Rethinking the Political: Derrida and Nancy on Networks, Citizenship, and Teletechnologies


Jacques Derrida, Citizenship, Networks, Teletechnologies / Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Citoyenneté, Réseaux, Télétechnologies

How to Cite

Armstrong, P. (2007). Rethinking the Political: Derrida and Nancy on Networks, Citizenship, and Teletechnologies. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (10). DOI:


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In Echographies of Television, the transcript of an improvised film interview between Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, the discussion turns at one point to the ways in which concepts of democracy, politics, and citizenship are all transformed by contemporary “teletechnologies” (including television, telephones, and other tele-communication systems implying transmission across a spatial distance) (Derrida 2002) [2]. For as Derrida and Stiegler note, if the concept of democracy itself has been “governed, controlled, and limited” by the borders of the nation-state, and so by acts of “territorialization,” and if political discourse is inseparable from citizenship (“acquired or ‘natural,’ by blood or by soil”)—a concept equally defined by “inscription in a place, within a territory or within a nation whose body is rooted in a privileged territory” (Derrida 2002, 64-65)—then it is precisely through contemporary teletechnologies that these geo-political boundaries and territorial markers are subject to possibilities of displacement and permanent dislocation. Indeed, whether demands are made to establish or protect national borders and state sovereignty (“given, lost, or promised,” as Derrida nuances), or whether claims are advanced for citizenship and democratic rights, these demands and claims all find a measure of their historical, legal, and discursive formation inscribed in—and simultaneously delimited by—geo-political markers and topographical or spatial boundaries. In short, “what the accelerated development of teletechnologies, of cyberspace, of the new topology of ‘the virtual’ is producing,” Derrida argues, is thus a “practical deconstruction of the traditional and dominant concepts of the state and citizen (and thus of ‘the political’) as they are linked to the actuality of a territory” (Derrida 2002, 36).

To be sure, there is nothing speculative or merely abstract about Derrida and Stiegler’s argument. For these geo-political limits and the juridical frameworks they presuppose are continually put in play by the most mundane and increasingly pervasive uses of telecommunications. As Derrida notes, when and wherever a television is switched on, when and wherever a phone-call is made, when and wherever an Internet connection is established, the question of “critical culture, of democracy, of the political, of deterritorialization erupts” (Derrida 2002, 65). In this sense, the “tele-” that informs contemporary communications technology not only implies transmission across distance but “displaces places,” provoking an eruption of space while transforming the specific delimitation of spaces and places into a more general problematic of “spacing” (espacement).

Two mutually related consequences then ensue. On the one hand, this sense of displacement and dislocation gives way to a reactive and often militant desire to re-affirm state sovereignty, securitize territorial borders, and reinforce given identities (even if, paradoxically, it is the state sanctioned deregulation of telecommunications that creates and reproduces the deterritorialization of the state’s own sovereignty). But such a reaction nowhere stems a highly differential, uneven, and conflictual display of geo-political displacements and spatial insurgence provoked by teletechnologies, and to such a degree that it becomes difficult to discern with much certainty the “when” and “wherever” of a telecommunication, or even the “who” and the “what” they presuppose, at least not without also implying their incessant reinvention in and through this same technology.

If the argument concerning the effects of teletechnology corresponds to transformations in the sovereignty of the nation-state, then the displacement of borders and territorial limits also corresponds to some of the most pressing issues facing our present world. These include the flows, exchanges, and assemblages said to define globalization (peoples, cultures, viruses, capital, etc.); new rhythms of migration, belonging and exclusion; new global figures (the refugee, the multitude, the global citizen, the asylum seeker); new institutional bodies (NGOs, Médecins Sans Frontières, etc.); new modalities of power and resistance; new forms of colonization, post-colonialism and neo-imperialism; new discourses of cosmopolitanism, and so on—all of which, in different ways, presuppose a transformation in spatial boundaries and territorial borders. In response, widespread demands are voiced for laws, rights, and systems of justice adequate to global or trans- or supra-national—and not simply inter- or multi-national—contexts and situations. All this is well known. But if the multiple issues raised by the deterritorialization of state sovereignty are now well known and widely debated, the responses and solutions proposed in the wake of these transformations are invariably schematic, contingent and, of necessity, largely experimental. More difficultly, responses and solutions to acts of deterritorialization are proposed in the continuous absence of foundational discourses, normative criteria, transcendental schemas, forms of legitimation, and even stable definitions of humanity or the “human” itself. The opening protocol to the 2005 Congress describes this situation in terms of the “paradoxes” of citizenship (Paradoxes) [3]. One might assume that locating or even creating a concept of citizenship in light of these paradoxes, absences, difficulties, and even aporias constitutes one of the urgent tasks defining not just the 2005 Congress and its focus on citizenship but also (if the term still makes sense) the future of our shared humanity.

