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Jörn Etzold


In Jean-Luc Nancy’s reflections on the notion of an 'irrepresentable' or 'inoperative [desoeuvré]' community, the concept of 'practice' is particularly important. Nancy’s reflections can be said to derive from two sources:

1 From a radicalized Heideggerian thinking of 'existence' [Dasein] as 'being-with' [Mit-Sein] (radicalized because it wants to eliminate any identification with a unified body politic [Volkskörper] and its myth, which is an ever-present danger in Heidegger): As finite beings we expose our surfaces to each other; this is not a sociological but an ontological determination; we are already in a community before or as we first begin to talk about it. The question of community is thus always also a question of language or, as Nancy writes, of 'literature.'

2 Secondly from a thinking of ‘practice.’ In La comparution, Nancy writes: "Praxis is community, whereas poiesis is not"[1] And already in The Inoperative Communityhe had focused on "an excess of theory (or, to be more precise, a transgression of the theoretical), which would oblige us to a different practice of discourse and of community".[2]

At this point I wish to introduce a number of questions and lines of argument related to the notion of practice, which Nancy links so closely with community. It is well known that practice is an Aristotelian notion. Aristotle distinguished between poiesis, which produces works,theoria, which produces notions, and praxis, which – as action – produces actions. Crafts belong to poiesis, mathematics to theoria, politics to praxis. Already Aristotle understood practice to be ‘inoperative’: It is defined by the fact that it does not produce any work. It is important that Aristotle often links the concept of practice to that of bíos, i.e. to the specific reality of life, or, as Giorgio Agamben would put it, to the ‘life-form.’ Aristotle thus defines tragedy as imitation (mímesis) of praxis and bíos.[3] Incidentally, the actors are always mentioned in the plural. For Aristotle, practice is thus not only related to the sheer fact of being-alive but rather to the specific manner in which human life manifests and the specific forms it takes from case to case, in other words, for the Greeks, to politics. Another interesting aspect with regards to the thinking of the community of finite beings, in the way Nancy suggests, is the fact that Aristotle ascribes practice only to mortals. Practice is not known to the cosmos or to the gods.

Taking Aristotle as a point of departure, Hannah Arendt reconstructed and radically emphasized the separation between the political and the private in Greece. Practice, or, in her words, action can only take place in a political public space, not at home. The home is subject to economy (which, of course, literally means: to the doctrine of the house), and it is here that people work merely for their livelihood, for the mere maintenance of the fact that they are alive (zoé), and only in the house do we find dominance: The head of the household dominates the slaves. Arendt points out that all the terms which we use today to indicate domination are derived from the private sphere. In the polis, however, there is not domination but equality. Political decisions are made together or against each other. In the polis, it is possible for practice to depend onphronesis, on the ability to make decisions. For Arendt, the problem of modern societies lies in the proliferation of the social into the sphere of the political. Activities and concepts that originally stem from the unfree, apolitical sphere of the home (work, domination, economy) have taken hold within society as a whole and thus made political practice impossible. In modern times we have a 'political economy,' which would have been inconceivable for the ancients. In that sense Arendt prefers the American over the French Revolution, since the social question plays less of a role in it. And that is why she reads Marx as some kind of a symptom, albeit a great one, for the amalgamation between the spheres of the political and the social.[4]

It would seem that Marx’ determinations of praxis are indeed almost diametrically opposed to Arendt’s reflections – in spite of the fact that 'practice' is one of his essential terms. It is, of course, particularly with the thinking of 'practice' that he intends to over-come Hegel. Marx does, however, appear to have two different notions of practice. On the one hand he says in his theses on Feuerbach: "All social life is essentially practical"[5], i.e. any co-existence of any people at any time is practical. On the other hand he seems to envision a 'new' practice, a 'revolutionary' practice, which yet has to emerge. There are very few indications how exactly this is to come about.

