<Paper written in 2005, and published in Parallax. Summarises Blanchot's Vigilance.>
The Becoming of Being
For Blanchot, like the early Levinas, the world of things is a dead world, but it is one that is not inert. It is a dead world, but one possessed of a strange kind of life – a dying that is active, a force of becoming that is the experience of the being of things. How can being be brought together with becoming? The difference between beings and being, as Levinas and Blanchot will present it, is given in the relation between the thing and its image. As readers will know, for Levinas and Blanchot it as though, for them, the image was the condition of possibility of the thing and not the other way round. Broadly speaking, the image is what gives itself in the relation to the thing when it is turned from the tasks and projects to which we subordinate it, resisting the very impulse of our existence to create meaning, to, as it were, ‘exist’ things by bringing them towards us as potential tools or as potential raw material. It gives itself as what ‘in’ the thing exists over and above our interests. But even as it does so, its resistance captures my attention and struggles with it, escaping me even as it seems to offer itself to me. Yet I am not indifferent to it, and this is the point. The image of the thing no longer exists at any distance from me at all; fascinated, I am as though pressed by the thing against its image, as though the heart of the thing held me at what one commentator calls ‘its distance’.[i]
What does this mean? Compare Heidegger. Dasein, for the author of Being and Time, is not a substantive and self-present unity, but an opening to the future, an ecstasis or standing out which understands itself in terms of what it will accomplish. The ‘I’ of Dasein is first of all the ‘I can; Dasein relates to itself as potentiality-to-be, Sein können: its being-in-the-world must be understood in terms of the measure implicit in this potentiality, that is, of the ability to be able. Then it is as though the ‘I’ were the Ulysses of the Odyssey, adventuring, risking himself, but always as part of the task of returning to Ithaca, to his Kingdom. In truth, these adventures do not change Ulysses; likewise, the ‘I can’ presupposed in Dasein’s engagement in projects and tasks itself remains constant in its dealings with the world. Yet in the relation to the image, something different occurs. No longer are things experienced in terms of what is arguably ultimately a mediating self-relation. It is as though the relation itself were suspended or attenuated and can no longer be understood in terms of the ecstasis of Dasein. It is rather that there is an ecstasis as it were on the side of the thing. True, this recalls Heidegger’s account of the mood of anxiety in What is Metaphysics?, but that mood still permits Dasein to recollect itself and to seize upon an authentic existing.[ii] The Levinasian and Blanchotian ‘I’ is lost to itself in the experience in question; the image is experienced as the ‘there is [il y a]’, the pell-mell from which things can never be disassociated.
If, as he argues, Heidegger’s conception of being is organised by the notion of mineness, Levinas’s turns around an experience in which there is no one there to possess being; the ‘Da’ of Dasein is more precarious; the self-relation of the ‘I’ cannot secure a relation to the future but is fleeting and tentative. Being is now experienced as a burden that weighs down existence, rather than revealing it as the nothing which allows a leeway with respect to beings in the world. There is always too much of being – the weight of the world is too great –, so the drama of existence lies in the attempt to escape its burden. This ‘no escape’ is experienced as a kind of lagging of existence, as though the ‘I’ fell behind itself. Existence is no longer contemporary with itself, let alone able to project itself into the future. There is the constant danger that the stability of the world will give way, that existence will lose its hold on things and on itself, giving way to what Levinas and Blanchot will call vigilance. The ‘subject’ of vigilance is not an alert ‘I’, but what Blanchot calls the ‘il’, the ‘he’ or ‘it’. The ‘il’ is a name for the ‘other’ within me; it is a suspension or reduction of the conscious, self-present ‘I’ [le moi].
When Blanchot writes of becoming, it is to name what he also calls the ‘there is’. Here he refers no longer to a potentiality or ecstasis of the human being, but a potency or ecstasis on the side of things, or, better, of the image of things, of the infinite attenuation of being. Blanchot will come to present this attenuation as wearing away what he calls our ‘facile reverence’ for ontology. This may seem too quick – was it not Heidegger, after all, who desubstantiated the subject by attending to its temporality? Read alongside Levinas remarks on mineness, Blanchot’s comments on Heidegger form part of a more general rejection of Heidegger’s foregrounding Dasein as the locus from which being is to be thought. To invoke becoming or dying is to emphasise a resistance implicit to things as they swell with the pell-mell of the ‘there is’. Such a pell-mell never gives way to a stable and enduring ‘Da’. For Blanchot, being may always return as a chaotic streaming which undoes what Levinas calls the hypostasis upon which Dasein, unbeknownst to Heidegger, depends. This being the case, it is uncertain as to where one might ‘situate’ the becoming of being since it streams like Cratylus’s river, in which it is impossible to step even once.[iii] Does becoming happen to the ‘subject’ of the experience in question, or, by contrast, does it belong to the ‘object’ of this experience? Neither, for to polarise the experience in question into ‘subject’ and ‘object’ is already to have dissolved its animating tension. The ‘il’ is the ‘site’ of a struggle between the ‘I’ as it would maintain itself and the order of being, and the ‘non-I’ who no longer belongs to the world. Dying and becoming name a struggle and not a result; I cannot step into the same river once, that is true, but this experience of stepping is registered nonetheless, not by the ‘Da’ of Dasein, but by the ‘il’ who doubles or accompanies the ‘I’ and disappears almost at once, but who nevertheless registers the vigilance in question.
