Peter Trwany, Jean-Luc Nancy (talking) and Irina Sandomirskaja.

Peter Trwany, Jean-Luc Nancy (talking) and Irina Sandomirskaja.

Interviews “There is no heritage”

Irina Sandomirskaja in a conversation with philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Trawny on the subject of nationalism and cultural heritage.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 70-81
Published on on December 30, 2019

No Comments on “There is no heritage” Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

Irina Sandomirskaja in a conversation with philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Trawny  on the subject of nationalism and cultural heritage.

Day one: Thiel Gallery, Stockholm

Irina Sandomirskaja: Dear Jean-Luc, dear Peter, thank you very much for agreeing to join me in this conversation. It was very thoughtfully, as usual, suggested by Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback and organized somewhat in haste, and I am grateful to both of you for finding a moment to talk with me. Marcia and I together with some other colleagues are collaborating in a project constructing a critique of heritage as a mode of production of value and its ideologies and practices. Both Jean-Luc’s and Peter’s work in critical theory has been widely acknowledged and is especially relevant in the critical reflection of nationalism, an intellectual and political phenomenon that nowadays is quite spectacularly growing stronger even though its anti-democratic character has been exposed in so many instances of critical reflection. Nationalism as it appears nowadays, at this time of crisis of democracy in Europe, probably constitutes the only set of values that can be described as a truly European heritage and legacy, a bulwark of the dreamworld of the nation as organic self-sufficiency as opposed to democracy, or, to use Jean-Luc’s term, communauté désoeuvrée (inoperative community).

I would like to make a short introduction to this conversation in order to explain the questions I am addressing to you and why. We are sitting and talking surrounded by the grand interiors of the Thiel Gallery (Thielska galleriet), one of Stockholm’s finest museums, a precious collection of Swedish Modernist art and design, a monument to the colossal effort of Ernest Jacques (Jakob) Thiel (1859–1947), a banker, at one time Sweden’s richest man, an art collector, and a friend and supporter of the arts and artists. This gallery is nowadays one of the best examples of carefully collected and preserved Swedish national heritage. Surrounded by these objects, in the atmosphere of refined connoisseurship, it is difficult to be critical towards heritage and its ideas and the formation of its values. In one of his essays, Jean-Luc Nancy came forward with what appears to be the ultimate critical position in this sense when he proclaimed that ”there is no heritage”. However, look around us. Here it is, the highly prominent and impressive and undeniable presence of national values appearing in the form of beautiful artworks, tastefully designed historical interiors, and advanced museum technologies. There is much heritage, perhaps even too much.

It might sound ironic in this surrounding, but I would like to return to the special relation between cultural heritage and communism, or, in a broader way, about communism in its relation to the problem of the past. It was quite recently that I discovered this problem for myself. Tomorrow, Jean-Luc will be at Södertörn University giving a lecture about community. I would like to remind you, Jean-Luc, how we first met personally. This was several years ago, when I was participating, together with a group of colleagues, in a seminar in Strasbourg, a trip that Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback organized for us specifically to discuss your book about the inoperative community. This is a book that we have been reading and discussing intensely since then, and we are certainly looking forward to your lecture tomorrow. Because since you wrote this book — this manifesto, I would say, of a free, democratic, and cosmopolitan Europe — things have changed, haven’t they.

Jean-Luc Nancy (JLN): Oh yes, certainly, indeed.

So you would probably not consider it a trivial repetition if I ask you this question about communism and its problems with the past. How do you think this problem appears now, when the meaning itself of the inoperative, but constitutive ”co-” in ”community”, has been challenged, although in a new manner, again?

JLN: But Peter has told me that he recently gave a lecture and told his public that there is no heritage — and that was without any connection with me.

Peter Trawny (PT): Yes, I was giving a paper on Heidegger’s legacy — with a question mark — and I claimed that there is no heritage in his sense.

Are legacy and heritage the same?

PT: No, no, they are not synonymous, but that was not the point. We were speaking about the relation between heritage and inheritance, and Jean-Luc in his article was writing about heredité, which would be a third notion. It would be interesting first to think about the relations between these three phenomena. For instance, speaking about Christian heritage or cultural heritage, how does one think of its relation to heredity? Speaking about communism — who would think that this connection is valid given the fact that Marx was against inheritance and that for him revolution was a form of interruption and breaking up with heritages.

