Last week I participated in a workshop held in KTH – The Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm, entitled Dying at the Margins: A critical exploration of Material-Discursive Perspectives to Death and Dying. Various aspects of death, dying, missingness, the end of life, degeneration and regeneration, becoming and transformation of people, objects, places, and materials, were discussed from different interdisciplinary perspectives, notably environmental and ethnographic ones.
My paper (attached here below) dealt with dying and alterity in/as literature in Blanchot's thought, and was presented as an introduction to an audience that is not familiar with Blanchot's thought. Although parts of it are already incorporated in my article "For the Dead: The Hauntological Image in J. Littell's Une Vieille Histoire: Nouvelle Version," I do not consider the paper to be highly innovative, as its ideas were discussed in secondary literature, including some of the references mentioned in the paper.
The paper was meant to be read before the beginning of the workshop by the participants and discussed during the workshop, and I intended to say some words about it and about a research I want to begin – about the concept of community in the thinking of some writers (Blanchot included). But while I was commenting on a paper of another participant, I realized (or rather remembered) that there is a kind of dialectics, or shift in perspective in Blanchot's thought between what I now term the "not yet" and the "always-already", that is, between the story of creating a literary image, and the point of view of eternity, that is, of literature, in which the image had never been created, but is always-already there, presented as the ultimate reality.
The perspective of the "not yet" is that in which the story of creating an image is told (and may go like "once upon a time there was an object, and then it "died" or is "dying incessantly" in the process of writing, of making images, so that the corpse-image "resembles itself", redoubles in the process of becoming a literary image and of approaching the space of literature," etc.). The "not yet" mode is Achilles-like; it never reaches the "turtle", the bottom of the abyss of the literary space. Referents become images, and writing is described as an ongoing process, where everything is transformed, metamorphosed, dies in an endless dying.
Yet, there is also the mode of the always-already, in which the referent or the object are always-already "dead", meaning that they have never been alive in a world "outside" of literature – from the perspective of the eternal, swelling lack, this world of the "day" is swallowed by the space of literature prior to its birth. Perpetual dying is therefore ascribed to that which is always-already an image. The "break" from or interruption of reality have never occurred, as Blanchot points out via his terms "the incessant" and "disaster" ("which is outside history, but historically so", The Writing of the Disaster, 40), or his preference of "dying" over "death" (see ibid., 47-48). In these terms, an image is all there is, so that it eventually culminates in "no stories, never again" ("pas de récit") of Blanchot's "The Madness of the Day." If the mode of the "not yet" is that of the narrative, that of "always-already" is that of the fragment: torn, decentered, infinite. A residue.
But what may seem like a dichotomy between these two modes is in effect a simultaneity. Dying (of the "object", of the image), is perpetual; we have not yet arrived at the literary work although we are always-already there.
Death and the Other: Maurice Blanchot's Ethics of Literature
Heidegger’s ruminations about the idea of finitude and death have inspired the postmodern critique of contemporary culture, characterized by its "unstable ontologies" (Marchant, "Absence at the heart of presence," 18-20, 26).
Providing the basis for the theorization of alterity or the Other, Jacques Derrida’s term, “hauntology" aptly conveys the effect of alterity, absence, and silence on the incessant disruption of being or ontology, which “haunts” presence and makes being quiver (Loevlie, "Faith in the Ghosts of Literature," 336-337). Blanchot developed a concept of the image that relates to this haunting disruption of ontology and at the same time causes a breakdown in the concept of representation
In this presentation, I explain Blanchot's concept of the corpse-image, namely, of the image as a process of incessant "dying" – as the process of creation and writing. Viewed in terms of Blanchot’s “corpse-image,” an ethics of literature may emerge as a result of the space opened by the radical alterity of the remainder, the dead, the trace, that “haunts” being, unity and identity. An ethics of literature thus draws from and builds upon a repressed alterity, that of the waste, the corpse, the dissolution of the body and the subject, that is incompatible with conventional literature and morality.
According to semiotic theory, literary and artistic images or representations can only present objects and people rather than represent them mimetically. Referents or the actual things represented are absent or "dead," and therefore, Blanchot adds, images encompass the absence or "death" of referents, paradoxically becoming "the presence of an absence" (Blanchot, Space of Literature, 30, 33). "The symbol kills the thing," says Jacques Lacan, and Blanchot further elaborates on this idea:
A word may give me its meaning, but first it suppresses it. For me to be able to say, "This woman," I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being—the very fact that it does not exist. (Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death," 322)
Granting an uncanny and disconcerting effect, the image encompasses an object or a person in a ghost-like state, hovering between life and death, undead, or alive while dead. In Blanchot's The Space of Literature and in his novel Death Sentence, the image often coincides with a corpse, both metaphorically and literally: J., the woman in Death Sentence dies incessantly; she survives her first death only to die terminally a dramatic and almost vivacious death. The narrator describes her second death as follows: "even though she was incredibly beset by suffering, exhaustion and death, she seemed so alive to me that once again I was convinced that if she didn’t want it, and if I didn't want it, nothing would ever get the better of her." But then: "Two or three minutes later, her pulse became irregular, it beat violently, stopped, then began to beat again, heavily, only to stop again, this happened many times, finally it became extremely rapid and light, and 'scattered like sand'" (Blanchot, Death Sentence, 29-30).