Following Derrida and Stiegler’s interview, the limit question I want to pose today is whether the teletechnologies that displace territorial borders are merely one aspect of a larger display of issues defining our political present—in which case, our meeting here would be merely one discussion amongst many at the Congress, in which citizenship is discussed from a multiplicity of potential angles and disciplinary perspectives—or whether this political present (including the juridical concept of the state’s sovereignty) has a relation—an “essential relation” as Derrida insists—to this very technology. In other words, as Derrida and Stiegler both argue, when delimited by territorial and spatial boundaries, democracy and the politics informing citizenship do not simply stand in a “relation of exteriority” to the teletechnologies “one would want to be able to critique in their name” (Derrida 2002, 65). The concepts of democracy, politics and citizenship do not constitute a “secure ground” from which one might designate this technology apart and assess its (political) implications, for these concepts are themselves subject to the very process of critique and deconstruction imposed by this technology in the first place. Indeed, if the very concept of the political is determined spatially or territorially, then teletechnologies suggest how the very “link” that binds the political and the local—what Derrida calls the “topolitical”—is not just displaced in spatial terms but itself subject to incessant rearticulation.

Phrased in these terms, it is thus important to acknowledge from the outset that it is not then solely a question of politicizing technology, of putting technology in a political, social, or global context, and then determining its political, social, or global effects. For it is this same technology that transforms the very concept of the political (including the concept of citizenship) by means of those acts of territorialization and deterritorialization through which the political and citizenship constitute and de-constitute themselves in the first place. Moreover, the constitutive rapport between technology and the concept of the political is not reducible to contemporary technology. For as Derrida and Stiegler both discuss, there has always been a “technical character” to citizenship (Derrida 2002, 53) [4]. Beginning in ancient Greece, for example, the technique of alphabetic writing and the widely shared practice it made possible created the “condition of the constitution of citizenship,” a practice that implies that a reader of texts is always potentially a writer or producer of texts. However, if citizenship has always been tied to some form of technical competence, the techniques mobilized by film, television, computers, and other tele-communications now suggest that the potential addressees of these technologies do not necessarily have any technical competence with respect to the production of what is received. In other words, addressees remain largely ignorant of the conditions of production informing the images and texts that now circulate beyond territorially inscribed borders, circulating in ways which also involve a permanent translation (another means of displacement and dislocation) between languages and idioms. In consequence, one of the historical conditions and traditions in which citizenship is enacted, performed and reproduced through basic forms of primary education becomes open to question. As Derrida notes in his own way, “most people who drive a car, who use a telephone, e-mail, or a fax machine, and a fortiori people who watch television, don’t know how it works. They use these things in a position of relative incompetence” (Derrida 2002, 57). [5]

Two consequences ensue from this argument. On the one hand, this situation demands a radical reconceptualization of citizenship, or its reinvention, coinciding with renewed attention to the relation between citizenship, language, telecommunications, and programs in education and training. On the other hand, as Derrida also warns, “this relative incompetence and its incommensurable increase as compared with the incompetence of the past, along with the decline in state sovereignty,” becomes “one of the keys to most of the unprecedented phenomena that people are trying to assimilate to old monsters in order to conjure them away (the ‘return of the religious,’ ‘nationalist’ archaisms’)”(Derrida 2002, 57) [6]. In light of the geopolitical configurations defining our contemporary world, the effects produced by teletechnologies thus offer “at once a threat and a chance,” demanding both critique and deconstruction. More pertinent for our meeting here, Derrida suggests throughout his interview that “education” becomes the (permanently displaced or virtual) site in which the very rapport between teletechnologies, citizenship and the political is (still) played out. In short, the development of teletechnologies delimits an obscure if necessary “imperative”—not just of rethinking democracy “beyond these ‘borders’ of the political” but of thinking “the political beyond the political” or “the democratic beyond democracy” (Derrida 2002, 65), what Derrida terms a “democracy to come.” [7]

I want to ask briefly how the concept of networks responds to this larger argument, for networks (as is by now well known) not only offer a practical dislocation or derritorialization of the territorial. The question is also how networks contribute to this thought of the “political beyond the political” or a “democracy to come.” [8]

