiguration of its dead into some substance or subject“ (15). It is obvious that Nancy regards death as the impossibility of making work out of community or work out of death because death (finitude) disrupts the (ontological) project of fusion (Gaon, 396). Following Bataille, Nancy argues that the individual Dasein first knows community when it experiences the impossibility of immanence before the death of the other (Fynsk, XV). This means that community reveals itself in the death of others. It always takes place through others and for others. Therefore, it is not a communion of immanent subjects, but of those I's who are in fact others. This is the reason why Nancy defines community as a communion of others. However, in his further argumentation, Nancy refers to Heidegger's well known statements: we cannot experience death of the other in a genuine sense. At most we are always just 'there alongside' and by its very essence death is in every case mine. Instead of conceiving them as recognition of the self in the other, which presupposes the recognition of the other in oneself, Nancy explains it inversely: „I recognize that in the death of the other there is nothing recognizable. (...) A like-being resembles me in that I myself “resemble” him: we “resemble” together, if you will. That is to say, there is no original or origin of identity. What holds the place of an “origin” is the sharing of singularities. This means that this “origin” – the origin of community or the originary community – is nothing other than the limit: the origin is tracing the borders upon which or along which singular beings are exposed“ (Nancy, IC:33)(5). This means that the true essence of community is the lack of essence, lack of totality. In the context of western philosophical tradition, community has been defined as a project, a work that must be completed. Understanding community in terms of totality and immanence generated certain political programs which should, in Nancy's view, be defined as totalitarian. And, precisely, this was the obstacle for thinking of community.

In his response to Nancy's Inoperative community (La communauté inavouable, 1983) Blanchot employs the concept of death as part of Dasein's ethical relation to the other. According to Georges Bataille, at the basis of every (human) being there is this principle of incompleteness (le principe d'incomplétude). Heidegger has also emphasized that there isconstantly something still to be settled(eine ständige Unabgeschlossenheit) in the basic constitution of Dasein. As Dasein achieves wholeness, it becomes no-longer-Being-there (Nicht-mehr-da-sein). However, while Heidegger speaks of nonrelational death, Blanchot argues for an important role of the Other. In his view, the self's consciousness of incompleteness comes from its being mise en question by its exposure to the Other(6). It is the exposure to the death of the Other that calls the self into question: „To hold oneself present in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another's death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me outside of myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Open of a community“ (Blanchot in Suglia, 51). This means that the being is brought out of itself into community through its presence for the dying Other.  By exposing itself to the radical alterity of an outside that can be mastered by no thought, death establishes community (Gaon, 396).

Why is the death of the Other so important to me? Death, by definition, excludes the possibility of experience. Since the self cannot know its own death, it shares the solitude of the death of the Other. „Holding the hand (tenant la main) of the one who dies in the present (main-tenant), one affirms that there is no “now” in which I could die. The self can never mourn its own death – precisely because “my death” could never occur in or as the present“ (Suglia, 53). The only way that death could be made present for the self is by substitution. According to that, the other, in a way, dies instead of the self. By emphasizing that death belongs to Dasein, Heideger excludes this possibility. According to Blanchot, what brings the self and the Other together is their mutual incapacity to experience death (Suglia, 54). In his L'écriture du désastre, Blanchot defines the other's death as the double death(7). He explained this notion of the double death earlier in L'espace littéraire: „(...) there is one death which circulates in the language of possibility, of liberty, which has for its furthest horizon the freedom to die and the capacity to take mortal risks; and there is its double, which is ungraspable. It is what I cannot grasp, what is not linked to me by any relation of any sort. It is that which never comes and toward which I do not direct myself“ (Blanchot, 1989:102). But how is it possible to take this ungraspable death for the foundation of community? And what kind of community are we talking about? Contrary to Hedegger's understanding of death as solitary, Blanchot believes that the relation of self to the death of the Other enables the only possible experience of something ungraspable. This means that the community is founded upon an impossible experience. This “experience” of nonexperience is communicated through the self–offering which has been designated by Blanchot as friendship (or work of mourning; Suglia, 55). In this way friendship should be understood as sharing of what cannot be grasped or possessed. One approaches death conceived as the impersonal other (autre) via the personal alterity designated as autrui. In other words, „the autrui mediates the infinite alterity of mortality“ (59).

