After he left I was surprised to feel extraordinarily disgusted. I had the feeling that something shameful had happened. Nevertheless I wanted to see him again. I summed it all up by saying, What an actor! (Blanchot, The Most High, 13).
Blanchot's poetics is among other things a meditation on the meaning of subjectivity. What might it mean for the "self" to be "the same?" Can such a thing ever be accomplished in solitude? Blanchot seems to suggest that true solitude, in a sense, might only be possible through a relation to the other--one marked by an ethics of discretion.
It is through the other that I am the same, through the other that I am myself: it is through the other who has always withdrawn me from myself. The Other, if he calls upon me, calls upon someone who is not I: the first come of the least of men; by no means the unique being I would like to be. It is thus that he assigns me to passivity, addressing himself in me to dying itself. (The responsibility with which I am charged is not mine and causes me not to be I.) (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 18)
First, a banal point: In French the expression for "self" is moi-même, which of course already suggests the dynamics of a relation--namely of oneself to oneself-- at the very core of what it means to be a "self." Blanchot seeks to include the other in this relation; only through a relation to the other is the self identical or self-same. There is thus an implicit suggestion of this relation, running throughout much of Blanchot's writing, whenever he mentions the "self." In her notes, Ann Smock clarifies this point of translation very concisely:
Blanchot writes: "Dans le rapport de moi (le même) à Autrui..." Thus he makes explicit that the relation of self to others (of Subject to the Other) is also the relation of identity to otherness, or of sameness to difference...Blanchot's sentences consistently recall that to be yourself is to be identical: self-same, one might say in English. But his point is always that there is no such sameness, no such identity except through the (disasterous) relation to otherness: no identity, in other words, save by virtue of its ruination. (The Writing of the Disaster, notes, 148)
We can therefore propose a first, provisional definition of shame. It is nothing less than the fundamental sentiment of being a subject, in the two apparently opposed senses of this phrase: to be subjected and to be sovereign. Shame is what is produced in the absolute concomitance of subjectification and desubjectification, self-loss and self-possession, servitude and sovereignty. (Agamben, 107)
The peculiar viciousness of shame is precisely its double inscription; one is ashamed most of all of one's shame or being ashamed, and this is also what makes shame shame. Repeated twice (which is far more than once), shame is a sort of infinite guilt which is assigned by oneself to oneself.
In the end, shame has to be hidden, and this is what is most shameful. In order to relate in the world of human subjects, shame must continually be repressed, fictionalized and denied. The shame of hiding is inextricable from the hiding of shame. Perhaps shame is that which no other can begin to approach because one can only ever inscribe or in-gest (in-jest) it in oneself--the idea that shame can be metered out as a kind of punishment from one person to another is purely a myth; shame always only comes from ourselves. ("Shame on you" means, "remember, (God! and that he sees your secrets) and feel ashamed! (for pretending otherwise.")
In his wonderfully rich essay, "The Echo of the Subject," Lacoue-Labarthe cites Theodor Reik:
I remembered, namely, that many years later when I asked Freud for help in an actual conflict and was in a short psychoanalysis with him, I once said during a session, "I am ashamed to say what just occurred to me..." and Freud's calm voice admonished me, "Be ashamed, but say it!" (Reik, The Haunting Melody, 236)
Might shame be a secret, a unique and irreducible gift we give to ourselves, and yet which originates in a ruthless space of disappearance--a space enigmatically marked by the death of the other, for whom and in whose absence we remain unique witnesses, called to testify--however impossibly--until the moment when one dies, passing on and so even more impossibly multiplying this task? Is shame the difficulty of being a witness to the death of the other--of having to endure the other’s death in a manner both more and less intimate than any words, and perhaps any ontology, could ever delimit.
And so shame is also perhaps the voice of madness. It is the voice of Shakespeare’s fools, fellows of infinite jest, who whisper poison in the king’s ear....
Is "shame" an adequate name for what may motivate the need for two languages (at least two?)--one practical and the other perhaps more than a little mad?
