Richard, over at The Existence Machine, is reading Blanchot's The Space of Literature:

In his recent post "against science", Steve Mitchelmore writes of this tendency. He notes that Jonathan Gottschall's attempted "scientific" refutation of Barthes' notion of "the death of the author" "relies on a reduction of a complex essay to a 'statement'". Later in the post, Steve quotes at length from Blanchot's "The Essential Solitude" -- at length, he says, because:
Blanchot's writing - its unique and relentless patience - is performative rather than didactic. Neither information or wisdom is being imparted but, as Barthes says, it is writing "borne by a pure gesture of inscription" tracing "a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins".
Performative rather than didactic: I quote this in order to help myself keep this in mind. When I've spoken of my difficulty with these texts, I realize that this is the primary difficulty I've had. I want to force the text to teach me something, as an authority. I want it to impart information, for this is the mode of writing I have been accustomed to. But if Blanchot's writing is not giving me information, if it is performative, how do I approach it?

Readers Comments

  1. Chris Routledge Wednesday 28 May 2008

    The problem for me with this is in Stephen's use of the word 'performative', which is mistaken on several levels.

    Firstly, performatives are often instructive. For instance: "I name this ship Glenda" or "I promise to return the book". If the Sergeant Major orders the recruits to paint the coal white, he does so with a performative utterance, albeit an implicit one (he doesn't necessarily say 'I order you to ..', but it's implied). So performatives are also authoritative.

    And that brings me to the second issue, that Blanchot's 'performative' writing has 'no other origin than language itself'. The reason this is mistaken is partly in the etymology; by definition a performative must have an agent (Blanchot, in this case). But the authority of performatives depends also on felicity conditions: if the Sergeant Major's driver orders the recruits to paint the coal white it won't work out so well. So they are contextual in that sense too.

    Finally, performatives create the conditions for new 'real world' facts (the existence of a ship named Glenda, or the commitment to return a book). In other words they have consequences.

    Sorry to be the heretic again, but I don't think you need to worry on this count.

  2. FFS, I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps I should have written it is "a performance" rather than "a statement of facts from one who knows". Anyway, the word comes from the translation of Barthes' essay:

    "The fact is (or, it follows) that writing can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation, ‘depiction’ (as the Classics would say); rather, it designates exactly what linguists, referring to Oxford philosophy, call a performative - a rare verbal form (exclusively given in the first person and in the present tense) in which the enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered—something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets."

    Homer, Virgil - "mistaken on several levels".

  3. Chris Routledge Thursday 29 May 2008

    How old is this translation? It seems to have missed out on, or is ignoring, Speech Act Theory, so I guess 1960s or very early 1970s.

    Homer, Virgil, knew nothing of modern linguistics. Can't blame them for that.



  4. For me, SM’s post sums up exactly the way I read B., and what I take away from him. I’ve often tried to explain this particular experience to others, but never achieved the clarity and brevity of SM’s analysis here. Invariably someone would ask , as I waxed lyrical about B.: “So what is he actually *saying*?” And at that point I’d try to respond: “It isn’t what he’s saying that’s important; that’s missing the point. It’s what he’s doing with language; it’s the constant *potential* he develops, the categories and classifications he makes available to us. His essays give us a new way of using language, a new set of distinctions and method by which distinctions can be made -- in other words, a new way of producing meaning, a new way of experiencing the world about us.” In this sense, his essays are, at heart, *examples* of a method, and therefore, to my mind, they additionally satisfy a didactic function of sorts. But I quite agree that their crux is “performative” -- a word that makes clear both the ongoing contingency of B.’s statements, and the common, inexpressible origin that gives his writing its coherence.

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