Part of illustration by Moa Thelander.

Okategoriserade Fraternity

The term “fraternity” has been clearly linked to a register that could be called romantic. This explains the desire to distinguish the word from others like “solidarity” and “justice” and in particular “equality”.

Published on on May 19, 2015

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The French Republic is perhaps the only state in the world to have a motto in which the word “fraternity” (fraternité) occurs. Whether or not it actually is the only one, the fact is that its motto has enjoyed a fame closely linked to the fame of the Revolution of 1789, which has always been regarded — after the English and American revolutions, which were more strictly national in character — as the inaugural moment of democracy in the sense of an appeal to all nations and peoples. This was the background for the motto attached to the Republic, not from its very start but at least from the year 1793, and which didn’t become fully functional — if that is the proper expression — or acquire all its force until the Second Republic in 1848. The historical facts are complex and unclear on this point, but it was certainly some time before the tripartite motto   —  that is, with Fraternity added to the other two words, and without the complement “or death”, used in 1793  —  was fully adopted. Even after this adoption, groups and persons proposing other mottos could still be found, in particular within the workers’ movement. Thus the employment agency (Bourse du Travail) in the town of Saint-Étienne, established in 1888, carries the device: Liberté Egalité Solidarité Justice (“Freedom, Equality, Solidarity, Justice”).

To some extent, the term “fraternity” has been clearly linked to a register that could be called romantic, in the wider sense, and to a way of thinking that goes beyond the strict limits of the laws and institutions of State in that it appeals to the sentiment and idea of a “community” rather than to principles of social organization. This explains the desire to distinguish the word from others like “solidarity” and “justice”, which can be seen as developing the implications of the first two terms, in particular “equality”.

Today, fraternity is not often considered benevolently — at least not in France   — as it is felt to carry too much of a sentimental, not to say familial connotation, at a time when family is no longer a point of reference. When Maurice Blanchot used the word in a context where he wanted to emphasize the affective aspect of “community”, he incurred the reproach (also directed at me) of Jacques Derrida, who more than once expressed his mistrust of a term that is simultaneously familial, masculine, sentimental and Christian-sounding. Moreover, no one — apart from the two just mentioned — seems to have laid claim to the expression in the political thought of the last forty years. On the contrary, the use of this term by a candidate in the French presidential election some years ago, and its repetition by the candidate who was then elected (President Sarkozy), revived all the mistrust towards a word considered to be moral rather than political, and sugary rather than responsible.

All these analyses might lead to this argument (which incidentally can be employed not only against the use of the word but also, by some, in its favor): whereas liberty and equality express our civil rights, fraternity is not a civil right. Is it then, perhaps, a duty? This issue is not often formulated, instead giving way to the idea of a wish, an aspiration, and hence to a reality that is of little substance, if not simply utopian and deceptive. Besides, it can be said that all the well-known debates concerning the idea of a “utopia” are implied by those concerning “fraternity”. Here one can see the lasting influence of the anti-utopian tradition originating with Marx, for whom this word masked an illusion.

To pose the question of fraternity anew, we must begin with two postulates: (1) It is not obvious that this notion ought to be defended, and we should not ignore the apprehensions raised by its familial, Christian and sentimental character; (2) If there are nevertheless reasons for according some credit to this word, we must start with a renewed examination of its signification and, going further back, of the signification of family.

The first postulate simply recommends a certain degree of caution. It is not advisable to adopt this notion without considering the possibility of finding oneself constrained by the predicates “familial, Christian, sentimental”. As concerns family, this is something that the second postulate will lead us to scrutinize. As regards Christianity and sentiment —  simultaneously separate from but undoubtedly also implicated in each other — it is appropriate to say this: each of these terms signifies a well-known reality, in one case the dominant religion of the non-Muslim Western world, in the other the uncertain, even disturbing and hazardous sphere of that which continues to elude the control of reason.

But these two characteristics might actually be in need of closer examination, even though it is certainly not impossible to attribute them to each of the ideas concerned. In fact, it might turn out that they have themselves been marked by certain habits of thought sedimented in the course of our history.

We will therefore return to them once we have clarified the notion of “family”. To begin with, the patriarchal family, where the suspicion of masculine sexism in the idea of fraternity originates, is not the only possible structure of that which is called “family”: It could be defined as the minimal social group for the purposes of reproduction and its consequences (raising children until they become independent). Perhaps one might even claim that it is the reflection or projection of strongly masculine and paternal social and political models onto the family that have accustomed us to emphasize the father and the transmission to and through males.