(What if it is nothing less than the doctrine of original sin--as interpreted in a proto-Catholic manner--that is still, insidiously, perhaps in fact the greatest obstacle to a truly responsible decision or political Act, or even to a politics with anything resembling a future? Of course quite the opposite has been argued as well--these are unnecessarily provoking remarks not at all in a spirit of gaiety...)
"Innocent guilt" in Blanchot is also (and not just) a play on words, when read the way it was meant to be heard--in French. The word for "guilty" in French is coupable, which might be taken to suggest the "ability" proper to a "strike" or "blow," or the ability for a blow to be inflicted.
Here is the passage in mind:
For responsibility is the extreme of subissement: it is that for which I must answer when I am without any answer and without any self save a borrowed, a simulated self, or the '"stand in" for identity: the mandatory proxy. Responsibility is innocent guilt, the blow always long since received which makes me all the more sensitive to all blows. It is the trauma of creation or of birth. (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 22)
Perhaps this "simulated self" should not be read purely in the light of recent technological developments. Part of the reason Blanchot employs so many descriptive terms in approaching the word, "responsibility" is that the strongest, most exigent meaning of the word simply seems to demand something more than impossible. Might "innocent guilt" be a coupable without the coup, or a coupable with the strike, the blow, or the stab itself struck or crossed out--a blow that is no longer a blow? In this sense, "innocent guilt" might be not unlike an ability without the blow, without the caput, or without the spanking.
Might this not suggest a "gulty conscience" without (original) "sin"--without either origin or the patriarch's staff? Without the snake that is also a belt? Agamben's reading of the doctrine of original sin (as not implying an Act) perhaps deserves to be more thoroughly questioned, as might his ontologizing of "shame."
On the other hand (and perhaps more accurately) "innocent guilt" might be described as a coupable without ability as such, or guilt that is without essence and so infinite, and forever beyond appropriation. (Such would also be reminiscent of course of the line Heidegger passes through "Being.")
Ann Smock makes this point:
So innocent guilt (i.e. responsibility) is the endurance of a blow whose -able has been blown up: its ability to be inflicted, its ability to be borne. (The Writing of the Disaster, notes, 148)
This might resonate more clearly with what may be argued to be Blanchot's ontologizing of 'passivity'––if an ontology that remains in itself accessible only through the realm of literature or poetry. As Thomas Wall, in his book, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, Agamben puts it:
The space of literature...the space of absolute passivity or communicativity...is the thick, crepuscular, and paroxysmatic materiality of thought that thickens into a "thing"...It is the erasure of the subject-object hyphen, the erosion of mastery, the erosion of that distance which allows us to hold the world at a distance. (Hall, 111)
Hall's reading is often quite close to that of Agamben (who clearly left his mark on Hall's manuscript)--and at stake, as always, is nothing less than a close reading of Heidegger (too close for the bounds of this paper).
Existence (or Being) takes place in poetry, not in the world (where it is disseminated in things), because poetry is without a world and without existents (or beings). But there is nothing other than the world. Language is the saying of this fatality...This is its pure exposure to irreparability, as Giorgio Agamben would say...The secret of its obsolescence is this "already no longer" that describes its origin. Already no longer a thing, neither meant nor shown, its being is its being-toward-itself, toward its death, that at each instant arrests its being-toward, like the superfluity of an instant that must endure its no longer having time. (Hall, 73)
But can the first reading here of "innocent guilt" be dismissed? That is, if there is no pure originary coup or blow––then might one in fact be empowered to Act, in a sense, however inadequately––but without feeling oneself to be infinitely delimited by this inadequacy––that is, in some sense, without shame?
In French, coup is of course by itself an extremely evocative word, lending itself to a poetics of excess and contradiction that even Mallarmé could not exhaust. Blanchot is no doubt not ignorant of this, nor is Derrida (cf. Spurs Nietzsche's Styles––the sole English translation).
A final thought: In order to begin reading Blanchot (or Derrida, for that matter) "as an American," perhaps one first has to read them as if more French than they are themselves...? (In order to read as neither, that is.)
A final link: There's some interesting stuff on Blanchot and Levinas at the new French site here. I may try my hand at a little translating if there's any interest..