How the sense of being entrapped or negated by society can be transformed and made productive is the focus of Maurice Blanchot in The Unavowable Community. A powerful thinker given to intentional difficulty and abstraction, the French philosopher – writing in the decades before his death in 2003 – poses the implicit question of how to endure in an increasingly media-filled, manipulated, and militarized society, a condition intensified of course by the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed.
In my last post, I explored how this question is engaged by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, with his often lyrical and tragicomic sense of existence. Blanchot also focuses on how to confront the prefabricated identity of the self particularly within what he sees as the deadly consumerist spectacle of contemporary life, and he suggests how our consciousness, passing through a sort of death of self, can gain an openness to potentiality and to the possibility of speaking truly rather than in our society's preformed words. He explains that a model of transfigured experience can be provided by the contact between lovers (as the philosopher Emile Levinas also proposes) and by works of art and particularly tragedy, for Blanchot as for Walter Benjamin (though not for Levinas).
Literature's capability is to voice the tragic demand that there is a world of potentiality within and beyond the sense of erasure enforced by the experience of continual crisis. This openness to a hidden, unstable, ambiguous potential for meaning is literature's negative capability, an intentional virtuality able to “yield everything” out of the nothingness which the condition of continual emergency enforces within and around us. It is literature's “tragic endeavor” to confront the death of self within a world in crisis and to open our perception to the continual flux of untrappable potentiality. The tragic model of literature – elucidated in his essay “Literature and the Right to Death” – can lead in this way toward “the coming community” or, as he names it in the title of his monograph, The Unavowable Community – unavowable in the language and world usurped by the spectacle of emergency powers.
Blanchot, like Agamben, identifies the consequences of a sovereign state's invocation of emergency – consequences of suffering and destruction to the individual and communal psyche, but also consequences involving the tragic yet celebrating consciousness alive in artworks. For the images and forms of artworks, with their Keatsian “negative capability,” can tap a source of unregulated potentiality, ambiguity, and finally of resistance and refusal. Art’s special power is that ironically its alternative imagining of “emergency powers,” with its answering response to the rule of crisis, is normally undetected by the powers that be.
This alternative consciousness is not so much messianic, altering the universe, as a form of what Benjamin called secondary or “weak” messianism (this idea is voiced in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” – as I discussed in my July 17 post). Agamben also affirms this connection, citing Benjamin's poignant and desperate 1938 description in the essay: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” What would be that small difference in the twenty-first century, with the spectacle of power moving continually in and out of a state of crisis? In Agamben’s abstract image, it is “the imperceptible trembling of the finite that makes its limits indeterminate;” this lyrical and idealistic formulation absorbs Benjamin's idea of a tragic receptivity and insists that the finite can here and now become the realm of potentiality. If this trembling and ambiguous fertility of possibility can infuse our consciousness, Agamben claims, it would subvert the paralyzing spectacle of crisis which dominates the present.
Blanchot makes similar use of Benjamin's “secondary messianism” and explicitly invests the aesthetic with its potential; its “little” difference is a version of literature's “autonomy,” its “dodging,” reworking, and subversive “unworking” (a term used also by Jean-Luc Nancy) of commodified relations and emergency regulations; these features of a sort of aestheticized rebellion – of risk-taking ‘artful dodgers’ – are reminiscent too of the qualities of Agamben’s amorphous tricksters and fakes. Blanchot proposes a transferring of aesthetic autonomy and “unworking” from the realm of art to that of life, resulting in a new network of human relations “not letting themselves be grasped, being as much the dissolution of the social fact as the stubborn obstinacy to reinvent the latter in a sovereignty the law cannot circumscribe.” Lovers and outcasts, writers and tragicomic fabricators – all can participate in the transience and evanescence of continual reinvention. The strategy of this resiliently ungraspable fictiveness of literature is central to Blanchot’s “unavowable community.”
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]