We have a confession to make: we thought it would be easy to interview Jean-Luc Nancy. We knew that he was a very experienced interviewee, more than willing to answer questions, and we thought that his work offered enough entry points for a stimulating and prolonged conversation. On the first point, we were right: we arranged to meet fairly quickly and his lifelong publisher, Galilée, sent us the proofs of his latest book, Sexistence (published in February 2017), which happens to be one of his best. It is an audacious introduction of sex into ontology (or maybe the other way around), merged with psychoanalysis and literature. Once we’d read it, we were not so sure interviewing the author would be that easy after all.
Of course, we were aware of the importance of Nancy, sometimes named as the most influential French thinker of the generation to come of age just after the great blooming of French Theory. His work is extremely varied. Rooted in Heideggerian thought and influenced by Derrida’s deconstructionist ideas, Nancy’s philosophy analyses a vast array of concepts: body and nudity, community and democracy, art and creation, Christianity and globalisation. He has written over a hundred books since 1973, including three books on the political idea of community (The Inoperative Community, 1983; The Confronted Community, 2001; The Disavowed Community, 2014) partly inspired by his work on Maurice Blanchot; a deeply sensitive memoir of his experience of surviving a heart transplant, (The Intruder, 2000); a contribution to the ongoing debate on Martin Heidegger’s anti-Semitism (The Banality of Heidegger, 2015); and reflections on the political transformations of our time in the aftermath of the Paris attacks of November 2015 (Que Faire?, 2016). He has also written extensively with his closest friend and intellectual soulmate, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.
On a chilly morning in January, we found ourselves in a Haussmanian building in the working-class area of Stalingrad in Paris’s 19th arrondissement – recently made famous by the evacuation of refugees that had settled there – in the apartment where a friend of Nancy, a silver-haired Lacanian psychoanalyst, hosted the interview. As the conversation started, after Nancy’s attempt to make us a good cup of coffee occasioned a little incident that proved him worthy of Thales’s philosophical tradition of clumsiness, our subject seemed a little startled by our approach, more general than he might have expected from a conversation with a philosopher. He hesitated, paused, tilted his head and breathed deeply for a while, then gave a long, rich, developed and complex answer. Then it was our turn to be startled. Perhaps this is the sign of a good conversation.