Thursday, September 08, 2005

Theory, fragments

A thought that stands outside subjectivity, setting its limits as though from without, articulating its end, making its dispersion shine forth, taking in only its invincible absence; and that at the same time stands at the threshold of all positivity, not in order to grasp its foundation or justification but in order to regain the space of its unfolding, the void serving as its site, the distance in which it is constituted and into which its immediate certainties slip the moment they are glimpsed--a thought that, in relation to the interiority of our philosophical reflection and the positivity of our knowledge, constitutes what in a word we might call “the thought from the outside.” (Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought From Outside, 16)

What might be the implications of the word, "désoeuvrement" for a conception of "theory?" No longer belonging to production or completion, worklessness is a movement of fragment, interruption and risk--"unavowable."

These names, areas of dislocation, the four winds of spirit's absence, breath from nowhere--the names of thought, when it lets itself come undone and, by writing, fragment. Outside. Neutral. Disaster. Return. Surely these names form no system. In their abruptness, like proper names designating no one, they slid outside all possible meaning without this slide's meaning anything--it leaves only a sliding half-gleam that clarifies nothing, not even the outside, whose frontier is nowhere indicated. These names, in a devastating field, ravaged by the absence which has preceded them...(stones petrified by the endlessness of their fall and forming the walls of an abyss)--seem remainders, each one, of an other language, both disappeared and never yet pronounced, a language we cannot even attempt to restore without reintroducing these names back into the world, or exalting them to some higher world of which, in their external, clandestine solitude, they could only be the irregular interruption, the invisible retreat. (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 58)

There might be some justice in claiming that Blanchot is not an original thinker; he does not introduce any authentic philosophical or theoretical concepts that might be said to be his own. Rather the terms that are "his" inasmuch as they are associated with his name--words such as worklessness (désouevrement), the neuter (le neutre), the outside (le dehors) or disaster (désastre), remain fragmentary without forming any foundational stability for any system. They exist as if belonging to a language already past or yet to come. Rather than a politics of despair, however, the disaster articulates a politics of promise. The above passage sounds very much like Heidegger. But it is important to recognize that such "interruption" do not begin to constitute any "higher world" any more than does "retreat." Theory of literature? Theory from literature? Literature of theory? If theory, like God, is dead--then might death be not only of God but also of theory?

Desire of writing, writing of desire. Desire of knowledge, knowledge of desire. Let us not believe that we have said anything at all with these reversals. Desire, writing, do not remain in place, but pass one over the other: these are not plays on words, for desire is always the desire of dying, not a wish...Dying desire, desire to die, we live these together--not that they coincide--in the obscurity of the interim. (The Writing of the Disaster, 42)

What might it mean for "theory" to no longer be a system. The truth in theory would be the restless movement of its own disappearance--theory ceaselessly leaning or turning toward an anticipation of those moments when theory is undone and no longer relevant, or at least altered in some irrevocable way. Would theory then be more (and less) than just a yearning for moments that never quite arrive, or have always already past? What does seem clear is that both Blanchot's and Derrida's projects open onto a new kind of space for the conception of both theory and community--one that cannot fail to reference a movement beyond or "outside" of itself that serves as its only law of (de)constitution; a belonging to nothing but belonging itself. Theory must learn to forget theory, or rather to acknowledge impute to an always foundational forgetfulness a new breath of will.

Theories are necessary (the theories of language, for example): necessary and useless. Reason works in order to wear itself out, by organizing itself into systems, seeking a positive knowledge where it can posit itself, pose and repose and at the same time convey itself to an extremity which forms a stop and closure. We must pass by way of this knowledge and forget it...Forgetfulness is a practice...The theoretical battle, even if it is waged against some form of violence, is always the violence of an incomprehension; let us not be stopped short by the partial, simplifying, reductive character of comprehension itself. This partialness is characteristic of the theoretical: "with hammer blows," Nietzsche said. But this hammering is not only the clash of arms. (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 75-76)

Is there any sense in which Blanchot's "disaster" can be read as "theory," even if the meaning of "the disaster" can only be ceaselessly approached as inadequate (and excessive) description--or even as multiple, heterogeneous, and ultimately inaccessible in itself? What if, using Blanchot’s words, theory could be said to "unwork" itself, from a place radically "outside" its own being--"theory" as a "worklessness" (déseouvrement) without present or presence. In other words, perhaps theory really has no need for theory. Perhaps there is no "need" at all, at least not one that could ever be said to belong properly to anything--"theory," for instance. Theory is inadequate, exhausted from the beginning. And yet no step is possible without theory. Isn't theory also in some sense motivated by its own insufficiency, by the fact that no theory by itself can exhaust the meaning of, for example, a poem, or a work of 'literature'? Is "theory" always reactive--a reaction to something (but not something) that can only be described, perhaps by words such as "silent murmuring" or "tacit intensity" (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 43)?

In any case, Blanchot's project is of course not a positive science portending to isolate its "object" of attention. Even his most didactic passages resist such temptation from the beginning, working back against themselves and into themselves until something that may have always been present only in absence emerges.

Despite the volume and difficulty of Blanchot's work, a recurrent movement of thought, albeit with some risk, can be traced throughout. Blanchot, no more than Heidegger, does not attempt to write about language. Language is rather, as it were, doubled back upon itself to let speak, not a discourse about anything, but the 'essence' of language itself--though it must be added that 'inessentiality' is the most prominent trait of this 'essence'. (Clark, 66-67)

Similarly, it may not be possible to write "about" Blanchot if one wishes to remain faithful to his thought, however difficult this may be--or rather precisely as this remains what is most difficult. After all, there may be only a relatively small number of people who can be said to have succeeded in reading Blanchot faithfully. Which is perhaps to say: attempted to read his silences, without portending to expose their secrets but rather by disclosing certain secrets, opening them up--in another language made possible. That is, by affirming his thought in a movement of extreme risk that does not merely repeat it but remains most close even while it honors distance and even turns away.