While Arendt apparently intends to re-establish Greek distinctions and thus, it would seem to me, engages in what is ultimately a nostalgic discourse, Marx is free from any such nostalgia. In a sense, the 'new' practice can only be found from within modernity. Marx assumes a society that produces itself entirely through work, having thereby dissolved any particular relationships which for Arendt define 'property'. In Capital Marx defined the expropriations in the period of early modernity (which meant the transformation of property into personal possession) as the fundamental event of modernity. Property as imagined by Arendt, i.e. as 'proprietas' and as a safe space of retreat from the public realm which it enables in the first place, exists no longer; all property has been transformed into possession. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte the farmers realize that their "plots [...] are no longer [located] in the so-called fatherland but rather in the mortgage register".[6]

Since practice is therefore the way in which the whole of society produces itself, its individuals, its producers and consumers as well as its concepts of itself, for Marx the distinctions which Arendt seeks to (re-)introduce between the various human activities (working, making and acting) do not exist. For Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, practice is "production", or to be more precise, "production of life".[7] By giving up the distinction between working, making and acting, this ‘production of life’ also gives up the distinction between bíos and zoé: Through the 'production of life,' by which "the individuals [...] make each other", not only their political co-existence, their common life-form is produced but also life itself. "Production of life" always also includes the purely factual fundamentals of life. It is, as we would say today in Foucault’s words, 'bio-politics'. It is in this sense that Marx and Engels insist that ultimately there is nonature. 'Nature' and thus also 'human nature' as well as the conditions of life as human creatures only exist by being produced through common practice.

For Marx and Engels such 'production of life' has always already taken place; it is a feature of any given period. But the modern era recognizes that 'concepts' (of gods, of nature) are produced through (human) practice. Man recognizes that he is no more than an object of his own practice by which individuals 'make each other'. The 'new' practice which Marx seeks is supposed to do justice to that insight.

The 'figure' of modern production of life is theproletarian. He is defined as a person produced exclusively through modern industrial production. He has no property and nothing to call his own; in his entire creaturely existence he is dependent on the global market. "What the wage worker appropriates through his activity is barely enough to reproduce his naked life",[8] says the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx and Engels also speak of the fact that "a universal communion of humans is posited, and thus simultaneously produces [...] the phenomenon of 'propertyless' mass in all people",[9] and further goes on to call these 'propertyless' people "individuals [...] who [...] bereft of any real life content, have become abstract individuals but who have only thus been enabled to connect with each other as individuals".[10]

It is in the 'social [!] revolution' that the 'proletarians' as the disfigured figure of man, as the dispossessed human being – are supposed to 'make' their world, their history, themselves and everyone else. They are supposed to enable themselves not only to create something within limited conditions but to produce the 'form of interaction itself' (which is Marx’ definition of 'communism'). They are able to do so precisely because they are completely dependent, in their creaturely existence, on human practice; because they are without property, without qualities, and undetermined, and thus able to reinvent any determination and quality of their practice. The danger here, however, diagnosed in precise detail by Nancy, is that of 'immanentism' – the notion that man creates himself and his world entirely as his own work. There is no doubt that Marx’ thinking of practice has mostly been interpreted in the sense of such an 'immanentism'. It would seem to me, however, that other readings are possible. Perhaps the most important passage in this regard can be found in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. The coming revolution which Marx wishes about is here distinguished from the need of previous revolutions to imitate the past: "The beginner who has learned a new language constantly translates it back into his mother tongue. But it is only when he can move about in it without remembering back, when he forgets his native language in it, that he will have assimilated the spirit of the new language and will be able to produce freely in it".[11] And a bit further on: "The social revolution of the 19th century cannot derive poetry from the past but only from the future [...]. The revolution of the 19th century must leave the dead to bury their dead in order to arrive at its own subject matter. There the phrase transcended the content, here the content transcends the phrase".[12]