Speaking about interruption of inheritance by revolution, I was recently listening to an interview with a Russian bureaucrat who deals with urban development somewhere in a northern city in Russia. She was complaining that it is totally impossible to deal with any urban planning in contemporary Russia because in the cities, ”everything is heritage”.

PT: (laughs)

JLN: Contemporary Russia?

In contemporary Russia, yes, but those places she speaks about were obviously proclaimed as heritage sites during the Soviet period. As opposed to what Marx said about revolution interrupting inheritance, in practice ”heritagization” in Soviet Russia started immediately after the revolution and was promoted by the revolutionary regime. Initially, the Bolsheviks rejected repetitions and returns in history (and cultural heritage is a phenomenon of return) in approximately the same way as Marx and Engels rejected repetition in revolution in the Communist Manifesto and in 18th Brumaire. They were also strongly against the commodification of the past. The late Soviet regime’s relation to the Bolshevik legacy is of course a complicated question. Nevertheless, in short, nowadays, literally all is heritage of one historical period or another, in one system of values or another.

JLN: I do not know if I could say anything about Russia, because I do not know Russia. There is a feeling that for a long time there has been a continuity in Russia, a link to all that is past, for instance, in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. It was a film about the heritage of the tsars, and Ivan’s victory over the boyards was compared to the revolution and its opposition to the church.

As Peter says, revolution means a fight against the past. I believe the time between Nietzsche and maybe Lenin is, precisely, the time of rupture. Nietzsche breaks history in two. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, communism itself, at least according to Engels, can be thought as a kind of heritage, namely of the first Christians. According to Engels, it was the early Christians who were the first communists.  And in a way, this is true, because the Acts of the Apostles — the book of the New Testament that follows the Gospels — contains a very well known description of their life in community, all of them living together and sharing common property. There is a story there about a couple among the apostles who did something wrong with regard to the community, and then there was a kind of trial, a common condemnation and a punishment from God — they died because they kept for themselves something that should belong to all. I think that maybe this idea of the community of the apostles has indeed something to do with the attitude in Christianity towards wealth. There is probably no other religion that would have such hatred of wealth. You remember the story of the cleansing of the merchants from the temple, or the speech against the rich in the epistle of St. James in which he proclaims against all the rich.

And I think that has to do with philosophy as well. In Plato and after him in Aristotle there is the criticism of the sophists. They turn language into a commodity, they take money for language, they teach how to speak for money. And Plato says, “I do not do like that in the academy; I teach for mere food, and I make no money with that.” Aristotle also strongly criticized the idea of making profit with money, for instance, in his criticism of a poem by Solon.  Solon wrote that there is no limit to richness, while Aristotle argued that Solon was wrong because there is a limit, as there is a limit to any kind of technique, and it is the same with money. And I think it is the period between Plato and Christ that was precisely the time that Marx called precapitalism.

Not after Christ?

JLN: After Christ there begins a time of suspension, and then only later capitalism starts. And I think (maybe someone has already done it?) if one would write the history of Christianity from the Renaissance and maybe until Marx, you will really find a lot of contradictory statements, some criticizing richness and some encouraging it. The church itself was enormously rich. So at stake is something that belongs to complete mutation — maybe, not exactly of richness but of the meaning of gold, silver, and precious stones. In the time before the Greeks, and of course, in Egypt, the pharaoh would be buried with a lot of jewelry. You know, the mask of Tutankhamun, and so on. Which would be understandable in Egypt, but it stops being understandable at the time when Athenian imperialism is born, and trade begins, or in Rome, for instance, when people start building houses in order to rent them out and make money. It was there already, the possibility of making money by trading grain from North Africa or Sicily. This was a matter of the state, but the state was hiring people to do that for the state.

And at that time Christianity — actually, before Christianity — it was philosophy that first came forward with condemnation of all that. There was a feeling that a kind of appropriation had appeared that had been unknown before, a kind of appropriation that was not exactly illegal but immoral, but why? The appropriation of riches by the pharaoh in Ancient Egypt was not only legal, but also moral because it was a sacred deed, and there was a relation between gold as a sacred symbol and the sacrality of the pharaoh’s person.

Maybe one can say that the critique of richness has to do with the criticism of idolatry in the Bible. You can buy your idol with all the gold and precious stones you want, but it still remains merely a statue, it does not speak. Maybe we could say that the idea of community appears in Christianity as an idea precisely of non-private appropriation of richness and at the same time the reduction of the role of money to the means of buying what is necessary for life but not in order to create capital.


