Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Maurice Blanchot--Writing the Disaster

Vigilance, insomnia, wakefulness in the night--one might imagine Blanchot (or whatever the 'subject' of Blanchot' reflections is) as a strung-out grad student at 4 am, thinking in a chair on the verge of madness.

Blanchot writes both in and 'about' the fragmentary. He writes, "fragments, destined in part to the blank that separates them, find in this gap not what ends them, but what prolongs them" (58). Fragmentation is only an interruption, but an interruption that also pushes forward to continue--it as if the fragments cannot stop--the gap that stops is also that which allows it (forces it?)  to continue. As Blanchot puts it, “the interruption’s somehow having the same meaning as that which does not cease” (21).  Furthermore, fragments are not simply isolated, but because of their juxtaposition (even though there might be “nothing in the text”) suggest meaning and connection at the same time that they deny meaning—or create absent meaning. Blanchot distinguishes the ‘fragmentary’ from the “isolated sentence,” which is “aphoristic” not fragmentary. Aphoristic, isolated sentences, “tend to reverberate like an oracular utterance having the self-sufficiency of a communication to which nothing can be added” (132). The aphoristic sentence “affirms definitively,” the allusive sentence “makes ambiguity a positive value,” whereas the fragmentary is exposure to these two kinds to risks: normativity and that which thinks it escapes the illusion of truth only to “succumb[] to the illusion itself as truth” (133). The fragmentary is related to citation (and incitation). Blanchot writes (fragmentally),

“If quotations, in their fragmenting force, destroy in advance the texts from which they are nto only severed but which they exalt till these texts become nothing but severance, then the fragment without a text, or any context, is radically unquotable” (37).

I am not sure what to do with that bloc quote given Derrida’s ideas about citation, quotation, and context.  I think we should think through the relations among these different types of utterances.

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The last word of the book: disaster. We as readers are still left wondering what this "disaster," 'is'. References to the holocaust and the immemorial suggest that the disaster is that which cannot be justified (in ethical terms) or sublimated (aufhebung) in Hegel's terms. But most importantly, the disaster (besides its "proper" meaning relating to 'star'--although we will have to question the notion of the proper as well) is an experience which is not experienced. Thus, the disaster is not an event that arrives or comes. Like death (and is ‘death’ the disaster? Are these two terms synonyms?), it is “imminent” (1) and at the same time always-already past (the immemorial). It is that which we can neither forget nor remember, because in order to forget we would have to have been able to remember it as something that ‘happened,’ and that is experienced.

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I think we must ask after the status of theory. First, so we can determine whether Blanchot’s notion of theory is related (or the same as) what we call in literature Theory (which is, as Greg Ulmer once put it to me, philosophy done in literature departments); second, in order to attempt to determine the relation (or nonrelation?) among theory, philosophy, and poetry, and what Blanchot understands as writing; third, to figure out why theories are “necessary and useless” (75).  Is theory what Blanchot understands by “System,” who is designated by the name Hegel? If this is true, then should we take Blanchot at his word when he writes,

“shouldn’t we have done with theory to the extent that ti does not ever get over and done, and also to the extent that all theories, however different they may be, constantly change places with one another, distinct each from the next only because of the writing which supports them and which thus escapes the very theories purporting to judge it?” (80).

Have we all not had the feeling that the theories of Levinas, Derrida, and Blanchot as theories of “the other” collapse into one another? Can we even call these thinkers “theorists?” Are they creating theory, writing, poetry—all of these?

Blanchot decides to investigate three thinkers that we in our department may refer to as “theorists” (alternately, philosophers—alternately, poets)—Levinas, Bataille, and Heidegger. Although Blanchot, like Derrida, seems indebted to Heidegger, he seems more indebted to Levinas. I think this is because that Blanchot agrees with Derrida that death is never one’s “ownmost possibility,” that death is not an authentic relation to being and to self. Both Blanchot and Levinas are thinkers of the “other.” For Heidegger, our relationship is with being and truth, something that language allows us to access (even as it reveals-conceals). Indeed, the “they” is the realm of inauthenticity and idle talk, just as ‘dying’ (or merely perishing) is not an “authentic” relation to death. For Heidegger, we do not know death from the other’s death, but rather because it is our ‘ownmost possibility’ as that which individualizes us.  In contrast, Blanchot writes that death is “never individual” and Derrida rejoins that Blanchot speaks of “death in general.”   Levinas and Blanchot (along with Derrida) think our relation to the other. More precisely, language is not the “house of being” but something radically other than being. Language is not “proper” to human beings. Rather, as Levinas puts it, “Language is in itself already skepticism” and as Blanchot continues, “to write is to be absolutely distrustful of writing, while entrusting oneself to it entirely” (110). 

For Heidegger, language gives, but for Bataille and Levinas, “the gift as the inexhaustible (the infinite) demand of the other and of others” (110). Blanchot sees Heidegger’s focus on language (perhaps, at the expense of writing) as a “dangerous leaning toward sanctification of language” (110).