Dying appears in this novel at two levels: at the level of the plot, it recounts the progress of J.'s mysterious disease and the vicissitudes of her dying and second death. At the narrative level, the novel "produces what it recounts" (Blanchot, The Book to Come, 7); that is, it produces an image that is—in Blanchot's aforementioned words—the presence of an absence, presenting the dissipation of the referent in the process of creating the obscure, ghostly image. In this respect, death and dying define the creation of images not (only) metaphorically. Although death is not meant to be concrete, natural, or criminal, it pertains to the very act of writing and to the process of creation. Blanchot's literary texts, e.g. Death Sentence and Thomas the Obscure, perform what they describe, namely, these texts describe the very process of creating images.
The image belongs, then, to the realm of “hauntology”: it does not represent reality, because the artist’s gaze already discerns how reality disintegrates; how it dissolves and becomes an image. Referring to the "putting to death of representation by the transformation of the body into image," Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier explains that rather than maintaining "the reassuring distinction between the thing gazed upon and its esthetic elaboration,", that is, rather than representing the referent, the gaze of the artist already finds in reality reality's own shadow, reality's own ghostly double (Ropars-Wuilleumier, "On Unworking," 139). Thus, it is "no longer possible to tell the double from the real" (140), for reality becomes its own shadow, it becomes perforated and haunted by the artist’s or writer’s gaze.
Further, not only the image but the writer or narrative voice too becomes its own double: viz., an image, a pure resemblance without a solid "external" reference. The narrative voice, Blanchot argues, "always tends to absent itself in its bearer" (Blanchot, Infinite Conversation, 386, in "On Unworking," 141). The narrative voice, Blanchot adds, becomes impersonal, "neutral": it becomes its own double and thus giving voice to alterity. Indeed, Blanchot contends that the writer has to die in order to write, to become part of the continuous "work of death" that transforms reality into images (Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death," 338).
Moreover, this process of creating images, of writing (according to Blanchot, writing includes the production of images) has no beginning or end. Blanchot illustrates this by reference to Kafka: "if Kafka goes toward the power of dying through the work which he writes, the work itself is by implication an experience of death which he apparently has to have been through already is order to reach the work, and through the work, death" (Space of Literature, 93). Undoubtedly, for Blanchot, the writing process and the creation of images entail an incessant dying (see ibid. 140), and thus reside outside of our routine and mundane time. Such creative processes belong to an impossible, extemporal time that intervenes in our ordinary reality only via a paradoxical time of the future anterior or the "will have been." Reflecting about writers such as Kafka, Blanchot reminds us that whereas these artists might not yet be physically dead, they are always-already dead. In the same way, while the literary work might not have been completed yet, it is always-already there, rehearsed repeatedly in an endless circuit without beginning or end. Writing and the creation of images are therefore connected to dying, rather than to death. Representation is thus envisioned as a process of becoming by means of which an image participates in an unending process "in which nothing is accomplished" (ibid. 112). As noted above, this unending dying is similar to what happens to J., in Death Sentence, who always "dies more," incessantly dying again and again.
I now turn to analyze the way in which the image and writing as a process of infinite dying relate to alterity and open up an ethical dimension in literature.
Blanchot explicitly connects between death and the Other. Writing about the death of the Other, he argues that it is "a double death, for the Other is death already" (Blanchot, Writing of the Disaster, 19). The Other is equivalent to death, because the image as a ghostly double is the disappearing, dying referent. This, however, is not the only reason for the equation between death and the Other. Blanchot follows Levinas (and even goes much further than him) in regarding the Other as "the separate, the Most-High which escapes my power" (ibid.) Like Levinas, Blanchot ascribes to the subject an infinite responsibility for the Other, who weighs down upon the subject, decenters and deprives the subject from selfhood. The Other to which I – an I bereft of selfhood – must answer has a powerless power over me, the weakness of death which dispossesses me too from any power and lacerates my subjectivity (17-20). Encompassing alterity, literature for Blanchot has the powerless power on readers to obsess, interrupt and decenter.