PT: In this respect, since we are speaking of the historical background, this critique of richness in the New Testament is actually a repetition of what happens in the Old Testament, at the very beginning of the Jewish religion. It is the story of the golden calf. In Jesus, the critique of richness is also a Jewish motif, which also leads us to Marx, in a way, if we want to draw this parallel.


JLN: Absolutely right, absolutely. But precisely then there is a split, and the fight between Judaism and Christ is the testimony of that. We remember the story of the cleansing of the temple, when Christ says to the merchants, you are making the house of my father into a den of robbers, you are stealing. The story of the golden calf is extremely important because the golden calf is the opposite of the law — when Moses comes with the law, he finds the calf standing there in the middle of the people. This all is part of the whole transformation of the Western world, the Mediterranean area.

One can see that the idea of communism is in a way an anticapitalist idea because it should be the idea of using — not only money, but everything, all resources. This is the question of use, the value of use against exchange value. There are a lot of problems here, but this is the starting point. It is very interesting and even surprising what happens in Christianity later, with Francis of Assisi. We know that Francis considered poverty the main virtue. However, for Francis poverty meant using everything for a good life and not for the accumulation of capital. So, at the same time his criticism was against the nobility who were accumulating treasures, and he considered it right to take money from the nobility because they did not use money in the proper way, because their money was not for the good of the people. He demanded that they should give that money back to the people, but by people Francis meant the first bourgeois (even though of course there were no proletarians as yet) — but bourgeois in the sense that those were the people of the city. And then you can say that Francis created a positive energy for the invention of capitalism because he put forward the idea of circulation, the idea that money should not be lying in vain because there exists a good use for it. But I do not know enough of that. For example, Agamben has written a book about Francis and poverty and he disagrees completely with the idea of that Italian historian, at least in what concerns Francis himself.  You know, in the history of Christianity, and especially in the history of Western Christianity, there arose all the time again and again the question of how we should use richness in a good way. More and more, the good use was defined by two things — technology and the technology of the State that allows, for instance, one to make ships that can cross the sea. Long before Columbus, when Marco Polo went to China, what was at stake then? It was something quite different from use — he wanted to find things there that they did not have here and that are precious precisely because we cannot sell them. Marco Polo does not use much technology, but the very idea of going there is important. Later, Columbus had Marco Polo’s book with him on his ship. Technologies on the one hand, and on the other hand, the State. The State becomes necessary precisely with the formation of the bourgeois society, and then one uses technology to start building all kinds of machines, including social machines — to create something different from the feudal order. Thus, the state that was meant for managing the good of the people at the same time has to use all of its means to make money, and it becomes itself the most important maker of money.


PT: But still, I would just add something. Speaking of heritage in the historical perspective, we will have to consider the Roman law, because, I guess, this is actually the origin of all terms that we all use when speaking of heritage and inheritance and the like. Even if we can start with Jesus and with Jewish interpretations concerning richness, the meaning of heritage, or heredity, or inheritance, even if these all have a meaning in the Christian system, they still come from the Roman side, I would say. This will be important for your topic, Irina, to think about.


JLN: Yes, this is right and so true. When Carl Schmitt states that our political concepts are all secularized theological concepts, I think in a way he is totally wrong. Because theological concerns, at least in the church, in ecclesiology, and in part of dogmatics, have their origin in Rome. It was the sacralization of Rome that made the church — Rome was not exactly secular, but Rome was at least the only phenomenon in history when a city itself became sacred. The god of Rome is Rome. Historically, there is an idea of coming back to Rome, the idea of the empire — all empires, maybe including the Third Reich, did have something that resembled Rome, but a precise representation did not occur, and that marks the separation of the state from society. There are a lot of social problems in the history of Rome — but the state becomes a separate sphere in Rome in the meaning of stability. And then the idea of communism in Marx is precisely about eliminating this separation, as the young Marx says, making politics disappear in order to come back to all realms of society. And then, once again, communism means the rupture of the heritage of appropriation, and in this way we can say that heritage coming from Roman law is not the only form but a very important form of private appropriation.

Day 2: Rönells’, a second-hand bookstore in Stockholm

Let me just remind you that yesterday we stopped at the moment when you started speaking about Rome, the state, and stability.

JLN: Yes, and …? Shall we continue?

Yes, please continue.

PT: Our topic is heritage.

Yes, heritage is our topic, we were discussing communism, and before you took up the topic of Rome you were speaking about the Bible and the Greeks.

