Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of two wonderful books on Blanchot (Blanchot’s Communism. Art, Philosophy, Politics and Blanchot’s Vigilance. Phenomenology, Literature, Ethics) and his peerless blog Spurious. Lars is also a regular contributor to RSB. Here, he kindly answers a few of my questions.
Mark Thwaite: You have written two books on Maurice Blanchot. Before we get into the particulars of those titles and their arguments, what is it that draws you to Blanchot rather than any other writer/philosopher?
Lars Iyer: I don’t know why I feel an affinity with Blanchot. Sometimes I think it is because he allowed me to articulate what I was already thinking; but at other times, I know that it was by reading his texts that I had the thoughts I had. A reading that calls for thinking and writing to be joined to one another in a new way, in a new practice. Until it is a matter of writing with Blanchot’s help rather than about him.
Of course the danger here is of passing over what is specific to his work – that, too, is important, and especially if we are to understand the legacy of what has been called ‘the great French Philosophy of the 60s’. But who is this ‘we’ that would be the subject of this understanding? I also like the idea of a hidden response to Blanchot’s work, without visible sign. What would this mean? That the relationship to Blanchot – and there are other thinkers like this: Kierkegaard, the Bataille of Inner Experience – is in some way secret, intimate but also transformative in a sense I will not hesitate to call spiritual.
MT: Blanchot’s Communism is a somewhat provocative title, cleaving as it does to a seemingly wholly discredited word. But I know it was a word Blanchot himself defended too. What, in essence, do you see as the transformative/utopian potential for philosophy that one can find in Blanchot's work?
LI: Is communism a wholly discredited word? It resurfaces in all sorts of interesting places. Blanchot was for a time involved in a collective journal, whose intention is to respond to the new demands of an increasingly internationalised world (decolonization, the transformation of means of communication, the accelerated circulation of signs …). In a dossier he circulated to contributors of a collective journal La Revue Internationale, of which only a single issue appeared, Blanchot notes the difference between that collective political responsibility for which Marxism is one name, and what he calls ‘literary responsibility’. The relationship between them, he says to his fellow writers, exists as a ‘problem’, and one to be ‘wrestled with’, even as each term ‘engages us absolutely’.
For Blanchot, communism is not simply that collective practice, working towards the transformation of the whole, which will lead him to various public political interventions, even an interview. Marx always maintained that communism is a mode of engagement with the present – with the infernal machine of capitalism – and not a utopia to come, he did not envisage it as Blanchot does, that is, in terms of the transformation of the notion of relation as it is at stake in certain practices of friendship, community and in a practice of writing that repeats this relation.
‘We absolutely do not know what man could be’, writes Blanchot in Friendship. How to keep this unknowing open – that is, not simply as the horizon in which politics is possible, but as what shatters this horizon? How to affirm the unknown by way of the opening wherein the Other is more than our image of the human, ‘close to death, close to the night’, as Blanchot will say?
Writing, a certain practice of writing, can also be, for Blanchot, a kind of testament to friendship, to community. Was this what Blanchot had in mind with his La Revue Internationale project, in his anonymous contributions to Comité in May 1968 and in other writings? Does this allow us to understand what Blanchot calls literary responsibility?
MT: Should we be worried about Blanchot's politics in the thirties? Even if we clear him of anti-Semitism, doesn't the fact that he wrote in such ultra-nationalist periodicals tarnish his early literary work? Doesn't his debt to the thought of Heidegger further problematise his potential as a progressive thinker?
LI: It’s easy for us to judge people of the past, knowing as we do what will happen in their future. We must remind ourselves of their blindness lest we slip into a blindness of our own. It is worth remembering Blanchot's responses in the 1980s and 90s to those who would indict him for his early journalism. 'You know my principle. Let each express himself according to his own responsibility', he writes in a partially published letter to Roger Laporte, who had forwarded him documentation which suggested his affiliation to those anti-Semites whose articles appeared alongside his in extreme right-wing journals of the 1930s.
‘His own responsibility’: what does this mean in the case of Blanchot? Simply those texts he published since the 1930s and 40s, and even those récits and novels on which he worked on in that period. How different to Heidegger, who, blind to his own blindness, never refers to the Shoah, Blanchot notes, except in a revisionary way, or assimilating it to other symptoms of technics.
Blanchot would argue that Heidegger’s blindness is evident in his account of the history of being: the apocalypse is indicated in his readings of Heraclitus or Parmenides, of Hölderlin and Trakl. This does not mean they are to be discarded, but rethought, and according to what is, for him, the imperative of receiving another testimony within Western thought.
MT: Blanchot’s Vigilance brings our attention back again to that most important part of Blanchot's thought: his response to - and relationship with - the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Can you understand Blanchot fully without understanding that relationship? Are we in danger of losing Blanchot the literary critic if we overplay his ethics?
LI : I don’t think Blanchot's thought can be detached from that of Levinas - by this, I mean not only with respect to the relation to the Other, to Levinas's l'éthique (ethicity, the ethical) and his account of Judaism, but also to what both call the 'there is' [il y a].