Early to late, Levinas seeks to escape this struggle through the relation to the Other. Only thus is our fascination with the image of things, with the ‘there is’, freed from itself, and we can recover our relationship with the world and with the future. But ecstasis is not returned to us; Dasein is not the locus of what Levinas calls the for-the-Other. I am not Ulysses, but Abraham, the one who has heard the ‘here I am’ addressed to the Other as it reaches me upstream of the content of anything said. ‘Here I am’ is the saying that bears all language, speaking otherwise than being, that is, by breaking with the model of mineness that organises Heidegger’s account of the difference between being and beings. If Levinas writes of vigilance in his later work, it is with reference to the one who spoke this ‘here I am’. Levinas dissolves the struggle between being and beings by arguing the relation to the Other which happens as saying is otherwise than being. Blanchot, while appearing to endorse Levinas’s argument, and appearing to write against Heidegger and ontology, nevertheless appears to remain ‘within’ what Levinas calls the neutrality of being. That is, he would think the exteriority of being as the neutral [le neutre] without insisting on the alterity of the good as what is otherwise than being.[iv] For Blanchot, surprisingly, the neutral, which overlaps with the notions of the ‘there is’ and the image he shares with the early Levinas, can be said to bear an ethical significance.[v] Like Levinas, Blanchot insists alterity is to be thought first of all in terms of the human Other. How is this claim, which Blanchot develops through a detailed negotiation of the thought of Levinas, reconcilable with his account of the image, the ‘there is’ and the neutral, especially as they are set forth in his account of the work of art? Can the Other be thought as an image of the human being, as its neutral double?
In a famous section in The Space of Literature, Blanchot takes up Levinas’s notion of the image (itself no doubt indebted to Blanchot’s fiction and criticism) in order to discuss the special mode of existence of the work of art. Along the way, he provides an example of the image in the relationship of the corpse to the living body, noting that the mourned deceased, before us as a cadaver ‘begins to resemble himself [ressembler à lui-même]’:
Himself: is this not an ill-chosen expression? Shouldn’t we say: the deceased resembles the person he was when he was alive? ‘Resembles himself’ is, however, correct. ‘Himself’ designates the impersonal being, distant and inaccessible, which resemblance, that it might be someone’s, draws toward the day.[vi]
‘[N]o man alive, in fact, bears any resemblance yet’, Blanchot writes.[vii] The friend we know through his many attributes – his gestures, his laughter, the tone of his voice – conceals a kind of presence which comes forward only after he dies.
Why does Blanchot write that the corpse resembles himself? Typically, a thing sustains itself as itself such that it can be experienced as if held together by our interest, our understanding; it is animated by our existence. What of the Other? For the most part, I understand her through the cultural categories through which my relation to others is mediated. You are my employee; I am your client; I know you as a service provider; you know me as a vendor of your company’s products – each time, it is a question of passing over the alterity of the Other in favour of relations which are instrumentally defined. That is to say, others are sustained in their coherency for me in terms of my understanding of their place in the world. What, though, about the corpse? Something in the corpse resists that power; which means, too, I cannot situate myself with respect to what happened as I approached the cadaver of my friend. To claim the corpse resembles itself is not to invoke a magical power it would possess but rather to indicate the way it withholds itself from my capacity to accommodate myself with respect to its differentiation. Here collapses into nowhere: the place I hold becomes uncertain; my hold on time falters.
It may appear the ‘I’ always survives its encounters with things and with persons as long as it is alive, always retaining a hold on the future. But there is always the chance of an experience which makes it lose its grip, suspending its relation to itself. Something remains – not the self, it is true, but something like an awareness of the river upon which the torn body of Orpheus was cast (an awareness of the river ‘in’ his dispersed body): of the river which flows in my place, the outside streaming in what was once my interiority. No one is there – but there is a way of understanding this ‘no one’ as designating an impersonal vigilance – the ‘il’, the ‘he’ or ‘it’, the impersonal vigilance which thereafter leaves its trace in memory. So does the encounter with the corpse lay claim to me.
Had I not been vouchsafed this experience before, while my friend was alive? Did it not present itself as it were behind all I took to be informal and easy-going in our friendship? Many years after the Events of May 1968, Blanchot remembers that tutoiement, the second person familiar, was demanded of everyone; he usually preserved the formal ‘vous’ for his friends. What he shared with his friends is analogous to what Breton demanded of the Surrealists – friendship is also, for Blanchot, a relation to the impossible, but it is one that allows each to be experienced as if he or she were removed from the categories which organise our relationships. To say ‘vous’ to the friend is to acknowledge that she escapes my attempt to identify and determine the others around me.
Then is this the way the alterity of the Other should be thought? As an image?
Close to Death, Close to the Night
At one point in The Human Race, his testimony to his experiences in the work camps, Robert Antelme learns that K. is going to die; he’d been in the infirmary for a week. He looks for K. at the infirmary, but cannot find him, although he recognises a few of the patients as he passes a row of beds. ‘I went over to the next bed and asked the guy lying on it, “where’s K?”’[viii] He turned his head and with it motioned towards the person propped on his elbows’. Antelme: ‘I looked at the person who was K. I became afraid – afraid of myself – and I looked at the other faces, seeking reassurance. I recognised them clearly enough. I wasn’t wrong; I still knew who they were. The other person was still leaning on his elbows, head down, mouth halfway open’. Where is K.? Antelme looks into the blue, unmoving eyes of this patient. Then he looks at the other patients, whom he recognises. Then Antelme addresses the unknown patient (the one who has taken the place of K.): ‘Hello, old man’. ‘There was no way I could make myself more visible. He kept that appearance of a smile on his face. I didn’t recognise anything’.