In his interview with Stiegler, Derrida proposes to rearticulate the dislocation provoked by teletechnolgies precisely in terms of networks. Responding to Stiegler’s proposal that this dislocation would itself create a “’political community”—“something like the thinking of a community of networks, or a technological community” (Derrida 2002, 65)—Derrida first pries apart the concept of networks from concepts of community to which it is often attached. For if the concept of community invariably presupposes for Derrida a “unity of languages, of cultural, ethnic, or religious horizons,” then this concept of community tends to reinforce and reproduce the various schemas of identity and belonging intrinsic to the political constitution of a nation or the territorial boundaries of a sovereign state. On the other hand, so long as networks are posited “without unity or homogeneity, without coherence,” then they create and make possible a “new distribution” or “partage,” including a “partage” of images and information no longer governed by a “territorially delimited, national or regional community” (Derrida 2002, 65-66). Networks, in short, displace the very concept of the “horizon” and the points of spatial (and thus subject) orientation they set in place.

Drawn from the writings of Jean-Luc Nancy, the “partage” Derrida evokes in French translates at one and the same time as both “sharing” and “division,” and thus a “sharing (out).”[9]  In this sense, a “partage” in the context of networks takes into account what it is possible to have “in common,” what is shared—“the fact that several people or groups can, in places, cities or non-cities . . . have access to the same programs” (Derrida 2002, 66). But it also takes into account a “partage” as division, including “dissociations, singularities, diffractions.” In other words, if networks create what is “common,” that commonality is also constitutively inscribed by dissociation, de-liaison, distance, and detachment. Or rather, there is no thought of association without the constitutively inscribed possibility of dissociation, no liaison without de-liaison, no proximity without distance, no attachment without detachment, and it is precisely this (supplemental) “logic” for Derrida that is effaced in appeals to “community.” The “partage” created by networks is thus the permanently displaced site of “disidentification, singularity, rupture with the solidity of identity, de-liaison” (Derrida, 2002, 67)—terms that imply “a coinscription of space”—“or with a view to space”—that no longer corresponds to the same “models” of democracy, politics, and citizenship based on territorial inscriptions and spatial assumptions.

The reference to networks proposed by Derrida is clearly not reducible to networks of communication, computers, or information technology. Nor are we dealing here with the concept of “netizens.” But in what sense does this partage open toward rethinking “the political beyond the political” or a “democracy to come”?

Addressing the “political necessities of today” in The Sense of the World, Jean-Luc Nancy delimits the different traditions proposing a politics of “self-sufficiency” while foregrounding a politics of the “tie” [lien]. It is this “knotting of the tie” [nouage du lien] that opens toward a re-articulation of the political [le politique] in terms of “dependence or interdependence, of heteronomy or heterology” (Nancy 1997, 111) [10]. Implying a politics without theatrical model, this politics opens “an entire ontology of being as tying,” demanding that we touch that “extremity” where “all ontology, as such, gets tied up with something else” (Nancy 1997, 112). As long as we do not touch this extremity, Nancy argues, we will never displace the “theological sphere” governing the various schemas of political self-sufficiency.

If Nancy’s re-articulation of the political in terms of the ontological is part of a wider attempt to discern the political necessities of today, then the question remains how to articulate this rethinking or “retrait” (retreating/withdrawal) of the political when, for “two-thirds of the planet, it is the very possibility of a tie of whatever sort that has been undone. And if the havoc continues,” Nancy suggests, “it is the tie of all that will be in question—indeed, it already is” (Nancy 1997, 116): “at this very moment, when political subjectivity is doubtless to a great degree coming undone, and when substantial sovereignty is splitting up, are we not in the process of learning,” Nancy asks, “that the virtual advent, or in any case the almost universally desired advent, of a world citizenship (beginning with that of Europe) nonetheless risks corresponding to the triumph (itself without sharing (out) [partage]) of what has been called 'market democracy’”? (Nancy 1997, 108). [11]  In other words, the question remains how the hollowing out of democracy creates a void filled by capitalism as a “global figure,” and so whether it is the forces of market democracy that work to efface the politics of the tie to which Nancy is drawing us. This effacement also participates within a wider postponement of thinking the “mondialisation” of the world, translated less by “globalization” than the becoming worldly of the world as the enabling condition in which to articulate the very concept of the global. As The Sense of the World argues, and as Nancy’s more recent writings have forcefully suggested, the turn to the discourse of globalization refuses (in all senses) the very “partage”—the simultaneous “sharing” and “division”—that articulates this politics of the tie in the first place (Nancy 2002).

