Being Singular Plural


[The Berkeley Free Speech movement; Image from The Berkeley Daily Planet]

In the section of the essay of the book of the same title, Jean-Luc Nancy explicates his notion of being singular plural. Composed of three words that, as Nancy describes, “do not have any determined syntax (‘being’ is a verb or noun; ‘singular’ and ‘plural’ are nouns or adjectives; all can be rearranged in different combinations),” the term is made up of parts that “mark an absolute equivalence, both in an indistinct and distinct way,” hitting upon Nancy’s claim that “being is singularly plural and plurally singular” (28).

What does this mean? First, in terms of being, this implies that “the singular-plural constitutes the essence of Being, a constitution that undoes or dislocates every single, substantial essence of Being itself” (28-9). That is to say, there is no prior substance (“being”) to which singular and plural are predicated. Rather, being singular plural immediately. In other words (by Nancy), “being does not preexist its singular plural” (29). That is to say, “only what exists exists,” which, in existing, in simply being in existence, is (reminiscent of Sartre) not predetermined transcendentally (by some hylomorphic God) but is immediately singular plural (29).

What exists exists as immediately singular plural because, in Nancy’s words, “that which exists [. . .] coexists because it exists” (29) (my emphasis). That is to say, each being is immediately plural. Absolute isolation, according to Nancy, is impossible, and sociality (or the social) is given (and very real)—on top of the fact that (since only what exists exists) “the possible comes second in relation to the real, because there already exists something real” (29) (my emphasis). As Nancy describes it,

There exists something (“me”) and another thing (this other “me” that represents the possible) to which I relate myself in order for me to ask myself if there exists something of the sort that I think of as possible. [. . . This when] along with the real difference between two “me’s” is given the difference between things in general, the difference between my body and many bodies, [i.e. the existence of something other than me (which is already more than one)]. (29)

This primary plurality, then, is what, according to Nancy, constitutes the world, which is but “the coexistence that puts these existences together” (29). “The co-implication of existing is [thus] the sharing of the world” (hence the importance of another Nancy concept, the creation of the world) (29).

This plurality (as expressed in being singular plural) implies that “the essence of being is only as coessence [. . .] or being-with (being-with-many) [that] designates [. . .] the co- itself in the position or guise of an essence” (30). Strictly speaking, co- or with is not really an essence, if by that is meant the traditional conception of something fixed, eternal, and substantive transcendentally determining the “nature” of a (real) thing. Nor does coessentiality “consist in an assemblage of essences, where the essence of this assemblage as such remains to be determined [. . . and as such appear to be mere] accidents” [which is what it is to Deleuze] (30). Rather, Nancy clarifies that “coessentiality signifies that essential sharing of essentiality, sharing in the guise of assembling [which is what constitutes a world and manifests itself in the city]” (30). It is in this way that, as Nancy puts it, “the ‘with’ [is not in addition to but rather] constitutes Being” (30).

Thus “being [. . . is] determined in its Being as being with-one-another” (32). The emphasis on plurality, however, does not overshadow the singular. On the contrary. As Nancy asserts, “The singularity of each is indissociable from its being-with-many and because, in general, a singularity is indissociable from other singularities” (32). After all, one being singular implies a plural from which one is being distinguished in order to be singular, a plural that, to be plural, has to be composed of singulars distinguished from each other: being singular plural.

Thus, singular is distinguished from both the individual and the particular. As Nancy explains,

The concept of the singular implies its singularization and, therefore, its distinction from other singularities (which is different from any concept of the individual, since an immanent totality, without an other, would be a perfect individual, and is also different from any concept of the particular, since this assumes the togetherness of which the particular is a part, so that such a particular can only present its difference from other particulars as numerical difference). (32)

Taking insight from the Latin etymology, Nancy claims that the singular “already says the plural, because it designates the “one” as belonging to “one by one.” The singular is primarily each one and, therefore, also with and among all the others. The singular is plural.” (32)

Nancy further describes this singularity—albeit “divided” from the plurality of which it is part, “divided” from other singularities—as indivisible—though in a singular (and not an atomic) way. He writes,

[The singular] also undoubtedly offers the property of indivisibility, but it is not indivisible the way substance is indivisible. It is, instead, indivisible in each instant within the event of its singularization. It is indivisible like any instant is indivisible, which is to say that it is infinitely indivisible, or punctually indivisible. Moreover, it is not indivisible like any particular is indivisible, but on the condition of pars pro toto: the singular is each time for the whole, in its place and in light of it. [. . .] A singularity does not stand out against the background of Being; it is, when it is, Being itself or its origin. (32)

Nancy thus defines the singular as

Not a ‘subject’ in the sense of the relation of a self to itself [as in Descartes, but . . .] is an ‘ipseity’ that is not the relation of a ‘me’ to ‘itself.’ It is neither ‘me’ nor ‘you’; it is what is distinguished in the distinction, what is discreet in the discretion. It is being-a-part of Being itself and in Being itself, Being in each instant [au coup par coup], which attests to the fact that Being only takes place in each instant. (32-3).

The singular as event, in other words. The event of difference (that implies the with). Which, to Nancy, is the “essence” of being: being singular plural.