Dying, K. was no longer the man Antelme knew. Now Antelme asks another question: does he, Antelme, the one who knew K., exist? Who is he, the one once called Robert Antelme, as the body K. once occupied begins to resemble itself? ‘Because I no longer found the man I’d known, and because he didn’t recognise me, I’d had doubts about myself for a minute. It was to reassure myself that I was still me that I’d looked at the other guys as though to recover my breath’. The ‘stable faces’ of the others grant him a sureness in his own existence. But K.? His identity is no longer stable; even his death will not reassure Antelme. ‘It would remain true that between the man I’d known and the dead K., whom we all know, this nothingness had existed’.
Blanchot comments on this passage in a late essay on Antelme:
Not recognising, in the infirmary, a companion he had come to see, who was still alive, he understood that even in life there is nothingness, an unfathomable emptiness against which we must defend ourselves even while being aware of its approach; we have to learn to live with this emptiness.[ix]
It may happen when he dies that I will no longer recognise the one who was close to me in life. A dying man stares at me; staring back, I confront a face that has become unrecognisable. The Other holds me at its distance; I cannot be sure who it is I confront. ‘Each living man, really, does not have any resemblance yet’, Blanchot writes in The Space of Literature; but he adds: ‘each man, in the rare moments when he shows a similarity to himself, seems to be only more distant, close to a dangerous neutral region, astray in himself, and in some sense his own ghost, already having no other life than that of the return’.[x] K. has become his own ghost, the phantom double of Antelme’s friend.
The corpse, the friend, the dying man: Blanchot allows his conversationalists in The Infinite Conversation to claim the Other is always ‘close to death, close to the night’ – that the encounter with the Other, with any Other, already implies a relation to what seems close to the image of the human being.[xi] No longer is it a question of the exceptional cases in which we come face to face with a dying person or a corpse, but of any encounter with anyone at all. The ‘il’ which awakens in me in response to the dying or the dead awakens in relation to the Other too; to be thus fascinated is to be drawn from oneself, to be summoned by a call which remains free of determination. If this call is free, it is not a freedom possessed by any particular human being; what calls me is not the Other herself, speaking in her own voice, urging me to draw close, but alterity. This is not of course something she possesses – it is not a property or attribute, but what makes her Other for me. She resembles herself – but she does not do so for herself. She resembles herself for me, that is to say, with respect to my relation to her as it is measured by the power implicit to my existence.
The Presence of the Other
Is this what Giacometti’s sculptures indicate for Blanchot? Blanchot quotes a remark from Jacques Dupin’s commentary on Giacometti: ‘the spectacle of violence fascinates and terrifies him’, and comments:
Whence the experience he had of presence. It is out of reach. One kills a man, one does violence to him; this has happened to all of us, either in act, or in speech, or as the result of an indifferent will; but presence always escapes the power that does violence. Presence, in face of the destruction that wants to reach it, disappears but remains intact, withdrawing into nullity, where it is dissipated without leaving any traces (one does not inherit presence; it is without tradition). To the experience of violence there corresponds the evidence of the presence that escapes it.
[…] Presence is only presence at a distance, and this distance is absolute – that is, irreducible; that is, infinite. The gift of Giacometti, the one he makes us, is to open, in the space of the world, the infinite interval from which there is presence – for us, but as it were, without us. Yes, Giacometti gives us this, he draws us invisibly toward this point, a single point at which the present thing (the plastic object, the figured figure) changes into pure presence, the presence of the Other in its strangeness, that is to say, also radical non-presence.[xii]
Read in terms of Blanchot’s reflections on the corpse, one might say Giacometti’s sculptures show us how the human being can come to resemble itself, bringing together, for its audience, presence and absence, here and nowhere. The real and the image alternate, displacing one another in the same space and in the same instant. Blanchot subjects the word presence to the same transformation as the word immediacy. No longer is it reserved for what is evident before me here and now, but to an encounter which escapes the measure of human capacity. Time does not offer a foothold with respect to the encounter in question; space does not grant itself as what can be measured by the light of understanding. Mediation is impossible; the capacity to negate fails me; no third, extrinsic term serves to hold me apart from the Other. Presence is a name for what overwhelms; its immediacy does not permit me to endure before it. Whoever encounters the Other, according to Blanchot, no longer exists as a self-present ‘I’. The distance Giacometti’s sculptures interpose between the viewer and themselves cannot be negated. Presence, non-presence: both words are deployed in Blanchot’s mediations on Giacometti to designate the effect of this distance which calls forward the ‘il’, the ‘subject’ of vigilance.
What does this mean? Blanchot writes: ‘Each time, we receive from Giacometti this double discovery that is, each time, it is true, immediately lost: only man would be present to us, only he is alien to us’.[xiii] For Blanchot, the otherness of the human being is qualitatively different from all other others. How can this be reconciled with Blanchot’s discussions of the ‘there is’ of language and the world that has become image? To think through Blanchot’s argument, it is necessary to trace his negotiation of the work of Levinas.
