Jean-Luc Nancy and Shaj Mohan, Our Mysterious Being

The English translation of these texts first appeared in “The Philosophical Salon” at the LA Review of Books on April 13, 2020 “.


Jean-Luc Nancy

An Indian friend tells me that at his place people talk about the communovirus. How come no one thought of it before? It’s obvious! And what an admirable and utter ambivalence: the virus that comes from communism, this virus that communises us. Here is something much more fecund than the ridiculous “corona” (crown) which evokes old royal or imperial histories. For that matter, one should dethrone, if not behead the corona if one wants to use the communo.

This is what seems to be happening, according to its initial sense, since it in effect comes from the biggest country in the world whose regime is officially communist. And it is not  so only in the official title: as president Xi Jinping declared, the management of the viral epidemic demonstrates the superiority of the “social system with Chinese characteristics”. Indeed, if communism consists essentially in the abolition of private property, Chinese communism consists – and for a dozens of years now – in a meticulous combination of collective property (or State property) and of individual property (which, however, excludes land property). This combination has allowed, as everyone knows, a remarkable growth of economic and technic capabilities of China, as well as its role in the world.

It is still too early to know how to designate the society produced by such a combination: in what sense is it communist and in what sense did it introduce into itself the virus of the individual competition, if not of its ultra-liberal escalation? For now, the virus covid-19 has allowed it to demonstrate the efficiency of the collective and of the state aspect of the system. This efficiency is claimed so loud and clear that China comes to the aid of Italy and France.

Of course, one also does not miss any opportunity of holding forth on the new lease of authoritative power that the Chinese State is enjoying at the moment. Indeed, everything happens as if the virus came at just the right moment to reinforce official communism. What is troublesome is that the content of the word “communism” keeps getting more and more vague – even though it was already uncertain.

Marx wrote in a very precise manner that with private property, collective property should disappear and should be replaced by what he calls “individual property”. By that he did not mean the goods owned by the individual (in other words private property) but the possibility for the individual to become properly himself. One could say: to realise oneself. Marx had neither the time nor the means to go further with this thought. At least we can recognize that it alone opens a compelling perspective – even though a very indeterminate one – to a “communist” theory. “To realise oneself” is not to acquire material or symbolic goods: it means becoming real, effective, it means existing in a unique way.

It is therefore the second meaning of communovirus that should hold us. De facto, the virus communises us. It sets us all on an equal footing (to put it quickly) and gathers us in the need to make a stand together. That this has to happen through the isolation each of us is only a paradoxical way of giving us to experience our community. One can only be unique among all. It is this that makes our most intimate community: the shared sense of our uniqueness.

Today, in every way, co-belonging, interdependence and solidarity recall themselves to us. Testimonies and initiatives in this direction arise from every place. Adding to this the reduction of atmospheric pollution due to the decrease of transportation and industries, we even have the anticipatory rapture of those who believe that the overthrow of techno-capitalism is already here. Let’s not sulk over some fragile euphoria – but let’s ask ourselves how much deeper we fathom the essence of our community.

One calls upon solidarities, one stimulates more than one, but overall it is the awaiting of the state providence – the very one that M. Macron took the opportunity to celebrate – that dominates the media scene. Instead of confining ourselves we first feel confined by force, though it were providential. We feel isolation as a privation when it is only a protection.

In a sense, this is an excellent refresher course: it is true that we are not solitary animals. It is true that we need to meet each other, to share a drink, to drop in. Besides, the sudden increase of phone calls, emails and other social media evinces some pressing needs, a fear of losing touch.

Are we, for all that, better at thinking this community? There is a danger that the main representative left is the virus. There is a danger that between the surveillance model or the providential one, we are left to the virus as our only common good.

Therefore, we will not progress in understanding that which could be the surpassing of properties, as well collective as private. That is to say the surpassing of property in general or of anything that refers to the possessing of an object by a subject. The very nature of the “individual” as Marx would say, is to be incomparable, immeasurable and unassimilable, even for itself. It is not about owning “goods”. It is to be a possibility of unique and exclusive realisation, whose exclusive uniqueness can only be assessed, by definition, among everyone and with everyone — against or despite everyone — but always in relation to and in exchange (communication). It has to do with a “value” that is neither that of general equivalence (money) nor that of an extorted “surplus” but a value that is on no basis measurable.

Are we capable of thinking in such a difficult – even dizzying – way? It is good that the communovirus forces us to question ourselves thus. Because it is only on this condition that it is worth, ultimately, that we strive to eradicate it. If not, then we will find ourselves back in the same place. We will be relieved, but we can prepare ourselves for other pandemics.