Be that as it may, there is a more important point: “brothers” are not originally those united by the same blood. For “blood” is nothing but the symbol of filiation through the transmission of semen (of a natural identity or conformity), and filiation itself is represented according to an ancient scheme in which the mother lacked any generative power of her own (and was instead seen simply as an incubator). “Blood” is by no means a sufficient explanation of what comprises generation and filiation.

Sons and daughters are not so much those united by blood — pater incertus, said the Roman law — but rather those united by the community of maternal nursing — mater certissima: whether it be real or symbolic, nursing does not consist in the internal, continuous and immediate transmission of a vital principle, but in the external, discontinuous and mediated gift of a nourishing substance. Feeding is a process of incorporation of alien substances that the body metabolizes into its own substance. The bond with the mother is a paradoxical bond where incorporation (certissima) is opposed to identification (the child doesn’t identify itself, it absorbs the maternal substance into its own, autonomous substance); the bond with the father is identification, not with a body or a substance (incertus), but with a figure or a sign.

It is here that we must start in order to reconsider family and fraternity. Brothers — and sisters, a point we will return to — are initially autonomous subjects whose coexistence is not founded upon anything but a commonality of feeding, of nourishment (compagnon signifies: someone who shares the bread), and on the absence of reasons for their communal life. The figure or the sign of the father, that which is often called “the law of the father” but would be better called “the father as law”, is not determined from the start. On the contrary: the figure is an empty outline or sketch, a sign carrying a fleeting, indeterminate signification.

It is of course possible for the father to function as a full figure, just as it is possible for the mother not to nourish, or to malnourish (all of which is of course to be understood on a symbolic level, just as “father” and “mother” are not necessarily the parents, biologically or legally). This is not the rule, however: the rule, if this word can be used here, would rather be that nothing guarantees the “community” of brothers beyond nourishment. The transition to independence, made possible by the nourishment, also signifies the recognition of being together by accident, in a community without origin or any given meaning. (In Freudian terms: the “murder of the father” precedes the “father”, who is only erected as the figure of his own absence.)

In this sense, “being siblings” is the model of “society”, as an association without substantial (ontological, original) necessity. It is thus also the model of “having to adjust to living together”, rather than of “being together”. Finding or creating an equivalent or substitute for maternal nourishment is a task — or rather a desire — that is both more and less than social: what is at stake is “being” or “meaning” (which might pass through art, religion, love, celebration, thought  — but not through the socio-political). But giving content to the figure or sign through which the instance of “the law” is indicated presents an inescapable and urgent enterprise, since their original lack of content poses a threat.

My intention here is not to continue the analyses from these premises, which would have to go in several directions. It is only to emphasize this: “fraternity” does not in itself carry the values of the masculine and the paternal as we ordinarily understand them. Fraternity speaks of coexistence not necessitated by either “nature”, “destiny”, “foundation”, or “origin”. Incidentally, this is why the motif of enemy brothers plays such a prominent role in mythologies of all kinds. Usually, such an enmity is understood as a kind of moral monstrosity, when in fact it states the simple truth of a relation that is in itself erratic, lost, and even senseless.

At the same time, fraternity also carries the shadow or the obscure memory and desire of communal nourishment. In this, it is no doubt rather a “sorority” (sisterhood), and in this regard it must be admitted that the fraternal privileges a masculine unilaterality. Sorority would be fraternity beyond or on this side of the law, in the sphere or spheres of nourishment, which is to say of “eating/rejecting”, which are also the spheres of affect.

Fraternity and sorority cut across each other, they even interlace, just as masculine and feminine more generally do. The carriers of these roles are never strictly identical with the complex singularities of either persons or groups: no one is simply and completely either “man” or “woman”, and a fraternity [fratrie] is not necessarily a confraternity [confrérie] of males. Perhaps these two terms might also serve to distinguish two tendencies in the semantics of “brothers”: Confraternity unites subjects tending to be identical since they are identified by a function, an occupation, a role. Fraternity belongs to the family, which is only, as I said, the conjunction of chance (meeting) and an embrace (desire) — given that the meeting on the one hand is almost always subject to preliminary arrangements (social, local, etc.), and that the desire might also have been replaced beforehand, wholly or in part, by arrangements. The idea of “marriage”, in so far as it falls under the law (that is to say, not under spirituality or a nuptial mystique), sums up the situation well: it is a question of mastering chance or — and at the same time — legitimizing the arrangements. Marriage, one might say, is the true birthplace and event of the law.

This might lead to the assumption that nothing remains of desire and that everything is subsumed under the dispositions of the socio-political. This is only a tendency, however. For one must not forget that the law — legality, the State — is always founded upon a withdrawal of every founding principle. The figure or the sign of the father, and consequently also that of fraternity, offers a vacancy that must be filled in one way or another. Brothers are originally orphans of a father and cannot be identified as belonging together by anything at all — except the absorption of the maternal nourishment, leading to their emancipation.