The Event of Language
Dasein is bourgeois: this is the upshot of Levinas account of the conditions of the genesis of the ego. The ego, he explains, needs material to produce its own identity; the effort to be takes the form of the attempt to organise the world into sources of food and nourishment. Labour and possession are required for the ego to consolidate its being in the world. Likewise, reflection and comprehension are needed if the ego is to protect itself from the uncertainty of the future. Drawing on Heidegger’s claim that being is in each case mine, Levinas claims the activity of the verb ‘to be’, the verb of verbs, is accomplished in the structure of mineness. Just as Heidegger uses Wesen as a verb, Levinas argues ‘esse’ is ‘interesse’; the human being, turns upon and hypostatises itself. As such, the ego’s practical and theoretical involvement with the world answers the interests of being. Even Heidegger’s transformation of the notion of the understanding from the ‘knowing that’ of purely theoretical speculation to the ‘knowing how’ of practical engagement with the world is ordered by the need for the ego to maintain the security of its hypostasis.
The Other, for both Levinas and Blanchot, is experienced as an interruption of the spontaneous need of the ‘I’ to lay claim to existence, to seize and as it were digest being. The hunger to be, to exist, is also the need to have done with the Other. Practically, I work to meet my needs, consolidating my identity; this is a way of confirming my essence as active interesse. Theoretically, I reflect in order to increase my emprise, com-prehending the world, reducing everything that is different to the measure of the same. In this way, the singularity of the Other is transformed into a particular. That the Other resists this conceptualisation is not a tribute to her agency. The word Other only makes sense as the term of a relation; as Other, she does not exist for herself as an ego with powers commensurate with my own. The Other resists, this is true, but she does so because she is the Other for me, and what she resists is the power implicit in my existence as it confirms the tautology of being. The Other resists, but she does not do so as another ego. The Other resists and addresses me in this resistance, which is to say, as a interdiction against my desire to subordinate her to the interests of being, whether practically (murder) or theoretically (conceptualisation).
My response to this silent address, according to Levinas, happens as the primal event of language. Language begins and begins again in this address; the relation to the Other as it is marked in language animates the dead letter of speech or writing. The Other addresses me; but this does not mean there is anyone ‘behind’ the address; she does not ventriloquise God or speak in place of anyone else. Nor is it a matter of what she would want to say since she does not exist as the Other for herself. The Other resembles herself, Blanchot maintains, she is held at a distance, but it is not the Other who holds herself thus.
Is this what Blanchot indicates when he writes on Giacometti?
What Jacques Dupin has written on Alberto Giacometti is fitting to a work as clear as it is unapparent and always ready to escape whatever it is that might attempt to measure it. After reading these ‘texts’, I can better understand why such a work is close to us – I mean close to writing – to such an extent that every writer feels himself implicated by the work – although it is in no way ‘literary’ – experiencing the need to question it constantly and knowing that he cannot repeat it in writing.[xiv]
Blanchot is not presenting Giacometti’s sculptures as a depiction of the Other, nor indeed of the ‘il’ who experiences the Other. What, then, is he doing? It is a question of language, of the experience of language.
Why does the writer feel implicated in Giacometti’s sculptures? Because they present an indication of the relation to the Other as it obtains in language. A relation that, for Blanchot, shares several features with the relation to literature to the extent that he will blur the boundaries between speech and writing in The Infinite Conversation. For the Levinas of Totality and Infinity, this blurring is to be distrusted; writing places itself on the side of economy, answering the theoretical imperative that allows everything to be thematised, or else lending itself to the temptations of rhythm and sonority – to that poetry which sings of the world and the things of the world, and sings of the Other as another of those things. The sham sobriety of theoreticism and the drunkenness of poetry are the risks of a discourse which speaks not just in the absence of the writer, which already aroused Plato’s suspicion of writing, but in the absence of the Other.
This is why Otherwise than Being calls for a reduction of language that would allow us to watch over saying, restoring language to the encounter to which it bears witness. Language must be rekindled so that it keeps memory of the enlivening presence of the Other, that is, the excessive signification which means writing always falls short of speech. In Otherwise than Being, unlike Totality and Infinity, Levinas claims saying happens not just because the Other is present before me, but because the relation to the Other is affirmed in all discourse. It is not just Otherwise than Being which would escape the strictures Levinas places on writing, but all discourse, written and spoken, as it bears witness to the Other and thereby interrupts itself, unsaying the said. Now everything written can be read against its dead letter, that is, as it actively unsays the order of the said. The same holds for anything spoken – discourse now appears out of step with itself; the said no longer has the last word.
In Otherwise than Being as in Totality and Infinity, Levinas allows himself to make a procedural remark on the status of his own discourse: ‘I still interrupt the ultimate discourse in which all the discourses are stated, in saying it to one that listens to it, and who is situated outside the said that the discourse says, outside of all it includes. That is true of the discussion I am elaborating at this very moment’.[xv] At this very moment: philosophy, with Otherwise than Being, bears witness to the witnessing which occurs in the spirit if not the letter of language; it is vigilant over vigilance, attesting to an insomnia which awakens language from its slumbers. Otherwise than Being watches over the reduction which happens as saying.
Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster which, among other things, is a response to Levinas’s second magnum opus, is also a vigilant text. Over what does it watch? It may appear that Blanchot simply takes over Levinas’s theoretical lexicon, aping the arguments of Otherwise than Being in order to repeat what he finds in the work of his friend. But the theoretical context in which Levinas’s term saying reappears is, with Blanchot, decisively transformed. Indeed, it was transformed before Otherwise Than Being was published, in his essays on literature.
The Narrative Voice
Imagine a writer, Blanchot writes in ‘The Narrative Voice’, one of two essays on Kafka in The Infinite Conversation, writing a sentence like ‘The forces of life suffice only up to a certain point [Les forces de la vie ne suffisent que jusqu’à un certain point]’.[xvi] Here, as before, there is a bad faith in evidence that is similar to that of the writer who writes of her loneliness or her suffering, since the writer still had energy enough to turn the exhaustion in question into an idea. What happens when it is placed in a narrative? It no longer has anything to do with the author’s life or anything outside the narration itself. Who speaks? What speaks? The sentence comes from Kafka’s The Castle, but what speaks is neither Kafka nor one of his characters, Blanchot claims, it is, rather, the narrative voice [la voix narrative] which speaks.
Whose voice is this? Is Kafka allegorising his life in his work? Are we to read the pages of The Castle as a veiled autobiography? Is Kafka assuming the mantle of a kind of philosopher or moralist as Brod would have it, instructing us about the necessity of loving others? To answer in the affirmative to either question would be to miss what happens in the unfolding of the narrative. The voice belongs only to the narrative. In Kafka’s The Castle, the narrative voice no longer seeks the disinterested detachment of the narrator of, say, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. There is no breathing space; we do not as readers stand apart from the text as its spectators, but are enfolded in its steady narration, the streaming of words. ‘We hear in the narrative form, and always as though it were extra, something indeterminate speaking’; something speaks without determinable contour.
Compare Flaubert. Kafka admires the aesthetic distance in Madame Bovary. For Kafka, it is an absolute book existing unto itself; it is disinterested; the author maintains a distance from all events and asks, in so doing, the same of his reader. Blanchot comments, ‘the ideal is still the form of representation of classical theatre: the narrator is there only to raise the curtain’; the novel is autonomous; ‘it must be left free, the props removed, the moorings cut, in order to maintain its status as an imaginary object’. Then for all its supposed impersonality, Madame Bovary divides itself between an ‘objective’ narrator and the characters themselves. With Kafka, by contrast, ‘everything is different. One of these differences is essential to the subject that concerns us. The distance is the creative disinterestedness that Flaubert struggled so hard to maintain; it is that of the writer’s and the reader’s distance from the work and authorised contemplative pleasure, now enters into the work’s very sphere in the form of an irreducible strangeness.’
What does this mean? Blanchot: ‘in the neutral space of the narrative, the bearers of speech, the subjects of the action – those who once stood in the place of characters – fall into a relation of self-non-identification. Something happens to them that they can only recapture by relinquishing their power to say “I”’.[xvii] Consider K. of The Castle: the landsurveyor is, above all, a man unsure of his employment, his position – he is only a man who wanders among a community to which he does not belong. What does he want? Security? But he has abandoned the country of his birth and has even forgotten this abandonment; once, he says, he was married, he had children, but now? It is a matter, for K., of working out the intentions of the denizens of the castle. What do they want with him? Can they clarify what his duties are as the new landsurveyor? Can they reassure him that he even has this position? Was he right to think he had even been summoned to the village by the castle authorities?
Blanchot’s argument may be summarised this way: With The Castle, the world never retrieves itself, the novel does not end, there is only the infinite attenuation of the absurd. Without characters with whom to identify, without the indulgence of a fully realized fictional empire, it denies the reader the chance of catharsis or sublime spectacle. How is this experienced? As the gap between castle and village that calls for interpretation, The Castle cannot be made into a figure, but nor can it be designated a ground as for that for which things stand in. It is thus that it becomes what Blanchot calls the image. Any attempt to determine what it is only raises the necessity for another ground against which this can be seen. No relation between ground and figure is possible. But that non-relation is the negative aspect of a withdrawal implicit to the book in its relation to its readers. A withdrawal, now, that cannot be measured against human possibility or potentiality and in particular, the ability to interpret. It is thus that The Castle resembles itself.
Kafka’s The Castle, Blanchot notes, ‘does not consist of a series of events or peripeteia that are more or less linked, but of an ever-expanding sequence of exegetic versions that finally only bear upon the very possibility of exegesis itself – the impossibility of writing (and of interpreting) The Castle’. K. goes from exegete to exegete, from commentator to commentator. What do they tell him? They speak of the experience that awaits us at the heart of reading. But what is this experience? ‘It may be that recounting (writing) draws language into a possibility of saying that would say being without saying it, and yet without denying it either’. Saying becomes another name for the récit, the narrative voice which is the happening of the work. So does The Castle lay claim to me as image.
Then the reader is in the same quandary as Antelme was before K. in The Human Race. ‘It would remain true that between the man I’d known and the dead K., whom we all know, this nothingness had existed’: the same nothingness opens itself in the instant between the lofty work of literature called The Castle by the celebrated author Franz Kafka and the book you opened by chance in the library which begins, ‘It was late in the evening when K. arrived’. A book that, from the outset, speaks in the voice of the Other (l’Autre, this time, not Autrui).