Both Blanchot and Levinas are drawn to affirm what the latter calls existence without existence as a way of emphasising the difference, the differentiation of being as it outplays any attempt to bind it to a stable and enduring existence in the world. Blanchot does so as a literary writer, Levinas as a philosopher; Bataille, reflecting on this, will claim Blanchot cries the ‘there is’, whereas Levinas only makes it a theme of his philosophy. What an intriguing formulation! Bataille, I think, invites us to undertake the important task of tracing the development of Blanchot’s literary researches. What a pity Bataille never finished the book he intended to write on Blanchot!
Both Blanchot and Levinas affirm the importance of the relation (if this is the word) to the human Other, Autrui. It would appear to have something like a transcendental status for both thinkers – but a peculiar one, in that the Other is encountered after the fact. The status of the relation to the Other differs for each thinker, of course, and in a complex way.
Finally, there is Judaism, which testifies, for both thinkers, to the relation to the Other. Whenever he writes of Judaism, of Jewish themes, Blanchot will nearly always mention Levinas. The status of Blanchot’s understanding of Judaism nevertheless remains provocative. Does he void Judaism of all positive content? Either way, he presages the turn to reflection on the religious in contemporary philosophy as a way of thinking the ethical and the political (although the religious is now, voided of any otherworldly content).
I think for Blanchot, literary or writerly responsibility seems to redouble or repeat (in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word) the relation to the Other. If this is the case, then what Blanchot calls literature always has an ethical charge (though this has to be thought as l’éthique) and a political one (which has to be rigorously differentiated from all notions of Sartrean engaged literature). Perhaps it has a religious one, too.
MT: Is there going to be a third Blanchot book, from you, we can look forward to?
LI: Eventually, yes, but there's no hurry. The book will concern the status of the fragment for Blanchot. I am interested in exploring the philosophical stakes of his Revue Internationale project, and looking at the documents that he wrote on the occasion of de Gaulle's return to power in 1958 and against French colonial activity in Algeria.
MT: In the critical responses to your book, have you learned anything that would make you want to reassess or finesse your arguments? Have you been happy with the responses to your work?
LI: Blanchot is a figure around whom a lively scholarship has gathered, but who also seems to slip free of this scholarship. I wanted to resist those who sought to read Blanchot without politics, without ethics. I did so rashly, impatiently. At the same time, Blanchot is a thinker whose work, I think, calls for a kind of intimate or secret practice of reading. This is a much slower, more patient process, with few discernible results.
MT: It is Blanchot's critical work that tends to be lauded, rather than his fiction. Do you rate the fiction?
LI: For my part, I find the fiction astonishing. How much of his thought is already there in Thomas the Obscure! A literary research – what does that mean? I don’t think I’ve even begun to answer that question, which calls for infinite analyses (analyses begun in the fictions themselves). I always have a volume of Blanchot's fiction open somewhere! I think this is part of what I called a hidden relationship to Blanchot. Is there an intimacy that explodes the personal, or that reveals the personal to have been already so exploded and thereby having done having done with what Blanchot calls, commenting on Foucault, the ‘excessively determined unity’ of the self? An intimacy, a privacy, given in reading, in writing?
MT: Where should the uninitiated start with Blanchot?
LI: Anywhere! It was the play of clarity and opacity in his texts that fascinated me, and seem to fascinate others. I wonder what it means to be initiated with regard to Blanchot. Maurice Blanchot, by Ullrich Haase and William Large is the best introductory book on Blanchot’s writings, but I think its authors would agree that Blanchot’s own writing should precede everything else.
MT: What are you working on now? What is coming next?
LI: Nothing in particular. I would like to write on the philosophy of literature, of music (especially vernacular musics). Community, friendship, practices of writing: the same themes continue to interest me not simply because of Blanchot, or perhaps because he brought to the fore what seems missing or at least endangered in our time.
MT: What is the best book you have read recently? Who is your favourite writer/what is your favourite book?
MT: No favourites. There are books to which I return – Beckett, Kafka, Duras – and that I have never felt I have read. Recently, I’ve read Appelfeld, Sebald and Handke; there’s Josipovici, Lispector, Bernhard and many others. I admire Philip Goodchild's Capitalism and Religion – a real work of philosophy; Thomas Carl Wall's Radical Passivity is, like everything he writes, astonishing. William Large's Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas is very fine. Jill Marsden's After Nietzsche is a neglected classic.
MT: Has the internet changed the way that you read and write?
LI: It’s changed everything for me. There is the great democracy of blogging, where anyone can publish, and whatever they like. I began reading fiction again because of those affiliations, those friendships blogging allowed. Then I think there is a practice of writing that is a kind of ascesis, a disciplined paring away. A wonderful anonymity, particularly liberating for those constrained by the protocols of academic discourse. Perhaps this is the way in which communication or community might happen. How this is linked to a broader transformation – to the great work of engagement with the present is a much more difficult question. Here we run up again against the question of the relationship between literary and political responsibility.