JLN: Yes, I know, I know, but the question is rather to know how to come back to the topic of heritage …

I think the connection that you wanted to make was that the legal aspects of heritage and legacy all come from Rome.

JLN: Maybe, maybe in the legal sense, juridical form we know, and with the link to the Bible and property, but I know nothing about heritage other than cultural heritage — do you know?

PT: I don’t know.

JLN: I think there are two meanings of heritage — or, rather, there is only one, but it goes back to heir, heres in Latin, the one having the right to take over the property of the father. And then, as most often is the case in our culture, the one having this right is the son. But already here something comes first that is connected to masculinity, to the son, because the daughter was often not an heir in the same meaning. And today, as you know, in the Islamic world, there is a question about heritage for woman. In Tunisia, the new constitution has changed the rules about inheritance by the daughter. Until now, there has been almost nothing for the daughter, no right to any kind of heritage — but now it has changed.

But with that also comes the second meaning of inheriting, the idea of heritage as the legacy of a culture, as culture inherited by a people. And I would say, in both cases, there arises the same question — from where does the right to be an heir come? In a sense, everything becomes more intelligible when we think in terms of a culture or a society because a group has a language, and the language is something that is heritage in quite a mandatory way because children speak the language of their parents. And with the language, there comes a lot more, including all the customs of the tribe, etc., etc. But when heritage is considered in the meaning of family relations — the son, the father, etc. — where is the foundation of that right? Is it blood? It seems to be blood. But if we assume this, then heritage becomes like heredity — and what does it mean, heritage like heredity? Because heredity is transmission of the natural character. Of course I have something in common with my mother and father, and some natural traits of the ethnic character, etc., but beyond that, things belong to the social and cultural realms. Of course I receive something that is handed down to me by such a large social context. Maybe it depends on something that appears quite superficial to me — where I was born, where I spent my youth, etc., etc. For example, yesterday or the day before Peter and I were talking about French and German philosophy and things like that. And I said, for me, ”German philosophy” is a strange formula because philosophy has no ethnicity. Greek, German, French, Italian, even with a little touch of Spain — are all philosophy. Maybe I would rather speak of Latin philosophy as something special, and this has to do with language, because from the Middle Ages until Descartes philosophy was written and spoken in Latin. And after that there starts a history of translation — and, I would say, translation played an interphilosophical role. When the French first translated Hegel, that first translation was sometimes really funny, you know. Take just one thing. In the first translation of Hegel, Begriff was translated as notion and not as concept.

Well, then, on the cultural level, if I speak of European heritage, especially in modern tomes, since Descartes — it makes sense, OK, it is not African heritage. But, for example, when people in Europe argue that European heritage is mainly Christian heritage, this is not so clear, because Christianity is a very important part of the European culture, but not all of it — otherwise, you have to consider the history of Christianity and the ways Christianity transformed itself, and the ways it constructed itself so many times.

Well, and then the notion of heritage as we have it nowadays is no longer modeled after the family, because you have no right any longer to decide what was in the past. The transmission of culture means that each act of passing on transforms the goods that are supposed to be inherited. I inherited my parents’ house together with my four sisters and brothers. We sold the house and each received a certain amount of money. Which means, if I inherit after my parents as I did, I inherit in the capitalistic way: there is no transformation of the inheritance, but a return to the general equivalent of money. But if we look at this in a different way, what happened was a total transformation because it was no longer the house of our parents. Such is life, and it is normal that the house of my parents becomes something of the past.

Then what does it mean to be an heir? I must say I do not know. I know a lot of things about my culture and about my family as well, my parents and grandparents, my great grandparents. I even know who was the first Nancy in my branch of the Nancys, because there were many Nancys. For instance, Nancy could be a Jewish name, because it is the name of the city. But it is not, because we know that he was an orphan to whom the name Nancy was given as a child.

You have a long memory in the family.

JLN: No, it is not long , it begins in the 19th century. One of my sisters has a photograph of the first Nancy taken at the end of the 19th century.

But … If Peter allows me — you probably want to say something or to comment, I do not want to be impolite … But I have a different question here.

PT: Then, you are impolite. No, no (laughing) — please go on.