‘To speak in the neutral is to speak at a distance, preserving this distance without mediation and without community, and even in sustaining the infinite distancing of distance – its irreciprocity, its irrectitude or dissymmetry and without one or other of its terms beings privileged (the neutral cannot be neutralised)’. Irreciprocity, irrectitude, dissymmetry: each resonates with Blanchot’s own account of the relation to the Other as if this relation were only the relation to the narrative voice.
The other speaks [L’autre parle]. But when the other is speaking, no one speaks because the other, which we must refrain from honouring with a capital letter that would determine its unique presence, is precisely never simply the other. The other is neither the one nor the other, and the neutral that indicates it withdraws it from both, as it does from unity, always establishing it outside the term, the act, or the subject through which it claims to offer itself.
Blanchot does not refer, here, to the personal Other, Autrui, but to l’autre. Yet it shares several features in common with Levinas’s Autrui. It is linked to a kind of saying: ‘it says nothing, not only because it adds nothing to what there is to say (it knows nothing), but because the narrative voice subtends this nothing – the “silencing and keeping silent” – in which speech is here and now already engaged; thus it is not heard in the first place, and everything that gives it a distinct reality begins to betray it.’ What does this mean? It speaks without content; as Blanchot goes on to claim, even as the narrative voice can assume the voice of a character or a narrator, it cannot be confined to their voices. It is impersonal; it does not mediate information but presents itself in a manner analogous to what Blanchot writes of Autrui.
The narrative voice resembles itself. It is a name for the fascinating voice which addresses as the image of The Castle. That is, The Castle is experienced as resembling itself as the narrative voice. Thus it is possible to invoke the immediate presence of the language which, like the Other, does not exist at the same level as me. Like the relation to the Other, the relation with the language of The Castle is dissymmetrical; I speak as I am brought into contact with the inexhaustible murmuring of language such that I lose my uprightness. I do not speak; there is only the donation of the narrative voice in the event Blanchot allows himself to call saying.
The Speech of Writing, the Writing of Speech
What, then, is the relationship between the narrative voice, considered as saying, and the relation to Autrui considered as speech? What, more broadly, is the relationship between writing and speech?
When Blanchot remembers his conversations with Bataille, it is not to present his friend in the manner of Plato’s Socrates: true, there is a seriousness in his conversation, a sense that everything is at stake; what takes place between the speakers is a play or a game of thought. It is not the content of what is said which matters, but that it is said at all. What counts is not the order of discourse, spoken and written, which Levinas calls the said, but the event of saying. Invoking a kind of shame that happens whenever we use words, fearing we speak to adroitly or too awkwardly and thereby betray what he calls the ‘seriousness’ of speech, Blanchot reflects:
I do not mean to say that every conversation with Georges Bataille was free of this feeling, but rather that speech then took up its own malaise, and as soon as it was sensed, assumed it and respected it in such a way as to offer it another direction. Here speech’s lack interceded on speech’s behalf, becoming the way that, through a decision each time renewed, one turned toward the other so as to respond to the frankness of a presence (just as the eminence of being, its height, cannot be separated from its decline)[...].[xviii]
Why would we feel shame when we speak, or hear someone else speak? Because to speak of serious matters is to risk betraying them by speaking too easily, as if the topic of discussion were entirely under our command, or too frivolously, thereby losing the seriousness of the topic altogether. To speak of insignificant matters is to pass over a seriousness no longer tied to that of a particular topic, but to speaking itself. The presence of speech would be a serious affair, one in relation to which we would feel shame unless, like Bataille we were able to allow this seriousness to speak. How is this possible? By allowing language to reveal its malaise as it is vouchsafed in my inability to say something, to find the right word, failing, thereby, to turn language into something over which I could exert power. Language suffers; it undergoes a malaise. It comes to resemble itself as it refuses to lend itself to human power. As such, the one who speaks exhibits a kind of reserve with respect to speech. This was Bataille’s gift, and the gift he allowed those who conversed with him: speech was able to speak in what they said; saying was given its due.
No longer does speech lend itself to the economy of the possible, subordinating itself to the communication of a message. Each conversationalist, like Moses, is a stammerer, but what stammers is the whole of language. This whole, the ‘there is’ of language, is not the speech of Autrui, as if the Other possessed a power to speak that the ‘I’ does not, but the impersonal saying which affirms itself for the I’ by means of the relation to Autrui, giving the ‘there is’ of language as it were a new direction, allowing the ‘I’ to acknowledge it in turn.
Each in turn becomes Autrui for the other person; each presents himself as the corpse who will not respond to Jesus’s call to come to life. Each becomes the ‘other’ Lazarus, the stranger who cannot be experienced by an intact ‘I’. This is experienced as a kind of speech – as a plural speech which happens as the opening of language to difference, that is, to a saying which cannot be exchanged, but is given each time unilaterally and dissymmetrically from one to the other. What Blanchot calls the seriousness of language is unrelated to the content of what is said. Each speaker, as he acknowledges Autrui, which is to say the seriousness of plural speech, of the neuter, is vigilant in turn.
