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Yale French Studies, No. 69, The Lesson of Paul de Man (1985), 267-275.
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ANDRZEJ W ARMINSKI
Dreadful Reading: Blanchot on Hegel
No rereading of Blanchot in the 1980s can take place without coming up against what a fragment from "Fragmentaire" calls "the dread of reading" (l'angoisse de lire): "The dread of reading: it is that every text, no matter how important and how interesting it may be (and the more it gives the impression of being so), is empty-it does not exist at bottom (il n' existe pas dans Ie fond); it is necessary to clear an abyss, and if you don't jump, you don't understand. "I If in order to understand (reading and the dread proper to it) we have to clear the abyss of the text's essential non-existence, it may be good to know what this non-existence comes down to. Rather than proceeding directly to the text of Blanchot and its non-existence-and thereby risking too immediate an answer to the question of (the existence or non-existence of) his text-we would take a detour and begin by way of the question of reading: as a pretext, then, Blanchot's reading of Hegel, in particular the Phenomenology of Spirit-an apparently existent text if there ever was one. Another fragment from "Fragmentaire" provides us with something like a kit for rereading Hegel through Blanchot: "One cannot 'read' Hegel except by not reading him. To read him, not to read him, to understand him, to misunderstand him, to refuse him, falls under the decision of Hegel, or it does not take place. Only the intensity of this non-place, in the impossibility that there be one, disposes us for a deathdeath of reading, death of writing-that leaves Hegel living, in the imposture of the finished Sense. (Hegel is the impostor, that is what renders him invincible, crazy for his gravity (fou de son serieux), counterfeiter of Truth.)" On the one hand, this fragment formulates the dread of the reader in the face of Hegel's System: whether you read Hegel or do not read him, you'll regret it because in either case you will have been read by Hegel. That is, to read Hegel-the
This paper was delivered at a Special Session (URe-reading Blanchot in the 1980s") of the 1983 MLA convention in New York. It will appear as an Epilogue to: Andrzej Warminski, Readings in Interpretation: Holderlin, Hegel, Heidegget (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). 1. Maurice Blanchot, "Fragmentaire," in A Bram Van Velde (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1975).
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Phenomenology of Spirit, for example-means to follow at a distance and immerse oneself in the dialectical movement of knowing's (das Wissen) examining itself as the philosophical observer who is both superfluous and necessary, who puts himself in by leaving himself out, the "we" of the text. In short, the reader of Hegel-objective genitive-inscribes himself, is already inscribed, in the Phenomenology as the book's own "we" and thereby becomes the reader of Hegel-subjective genitive-Hegel's own reader. But even not to read Hegel-to misunderstand him, to refuse him, etc.-falls under the decision of Hegel precisely to the extent that it defines and identifies itself as the refusal of, or in opposition to, Hegel, the System. That is, the refusal to read Hegel, like all (mere) negations, has a positive content-it is always the negation of something, in this case the negation of Hegel and therefore still belongs to him, Hegel's own negation. In short, the familiar work of determinate negation insures that reading or not reading Hegel will not make a difference. And yet, on the other hand-and this would have to be a third, other, hand since both one and two turned out to be the hands of Hegel-the writing of the fragment begins to make an imperceptible difference once we begin reading it. For the text gives us not only the difference between reading Hegel and its negation, but also the difference between reading and "reading"-in quotation marks. However we read this third, other, neuter (neither one, reading, nor the other, not reading) reading in quotation marks, it is clear that its difference is not easily masterable by a thought whose motor is determinate negation: for "reading"-in quotation marks-cannot be thought as the negation (of reading or not reading), it can only be ... read. Whatever else it does, such a reading opens up a space for the reading of this fragment and a rewriting of its terms differently, otherwise. For one thing, we can now read the "or" in "or it does not take place" (ou cela n'a pas lieu) as