I wanted to ask you about — the property of missing persons — and the situation in which you have no direct blood or family connection, about the situation of not inheriting but rather coming into inheritance. I am referring to the text you wrote about beni vacanti and how we become owners of goods that we have no familial connection to.  And how inheritance in this case is not important from the point of view of family transmission but becomes a problem precisely due to the fact that this transmission was interrupted and suspended in uncertainty. A missing person is the one about whom we do not know if his is living or dead. There is no will, no testament, and we have to deal with something that is simply left after, left without a testament. Something that remains and that does not have inheritors by blood. I was thinking about how in our time, in the European history of the 20th century, virtually all that we have inherited — all cultural heritage — is originally the property of missing persons, the millions and millions of them. Would you agree to this? And then the question is, how do we — here again comes the question of the foundation, the ground — on what ground do we nowadays own what belonged to people who went missing.

JLN: But we have that line by Réne Char, a quote from his poem that Hannah Arendt was discussing: ”our heritage has no testament.” A testament means the rule for using goods, which is the heritage, and the testament is the organization by the owner of the future use, and then the testament itself depends on the national law. In France, I know, I can through my own will determine that part of my estate that should in the future be inherited by my children. Myself, I can use a certain amount of the money, that is my own property, but not very much, for instance, but if I want I can give Peter fifty euro. But if I say I will give him a hundred euro, my children will say, no, no, you don’t have the right, this is ours.

So that means — and this is interesting — that even private heritage is submitted to the general social and political law, and this law is different from the one that determines the use of the goods by myself. And in principle — I do not know exactly which law it is or how it works — there is something that is called jouissance (in the legal meaning, legal jouissance ) and this means total use without restriction, until the destruction of the property. So, if I want to destroy the apartment of which I am the owner I have the right to do so. The only problem is, I am not the only one who owns it.

So, your jouissance is limited.

JLN: If my wife and I say, OK, this apartment is ours, we destroy it, or we sell it, and then we burn the money, and so on. I think certainly it would not be possible by the law precisely because of the legal aspect of heritage. Because our children have the right to what we own. I cannot destroy my goods.

If you have children, you cannot.

JLN: I cannot. So, there is a contradiction — if you want to do whatever you want with your goods and to decide absolutely freely what to do with your heritage, you have to be alone and without heirs.

Yes. Would that be some kind of response to René Char? Concerning his thesis about our freedom in relation to heritage without a testament?

JLN: It is not because Arendt was alone and childless that she took up the question — but she meant that we (moderns) are alone, we have no children, we do not belong to a society with rules.

But there is something really ambiguous about these words by Char, when he speaks about the absence of a testament preceding our inheritance. I found a similar idea in an article by Viktor Shklovsky, in which he denounced the idea of inheritance and called on the present-day to make ”a revolutionary choice of the past”.  Shklovsky wrote this in 1937, the year of Stalin’s Great Terror, which makes it difficult to interpret — he was not a hero like Char, a resistance fighter who renounced testaments by an act of will. Does the absence of a testament really mean that we are completely free to choose a past for ourselves, or does that mean that we are completely free to destroy the past like in this kind of jouissance that Jean-Luc described?

JLN: No, it says nothing about the past. It says there is something because there is a past, but we do not know, we have no rule, no discourse, no knowledge, no way to know what we have to do with that. For me, it is precisely the question of how we can understand our past. Since a certain time, roughly since the beginning of modern time, we saw that the past was in relation to the present like parents are in relation to children, and that it was what was called progress. Progress means going towards something better. And now, we discovered that we did not really get to the better, at least not at all levels, not to mention the best.


PT: I just want to remind that Hannah Arendt probably knew the phrase by Heidegger from Being and Time, where he says that all that is good comes from heritage — alles gute ist Erbschaft. And for Heidegger, it is definitely true; he would say that there is a finite beginning of us, and therefore, when we start something new, it is always referring to the past. We can never begin absolutely. Only God can begin absolutely. I would think that in a way, Hanna Arendt is reacting to these words by her lover, master, and professor. She would hardly doubt that there is a history — history is something we can deal with. But like Jean-Luc said, we do not know what to do with it, we do not know what the next step is. And Heidegger seems to have a point here when he says that all we can do in philosophy is read Plato; we always read Plato. We cannot imagine a philosopher who would not read Plato. Maybe today we have reached that point that such philosophers could exist, but that would be a certain loss.