On the topic of “language,” we should return to the question of etymology, something incredibly important for Heidegger. Before we get into Blanchot’s extensive discussion of etymology, we should remember that etymology is the study of words. We treat words like independent entities. This is why it is problematic to ask what the disaster “is” as if we can isolate a proper meaning of it. Blanchot suggests, following Valery, that we neglect “sentences”—one might add, fragments (96). The idea that words are the “seminal cell of language” is something etymology takes as its object. The issue with etymology is that it presupposes a “proper” and “original” meaning. Etymologists wish to trace back words to some ‘concrete’ or ‘first’ meaning.

Blanchot discusses two words of Heidegger’s that uses etymology for his philosophical analysis. The first I will discuss is aletheia, a word that is usually translated into English as “un-veiling.” Heidegger relates aletheia to lethe because his claim is that philosophy has “forgotten the meaning of being.” The river lethe, in mythology, is the river or forgetting. So, in a way, aletheia is a kind of “un-veiling” the meaning of being—that which appears, the phenomenon—that which shows itself. On Heidegger’s use of the word, Blanchot writes,

Was the Greeks’ understanding of aletheia based upon the meaning of lethe. This is doubtful. And that we should be able to substitute ourselves for them—saying that they were nonetheless determined by this unthought element in their understanding—is a philosophical move to which there would be no objection, if it were not that we make it by wielding a philological experitise, thus making philosophy dependent on a particular discipline. This contradicts the relations clearly affirmed by Heidegger between thought and determined bodies of knowledge. (104)

Blanchot’s analysis may remind one Derrida’s move on “cultural” and “anthropological” understandings of death. Heidegger would argue that this is not getting to the “existential structure” of death because they assume they know what death is (Derrida 25). In this sense, Heidegger’s analysis is much more than the cultural writings on death. But at the same time, Derrida points out “neither language nor the process of this analysis of death is possible without the Christian experience, indeed, the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic experience of death to which the analysis testifies” (Derrida 80). We could say with Blanchot that Heidegger’s analysis of “aletheia” would not be possible without the discipline of etymology.

Blanchot reveals the essentially metaphoric language of etymology. The “root” of the word is the “germinating principle” by which words receive “the power of development and creative enrichment” (107). Etymology presupposes filitation rather than “affinity” (93). Etymology by “affinity” may describe better Heidegger’s operation on lethe, aletheia. Etymology by affinity may be another way to elucidate what Greg Ulmer calls “conductive logic.” It uses the play of the material signifiers, the associations that it calls up for inventive purposes rather than to believe that one is getting at an “origin.” Blanchot uses this to investigate Heidegger’s term, Ereignis, which usually is translated into English as “event of propriation” (see pgs 97-98).

Rather than thinking etymology by filiation let us think by affinity. There is some sort of seduction and attraction to etymologies: “What attracts us to etymology is its unreasonable part more than what it explains: we are interested by the form of enigma that it preserves or doubles as it deciphers” (106). We are subject to “etymological clues which we take for proofs from which we draw philosophical conclusions that secretly influence us” (104). Is Blanchot here endorsing this kind of “unreasonable thinking.” Or is it the case that language is always seductive in this way—seductive and yet prone to skepticism, or rather, makes us skeptical.

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Returning to an earlier question, it seems that the disaster is the dissolution of the possibility of etymology (that there can be a natural meaning to a word). Blanchot writes, “Naturally [haha], disaster can be understood according to its etymology [. . .] But the etymology of ‘disaster’ does not operate in these fragments as a preferred, or more original insight [. . .] On the contrary, the indeteriminateness of what is written when this word is written, exceeds etymology and draws it into disaster” (117).

One gets the sense that for Blanchot, we cannot take comfort in Being,  in the cosmos (in the fixity of the stars—no, there is dis-aster), or in language, but rather that we “keep watch over absent meaning.” Whereas for Heidegger, man is the preserver and keeper of truth, we (?) keep watch over absent meaning. True, Blanchot is much closer to  Heidegger than he is to the more “action” oriented existentialists, namely, Sartre, but he revels in the neutral rather Being. The neutral, it is important to understand is not the same as “giving neutrality to language as a characteristic,” as if to refute that language has weight, values, and history, but rather the neutral is that which cannot be grasped and held theoretically as “knowledge.”

The positive value we usually ascribe to knowledge, meaning, and totality is turned to a horror show in Blanchot’s text. The absolute meaning is the absolute justification—Hegel’s system, were it right, would justify the Holocaust. In the most harrowing anecdote of the work, Blanchot mentions a certain man who was “saved” from death only to be “obliged to hold the victim’s head so that the bullet could be more easily lodged in the neck” (82). When asked how he could bear this he said he “observed the comportment of men before death” ( 82). Blanchot comments that “when he was faced with an impossible question, he could find no other alibi than the search for knowledge, the so called dignity of knowledge: that ultimate propriety which we believe will be accorded us by knowledge” (82).  We may recall here Blanchot’s Demeure, where the protagonist is “saved” and yet not saved—there is no salvation. 

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