If Blanchot’s “theory” is obsessed with its own infinite inadequacy, yet unable to abandon responding to a certain enigmatic promise--perhaps a promise, in some brutal and never-to-be-realized sense, of freedom, of a will to knowledge, of death and of love--it does so in a manner that cannot ever be reduced to formulas, psychoanalytic or otherwise, that would still depend upon a conception of the subject as sovereign, or even as sovereignly divided.
Perhaps a writer cannot ever be approached psychoanalytically, unless she is approached as a subject and not as a writer. Even then, as always, there would still be the necessity for risk, even for a kind of daily sacrifice in a very existentialist sense. As Blanchot mentions in a parenthesis--although one that might not be entirely lacking in a certain (perhaps well-earned?) defensiveness:

According to psychoanalytic vocabulary (which, I believe, only those who practice psychoanalysis can use--only those, that is, for whom analysis is a risk, an extreme danger, a daily test--for otherwise it is only the convenient language of an established culture)...(The Writing of the Disaster, 67)

This resistance to psychoanalytic language is, again, one Blanchot might be said to share with Derrida, for precisely this reason.

Appearing several times in The Writing of the Disaster, the word "theory" is often invoked derisively:

Knowledge becomes finer and lighter only at the outer edges, when truth no longer constitutes the principle to which it must finally submit...In the knowledge which must always free itself from knowledge, there is none prior; nor does this knowledge succeed itself, and there is thus no presence of knowledge either. Do not apply knowledge; do not repeat it. Enough of theory which wields and organizes knowledge. Here space opens to “fictive theory,” and theory, through fiction, comes into danger of dying. You theoreticians, know that you are mortal, and that theory is already death in you. Know this, be acquainted with your companion. Perhaps it is true that “without theorizing, you would never take a step forward,” but this step is one more step toward the abyss of truth. Thence rises the silent murmuring, the tacit intensity.
When the domination of truth ceases--that is, when the reference to the true-false dichotomy (and to the union of the two) no longer holds sway, not even as the task of a language yet to come--then knowledge continues to seek itself and to seek to inscribe itself, but in an other space where there is no longer any direction. When knowledge is no longer a knowledge of truth, it is then that knowledge starts: a knowledge that burns thought, like the knowledge of infinite patience. (The Writing of the Disaster, 42-43)

The unique ignorance or forgetting of 'fiction' disrupts the systemic blindness of theory, revitalizing a movement always in danger of becoming merely dogmatic or complacently repetitive; fiction is the condition of possibility for an unworking of knowledge that might be nothing less than the beginnings of true (non)knowledge. Fiction--or rather the act of writing itself--introduces into theory an element of "bad conscience."

It is one of the duties of our time to expose the writer to a sort of preliminary shame. He has to have a bad conscience, he has to feel at fault before he does anything. As soon as he starts to write, he hears himself joyfully exclaim: Well, now you are lost. Should I stop, then? No, if you stop, you are lost." Thus speaks the devil, who also spoke to Goethe and made him that impersonal being, as soon as his life beyond himself began, powerless to fail because this supreme power had been taken from him. The force of the devil is that very different instances speak in his voice, so that one never knows what "You are lost" means. Sometimes is is the world, the world of daily life, the necessity of action, the law of work, the anxiety of people, the search for necessities. To speak when the world is perishing can awaken in the speaker only the suspicion of his own frivolity, the desire, at least, to bring himself closer, by his words, to the gravity of the moment by uttering useless, true, and simple words. "You are lost" means: "You speak without necessity, to distract you from necessity; vain speech, fatuous and guilty; speech of luxury and indigence." "So I should stop!" "No, if you stop, you are lost." (Blanchot, The Book to Come, 32)

Might "Fictive theory" then also be perceived as something close to poetry, if poetry is understood, in its relation to philosophy, as a certain form of anarchy?

Blanchot's thought seems to be this: there is poetry after Auschwitz, and also philosophy, but it is no longer possible for these things to go on in good conscience. Of course poetry (since Plato's time a discourse of survival) is interminable, incessant; that is, thinking of poetry in terms of its place in the history of philosophy, Blanchot has always understood it (as he has understood everything else, perhaps himself as well) in bad conscience. Bad conscience, just to summarize, is internal to the exigency of writing. The question is whether philosophy could ever respond to this exigency, becoming, in effect, anarchic ("without intentions, without aims, without the protective mask of the character of beholding itself in the mirror of the world, reassured and posing. Without name, without situation, without titles.") This question is Blanchot's provocation, or perhaps his gift, to philosophy. (Bruns, Maurice Blanchot and the Refusal of Philosophy, 264-265)

Blanchot's thought, in its indebtedness to Heidegger, still may resist Heidegger's conception of a pure originary moment of language or Being as pre-ontological 'Dasein.' And so Blanchot might in fact be a "theorist" after all, if theory is understood as ultimately providing ground that ultimately is neither stable, nor ever unstable in quite the same way.
Such phrases may risk a numbing circularity--is Blanchot a theorist only if "theory" means "his theory?" Or when "disaster" can be approached as "theory?"--and this is undoubtedly only part of the problem in approaching Blanchot at all, especially under the pretense of having something to say. (Or, even worse, assuming an ability to say it all--to encapsulate what Blanchot has made one feel by reducing it to a petty manipulation of another's words, another’s capability within language, willing itself in relation to an ‘outside’ that will forever have been...disastrous.)

n.b.: This post is responding in some form to others elsewhere.

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