meaning not "in other words" but "on the other hand." That is, a reading of Hegel that would not fall under the decision of Hegel would have to be one that did not take place-but in a sense of not taking place different from, other than, the opposition to take place/not to take place. In other words, it would be an other not taking place that is not the negation of taking place-an other negative. It is such an other negative that the fragment introduces by taking advantage of the French idiomatic expression "avoir lieu" (to take place, to happen) to create a non-place (nonlieu) which is not the negation of place-a space in which the reading of Hegel in quotation marks (neither reading nor not reading) can take place without taking place. It is necessarily impossible that there be such a non-place, for its space (and time) would necessarily be other than that of any dialectical (or onto-) logic. So: a non-happening is turned into an impossible non-place where we are supposed to read, Hegel, in quotation marks-a reading that makes necessary a rewriting of both the "we" and "death" in a different sense, in a sense different from the "finished Sense" (Sens acheve) of Hegel. Small wonder, then, that reading-Hegel, for example-is dreadful, for it comes up against a Nothing that does not turn over into Being (nor does it reveal and
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conceal Being) but rather rereads and rewrites Nothing. (This is perhaps how we should read Hegel's "invincibility." As another fragment from "Fragmentaire" puts it: "The correct critique of the System does not consist of catching it in error (as one often delights in doing) or in the interpreting it as insufficient (this happens even to Heidegger) but of rendering it invincible, uncritiquable, or, as one says, "un-get-around-able." Thus, nothing escaping its omnipresent unity and re-collection of everything, no more place remains for fragmentary writing (il nereste plus de place a I'ecritute fragmentaire) except to disengage as the necessary impossible isau] a se degaget comme le tiecessaire impossible): that which therefore writes itself in the name of the time outside time, in a suspension that, unreservedly (sans retenue), breaks the seal of the unity, precisely in not breaking it, but in leaving it to the side (de cote) without one's being able to know it." In other words, the third, other, neuter reading of Hegel is not a dialectical trick-like, say, Hegel's critique of what he calls the bad infinity (an infinity that does not include finitude is finite, limited by the finitude it does not include) or of "absolute difference" (an absolute difference is different from everything, including itself, difference, and therefore turns over into absolute identity)-rendering the System invincible in order to demonstrate that its invincibility is limited by its not containing "vincibility" but rather a rewriting of its seal of invincibility elsewhere, otherwise, on the side.)
Such a rewriting of Hegel's negative in another place, to the side, is what takes place in Blanchot's readings of Hegel in the 1940s-in particular "La Iitterature et le droit a la mort"2-and what accounts for their peculiar "distance" from the text of the Phenomenology as formulated in the essay's first footnote: "It should be understood that the remarks which follow are quite remote (fort lOin) from the text of the Phenomenology and make no attempt to illuminate (eciairer) it." If we remember this footnote, we will not make the mistake of charging Blanchot with having taken out of context and mixed up specific moments of different dialectics in the Phenomenology: the attempt is not to explain Hegel but to rewrite him in an other place. But it is also no answer to dismiss this rewriting as Blanchot's flippant "tendency to allegorize philosophical texts as parables of writing," for the question remains: what does such allegorization mean and do to the reading of the Phenomenology! In order to determine the other place, to the side, in which moments of the Phenomenologyas diverse as Hegel's remarks on death in the Preface, the dialectics of work, of universal freedom and Terror, the unhappy consciousness, master and slave, etc. can all be read as though on the same level and rewritten into parables of writing, we will begin with Blanchot's rewriting of Hegel on (the) work and Hegel on death: what takes place (and where), what difference does it make, when work and death are read as writing? In regard to work, an immediate answer would be: nothing takes place, it makes no difference, for here Blanchot's essay seems to follow Hegel quite closely. Just as in the Phe-