The writing of speech, the speech of writing: Blanchot uses these formulations to indicate the interruption of the continuity of discourse. Vigilance is the locus of this interruption as it opens in the suspension of the measure of the speaking or writing ‘I’. It is thus that the ‘there is’ of language is witnessed as what Blanchot calls saying, even as there is no determinate ‘subject’ of witnessing or a determinate ‘object’ to be witnessed.
The Image of Language
What separates Blanchotian from Levinasian vigilance with respect to speech, to writing? Totality and Infinity presents a claim ostensibly similar to Blanchot’s since the relation to Autrui, according to Levinas, obtains as language, as discourse. In this way, the Other might be said to resemble herself: the relation to Autrui is not one of identification but of differentiation. Speech happens not because of this differentiation but as this differentiation; it is my response to the alterity of Autrui. But for Blanchot, in contrast to Levinas, I am related to Autrui such that I experience the image of language. The ‘there is’, for Blanchot, as for Levinas, is what is experienced in suffering, affliction and weariness. But Blanchot also thinks the ‘there is’ in terms of the malaise of language – the way it turns itself aside from those who would assert their power over its impersonal murmuring. This is not a question of invoking an occult force implicit to language itself, but of indicating the way in which language resists our power and the interest of being. It is this ‘there is’ which speaks as the narrative voice of The Castle. Something like the narrative voice is also at stake for each of the participants in the ‘game of thought’ Blanchot presents in his essay on Bataille.
The Other, Levinas writes, is ‘a being which surpasses every attribute. Through an attribute, it would be precisely qualified, that is, reduced to what it has in common with other beings; an attribute would make this being into a concept’.[xix] To reduce the otherness of the Other to an attribute would be to create an idol; the prohibition against making representations of God also holds for the Other. Blanchot seems guilty of this idolatry when he appears to claim Giacometti has presented the Other in material form. Of course, like Levinas, Blanchot presents the relation to the Other in terms of language – in this case, in terms of Dupin’s commentary on Giacometti’s sculpture. But unlike Levinas, it is, for Blanchot, the image of language, its neutral double, which both writing and the relation to the Other (speech) allows me to experience.
For Levinas, language begins as I face the Other, acknowledging her alterity. Saying accomplishes the reduction of the economy of the said as it neutralises the singularity of the Other. It also reduces the drunken song of the poet as it merely loosens the ties which bind us to the world of things, singing of a world where the Other has not yet appeared. To be vigilant in Levinas’s later writings mean to have been awoken by this reduction, this interruption of being. Such vigilance, as Levinas knows, is quickly compromised; the Other is forgotten in her singularity and I, too, forget the way I have been elected to my own singularity. Whence the need to repeat this reduction in turn, to redouble vigilance in the letter of the said. This is the task which falls to Otherwise than Being. Levinas’s text would watch over all language; it is vigilant over vigilance as it occurs, if we have ears to hear it or eyes to read it, in all language. When Blanchot likewise calls for vigilance, this is has a different meaning, although his writing would also watch over language. Considering the statement, ‘the meaning of meaning would be neuter’, Blanchot allows a conversationalist to invoke ‘an ironic outbidding of the epochē’, referring, here, to the way in which ‘meaning operates or acts through a movement or retreat that is in some sense without end, through an exigency to become suspended’.[xx] What does this mean? Saying, for Blanchot holds the order of power and possibility in abeyance; the measure of time and space fails along with the economy of meaning. But this failure, even if it might be said to interrupt or reduce being, escaping its interests, is not otherwise than being in the strong, Levinasian sense.
At the same time, Blanchot is not rejecting Levinas’s account of the singularity of the relation to Autrui, losing it among things and the image of things. For Levinas, the relation to Autrui in its singularity interrupts the neutrality of discourse (the said) as well as the attenuation of that neutrality which he claims happens as poetry. What is offered to me by way of the Other, according to Blanchot? An opportunity to as it were lighten being by way of my address.[xxi] As he says of his conversations with Bataille ‘speech then took up its own malaise, and as soon as it was sensed, assumed it and respected it in such a way as to offer it another direction’. Perhaps what is suggested here that it is the weight of the world, the image of things that is ‘offered a new direction’ – that the Other calls forth a response from me which passes through all the things of the world, bringing forward their image, the ‘there is’ as it is redoubled in the image of language, but that this response, as it is permitted by the address of the Other lightens this burden. This is not because the image of the world is shared by the Other as by another human being on the same level as myself, but because of the characteristics of the relation itself as it is unilateral and dissymmetrical. As such, this relation, as saying, can be redoubled in turn, just as it is between Blanchot and Bataille. Here, the relation to the Other accomplishes something the relation to the narrative voice cannot: redoubled friendship – the doubly dissymmetrical relation to the Other.
Yet for Blanchot, both the address to the Other and my reading of The Castle are occasions of saying and he will also use the word friendship of that kind of writing which opens itself in Bataille’s Inner Experience. In both cases, the burden of things can be said to be lightened, and speech is offered another direction. Speech is received as novelty itself – not as what is otherwise than being, but as what reaches us in the attenuation of being, in the withering of the ‘I can’. Does this mean literature and the Other have equal status with respect to what Blanchot calls saying? If so, this would directly contradict Blanchot’s claim that the lesson of Giacometti’s sculptures as they are revealed by Dupin’s commentary is that ‘only man would be present to us, only he is alien to us’. Perhaps it is that for Blanchot the relation to the Other that obtains as saying repeats the relation to the Other. Writing, in this case, would come after the relation to the Other which first grants speech another direction. The narrative voice recalls us to the turning that occurs with respect to language, to our power over language, from the first, whereby it is the saying of the Other that elects the ‘I’ to speak, and, in so doing, breaks the ‘I’ out of the closed economy of mineness. The relation to literature offers language another direction just as language was offered another direction in the relation to the Other.