Translated by Victoria Derrien



Shaj Mohan

In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important. ­– Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Implicitly we are asking in these discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic[1] is there a norm for man? Earlier it was philosophy that had the task of constituting the systems under which the limits, and also as yet unknown thresholds, for actions were given. Aristotle wrote in The Politics:

“A ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing”[2]

These restrictions pertain to nature too; there is a critical weight beneath which nature had to restrict the construction of birds with flight due to the problem of taking off. Once we have the system which denotes the ranges of each element—wingspan, weight, tissue strengths—then their possible ranges in relation to each other can be found. Following the system, or critique in the Kantian sense, we get to criteria or a few parameters which make up the “norm”. Critics use them to make judgments. A popular music critic with the latest criteria may then say that a certain pop song has too many chord progressions.

In the same text, Aristotle set the criteria for cities, especially the ideal distance between the well governed city and the seas. It would appear that the further the seas the better. Even today, the threat posed by the sea is of the unfamiliar, the obscure, the strangers, the refugees and the degenerates. For these very reasons which provoke distaste in most of us today, the criteria of the Greek cartel with a constitution, run by a few men and excluding women and slaves from their “democracy”, cannot be our criteria for politics.

We assume from the common uses of the terms “natural” and “normal” that nature is a set of norms. A principle of this misleading thought is Spinoza’s conatus—the tendency in all beings to conserve in their own being. However, if there is a tendency in everything (in so far as things are) it is to prolong itself sufficiently in a “milieu” in order to enjoy being-other-than-oneself, and to be elsewhere. These changes vary in their temporalities across living systems and within each living system. Most cells in our body renew themselves in weeks, immunities are acquired, and mutations are undergone. Homeostasis refers to the relative stability as a species characteristic, while speciation exchanges a previous set of powers for a new set of powers. Darwin was concerned with the ratio holding between the external and internal milieus of living forms; we can understand it as the reciprocal adjustment of internal and external forms. Nature is hardly normal. That is, form in living form is not Platonic form, but it is something akin to the clinch of the wrestlers appearing to be indistinguishable from a tight embrace.

The being which is challenging us, the virus, is somewhere between our concept of living and non-living. Guido Pontecorvo, the geneticist born in Pisa, made certain predictions about viral pandemics in 1948, suggesting that two non-virulent forms of viruses infecting the same host may produce a new form which will then result in pandemics of the type we are undergoing. The idea underlying this prediction was that viruses sexually reproduce, which violates our most familiar “norm” of life. The “normalized” concept of sexual reproduction involves the presence of specialized organs for the exchange of genetic material. But in fact, any mechanism through which genetic recombination takes place is sexual reproduction[3].

We have been, especially in recent years, attributing norms to ourselves and to what is called nature. These attributions have a general principle—hypophysics—which takes nature to coincide with the good; a thing is good when it is proximate to its nature, and is evil when it departs from that nature. The moralization of the earth system and animals is easily recognizable. Norms have been prescribed for the human animal as well. For example, “normal conditions of life” as that which is natural to man from which every deviation is viewed with suspicion. For Gandhi this norm was the idyllic life of the affluent upper caste man in an Indian village. Giorgio Agamben’s norm is “the normal conditions” surrounded by culture in an idyllic town where the churches continue to prescribe[4]. We know that it has always been the living conditions of a privileged few that became cultural norms; that a majority had to be denied these very norms to achieve them; and that “bourgeois thinkers” theorize to conserve in their own being.

In this series of thinkers Pierre Clastres stands out, for he too had a norm, albeit not of his own milieu but of what he called “primitive society”. The deviation from the norm in a primitive society makes “the state” appear, and this is the very instant in which man is de-natured. Clastres sought the archeology of the state in primitive societies. But all he could find was that when something, such as a metal axe, enters the primitive society from the outside (the modern world) their conatus collapses. We must see in his own words the perfect picture of human norm, or conatus:

Primitive society, then, is a society from which nothing escapes, which lets nothing get outside itself, for all the exits are blocked. It is a society, therefore, that ought to reproduce itself perpetually without anything affecting it throughout time.[5]

Let us call the theories of all these proposed norms idyllic a priori, following from the example set by Foucault. Idyllic a priori are derivative of hypophysics; that is, a moment in the history of a few is interpreted as the natural way of being because this is the “normal conditions of life”. Behind the many phenomena of “bio-politics” lie their respective idyllic a priori.