2. Maurice Blanchet, La Part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949).
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nomenology the individual (das Individuum) who is going to take action finds himself "in a circle in which each moment already presupposes the other"that is, he can know the end or goal (Zweck) of his action only from the act but he can act only if he already has that end or goal-so in Blanchot's essay the writer finds himself in a double bind: "He has no talent until he has written, but he needs talent in order to write (Il n'a du talent qu'aptes avoir ecrit, mais illui en faut pour ecrire)." And yet substituting "writer" for "individual" here makes all the difference to the resolution of the double bind, to how one breaks the circle and begins to take action or to write. For the individual, there is an immediate way out, indeed, immediacy is the way out: "The individual who is going to act seems, therefore, to find himself in a circle in which each moment already presupposes the other, and thus he seems unable to find a beginning, because he only gets to know his original nature, which must be his End (Zweck), from the deed, while, in order to act, he must have that End beforehand. But for that very reason he has to start immediately (unmittelbar), and, whatever the circumstances, without further scruples about beginning, means (Mittel), or End, proceed to action; for his essence and intrinsic nature (ansichseiende Natur) is beginning, means, and End, all in one."3 That is, as Hegel continues, the beginning is provided by the given circumstances (vorgefundene Uinstandes in which the individual finds himself-this is the "in itself" (an sich) of the individual-the end is the "interest" (Interesse) that the individual posits (setzt) for himself-this is the "for itself," das seinige, of the individual-and the union and sublation of this opposition (die Verkniipfung und Aufhebung dieses Gegensatzes) is the means (Mittel). In short, taking immediate (unmittelbar) action is the means (Mittel) that mediate between the individual's circumstances and interest, what it finds and what it posits, in itself (an sich) and for itself ifiir sich), immediacy and mediation. But then what about the writer? Can he break the circle by beginning to write immediately? The writer's circumstances, his given in itself, are that he cannot write until he has written, i.e., that he is not a writer before he has written, but that once he has written he is no longer writing, i.e., that he is not a writer after he has written: he is always not yet and always no longer a writer writing. (As Apses coup puts it: "Du 'ne pas encore' au 'ne plus,' tel serait Ie parcours de ce qu'on nomme I'ecrivain ... ") The writer's interest-the end or goal he posits for himself-is to be a writer, and this interest cannot be mediated with the circumstances of his always not yet and always no longer being a writer because the means are lacking. That is, the writer's only means are writing, but writing is not a means, it does not take place immediately, here and now, but always in a different place and a deferred time-not yet, no longer, suspended, interrupted. In short, there is no such thing as beginning to write immediately-writing neither begins nor ends-and hence the writer takes a different
3. G. W. F. Hegel, Phiinomenologie des Geistes (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1952), 288. English translation by A. V. Miller: Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977),240.
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way out: he writes (the means) the impossibility (the circumstances) of being (the interest) a writer: a non-synthesis, a non-action, exterior to itself. And yet if writing "must be recognized as the highest form of work"-as Blanchot's essay puts it-then its conditions would necessarily be, on the one hand, the conditions of possibility of all work and, on the other hand, the conditions of impossibility of all work in that the condition of writing is the unmediatability of beginnings and ends, circumstances and interest, immediacy and mediation, etc. Hence to substitute the work of the writer for the work of the individual would mean, in the case of the Phenomenology, to replace the order of presentation (Darstellung) by the order of that which makes the presentation possible-but which needs to be excluded because it also makes it impossible. A good example of the way writing functions as an excluded condition of possibility and impossibility for the work of dialectical mediation is a skit that dramatizes the critique of the immediacy claimed by the first figure of apparent knowing in Hegel's Phenomenology: sense-certainty.
The "work" of sense-certainty, what it claims as its truth, is the most immediate kind of apprehension of Being as "the this" under the double aspect of the "Now" and the "Here." After asking sense-certainty "what is the now?" and answering for example "the now is the night," the critique of sense-certainty tests its truth: "To test the truth of this sense-certainty, a simple experiment is sufficient. We write down this truth, a truth can't lose anything by being written down, much less can it lose anything from our preserving it. If we look again at this written down truth now, this noon, we shall have to say that it has become stale."4 Now the critique of sense-certainty's truth hardly requires comment: instead of an immediate, particular now, sense-certainty, as soon as it says anything, is able to say only a mediated, universal now that is indifferent to the particularity of night and day. But more interesting for our purposes here is the work of writing that allows the critique to take place: that is, in spite of the fact that neither sense-certainty nor we can sayan immediate, particular, self-identical Now (or Here), our critique of that Now depends on another self-identical Now (and Here), a self-simultaneous moment, in which we were able to read and compare "Now is the night" and "Now is the day." In other words, the very critique of sense-certainty's Now and Here requires another Now-a time of reading-and another Here-a place of writing: it requires, in short, this piece of paper on which I write this and this.s But, of course, this piece of paper on which I write and read this is not the particular piece of paper sewn into my copy of the Phenomenology and that I can see,
4. Hegel, Phiinomenologie, 81, English 60. Some other "exemplary" readings of Hegel: Andrzej Warminski, "Reading for Example: 'Sense-certainty' in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit," Diacritics [Summer 1981), "Pre-positional By-play," Glyph 3lBaltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), and "Reading Parentheses: Hegel by Heidegger," Genre XVI, Number 41Winter 1983), 389-403.