[i] Paul Davies, ‘An Exemplary Beginning’ in Orpheus Looking Back: A Celebration of Maurice Blanchot (Bracknell: South Hill Park Trust), pp.3-5, p.3. See, on the image in Blanchot, Thomas Carl Walls’s Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot and Agamben (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
[ii] See William Large’s paper ‘Impersonal Existence: A Conceptual Genealogy of the There Is from Heidegger to Blanchot and Levinas’, Angelaki, Vol. 7, No. 3, Dec. 2002, pp.131-141.
[iii] This is Levinas’s allusion – in Time and the Other, this river is the one in which ‘the very fixity of unity, the form of every existent, cannot be constituted’ (Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1996), p.49).
[iv] I do not have space here for an extended discussion of the relationship between the neuter in Levinas and Blanchot. As Derrida writes, commenting on the same remark in the context of his discussion of Totality and Infinity: ‘since the thought of the Neuter, as it continues to be elaborated in the work of Blanchot, can in no way be reduced to what Levinas means here by the Neuter, an enormous and abyssal task remains open’, Adieu: To Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.140.
[v] Blanchot is of course hesitant about the word ethics. I use the ethical here in the broad sense to indicate the importance to Blanchot of the relation to the Other.
[vi] The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982) p.257; L'Espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), p.345-6.
[vii] The Space of Literature, p.258; L’Espace littéraire, p.347.
[viii] The Human Race, trans. Jeffrey Haight and Annie Mahler (Evanston: The Marlboro Press/ Northwestern, 1992), p.172.
[ix] ‘In the Night that is Watched Over’ in On Robert Antelme’s The Human Race: Essays and Commentary, edited by Daniel Dobbels, translated by Jeffrey Haight (Evanston: The Marlboro Press/ Northwestern University Press, 2003), pp.55-60, p.56. ‘Dans la nuit surveillée’ appeared originally in Lignes, 21 in January 1994, pp.127-31, alongside two extracts from The Human Race.
[x] The Space of Literature, p.258; L'Espace littéraire, p.347. These lines uncannily prefigure Blanchot’s ‘The Human Race’, his review of The Human Race as it was republished in The Infinite Conversation.
[xi] The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.215; L'Entretien infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p.320.
[xii] Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p.218; L'Amitié (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p.247. Dupin’s remarks are considered in a short mediation by Blanchot called ‘Presence’, which, under the general heading ‘Traces’, accompanies reflections on Laporte and Jabès. This essay was published in La Nouvelle Revue Française, 133, in 1964, pp.90-103.
[xiii] Friendship, p.219; p.249. It is a claim we find at several points in the conversations of The Infinite Conversation: ‘Only man is absolutely foreign to me; he alone is the unknown, he alone the other, and in this he would be presence: such is man[....] Each time we project strangeness onto a non-human being or refer the movement of the unknown back to the universe, we disburden ourselves of the weight of man’ (p.59-60); ‘Perhaps, also, it is time to withdraw this term autrui, while retaining what it has to say to us: that the Other is always what calls upon ‘man’ (even if only to put him between parentheses or between quotation marks), not the other as God or other as nature, but as ‘man’, more Other than all that is other’ (p.72). ‘[E]very notion of alterity already implies man as other, and not the inverse’ (p.72).
[xiv] Friendship, p.217; L'Amitié (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p.246.
[xv] Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1981), p.170.
[xvi] The Infinite Conversation, p.379; L’Entretien infini, p.556. This sentence is Blanchot’s rendering of one from chapter 18 of The Castle, ‘wer kann dafür, daß gerade diese Grenze auch sonst bedeutungsvoll ist’, Kafka, Gesammelte Werke,Vol.4 (Frankfurt: Fische, 1994), p. 326. The two essays on Kafka in The Infinite Conversation, ‘The Narrative Voice’ and ‘The Wooden Bridge’ were originally published in reverse order as ‘Le pont de bois’, La Nouvelle Revue Française 133, 1964, pp.90-103 and ‘La voix narrative’, La Nouvelle Revue Française 142, 1964, pp.674-685. See Leslie Hill’s reflections on Blanchot’s reading of Kafka, especially as it relates to saying, in Writing at the Limit: Bataille, Klossowski, Blanchot (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001), pp.219-221.
[xvii] The Infinite Conversation, pp.384-385; L’Entretien infini, p.564
[xviii] The Infinite Conversation,, p.212; L’Entretien infini, p.314. I quote from ‘The Play of Thought’, originally published as ‘Le jeu de la pensée’, Critique 195-96, pp. 734-41 and published alongside another essay on Bataille from the previous year in The Infinite Conversation.
[xix] Emmanuel Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, 1998), 39.
[xx] The Infinite Conversation, p.304; L’Entretien infini, p.448.
[xxi] Thanks to Nikolai Duffy for this point.