Review of Reticulations: Jean-Luc Nancy and the Networks of the Political
by Philip Armstrong 2009; University of Minnesota Press
Jared Colton, Clemson University
(Published: May 20, 2012)
Philip Armstrong’s Reticulations is not a book explicitly dealing with rhetoric; however, rhetoric scholars would be remiss to let that fact dissuade them from investigating this book. Although Armstrong does not attempt an explicit engagement with contemporary rhetorical theory, his book is concerned with rhetoric broadly construed. Those scholars concerned with political rhetorics, the rhetorical agent, human collectives, and the relationship between continental philosophy and rhetoric in general, will find Reticulations a valuable resource, especially if that interest is influenced or informed by the work of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.
Though rhetorical theorists will discover various avenues of engagement with Armstrong, this text may be of most pertinent interest to theorists in rhetoric studies who have recently begun to re-question how we conceptualize the rhetorical agent. These include conceptions ranging from arguments in support of a free-willing agent to those regarding the agent as only a product of the contextual scene. Of course, some reactions to the more radical conceptions of the agent include fears of the loss of freedom and efficacy. Still, some of the strongest work that has come out of this recent re-questioning, such as Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment, Diane Davis’s Inessential Solidarity, and Marilyn Cooper’s recent articles on responsive agency,1 to name a few, have convincingly argued for more radical conceptions of a de-centered rhetorical agency where ethics and freedom are still accessible to a being.
As a result of this quest to comprehend what the rhetorical agent is, more and more scholars are becoming familiar with the philosophies of Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on ontology, particularly with regard to his concepts of community and singularity and the collective and the individual. Current examples of how rhetorical studies have engaged Nancy’s work include: Johanna Hartelius and Jennifer Asenas critique the notion of an original autonomous author of the epideictic rhetoric of the Minuteman Project; Pat Gehrke points to Nancy’s concept of compearance2 to confront the problems of determining ethics, politics, rhetoric, and community in a world that has no stable base upon which to found these things; Alex Reid investigates how digital scholarship might provide more opportunities to recognize communitarian authorship and literacy; and Victor Vitanza uses the theories of Nancy and others to expose how rape narratives have historically legitimated conceptions of community. Most of this work and interest directly or indirectly stems from Nancy’s essay The Inoperative Community and the subsequent book under the same title; however, as scholars come to learn more about his work, they discover quickly that Nancy has held a position of influence in continental philosophy for years prior to and in works published after that seminal work. Although Nancy’s work appeals to rhetoricians because his notions of community and singularity appear to have great potential for how we conceptualize rhetorical agents and situations, scholars have also acknowledged the difficulty in the application of Nancy’s works.
In Reticulations, Philip Armstrong argues that Nancy’s theories can help us analyze and produce political action that isn’t dependent upon the conception of the self-sufficient subject, but, rather, emphasizes an originary relational or networked being. This line of thought immediately supplements and extends the work in rhetorical studies already being done on the problem of the autonomous agent. In rhetorical terms this would be an emphasis on neither the agent nor agency, but rather a focus on the relational ties that always already connect (and are the precondition for) the agent with other agents and agencies, even if a connection is an identification of disconnections. For Armstrong, this conceptual shift has major consequences for how we view the notion of the political (Chapter 1) and other concepts that are so often cited in relation to this term: public space and citizenship (Chapter 2), sovereignty (Chapters 2 and 4), language (Chapter 3), and visual representation (Chapter 5). Armstrong devotes each chapter in Reticulations to exposing the shifts in meaning these terms take on within Nancy’s ontological framework.
With incredible breadth of context and eloquent prose, Armstrong shows how Nancy’s philosophy of community reopens the traditional understanding of the collective. Yes, for Nancy, any collective shares, but it also necessarily excludes. And Armstrong argues that we must begin to understand community “on principle” as being constituted by this exclusion, rather than conceptualizing this exclusion as something that only follows from the identification of a collective or individual identity as “self-coherent and self-sufficient” (Armstrong xix). To this end, Armstrong’s text effortlessly brings Nancy’s theories of community and singularity into play with some of the dominant conversations in continental philosophy that question the place of the political in a world increasingly influenced by teletechnologies.3 Nancy criticizes more traditional notions of community that conceptualize the term as a unified body of individuals sharing characteristics; instead, he endorses a rethinking of community as an unidentifiable entity (at least in terms of exhaustively identifying a stable, enclosed structure) that is simultaneously and necessarily dependent upon what Nancy calls “partage,” the contemporaneous and continual sharing and dividing (or “sharing out,” see Armstrong 85)4 of singular beings.