JLN: OK, but to read Plato does not mean only one thing, that I get a book by Plato and read it again and again. Each reading changes Plato. For instance, if I am reading Plato after Heidegger, I have Heidegger on my mind, metaphysics and everything, and Heidegger then becomes my heritage. So, there is no heritage without transformation of the heritage itself, and without any testament we are transforming the past each time, so — personally, I do not know what the past is, there is only the present. At the moment, not only for me as an individual, but as a member of society. And speaking of Plato, Plato changes not only as the result of a reading by Heidegger. He changes because even change changes.

There is also another quotation, from Hölderlin’s Death of Empedocles, when he says to the people, “Now you have to forget everything that you learned: all your customs, all your knowledge, and you have to start anew.”  It is impossible to do, but he says you have to do this. Why does Hölderlin put these words in the mouth of his Empedocles? In a way, Hölderlin, for the first time, produces the first testimony of the beginning of an end, or of the end of the first beginning — now I am speaking like Heidegger — and then we come to the question, what does it mean, a new beginning? Certainly it is an impossibility, and in Heidegger’s terms, I would say it is the question of how the first beginning contains in itself its own end. That is the question of the fallenness of being — the fallenness of being that is given with being and belongs to being. I am not able to explain that entirely, but Heidegger does not speak of a new beginning, nor of another beginning, but of something else as a beginning.

PT: Yes.

JLN: So maybe that is the question of a new beginning, which means we come to a certain point and we have to restart, and restarting implies links with the past — but something else in the beginning…

PT: Jean-Luc, I have a question to you as a philosopher, no, really as a philosopher for the future, for your afterlife — I am sorry for that.

JLN: Sorry for what, for the afterlife? But no, I am not immortal.

PT: The idea of heritage presupposes of course an intention by someone who wants to give something to his children. If I want to build a house, I want it not only for me but also for my children, for the future. Inheritance is a gift. If it were otherwise, it would be stealing — then we could say we take it from there and the other does not want to give it, he wants to keep it, he has to keep it, and so on. But normally we do not speak about stealing in our relations to history, we are not the thieves of our past.

You, in the writing of your books — do you have this intention to give something to someone who comes after you and who is your heir? Are you an inheritance yourself, are you creating inheritance for the future?

JLN: I don’t think so. I do nothing, I do almost nothing.

PT: At least you can say that there are people who read your books and who are taking what they read in your books into the future, so in this sense you cannot deny the possibility that you are preparing a heritage.

JLN: OK, OK. But I am not giving — this is the point.

PT: You are not giving — so do you need a thief to take things from you?

JLN: Yes, if you wish.

PT: A good reader is a thief, then?

JLN: Oh, OK, OK.

So there is no testament in reading. The reason I read is not because there is a testament, my right to read you is not because there is a testament telling me that I am allowed to read you.

JLN: Absolutely not, no.

No. Then, where does my right come from, is it just my decision?

JLN: It’s just your decision — but what does it mean, ”your”? It is absolutely not my decision that I write books, it is absolutely not my decision but something that comes from my society, my culture, my time, etc. — and I am absolutely unable to think about something like a will to give, even to my children. I do not feel that I am responsible to give something to my children — I am not speaking of destroying my goods, but maybe I could use them in a way that at the end when I die there is almost nothing left. It depends on a lot of things, how many children you have, to which children you want to give something. Sometimes there is something you do not want to give to some children. I have a very concrete example. If you have one child who needs much more money than the others do — a younger child, when the older ones already have their lives while the younger for some reason is not independent enough and he needs more money. I know the others will say, “What is it, he receives much more than I did when I was his age.” I know I am speaking of something that is very concrete.

And then I need to say — and I did say that — that before, a long time ago, I invested much money in a house for my first wife, and this house belongs to the older children. But it is impossible to make a calculation. So, what does it mean, I do not know but maybe I am too old. This is why I am so sensitive to the words of Empedocles in Hölderlin. Because in a way — I think at each moment — it is as if there would be no past and no future, but there is only something that happens when there comes a moment.

There comes a moment, yeah. Peter, I think you are doubting. You are in doubt.

PT: Mmm … No, I was thinking of the problem of justice. Because Jean-Luc was speaking about justice. So if we go on speaking about heritage, obviously it should have something to do with justice. The question then would be whether in our relation to the past justice would be in a way at stake. Even if there is no gift and no giver, even if nothing like this exists, maybe there is a kind of responsibility and we have to listen to some things and not listen to other things, and this responsibility could have something to do with the moment of justice. For instance, take the whole discourse about cultural memory, or take something — an event (unavoidable now) — an event like the Shoah. Why is it a moment of justice in the fact that we listen to the voices of the victims and not to Hitler’s voice, for instance. Or some people only want to listen to Hitler’s voice and they say, we want only this, and now we do not want to listen to the voices of the victim. Maybe the question of justice in relation to that is in place here.