In proposing “another approach” to the political, Nancy thus argues that a politics of self-sufficiency always amounts to failing to tie the tie because “one has always supposed it to be already tied, given” (Nancy 1997, 103). In other words, the question remains how to think political ties as always “still to be tied,” and so refuse all nostalgia for the desired reintegration of a fragmented society or divided nation, a split subject or a humanity in shreds, a (re)fusion of the (or a) community in which political and social ties either eventually disappear (in order to (re)create a cohesive identity) or devolve into further atomization. As Nancy writes, “in the different figures of self-sufficiency, sometimes it is the social tie itself that is self-sufficient, sometimes it is the terms or units between which the social tie passes. In both cases, in the end the tie no longer makes up the tie, it comes undone, sometimes by fusion, sometimes by atomization. All of our politics,” he concludes, “are politics of undoing [dénouement] into self-sufficiency” (Nancy 1997, 111). Thinking through the political necessities of today thus demands for Nancy that we practice a politics whose rhythm is composed less by the tie that “binds” than the tie that “reties,” less the tie that “encloses” than “the tie that makes up a network” (Nancy 1997, 114).

Two implications follow from Nancy’s argument. First, Nancy is clearly refusing to posit networks as a means of communication, a channel through which individuals or groups communicate or connect with one another. Such a claim would only ever efface the question of the political at stake here, including its ontological scansion.

Secondly—and returning us to the question of space and territorialization with which we started—if the “logic” of political ties is inseparable from networks, then the composition of political ties is also described by Nancy as having a quite specific space. For Nancy remarks that this politics of the tie constitutes a “knot” that has “neither interiority nor exteriority but which, in being tied, ceaselessly makes the inside pass outside, each into (or by way of) the other, the outside inside, turning back on itself without returning to itself” (Nancy 1997, 111). Nancy’s presentation of political ties in these terms echoes his refusal of a politics of self-sufficiency while bringing his description close to questions of topology informing much of the literature on networks. If there is a single text that might help rethink Nancy’s description of networks and the opening of a chiasmatic space, one might usefully turn to the preface of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The View from Afar. Returning to his earlier work on kinship and social exchange, Lévi-Strauss writes that “if one wishes to understand the nature of social ties, one should not first take a few objects and try immediately to establish connections between them. Reversing the traditional approach, one should first perceive the relations as terms and, then, the terms themselves as relations. In other words, in the network of social bonds, the knots have logical priority over the lines, even though, empirically, the lines form knots by crisscrossing one another” (Lévi-Strauss, xii).

We’ve obviously come a long way from the opening discussion of teletechnologies (and the concept of citizenship to which it is attached) to the “space” in which Nancy rethinks Lévi-Strauss’s appeal to the “network of social bonds” as a rearticulation of political ties—though I hope not that far. Let me finish with an observation and two questions.

The chiasmatic topology of networks outlined here clearly corresponds to the problematization of space we discussed at the beginning of our discussion in terms of the deterritorialization of limits and boundaries through teletechnologies. What imports in this argument is not just the way in which it is the concept of the political as such that is at stake, including the constitution of “social ties” and the “network of social bonds.” For as Nancy also argues, the fundamental political question facing us is “how to induce the ensemble comprised of indeterminate ties—ties that have come untied or are not yet tied—to configure itself as a space of sense that would not be reabsorbed into its own truth.” “This sort of configuration of space,” he continues, “would not be the equivalent of a political figuration (fiction, myth). It would trace the form of being-toward in being-together without identifying the traits of the toward-what or toward-whom, without identifying or verifying the ‘to what end’ of the sense of being-in-common” (Nancy 1997, 90). Nancy’s phrasing here echoes the play of simultaneous sharing and division that constitutes the partage to which Derrida also refers in his discussion of networks, an argument in which the refusal to identify and verify the “’to what end’ of the sense of being-in-common” is the enabling condition in which to think a “democracy to come” (as both threat and promise). To conclude, two questions begin to formulate themselves in light of this argument. First, in what ways has the association between networks, telecommunications, and reconfigured concepts of community (widely accepted in the literature on “virtual communities” for example) lent itself to a political figuration or myth, rather than to the necessity of parsing out the “grammar” in which to rethink our political ties (a grammar in which “all ontology, as such, gets tied up with something else”), even when that argument has repeatedly presented itself as a transformation of contemporary politics through information technology and systems of communication? Secondly, is there a concept of citizenship that answers to our “being-toward in being-together,” a concept of citizenship that forecloses in advance any possibility of “identifying the traits of the toward-what or toward-whom, without identifying or verifying the ‘to what end’ of the sense of being-in-common”?


1.  The following paper was first read as part of a panel on “The Politics of Networked Citizenship” at the annual meeting of COCH-COSH (Consortium for Computers in the Humanities/Consortium pour Ordinateurs en Sciences Humaines), held as part of the 2005 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences at The University of Western Ontario. My thanks in particular to Patrick Finn and Alan Galey for inviting me to participate, and to the participants at the conference for their questions and comments. A longer and extensively revised version is forthcoming in TEXT Technologies (issue on “The Networked Citizen”).