Armstrong explains that the existence of any being is not dependent upon this exterior sharing in some sort of cause/effect relationship, but the relation itself is part and parcel to that being’s existence: “being” is already always “being-with” or “being-in-relation,” a relation “or ontology of relations that ‘grounds’ coexistence” (xx). Or, rather, existence is never without coexistence. Thus, being “in-common,” or “being-with,” are descriptions of singularity as much as they are for community. This singularity whose precondition is its own simultaneous plurality, and vice versa, is not the identification of similar characteristics, but the contemporaneous appearance to other singularities in the same space and time—for one can only appear to, or with, another being. Armstrong posits that this “originary ‘sociation’ [in contrast to a supposed originary unity of being, the self, the Subject, etc.] must be understood as reticulated,” as the necessary “sharing out and association/dissociation” that is a network5 (xxi, original emphasis). In other words, we do not become singular through some act or thought of separation from community, for these things (both the separation from and the being-with the community) have already occurred, they already are. To reiterate, our singularity relies upon our “always already” reticulated relation to community through partage or the sharing out of singularities; however, neither does community exist without this partage of singularities (see also Nancy, Inoperative 57). This reticulated, or networked, ontology of Nancy’s is the foundation for Armstrong’s entire argument: this originary relational ontology of networks (not to be confused with popular definitions of the term, such as in electronic networks) has political implications. And the larger motivation for his project is to begin to reinvent the meaning of the political “in relation to a widespread discourse of globalization . . . that has become increasingly difficult to discern” through a lens of modernity (Reticulations xxii; “Introduction”). Simply put, the political (for Nancy, and thus Armstrong) is any space where acts occur that recognize and perpetuate the always already present relationality that is partage.
Through this understanding of partage, Armstrong maintains a constant criticism of the conception of the subject (whether it be the free-willing individual or the self-contained political association), as having been shown to increasingly lose its political relevancy (though not potency) and philosophical viability, even more so in a globalized context that stretches the borders of citizenship. A significant portion of his argument includes a critique of the prevailing notion that the individual and the community are completely distinct entities—e.g., “I am free in my independence from the community.” Not only is this total distinctness philosophically invalid for Armstrong (as shown by the concept of partage—see Armstrong “Introduction”; Nancy Sense of the World 30; Inoperative Community 4), such conceptions equate to totalitarian politics of unity that can violently exclude in their attempts to determine who or what already present relation must be eliminated to produce this totality of unity.
The first shift in meaning Armstrong addresses, which stems from this singular/communal ontology, is the de-positioning6 of “the political.” He exposes this shift, in seeming irony, through Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s notion of and push for a “retreat of the political.”7 Armstrong explains that by the retreat of the political, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy do not wish to ignore or suppress the political in the sense of putting an end to politics8 (63). Rather, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy argue that “the political” itself has been subsumed by the appeal of totalitarianism as the “unsurpassable horizon of our times” (qtd. in Armstrong 3). Armstrong neatly explicates what this means: First, the political, in dominating all philosophical discourse today (as in the idea that “everything is political”), effaces everything else (the philosophical, the religious, etc.).9 Second, in its capacity as a concept that subsumes all else, the political has actually become “the closure” of itself. Its perspectival domination in philosophical thought “paradoxically conceals an effacement of the specificity of the political in its very saturation and global domination” (10), instead of giving attention to the proper distinction that is required for thinking the political (63).