5. Our reading of "this piece of paper" crosses that of: Paul de Man, "Hypogram and Inscription: Michael Riffaterre's Poetics of Reading," Diacritics [Winter 1981).
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touch, smell, and taste. It is also not the particular piece of manuscript paper preserved in the Hegel archives in Bochum on which Hegel wrote "Now is the day" and "Now is the night" and compared them. To identify it with that piece of paper would be to fall back into the position of sense-certainty: the Now of reading and of writing is not one we can see, it can only be written and read. This does not mean that we are talking about an ideal, universal piece of paper, as it were. No, this piece of paper on which I write "Now is the day" and "Now is the night" and read them is the material condition of possibility of the opposition between particular and universal. It is neither the particular, immediate, phenomenal piece of paper available to the senses nor the universal, mediated, intelligible piece of paper available to the mind, but other: a piece of paper that exists in the here and now of writing and reading. It is a piece of paper conditioned by the materiality (as distinguished from phenomenality) of reading and writing. And the necessary exclusion of this conditioning materiality from Hegel's construction and critique of sense-certainty's phenomenality is readable in the text's suppression of the act of reading: when we come back to sense-certainty now, this noon, with the piece of paper on which we had written "Now is the night," we do not read it, says the text, but rather look at it (sehen ... wiedet an)-when it is only reading the inscription that will allow us to compare night and day. This switch from reading to looking-from the materiality of the text to the phenomenality of the book, from something that can only be written or read to something that can be the object of a consciousness's knowledge-is a necessary condition of the Phenomenology, what allows it to begin and end by mediating beginning and end. For in order to begin, Hegel, like the individual, has to begin immediately with the given circumstances of immediate knowing and the posited end-absolute knowing, the absolute-a standard against which he can measure all too immediate forms of knowing. But to do so he has to forget the means-writing: the material fact that the Absolute in order to be, i.e., to become, has to have been not presupposed and posited (nor, as Heidegger would have it, dis-concealed) but written. In short, in order to begin Hegel has to forget the material fact that he has already begun in a way he should not have, in a way that makes all beginning (and all ending) impossible: with an inscription of the Absolute, here and now, i.e., somewhere and sometime else. Without such forgetting the work of the Phenomenology would become the impossible work of writing-always not yet and always no longer written. That is, the impossibility of writing the Phenomenology would become readable: the presentation (Darstellung) of the Phenomenology is possible, its writing, no, the writing of a text is possible, the writing of a work (like the Phenomenology), no. The writing of the text takes place elsewhere in a non-place written by a "Hegel"-in quotation markswho could not, did not, write the Phenomenology of Spirit-a Hegel more like a Nietzsche or a Blanchot. This would be one way to read the non-existence of the text-the Phenomenology, for example-at bottom. (It would also be one way of justifying Blanchot's taking different moments of different dialectics
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out of context and rewriting them as though they were on the "same level": they are on the same level, for his reading takes place on the level of the text, the space and time not of the dialectical presentation [Darstellung], but the other space and time of the writing (and reading) of the text.)