Throughout Blanchot's oeuvre, the problem of mortality is closely related to the question of autrui, and vice versa, the problem of alterity involves the question of mortality. From the point where death for Nancy signifies the impossibility of turning community into a work, Blanchot derives his concept of death out of community of mortal beings which is also their impossible communion. Thus, community presupposes the impossibility of its immanence(8). This is how community reveals to its members the truth of their mortality. While Nancy derives the idea of désoeuvrement from the concept of death (disrupts the project of fusion), for Blanchot death founds community, but, on the other hand, it keeps it impossible to grasp, impossible to express, impossible to transmit and, therefore, unavowable. Apart from his definition of death as a solitary event, Heidegger, proposes the conception of community of death, „where commonality is found in a sharing of finitude, where individual fates are taken up into a common destiny, where death is the Work of the community“ (Critchley,74). Nancy, on the one hand, complies with Heidegger's definition of Dasein as Mitsein, whereas on the other hand, he shows how impossible it is to make work out of community that is calibrated on death.  Instead, he proposes the idea of community of mortal others. Since Blanchot treats death as radical alterity, community described according to Nancy's conception would be a community of doubled alterity.

How can we grieve over the lost immanence, over the death of the subject if it is obvious that we are grieving over something that is absent from the very beginning? This impossibility to distinguish between loss and absence explains why some influential contemporary theories demonstrate inability to resolve the crisis of community. Captured in the circle of repetition, like for example Gellner’s or Anderson’s theory of nation, they stubbornly stick to the category of the subject. In that way, however, they just reproduce the crisis. Since no one can avoid the impact of this crisis, and since all writing is in a way responding to it, this double-edged condition of possibility is what might be defined as our simultaneously disabling and enabling structural trauma, in the sense LaCapra (80) has proposed.





1 Philipe Ariès is the author of  L'homme devant la mort, 2 vols. Paris: Seuil, 1977.
2 „John Martin Fischer badly asserted that "being dead is a condition or a state"[4]. The philosopher Paul Edwards, however, has pointed to some of the "absurdities", as he puts it, of considering death as an ontological condition. To imagine death as a state is, he argues, to attribute to it some sort of being, but death, understood as the permanent loss of consciousness and experience, has no being and is simply absence.“ (Strauss, 91)
3 „Wir erfahren nicht im genuinen Sinne das Sterben der Anderen, sondern sind höchstens immer nur »dabei«.“ (Heidegger, 1967:239)
4 „Thus the logic of Nazy Germany was (...) the logic of sacrifice aimed at all those in the “Aryan” community who did not satisfy the criteria of pure immanence (...)“ (Nancy, IC:12).
5 In his later essay Being Singular Plural Nancy explains: „Our being-with, as being many, is not at all accidental, and it is in no way the secondary and random dispersion of a primordial essence. It forms the proper and the necessary status and consistency of originary alterity as such. The plurality of beings is at the foundation [fondment] of Being (Nancy BS:12).
6 Blanchot presents Bataille's position: „L'être, insuffisant, ne cherche pas à s'associer à un autre pour former une substance d'intégrité. La concsience de l'insuffisance vient de sa propre mise en question, laquelle a besoin de l'autre ou d'un autre pour être effectuée“(Blanchot,1983:15). Few pages later he explains: „Sans doute l'insuffisance appelle-t-elle la contestation qui, viendrait-elle de moi seul, est toujours l'exposition à un autre (ou à'l autre), seul capable, par sa position même, de me metre en jeu“(Ibid.,20).
7 „La mort de l'autre: une double mort, car l'Autre est déjà la mort et pèse sur moi comme l'obsession de la mort“(Blanchot, 1980:36).
8 „«Si la communauté est révélée par la mort d'autrui, c'est que la mort est elle-même la véritable communauté des êtres mortels: leur communion impossible. La communauté occupe donc cette place singulière: elle assume l'impossibilité de sa propre immanence, l'impossibilité d'un être communautaire comme sujet(...)»“ (Blanchot, 1983:24).

5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Zrinka Božić Blanuša: Death and Community - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-04-06