Recognizing this domination as closure, Armstrong explains that Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s call for a re-trait (“withdrawal, drawing out”) of the political is a move attempting to open the political “onto a radically different space or topology” that points to and willingly borrows from other epistemologies and discourses, rather than onto one that limits these other avenues of thought and action through a lens that makes all things political (21). For Armstrong, it is this recognition of a closure of space for the political (such as in the example of the oft-rehearsed phrase “all teaching is political”) that makes visible Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s motivation to question what the social relation is. Instead of seeing the political containing the philosophical, or vice versa, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy view them as of “reciprocal implication” just like singular beings and community: “the political is no more outside or prior to the philosophical than the philosophical . . . is independent of the political” (Retreating the Political 109-10; qtd. in Armstrong 22). Although rhetoricians will find in this thought the means to answer claims of philosophy subsuming rhetoric, they will also take care not to hastily make similar claims about rhetoric subsuming philosophy or politics. Armstrong astutely anticipates that readers may see this relation as leading to a vicious cycle. To counter such arguments, he posits that philosophical questioning of the political and political questioning of the philosophical “should not be collapsed into each other but held open in their irreducible difference” (22). The double move of the retreat of the political, then, is a contemporaneous retreat of the philosophical (the latter being totalized in a perspective that sees all things as philosophical). Armstrong points out that this “simultaneous union and disjunction, the attachment and detachment” (23) of the political and the philosophical is what informs Nancy’s later writings10 on a singular/communal ontology. This relationality is beyond the simple thought of the pluralization of the community and the individual. According to Armstrong, this “relation cannot be thought or articulated without taking into account a constitutive disconnection or dissociation . . . through which relations become possible to articulate in the first place” (46; Chapter 1, “The Deposition of the Political).
Just as Chapter One is set up with the problem of the political as its point of contention, so too is Chapter Two introduced with an imperative to address another large problem in political philosophy. Armstrong’s premise is that as teletechnologies continue to contribute to globalization and multiculturalisms, the instability of the concepts “the citizen” and “citizenship” will be more exposed (71-2). He recognizes the deterritorializing effects on these former “stabilities” that globalization has wrought upon us as only a manifestation of problematics already introduced by a number of past prominent thinkers (Derrida, Stiegler, Lyotard, Cadava and Levy, to name a few). These and others have already argued effectively that the concepts of “a political subject, citizen, or tie that forms community or polity” were already incommensurable in terms presupposing the self-founding subject (84). Armstrong sustains this argument by adding that as long as all political movements are based upon the homogenous subject, thought working toward understanding the citizen in terms of cosmopolitanism, radical democracy, and/or global citizenship will continually be received as paradoxical in character. He believes that the answer to this problem is to be found with the idea of the “networked community,” a notion that will only find its validity if networks are defined by partage (85-6). Armstrong explains that if we are to retain citizenship or a similar notion as a viable concept in the future, we need to begin to develop a language that will comprehend networks (like philosophy and politics) as constituting through partage. This type of language would take into account “the conditions for creating a potential relation to and with the other . . . that preexists the bonds (natal, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, or religious) that define citizenship” (87).11 I may be stating the obvious, but this task of writing networked rhetorics seems a task only too suited for rhetoricians.
Perhaps the chapter most relevant to rhetoric studies is Armstrong’s Chapter Three: “The Disposition of Being.” Not only is this chapter concerned with the critique of the self-founding subject, it works toward a conception of how we may produce Nancy’s thought of being as singular pluralities and plural singularities through writing and language. In fact, Armstrong devotes a great deal of attention to Nancy’s own writing style and language use, being careful to distinguish Nancy from MacLuhan and others who have used terms like networks (119-20). Armstrong argues that the problem with other conceptions of networks is that they assume as a given the notion of the individual, or the self-founding subject. As long as the subject is a “given,” it will govern all ontological (and therefore political and philosophical, and, we can add, rhetorical) exposition—whether in ordinary or academic discourse. These types of conceptions inform and reproduce the same notion of the subject, “even when offered as a critique of the subject” (124-5). Armstrong posits that the “dis- inscribed in the disposition of Being is precisely the refusal of this metaphysical presupposition and positioning of the Subject” (124, original emphasis). One of the ways Nancy produces such a refusal is through his own writing style, which for Armstrong, “implies a rethinking of the syntax or grammar” that delineates how we conceive of the dis-positioned being, rather than the self-founding individual. Armstrong smartly explains to his readers that Nancy’s use of “a series of modifying prepositions and hyphens” continually modifying all positions and stances [e.g., seen in the heavy syntax of ‘being-one-with-another’] is how Nancy traces this dis-position (125-6). Beyond the notion of the decentered subject, “the dis- [in disposition] that informs and inflects the displacement of any identifiable position must also be thought in terms of an originary dissociation and disconnection of any given relation” (144). It is this type of language that Nancy applies to any relation, including those in dis-connection to concepts such as freedom and equality (156; Chapter 3, “The Disposition of Being”), subjects arguably always at the heart of discussion for any efficacious rhetor and/or rhetoric.