1£ Blanchot's reading of work as writing makes work impossible (and yet is its condition of possibility), then death read as writing makes death impossible (and yet is its condition of possibility). It is important to distinguish this death without death-language, literature, writing, the word, as the "life that endures death and maintains itself in it" (das Leben ... das ibn ertriigt und in ibm sich erhiilt), a phrase that is rewritten several times in "Literature and the Right to Death"-from the deaths of Hegel. In the "Introduction" to the Phenomenology Hegel himself distinguishes between two deaths: that of natural life and that of consciousness. What is limited to a natural life (natiirliches Leben), he says, cannot by itself go beyond its immediate existence, but it is driven out beyond it by something else, and this something else is its death. Consciousness, however, is driven out beyond its immediate existence by a violence it suffers at its own hands: that is, because it is its own concept (Begriff), because it carries its own standard (of the truth of knowing: the Absolute) within itself, it is constantly dissatisfied with its immediate existence. In short, consciousness is always also self-consciousness, it carries its own death within itself. And this necessary condition of consciousness-the fact that it can and has to make its own death an object of (self-)consciousness-is what distinguishes it from mere "natural life." A cat squashed by a truck does not die, properly speaking; its "natural life" is, as it were, extinguished. But unlike the cat, consciousness can die because it can know its own death, it can represent its own death to itself-indeed, such self-representation is the "truth" of consciousness, i.e., self-consciousness. In other words, a condition of consciousness is its having to represent its own death to itself, but such representation is not possible without a subterfuge, as Bataille would put it: in order to be "we," we have to die while watching ourselves die. We require a spectacle, theater, sacrifice, a comedy in which we can represent our own death to ourselves and survive it. But Blanchot recognizes that this comedy of sacrifice-identifying our own death, ourselves, in the extinguishment of a cat, say-is a linguistic operation, a matter of (impossible) signification rather than representation, since death is not a something (or a nothing) that can ever become an object of consciousness's knowing, just as I cannot experience death, I can only name it, impose a sense on it (by catachresis, say), give it a face, eyes, and a point of view (by prosopopoeia, as Hegel does when he speaks of looking into the face (Angesicht) of death). In order to bring death into the world, we (in order to be "we") bring death into the word. And from the point of view of what Blanchot calls everyday language, the word "death," like all words, works-by negation: " ... for a moment everyday language is right, in that even if the word excludes the existence of what it designates, it still refers to it through the thing's nonexistence, which has become its essence. To name
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the cat is, if you like, to make it into a non-cat, a cat that has ceased to exist, has ceased to be a living cat, but this does not mean one is making it into a dog, or even a non-dog. "6 Death, in the word, works all right, but, what Blanchot calls literary language, observes that "the word cat is not only the nonexistence of the cat, but a nonexistence made word, that is, a completely determined and objective reality. " In other words, the word "cat " gives us not only the non -cat, the cat in his non-existence, but also the word cat, just as the word death gives us not only a non-death, the negation of death that we can put to work in the world, but also an other death in its determinate and objective reality-a linguistic death, the death of the word. And this third, other death-the death without death-falls completely out of the grasp of a consciousness or a self or a subject. When I say "I die" I suffer the death of the impossibility of dying: on the one hand, saying "I die" is the condition of possibility of any "I" whatsoever; on the other hand, "I die" is not anything that can be said by an "I" since death can have no, is no, subject. At most, I can say "I dies"-in other words, I can never say my own death, I can only write (or read) it as the death of an other "I," a linguistic, grammatical subject, someone or something else's. In short, in order to be an "I," I have to say "I die" while forgetting that I could never have said it-that in sayingitl turn myself into the "I" and say "Idies"while forgetting that I could only have written it and thereby had dispossessed myself of my "I" and my own death (death as negation) forever. (So: just as writing was the condition of (im)possibility of the work, so writing is the condition of (im)possibility of death.)
Blanchot's reading of work and death in Hegel as writing is particularly helpful for a rereading of the famous passage in the Preface of the Phenomenology quoted repeatedly in "Literature and the Right to Death" and the master/slave dialectic-one place where work and death are explicitly conjoined-to which that passage points. "The life of Spirit," writes Hegel, "is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it." In the struggle for selfrecognition, it would seem to be the master who looks death in the face, who is willing to risk death for the sake of recognition, whereas the slave becomes the slave because he shrinks from death, is not willing to risk his life. But, of course, the master's "victory" is already his loss, for the death he faces is only natural death and the life he risks is only "natural life." That is, the master is willing to give up his life in its immediacy, but because he is willing to give up this immediacy too immediately, he falls back into an immediate relation to nature: that is, the slave now satisfies immediately the master's merely appetitive, natural needs, and the master does not have to work to satisfy them, he does not have to exercise his freedom on nature by appropriating it. It is the slave who, precisely because he was afraid of natural death, because he was not
6. Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, N.Y.: Stationhill Press, 1981), 44.
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willing to give up his natural life, it is the slave who looks the death of consciousness in the face: he give his death a name and a face-master death-and thereby appropriates, masters, death by working nature, putting (natural) death to work. This is a familiar dialectic. Blanchot's supplementary insight consists in noting that the slave's very first work-giving voice to his dumb (stumm) absolute fear of death, naming death as his own negation-brings into the world still another, third, neuter death, whose excess can never be recovered by the work of (determinate) negation. It is thanks to this excess of death-death as written (and read)-that the System works like an invincible impostor. 7
7. Blanchot's supplementary insight would require an extensive rereading of the master/slave dialectic. We have sketched only the barest outline of a beginning here.
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