Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Worklessness of Literature: Blanchot, Hegel, and the Ambiguity of the Poetic Word

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Worklessness of Literature: Blanchot, Hegel, and the Ambiguity of the Poetic Word

Article excerpt

Although there is much scholarship on Maurice Blanchot's relationship to his contemporaries on the French intellectual scene, substantially less has been made of his debts to the German philosophical heritage in general, and to G. W. F. Hegel in particular. Commentators as diverse as Gerald Bruns and David Krell recognize that Blanchot invokes a Hegelian idiom to elucidate important aspects of his theory of literature in the essay "Literature and the Right to Death.'" Yet, scholars have not taken enough stock of Blanchot's reliance upon Hegelian resources to develop one of his most provocative (and difficult) claims, namely, that our encounters with literature culminate in a certain liminal, and, perhaps also, limit experience of worklessness (désoeuvrement).2 I maintain that Blanchot's association of literature with worklessness comprises a direct, if somewhat tacit, refusal of Hegel's determination of art as a work of spirit. As I wish to show, Blanchot's critical relation to Hegel sheds new light not only on Blanchot's conception of literature and related themes of language, but also on his view of the significance of literature as a powerful and elusive force of resistance to hegemonic and ideological programs of many kinds. Although Blanchot's approach suggests that this resistance emerges from the finitude of literary expression, it nonetheless points to a superabundance of semantic possibility and play.

The Resistances of Literature

What is the significance of Blanchot's approach to literature? Certainly, Blanchot's association of literature with désoeuvrement might have misled some to suppose that the stakes are not so great. Translators of Blanchot and other recent French intellectuals who focus on the word désoeuvrement often put it into English as "worklessness," though sometimes also "unworking," or even as "inoperativity." These are translations, no doubt, that stretch customary English vocabulary and usage a littie bit. Nonetheless, they offer intimations of Blanchot's proposal that literature is antithetical to all hard and fast definitions that associate it with some oeuvre, some overtly positive, actual effectiveness-some actual workwhether it be philosophical, political, or aesthetic. The broader contours of Blanchot's approach are born out just as pointedly, however, by the connotations of the French désoeuvrement, which refers to idleness, inactivity, or loafing. Of course, Blanchot does not recommend the worklessness of literature in order to point to its simple inconsequence or inertia, but, instead, to differentiate himself from those who would reduce the value of the poetic word to the work it accomplishes.

Indeed, the contours of Blanchot's conception of worklessness come most sharply into focus if we situate him both within current debates on the continent, and, of equal importance, within a certain effective history that may be traced back as far as the early German Romantics.

Blanchot's allegiances to the worklessness of literature may be seen first and foremost to place him in a critical relation to the proponents of "committed literature" in France after the war, and the conviction that writers and other artists are called upon to engage in political struggles of the present historical juncture. We recall that Blanchot's "Literature and the Right to Death" appeared in print not long after the publication of Jean-Paul Sartre's entreaty on behalf of the committed writer in What is Literature?3 True, Blanchot organizes his "Literature" essay not around the notion of the workless per se, but, instead, to that which he refers as the "highest" in literature, a certain irony that haunts the notion of work. As Paul Davies has shown, however, the treatment Blanchot's "Literature" essay gives to this "highest" in literature may be seen to form the horizon, or itinerary, for much of his further research on worklessness, and, moreover, to contain, in nuce, his conception of many of its principal features. …

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