The essence of Being is the shock of an instant [le coup]. Each time, “Being” is always an instance [un coup] of Being (a lash, blow, beating, shock, knock, an encounter, an access). As a result, it is also always an instance “with”: singulars singularly together, where the togetherness is neither the sum, nor the incorporation [englobant], nor the “society,” nor the “community” (where these words only give rise to problems). The togetherness of singulars is singularity “itself.” It “assembles” them insofar as it spaces them; they are “linked” insofar as they are not unified. (33)

Nancy thus proposes a radical meaning of the singular as it at the same time designates what is always already in a plurality but is nonetheless not—never—reducible to and definable by the plurality of which it is part, never fully unified into and identifiable by any collective, even as it presupposes that collective for it to be singular. (In this way, Nancy goes beyond Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the assemblage where, in functioning together (in a quasi-Heideggerian mode of instrumentality), the different elements acts as an individual, albeit an intensive one). This Nancy does by defining the singular as event, as “what is distinguished” in the (act of) distinction—which the collective, the togetherness—the plurality—to be itself presupposes.

Since, given this, “there would no longer be a point of view that is exterior to being-together,” the formulations “it is” and “there is” are insufficient to refer to being singular plural. As such, as Nancy points out, “Being [singular plural] could not speak of itself except in [a] unique manner: ‘we are’” (33).

We are being singular plural. In Nancy’s precise sense:

Being singular plural: in a single stroke, without punctuation, without a mark of equivalence, implication, or sequence. A single, continuous-discontinuous mark tracing out the entirety of the ontological domain, being-with-itself designated as the “with” of Being, of the singular and plural, and dealing a blow to ontology—not only another signification but also another syntax. The “meaning of Being”: not only as the “meaning of with,” but also, and above all, as the “with” of meaning. Because none of these three terms precedes of grounds the other, each designates the coessence of the others. This coessence puts essence itself in the hyphenation—“being-singular-plural”—which is a mark of union and also a mark of division, a mark of sharing that effaces itself, leaving each term to its isolation and its being-with-the-others. (37)

A hyphenation, it must be pointed out, that is unseen, not apparent, seemingly not there: being singular plural.

This being singular plural, as established above, is primary. That is to say, it discloses itself (or is disclosed) in the origin:

Being is with; it is as the with of Being itself (the cobeing of Being), so that Being does not identify itself as such (as Being of the being), but shows itself [se pose], gives itself, occurs, dis-poses itself (made event, history, and world) as its own singular plural with. In other words, Being is not without Being. (38)

An origin that is multiple (composed of singularities) to begin with:

This plurality is no longer said in multiple ways that all begin from a presumed, single core of meaning. The multiplicity of the said (that is, of the sayings) belongs to Being as its constitution. This occurs with each said, which is always singular; it occurs in each said, beyond each said, and as the multiplicity of the totality of being. (38)

An origin very precisely defined:

Being, then, does not coincide with itself unless this coincidence immediately and essentially marks itself out [se remarque] according to the costructure of its occurrence [l’evénement] (its incidence, encounter, angle of declination, shock, or discordant accord). Being coincides with Being: it is the spacing and the unexpected arrival [survenue], the unexpected spacing, of the singular co-. (38)

The co-, Nancy clarifies, “defines the unity and uniqueness of what is, in general” (39). Despite being multiple, then, paradoxically, there is also unity.

It is no more a matter of an originary multiplicity and its correlation (in the sense of the One dividing itself in an arch-dialectical manner, or in the sense of the atoms’ relationship to the clinamen) than it is a matter of an originary unity and its division. In either case, one must think an anteriority of the origin according to some event that happens to it unexpectedly (even if that event originates within it). It is necessary, then, to think plural unity originarily. (39)

Even, then, as multiplicity is originary and not reducible to the unity—unity, in the same manner, is (equally) originary: singular plural.

With the qualification that unity itself is multiple (just as the multiple is unity). Taking insight once again from the Latin, Nancy points out that

Plus is comparable to multus. It is not “numerous”; it is “more.” It is an increase or excess of origin in the origin. [. . .] The One is more than one; it is not that “it divides itself,” rather it is that one equal more than one, because “one” cannot be counted without counting more than one. [. . .] The One as purely one is less than one; it cannot be, be put in place, or counted. One as properly one is always more than one. It is an excess of unity; it is one-with-one, where its Being in itself is copresent. (39-40)

Thus co- or with is originary (like différance) in the Derridean sense.

The co- itself and as such, the copresence of Being, is not presentable as that Being which “is,” since it is only in the distancing. It is unpresentable. [. . .] Neither present nor to be presented (nor, as a result, “unrepresentable” in the strict sense), the “with” is the (singular plural) condition of presence in general [understood as copresence]. This copresence is neither a presence withdrawn into absence not a present in itself or for itself. It is also not pure presence to, to itself, to others, or to the world. In fact, none of these modes of presence can take place, insofar as presence takes place, unless copresence first takes place. [. . .] The with is the supposition of “self” in general. [. . .] As its syntactic function indicates, “with” is the pre-position of the position in general; thus, it constitutes its dis-position. (40)

Co- and with first (in the sense that différance is first). Co-originality according to the with to begin with. But in the sense that “there is no anteriority: co-originality [as] the most general structure of all con-sistency, all con-stitution, all con-sciousness” (41). In other words, “Being-many-together is the originary situation [. . . from which] there is no ‘getting back to’ or ‘up to’ this ‘originary’ or ‘transcendental’ position; the with is strictly contemporaneous with all existence, as it is with all thinking” (41). The origin, in other words, (like différance) as play—as immediately the activity of differing/originating, the activity of those that already exist (since only what exists exists).

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

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