It is, in fact, the continual discussions of political freedom and equality that lead us into Armstrong’s fourth and fifth chapters, “Being Communist” and “Seattle and the Space of Exposure,” respectively. While Armstrong’s first three chapters are devoted almost solely to mapping out Nancy’s philosophy, the final two are committed to placing Nancy’s theory of the disposition of being that informs all reticulated spacing within a larger context of post-Marxian thought. This includes incorporating it in a visual analysis of the 1999 Seattle protests of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In many ways, Armstrong’s Reticulations produces as many questions as it does provide clear alternatives to a politics (or rhetoric?) founded upon an autonomous individual ontology. The most glaring question regards how Armstrong’s emphasis on our reticulated being, which seems to be the precondition situating all other discourses, might be perpetuating a similar problem that Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy critique in their push for a retreat from making all things political. In other words, Armstrong doesn’t seem concerned with a reading that would potentially see Nancy as privileging ontology (even if networked and dis-positioned) over the political and other discourses. However, this shouldn’t discourage readers from engaging with this text. Rhetoricians will recognize in Reticulations a significant step in articulating a politics of multiplicity while still addressing the concerns of an audience who still hold to a more traditional notion of the free-willing rhetorical agent, though Armstrong does not use this term. Contrary to Armstrong’s initial intentions of the book, Reticulations does provide a significant amount of exposition of Nancy’s philosophies; this should not be mistaken for its sole or even primary purpose, and scholars of rhetoric will find the strengths of Armstrong’s argument to be multifaceted. He is at his best when placing his own translations of the French alongside the already available English translations for further explication of a concept, an action in which he consistently privileges neither translation, but maintains the focus on their relation. Armstrong is also at his strongest when broadly placing Nancy in conversation with political and critical theorists who have attempted to engage with similar problematics. His ability to effectively foreground Nancy within larger conversations contributes to making Nancy’s philosophy more relevant than ever. Even readers who may not have read Nancy but are familiar with post-Marxian and/or other continental philosophies that address notions of political action will discover this relevance. Scholars of rhetoric will not only find great value in these contextualizations, but will also find worth in Armstrong’s application of Nancy’s thought to visual representations, of which the fifth chapter is an exemplar of his method.
To conclude, questions of ontology no doubt are crucial to how we see the rhetorical agent. Complex theories, such as those articulated in Reticulations, should not be neglected for the sake of departmental legitimation practices or perceived temporal efficacy (or safety) found in relying on the problematic rhetorics of the self-sufficient rhetorical agent. With the building interest in the application of Nancy’s philosophy to rhetorical theory, Armstrong’s Reticulations is a great place to begin experiencing the depth and exigence that embodies such profound concepts as partage. At minimum, I see rhetoric greatly benefiting from this push to de-position the political in at least two ways: first, rhetoricians will find similar argument against this domination of the political with those theories that argue against a solely linguistic turn, or “Big Rhetoric.” Second, scholars of rhetoric might take up the challenge Armstrong offers to invent new semantics that can differentiate effectively between and still value the various discourses without reifying them through the very lens of totality that Nancy warns of in the first place. As scholars of rhetoric read and see how Armstrong de-positions the political and the philosophical they will find parallels in their own efforts to continually de-position the rhetorical.
1 For example, see Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted,” and “Being Linked to the Matrix: Biology, Technology, and Writing.”
2 The term “compearance” will not be referenced in this review. Though Armstrong thoroughly exploits the concept behind this term, he places little emphasis on the term itself. Instead, he emphasizes the French word, “partage,” which means both “sharing” and “division” (Armstrong 85)). This may be because of Nancy’s own resistance to using a term that was part and parcel to the term, “community” in The Inoperative Community. Since that seminal text Nancy has avoided using the term community (see “Confronted Community” 31-2). At moments Armstrong will use compearance and partage synonymously, though again, with an emphasis on the latter (see 107). Also see text related to footnote 4.