2.  The text is a transcription of the interview, filmed in 1993 by Jean-Christophe Rosé under the auspices of the Institut National de l”Audiovisuel (INA) in France.

3.  The opening protocol merits citing in its entirety: “Citizenship is itself a paradoxical concept. Underlying its apparent meaning of belonging are the conflicting notions we attach to it—rights versus duties, freedom versus responsibility, local allegiance versus global affiliation—and the tensions that arise from these notions. Not constrained by political or geographical boundaries, the concept of citizenship extends to communities of interest, sexual orientation, disability, gender, ethnicity, and a host of variously defined identities. The paradox of citizenship is further reflected in the differences in citizenship over time—from the historical experience of citizenship as something bestowed upon individuals and reflective of imperialism and colonialism to present perceptions of citizenship as self-defined, self-appointed and democratic.

The way we define citizenship, and our sense of belonging (or exclusion) are influenced by the social, economical, cultural and physical environments we inhabit, while artistic and literary creation often serves to express, examine or resolve the inherent paradoxes we perceive. The multiplicity of definitions is a reality that lends itself to exploration from a multi-disciplinary angle.

The sub-themes Environments, Exclusions and Equity provide further points of reference for academic investigation. As a collective citizenry, we share the responsibility for our natural and social environments. Environmental sustainability has become an increasingly pressing concern for governments at all levels, and individual citizens of all countries. What constitutes the paradox of citizenship is that it is at once inclusive and exclusive—intentional, explicit, covert or unintended, individual and groups’ exclusion from the citizenry carries clear implications for the society at large. Finally, questions of equity remain at the centre of most debates surrounding social issues.”

4.  A more extensive genealogy of citizenship in these terms can be found in Isin 2002. Isin refers extensively to “technologies of citizenship” throughout his text, though in terms that are more Foucauldian than deconstructive.

5.  In discussions raised by many of the papers presented at the 2005 COCH-COSH meeting, a number of related questions were raised—that we learn to become programmers and not merely users of computer technology; that we learn to teach the production of computer knowledge rather than its passive consumption; that open source software would create potential acts of political self-determination, etc. The question asked here is how these various demands both intrinsically and structurally relate to concepts of citizenship or rearticulations of the political.

6.  Derrida explores this question further in Derrida 1996.

7.  Derrida’s argument here is extended further in Derrida 1994

8.  It would be important to acknowledge at this point that the relation between networks and “deterritorialization” is also a central focus of the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, even if we are not pursuing here the wider political implications of these writings.

9.  Nancy’s reference to a “partage” as both sharing and division was first explored in Nancy 1982. Since then, it has become a widely discussed motif in relation to Nancy’s writings. In their recent translation of Derrida’s Voyous, in which Derrida returns to Nancy’s writings, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas suggest that “le partage is both a ‘sharing in’ and a ‘sharing out,’ both a ‘partaking in’ and a ‘partitioning out.’ The English share or to share also carries both connotations, even if the latter is less audible. Le partage might thus be translated as the ‘sharing (out).’” See Jacques Derrida 2005, 165.

10.  On the distinction between le politique and la politique, see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy 1997. The following discussion is a highly abbreviated version of a forthcoming essay on Nancy’s writings.

11.  Nancy’s writings enter into dialogue here with the work of Étienne Balibar (cited often in The Sense of the World), in particular the essays now gathered in Balibar 2004.


  • Balibar, Étienne (2004). We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trans. James Swenson. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1994). Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1996). “Foi et savoir: Les deux sources de la ‘religion’ aux limites de la simple raison” in eds. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, La religion. Paris: Seuil.
  • Derrida, Jacques (2002). Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, trans. Jennifer Bajorek. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press and Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Derrida, Jacques (2005). Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Isin, Engin F. (2002). Being Political: Genealogies of Citizenship (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)
  • Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe & Jean-Luc Nancy (1997). Retreating the Political, ed. Simon Sparks. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1985). The View from Afar, trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hess. New York: Basic Books.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc (1982). La partage des voix. Paris: Galilée.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc (1997). The Sense of the World, trans. Jeffrey S. Librett. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc (2002). La création du monde ou la mondialisation. Paris: Galilée.
  • Paradoxes (2005). “Paradoxes of Citizenship: Environments, Exclusions, Equity,” opening statement for 2005 Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Western Ontario (



Philip Armstrong (Ohio State University)





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