As soon as the paternal vacancy — the “vacancy of power”, as it is called in the socio-political register — is manifested as such, one must confront this conspicuous truth, which no founding mythology can hide (a function always imperfectly fulfilled, whatever the mythologies might be). This is the destiny of democracy: it must assume this vacancy without appealing to a mythology.

The maternal or feminine side or register does not provide a mythology —  at least not for the order of the law; at least not for supplementing the absent father. Desire does not allow itself to be captured in representations. It acts, it plays, it buries or throws itself into the sensible density of nourishment: hunger, saturation, hunger again — without end. Or also: life, death. And also: art, thinking, love, the trembling of being and, if one wishes to mention them, the gods. This is the constant lesson, from Antigone and Scheherazade on to Hester in The Scarlet Letter and then Vera Figner, passing through The Bacchae of Euripides.1

It is therefore not surprising that democracy aspires to provide for itself, in itself — for that within itself that exceeds the strict register of the law — a dimension that provides access to desire or to affect: to that which I here name only hesitatingly, in order to designate this outside of law and of power, vacant or not, in which being-together exceeds its own sociality and governmentality. If “freedom” and “equality” represent — on the condition of always being rethought   — the minimal conditions of a civil association without any given foundation, “fraternity” might indicate the horizon of this outside of the socio-political. Strictly speaking, it is not even a horizon: it is rather an open breach in every form of horizon and delimitation. This breach is that of meaning or sense: sense in so far as it always refers elsewhere, to an elsewhere, instead of attaching a final signification.

To remain consistent with the preceding statements, however, I must recognize that this fraternity should be understood as a sorority, or even as the dissolution of principle between brothers and the reference this implies on the one hand to the law as the fiction of a connection (and as the uttering of this fiction), and on the other hand to the reality of the transmission and sharing of nourishment, that is to say of the affect through which the substance of the world is ingested and rejected (impulsion/expulsion, impression/expulsion). The sharing of impulsion/expulsion, the communication of affect: this is, once again, sense (sensible, sensual, sentimental).

Perhaps, then, one should  say neither “fraternity” nor “sorority” — for exploiting this oversimplified inversion would make sisters the symmetrical counterpart of brothers. But the two sides are not symmetrical: if brothers no doubt are distinct from sisters, the sisters on their part might fraternize with the brothers, in a brotherly and sisterly way. There is no symmetry between the sexes, or if so, only when they are considered exclusively from the point of view of brothers (equality in political, social terms etc.).

Fraternity” is certainly an insufficient term, even if not necessarily a dangerous one. Nevertheless it is a signal: it alerts us to the fact that the social, juridical and political order cannot assume the register of sense. It can only provide the framework of sense. But it is essential that it should do so, and that in order to do so, it is able by itself to indicate that it is beyond the law, in a place where sense emerges.≈


1 Against the law of the Sultan, Scheherazade opposes her imagination, her spirit and her heart; she also acts with the support of her sister Dinarzade. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester eschews the social law of marriage, for which she is sentenced to the pillory and the “scarlet letter”. The Russian anarchists, in particular the women (Vera Zasulich, Olga Lubatovich, etc.), originally conceived their action not so much in political as in human —  thus “meta-physical” —  terms, in the widest sense (in accordance with the very idea of “anarchism”). Vera Figner writes: “The doctrine that prom-ises the equality, brotherhood, and happiness of all people would truly impress me” (Mémoires d’une révolutionnaire, Gallimard, 1939, 258). In The Bacchae, the women of Thebes leave the city for the wild forest upon hearing of the return of Dionysus. Needless to say, the list could be continued … from Sarah laughing at God to Simone Weil, who was able to write, in 1940: “All of the changes that have occurred for the past three centuries bring humanity closer to a situation where there will be absolutely no other source of obedience in the world except the authority of the State” (Œuvres, Gallimard, 1999, 382), or the daughters of General Hammerstein, sisters whose story has been so well told by Hans-Magnus Enzensberger.

NOTE: This article is one of many contributions to the theme “Voices on solidarity”, guest edited by Ludger Hagedorn.

  • by Jean-Luc Nancy

    In 1973, he received his doctorate with a dissertation on Kant. Nancy was then promoted to Maître de conférences at the Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg. In the 1970s and 1980s, Nancy was a guest professor at universities all over the world. In 1987, Nancy received his Docteur d’état which was published 1988 as L’expérience de la liberté.

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