Further, when creative writing frees images from their mimetic function, it also extricates literature from its subordination to meaning and from the possession of knowledge and understanding. Typically, according to the order of language, we assume that images represent an external, non-artistic reality which serves to make inferences about their referential meaning, and then, equipped with that kind of inferential knowledge, we interpret the images or use them for our own purposes in producing new propositions. Blanchot's break with representation releases the literary image from its use-value, its meaning, and its possession by a knowing subject. Blanchot writes:
In the world things are transformed into objects in order to be grasped, utilized, made more certain in the distinct rigor of their limits and the affirmation of a homogenous and divisible space. But in imaginary space things are transformed into that which cannot be grasped. Out of use, beyond wear, they are not in our possession but are the movement of dispossession which releases us both from them and from ourselves. (Space of Literature, 141)
"Out of use, beyond wear," the literary image as endless dying and transformation, thereby resides beyond utility, meaning and understanding. It is characterized by a "pure expenditure in which our life is sacrificed—and not in view of any result, in order to conquer or acquire, but for nothing" (145). Literature is created "for nothing:" for no purposeful end. Here, I believe, the ethical significance of the corpse-image is revealed, for the corpse is a rejected leftover which has no purpose or use, and thus it embodies alterity. The corpse and the corpse-image informing art and literature come from another time, a time "before the beginning" (244). As I already argued, this paradoxical time oscillates between the not yet and the always-already, and thus repeatedly comes back, haunts and disturbs. Due to the disintegration of the referent, the corpse-image is a trace: a sign of the very absence of a referent, of destabilizing presence and the body's disintegration and fading away.
For Blanchot, the literary image is a genderless neutral residue associated with the “il”—in English, “it,” or rather “they”—which stands outside the binary opposition of "he" or "she." The literary image is an absolute alterity, obscure and unintelligible, which insists and intervenes, fissuring every system and haunting identity, reality and presence (Taylor, Altarity, 231-232). Taylor explains, "the neuter is a 'third' that 'falls' between all binary opposites" (232). It is neither masculine nor feminine, it is "an excess that is a lack" (233), a too-much-being that is simultaneously a lack-of-being. The neuter or the residual corpse-image lacks a place and its non-place (non-lieu) is what opens up another space, the space of the Other (233). The neutral Other that is devoid of both space and name, Taylor adds, lays in its capacity to be named universally; its very anonymity escapes nomination and grants its singularity (234).
This alterity of the image – piercing being, ontology and identity and haunting them – is what renders literature ethical. The ethics of literature consists in its withdrawal from the world of efficiency towards expenditure and wastefulness, where the waste, the leftover and the trace that dismantle identity open a space for a singular unnamable alterity. Literature opens up a space for unprecedented voices, for voices never heard of, which are still to come in the process of their becoming. The silent or reverberating voices of the dead or the dying may then be heard.
Blanchot, Maurice. 2003 . The Book to Come. Trans. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford: Stanford UP.
Blanchot, Maurice. 1978 . Death Sentence. Trans. Lydia Davis, NY: Station Hill.
Blanchot, Maurice. 1995 . "Literature and the Right to Death." The Work of Fire. Trans. Lydia Davis, Stanford: Stanford UP, pp. 300-344.
Blanchot, Maurice. 1982 . The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: Nebraska UP.
Blanchot, Maurice. 1986 . The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: Nebraska UP.
Loevlie, Elisabeth M. 2013. "Faith in the Ghosts of Literature: Poetic Hauntology in Derrida, Blanchot and Morrison's Beloved." Religions 4, 336-350.
Marchant, Oliver. 2005. "The Absence at the Heart of Presence: Radical Democracy and the 'ontology of lack'." Tønder and Thomassen (eds.) Radical Democracy: Politics between Abundance and Lack, Manchester: Manchester UP.
Ropars-Wuilleumier, Marie-Claire. 1996. "On Unworking: The Image in Writing according to Blanchot." Carolyn Bailey Gill (ed.), Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing, London: Routledge.
Taylor, Mark C. 1987. Altarity, Chicago: Chicago UP.
 "Where I am alone, I am not there; no one is there, but the impersonal is: the outside, as that which prevents, precedes, and dissolves the possibility of any personal relation. Someone is the faceless third person, the They of which everybody and anybody is part, but who is part of it? Never anyone in particular, never you and I. Nobody is part of the They. "They" belongs to a region which cannot be brought to light, not because it hides some secret alien to any revelation or even because it is radically obscure, but because it transforms everything which has access to it, even light, into anonymous, impersonal being, the Nontrue, the Nonreal yet always there. The They is, in this respect, what appears up very close when someone dies." (Space of Literature, 31)