Until the last century the task of fixing norms for man belonged to metaphysics. Metaphysics fixed these norms by taking “being” as the fundamental differentiable. In the differentiable “programming languages” we find the difference between “assembly languages” and “compiled languages”. The differentiated are not predicable of the differentiable; that is, we never say that “function is linear equation”. In metaphysics these operations created the series of differences such as that between Idea and things, God and creatures, and so on. Of these pairs the first term is the higher being which then grounds the norms for man. Heidegger would produce a remarkable new division, that between being and beings, which is without a differentiable, and would call it the ontico-ontological difference. This strange difference—if it makes sense it is not understood—brought metaphysics to suspension. Jean-Luc Nancy brought this agony to the end when he wrote “existence precedes and succeeds on itself”[6].

These thoughts, which form their own series, show us that nature is not natural and indicate that each and everything befalls us not without reason, rather everything drives us to give them reason. In fact, we know that we can anticipate the coursing of one thing into the next, or the transition from one state to the next. Even this pandemic was anticipated several times in the past. When the anticipation meets with the objective there is satisfaction, for example, every August we anticipate the Perseids meteor shower and it doesn’t disappoint us. When anticipation is not satisfied in experience there is either surprise or disappointment. In spite of all the anticipations regarding various calamities of the world we proceed with an absolute certainty that this world itself will not withdraw, that it will not disappoint, although we cannot give a reason for it, for there is no reason[7] why it should not withdraw in this very instant. Reason drives us towards this experience just as we are drawn to it. Logically we can accommodate this experience—which is the most shared and even mundane experience of our humankind—by saying that the end of the world is not an event in the world, and therefore it is not an event.[8] For now, let us mark it as the obscure experience.

For the present occasion, something else follows from this obscure experience. As later Wittgenstein discovered, experiences are given on the condition that they are shared in communities, in public language. The impossibility of writing down an absolutely private experience implies that one cannot oneself understand the said experience. Wittgenstein’s argument eliminates the authority of all mysticisms. Instead, we are left with this shared mundane mystery which cannot be encoded in reason although it surrounds reason. This common place experience—the absolute certitude that the world will persist—does not institute any norm, for it is obscure. Instead, it makes a demand that we do not ‘play’ politics in such a way that it—the most shared of all experiences—is surrendered to either an idyllic a priori or to technological exuberance.

It is time to think again of our relation to technology, both bio-techniques and computational techniques, and their growing proximity. Some radical shifts in our humankind began in the 19th century when Simmelweis introduced through the technique of hand-washing a barrier between us and microbes. Further, through Koch, Pasture and several others we began to take charge of our “immune systems” and direct it according to our interests using vaccines, antivirals, and immunosuppressive medicines. The eventual arrival of nano-machines (atomic scale engineering is already a reality[9]), which will course through our circulatory system such that our immune systems are completely externalized, will complete our new speciation.

We are also the species which drew a circulatory system upon the earth. When “we” began to wander the earth, nearly 50,000 years ago, we already begun the processes of inter-connecting the regions of the earth, which resulted in the silk roads and the internet. There are many instances in which we can see that the externalized immune system and, the global circulatory system of internet and commodities are conjoined. For example, the very medicines which regulate the immune system are produced in Asia and then travel to the rest of the world. Bio-medical systems can be remotely managed through the internet. Together we are coming to be a singular organism of our own making on earth.

Then what of the earth? Although it might seem an abhorrent thought, “the earth” too is already implicated in this circulatory system, which began at least with agriculture. The global circulatory system will suffer the traumas of the two kinds of viral infections again. As Mohammed and Sandberg argue, the virulence of both the computer virus and the organic virus will be a function of the rate of integration of the global circulatory system, and they show that the organic virus too will soon be engineered[10].

Today, nationalisms and various ethno-centric proclivities stand in the way of the well-being of the global circulatory system. Due to potential bio-cyber wars between nation states the global circulatory system itself is under threat. Eventually the components of these older orders of the world will be comprehended by a new set of laws. However, now is the time and the occasion (when this flu is being experienced in the global circulatory system) for us to think together about the future forms of our being together as those who are shared by the commonplace and yet obscure experience. This way we return to the beginning: Unless we as everyone, everywhere, understand that this world is the co-belonging equally of everyone in sharing the mysterious but absolute certainty of its persistence, and create political concepts and new institutions, this ship might become either too small or too large to set sail ever again.

[1] See

[2] 1326b1, Book 7, Politics, The Complete Works of Aristotle, Ed. Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, 1984

[3] See “Origin of Sex”, Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 110, Issue 3, 7 October 1984, Pages 323-351

[4] See Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us.”

[5] P 212, Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, Tr. Robert Hurley, Zone Books, New York, (Reprint) 2007

[6] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Sense of the World, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): p. 34

[7] In the restricted uses of reason

[8] This thought can only be suggested here. For more see “What Carries Us On” in and

[9] See

[10] Working paper titled “Hybrid Risk: Cyber-Bio Risks” shared kindly by Anish Mohammed and Anders Sandberg

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