A number of questions need to be asked with regards to this passage. – The new practice is described as a 'new language' in which 'free production' is possible. Production is articulation. It is understood in the relationship between phrase and content: Which model of language and linguistic act is at play here if each phrase liberates a content that always 'transcends' it? Are we not talking here about linguistic acts that are by definition constitutive and necessarily fail to reach their content if they are to create something new, i.e. linguistic acts whose success can only be had in their failure? Is learning this 'new language' perhaps the same as "the production of the form of interaction itself"? And is such a new language possible at all – a language in which 'free production' is possible 'without remembering back' (and which has been without doubt a model for many avant-garde activists)? What is the 'future' from which this revolutionary practice derives its 'poetry'? In French one could ask: futur or avenir? Is it the future known by the science of dialectics – or the future as something open and unavailable, which cannot be known? Ultimately, how can a practice be thought that derives its 'poetry' from the unavailable und thus ultimately from its finiteness? What kind of an articulation is this?

There is no space here for a more detailed consideration of these questions. I would like to state in conclusion that Marx’ thinking of practice gives up both the Aristotelian distinction between praxis, theoria andpoiesis (because all of them become a form of practice) and the Greek distinction between bíos and zoé, which carried such importance for Arendt (as well as later for Agamben). Practice is production of life. The modern era produces life. Unlike Arendt, Marx is not concerned with re-inventing the old Greek valuation of practice in this context and re-prioritizing the political over the social question, but rather with a new thinking of practice on the basis of these conditions. He conceives of it as a practice of articulation through which individuals create each other and which derives its ‘poetry’ exclusively from the future.


Jörn Etzold, Dr. is an academic staff member at the Institute for Applied Theater Studies at the Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, where he studied from 1995 to 2000. He received a scholarship for the postgraduate programme "Experience of Time and Aesthetic Perception" in Frankfurt am Main and "Media Historiographies" in Weimar, Erfurt and Jena, most recently as postdoctoral member. Doctoral dissertation under Samuel Weber, Bettine Menke and Burkhardt Lindner on "the melancholic revolution of Guy-Ernest Debord", published in Zurich and Berlin under the title "Die melancholische Revolution des Guy-Ernest Debord" in 2009; further publications on Debord, Marx, Proust, Onetti, on Indian and American movies, on questions of theatricality and politics. 1999-2003 theatre projects at home and abroad.



1 Jean-Luc Nancy: „Das gemeinsame Erscheinen. Von der Existenz des ‚Kommunismus‘ zur Gemeinschaftlichkeit der ‚Existenz‘“, in: Joseph Vogl (ed.): Gemeinschaften. Positionen zu einer Philosophie des Politischen. Frankfurt 1994, p. 167–204, here: p. 180.

2 Id: Die undarstellbare Gemeinschaft. Stuttgart 1988, p. 58. [Engl.: The Inoperative Community]

3 Artistoteles: Poetik. Translated by Manfred Fuhrmann. Stuttgart 1994, pp. 20f. (1450a) [Engl.: Aristotle: Poetics]

4 Cp. Hannah Arendt,Vita acitva oder vom tätigen Leben, Munich 2009 [Engl.: The Human Condition]

5 Marx: „Thesen über Feuerbach“, in: Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), Vol. 3, Berlin 1990, P. 5–7, hier: P. 7. [Engl.: Theses on Feuerbach]

6 Karl Marx, „Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte“, in: MEW, Vol. 8, Berlin 1960, pp. 194-207, here: p. 203. [The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte]

7 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: „Die deutsche Ideologie“, in: MEW, Vol. 3, pp. 5–530, hier: p. 39 [Engl.: The German Ideology]

8 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: „Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei“, in: MEW, Vol. 4, Berlin 1972, pp. 459-493, here: p. 476 [Engl.: Manifesto of the Communist Party]

9 Ids: Die deutsche Ideologie, p. 35 [Engl.: The German Ideology]

10 Ibid., p. 67.

11 Karl Marx: „Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte“, in: MEW, Vol. 8, Berlin 1960, pp. 111-207, here: p. 115 [Engl.: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon]

12 Ibid., p. 117.

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