3 Though the subject of teletechnologies gets treatment throughout, this conversation on the political with other continental philosophers is taken up most directly in Chapter 4.
4 See fn. 2.
5 Armstrong’s emphasis on the term “networks” is assuredly an appropriation of Nancy’s philosophy, and other close readers of Nancy will not see the emphasis on this term; however, Armstrong’s use of the term network works like Edward Said’s notion of a “traveling theory,” where the use of an idea need not share the exact orientation it had in its conception to maintain its productivity and usefulness (The World 226-47). Though readers will likely identify the term with current popular discussion of information technologies, Armstrong’s use of the word “network” must be kept distinct from such conceptions.
6 Not unlike Nancy, Armstrong plays on multiple definitions of words, incorporating hyphens and slashes to emphasize these differences. De-position means to remove or displace, alluding to the importance of the continual play of the signifier and its ability to shift meaning; however, the word deposition also has a long history of reference to written records. Writing is one of the ways the political is enacted, or perhaps more specifically, writing is a place the political is found.
7 The particular writings that Armstrong references in this section are those Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy produced as an opening proposal for a lecture series in Paris at the Center for Philosophical Research on the Political for the 1981-82 year.
8 A point they argue is one of the goals of neo-liberalism, from which they aim to differ.
9 Theorists familiar with rhetorics of political economy will recognize this domination of the political as similar to the notion that all things stem from economic power relations “in the last instance.” In general, composition pedagogies sensitive to concerns of political ideology in the writing classroom will find value in the application of this argument.
10 The later writings to which I am referring are those that Armstrong significantly draws upon for the remainder of Reticulations; these include, in particular, Nancy’s The Sense of the World and Being Singular Plural.
11 Armstrong sees examples of a politics based upon networked communities in Giorgio Agamben’s essay “Beyond Human Rights.” There Agamben argues, “instead of two national states separated by uncertain and threatening boundaries, it might be possible to imagine two political communities insisting on the same region and in a condition of exodus from each other” using as their guiding principle the “refuge of the singular” rather than the “right of the citizen” (qtd. in Armstrong 88; Chapter 2, “From Paradox to Partage”).
Agamben, Giorgio. “Beyond Human Rights.” Trans. Cesare Casarino. Radical Thought in Italy. Ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis, Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 159-166. Print.
Cockburn, Alexander, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Allan Sekula. Five Days that Shook the World: The Battle for Seattle and Beyond. New York: Verso, 2001. Print.
Cooper, Marilyn M. “Being Linked to the Matrix: Biology, Technology, and Writing.” Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in Writing and Communication. Ed. Stuart A. Selber. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2010. Print.
---. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication 62.3 (2011): 420-49. Print.
Davis, Diane. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2010. Print.
Derrida, Jacques, and Bernard Stiegler. Echographies of Television. Trans. Jennifer Bajorek. Malden, MA: Blackwell P, 2002. Print.
Gehrke, Pat J. "Community at the End of the World." Communication Ethics: Between Cosmopolitanism and Provinciality. Ed. Kathleen Glenister Roberts and Ronald C. Arnett. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. 121-138. Print.
Hartelius, E. Johanna, and Jennifer Asenas. "Citational Epideixis and a “Thinking of Community”: The Case of the Minuteman Project." RSQ: Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40.4 (2010): 360-384. Print.
Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Retreating the Political. Ed. Simon Sparks. Trans. Celine Surprenant, Richard Stamp, Leslie Hall, et al. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor. Trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991. Print.
---. The Sense of the World. Trans. Jeffrey S. Librett. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Print.
---. Being Singular Plural. Ed. Werner Hamacher & David E. Wellbery. Trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O'Byrne. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.
---. “The Confronted Community.” Trans. Amanda MacDonald. Postcolonial Studies 6.1 (2003): 23-36. Print.
Reid, Alex. “Exposing Assemblages: Unlikely Communities of Digital Scholarship, Video, and Social Networks.” Enculturation. 8 (2010). Web.
Rickert, Thomas. Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Zizek, and the Return of the Subject. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007. Print.
Said, Edward. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983. Print.
Vitanza, Victor. Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Writing: Chast Rape. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Print.