JLN: Absolutely. But is this a relation to the past — the Shoah and Hitler — or is it, on the contrary, a relation to the present, so that it is happening now, in a certain way, because there is a way of speaking of Hitler, and this way is a fact of the present? I do not know, it might be a weakness of my mind, but I feel that everything only is in the present. The past is OK, I know that it is the past, but it is exactly in the same way as memory according to Bergson. Memory is the actual memory where a few things of the past come out and are there in the present. All the rest is … OK. And, for example, today we speak about Plato. Of course Plato plays a role and will for a long time, but maybe we are living in a world, in a culture, where Plato is not very significant. I think Plato was aware of many, many technologies of his time, while I am unaware of the enormous majority of technologies of my time. I am not in the same relation to my present as Plato was to his, and what does this mean? Oh, maybe that means I am not Plato. But I would like to return to your question, Peter. And you, when you write, are you writing to make a gift?

PT: No, no, no, but I am not you (laughing). No, I don’t have this self-interpretation. Maybe if I dedicate something to somebody, then of course it is a gift, I want to give that to somebody. So, if you are dedicating a book to somebody — you could dedicate a book to your children, for instance. But as far as I know, those were only small things I dedicated to people in my age, not to the future, in this sense. But of course you could do that in a way. Probably maybe someone who has a huge Nachlass …

You cannot have a Nachlass if you are still living. You have to die first, then you have Nachlass.

PT: No, no. There is a book by Robert Musil that is called Nachlass zu Leibtzeiten (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author). Of course, this is a kind of remains. Corps, corpus, something that remains after death, and if that is something in Heidegger’s meaning, then maybe there is a promise, and a promise is probably something that has a future dimension.

But you said yesterday that you had told the Americans in connection with Heidegger’s Black Notebooks that there is no legacy — and what did you mean?

PT: Well, I actually said in that paper that our relation to a philosopher is not part of his legacy, but the legacy means becoming a philosopher. The heritage of philosophy, or of a philosopher, actually, in my view, is becoming a philosopher. So Heidegger never says that his interest is the education of small Heideggers. He does not want to have a legacy, he wants to see philosophers. And one can only become a philosopher if one breaks with the heritage, if one interrupts history. Like I said before, it would be very radical to think of a new beginning like Empedocles. He does not jump into the volcano without a reason but because he is failing tragically. But the heritage of philosophy can only be becoming a philosopher and never becoming a member of Heidegger’s legacy.

JLN: And then you cannot say that becoming a philosopher is something good, because to be a philosopher is not an object. Kant says nobody has the right to call himself a philosopher — but only a student of philosophy.

And as for the Nachlass, I don’t want to have any Nachlass, and the first part of my Nachlass is already gone, destroyed. I keep nothing. I was asked by the Centre of Archives in Paris if I would like to give my archive to them, and I said, no, I wouldn’t. What I published belongs to the public. But my notes, first versions, etc. — there is nothing of interest in them.

But everything you leave on the Internet will remain forever — your emails, for instance. They cannot be erased. Maybe you should have left the first versions to the archives.

JLN: I think everything will be self-erasing.


JLN: Because there is too much.

I think things will be self-erasing in the sense that there will be no human eyes to read them, but there will be machines, and not even reading but sorting things out. Human eyes are incapable of reading all of it.

PT: It can develop into a new form of archaeology — in a couple of decades, there will be people digging for Jean-Luc Nancy.

Finding small small pieces of Jean-Luc Nancy, putting them together in a totally wrong way and saying ”that’s it, this is what Jean-Luc Nancy is like”.


PT: A dinosaur.

JLN: Of course, I would agree to that.

And this is their right to read you the way they choose to, even if the reading is totally wrong, but no one can forbid it.

JLN: Twenty years ago, in the national library in Strasbourg, a Belgian researcher found a piece of pergament that turned out to be a text by Empedocles. They organized a ceremony in Strasbourg to present it. The scholar discovered the fact that it was by Empedocles by using a database, a collection of older Greek literature on the computer. So he could check what he had on the fragment with the data on frequency and proximity, and finally it was evident that it was indeed a piece by Empedocles. But there are certainly many other pieces somewhere that nobody has ever found — and what of it? If it is better to have more pieces of Empedocles, or not, I do not know.

It’s very difficult to be like you in this relation, because normally people want to collect and preserve things. Everybody wants to preserve everything. Why, what is it, some kind of greed?

JLN: Greed? Avarice?

It is like you cannot let go. You want to keep and keep things forever. Just not letting things disappear.

PT: But there you obviously have the problem of thinking of the European subject without private property. A subject without the world of objectifications. In this sense, private property is not only something that the subject can have by accident. Already in the Hegelian thought the objectification of the subject is necessary. Objectification belongs to the subject, it is impossible to think of the subject without objects, and not only without objects, but without objects belonging to him. And then, there you have the link, the problem of inheritance and subjectivity. Heritage is of course, in a way, the objectification of history, and in this way we objectify ourselves in things. So that history also becomes a thing. If you speak of history as heritage, history is already a thing.

JLN: But Hegel himself says that you cannot deduce the pen with which you are writing. There is some accidentality, an essential accidentality of the object, in my writing with a pen. Hegel says, “My coat, I have nothing to do with it, it is a matter of my tailor.” But maybe to be a philosopher — to be in philosophy — or to be a subject in general — means in a way to be out of any possible objectification.

PT: Of course, it is possible. Because Hegel of course would also say that a subject — a bourgeois subject, a civil subject — has to live in a family, has to marry, and so on.

JLN: Of course, this is the bourgeois subject. But the Geist as a subject…

PT: Maybe the Geist is also a bourgeois subject.

JLN: No. No, I do not think that, the Geist has Unendlichkeit.

PT: This is the early Hegel, but in the time of the Encyclopaedia, it is already a different Hegel.

JLN: Oh, but at the end of Encyclopaedia he writes about the Geist enjoying itself infinitely — Infinitely! So infinitely means devoid of any objectivity or objectification, there is no objectification of infinity.

Marcia: I don’t want to be the restriction of this jouissance, but I think it’s time to leave. It’s always time to leave.

It’s always time to leave.

JLN: Oh yes. ≈

Note: This conversation was arranged by Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, and edited by Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback and Irina Sandomirskaja.



  1. This is Jean-Luc Nancy’s abstract to his article “Beni Vacanti”, Philosophy Today 60(4) (Fall 2016): 869–876.
  2. Frederick Engels, On the History of Early Christianity, 1894. Available at:
  3. Acts of the Apostles 4: 32—36 “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had, With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need”.
  4. Acts. 4: 1—12, “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
  5. James 1:9—11 “Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation — since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business”
  6. Aristotle. The Athenian Constitution, Translated by P. J. Rhodes (London: Penguin Books, 1984), Ch 5—13.
  7. Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (Stanford/California: Stanford, 2013).
  8. Irina’s comment: etymologically heres is connected to Gr. cheros, widowed, orphaned and chera, widow. Another etymological reconstruction connects the Latin root hered with the idea of eating, meaning “that which devours what is left behind.” See Merriam-Webster at
  9. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Beni vacanti”.
  10. “Our heritage is preceded by no testament”, René Char, Furor and Mystery & Other Writings, (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010): p. 156; for Hannah Arendt’s discussion see Hannah Arendt, “The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Treasure,” in On Revolution (Penguin: London, 1990), 251–281
  11. Fr. la jouissance légale, enjoyment of (legal) rights.
  12. Viktor Shklovsky, “O proshlom i nastoiashchem,” in: Sobranie sočinenii. T. 1, Revoliutsiia, (Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie: Moskva, 2018).
  13. Empedocles’ monologue addressing the citizens, from Act 2, Scene 4: “So, dare it! your inheritance, what you’ve earned and learned, / The narratives of all your fathers’ voices teaching you, / All law and custom, names of all the ancient gods, / Forget these things courageously; like newborn babes / Your eyes will open to the godliness of nature, /And then your spirit will take flame from /The light of heaven, sweet breath of life /Will then suffuse your breast anew…” Friedrich Hölderlin, The Death of Empedocles: A Mourning Play. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008), 90.
  14. Nachlass, Germ., ’all the money and property owned by a particular person, especially at death’.
  15. Robert Musil, Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten, (Rowohlt: Hamburg, 1962/1936).
  16. N. van der Ben, “The Strasbourg Papyrus of Empedocles: Some Preliminary Remarks,” in: Mnemosyne Fourth Series, Vol. 52, Fasc. 5 (1999), 525—544 (20 pages)