The writing of the disaster seems like it can be approached on a number of fronts. I want to focus here on the question that Blanchot poses regarding presence, absence, anxiety and time. Blanchot calls the disaster that which “ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact” (Disaster 1). That is, the disaster destroys (makes absent) but leaves intact (allows presence to continue). It isn’t quite here, but it never quite leaves. “The disaster is separate; that which is most separate.” (Disaster 1).
Even while I find Blanchot to be interesting and challenging, I found it really difficult to talk about him without simply quoting or repeating what he writes. He’s too succinct. His thinking about the disaster and the disastrous seems impenetrable, to me, if it isn’t thought of in relation to something else. I’m not sure if this is a problem with me, and my thinking, or a problem with the thinking or writing of the disaster in general. I’m inclined to think the it’s both…
“To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it.” (Disaster 1)
The project of laying out precisely what the disaster is, point by point, or even describing it elliptically or negatively seems to imply that the disaster has, in some sense, arrived, or been made present. That’s the difficulty in discussing it: Blanchot wants it to remain between presence and absence, its more a ‘feeling’ or an anxious attempt to think an extra-metaphysics.
So instead of repeating Blanchot’s attempt by reading Blanchot qua Blanchot I’d like to give two examples which I think can be compared to the disaster. Whether I’m right about these examples is another question, but they at least help me to think about the disaster in different terms. Blanchot. First, I’m going to read Blanchot’s disaster into the work of Robert Smithson and his ideas about the ‘non-site’. This is an aesthetic concern. Then I’d like to revisit Derrida’s thoughts about revolution and the specter of revolution that he talked about in Specters of Marx. This is a political concern. Hopefully, by approaching Blanchot both aesthetically and politically, I’ll produce some sort of idea of what the disaster ‘is’ or how it works.
The first example is something that is dealt with in Derrida’s Specters of Marx. It is the anxious feeling or worry present in the liberal democratic world surrounding political revolution (Marxist or otherwise). While in communist countries the worry may be “Has the revolution really happened? Are we really the end of a dialectical process, or is there more?” in North America (for example) the worry is more like “Can the revolution happen here, again? What will the revolution bring?” Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man (based on a 1989 article), gives us one response to these questions: let’s not even ask them. Fukuyama sees the West precisely as the realization of the unfolding of Geist, in the most humdrum conception of that word. The revolutionary war, in the United States, or the French Revolution, in France just were the end of history; these pivotal events have paved the way for liberal democracy, free market economies, universal human rights, etc. But, for people like Derrida, Blanchot, and (I assume) anyone who is concerned about where we might be headed, the ontological status of the revolution remains haunting.
Derrida argues, as we’ve seen, that the past (the revolution at the heart of the West, or the failure of communism) is never quite completely passed. Rather, it remains, spectrally. We are always confronted, as Hamlet was, by the not-quite present ghost of the past: it calls out to us quite literally. In the West, we have attempted to erase the past by moving away from revolution: we have figured the revolution in purely theoretical or abstract terms. You can see this especially in the United States: the constitution is revered, even the origins of the flag have entered into an almost mythological awe (Betsy Ross is common grist for the fourth grade paper mill). Thus, we have attempted to take the real, visceral process of political revolution (the war, the violence, etc.) and made it into something easily presentable and digestible. Revolution has become ever present (through holidays, symbols like the flag and so on). Yet, it has also become absent: we no longer desire political revolution, the revolution has already happened, why would we want to revolt? Derrida is worried about this combination, it seems to me. He worries because it is denying legitimacy to the ‘hauntological’ specters that Derrida (through Marx and Hamlet) sees everywhere. I would argue that ignoring or de-legitimating these specters are ‘disastrous’.
Blanchot says “there is disaster only because, ceaselessly, it falls short of disaster.” (Disaster 41).
Thus, by not being attentive to our revolutionary past, or the possibility of a revolutionary future, disaster continually befalls our ‘present’. By rigorously enforcing our ontological/temporal categories, we ignore the in-between or the margin: those facets of the past or the future that put into question the division of time. As I quoted above: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving it intact.” (Disaster 1). Nothing is destroyed by the disaster (the West remains) yet, everything is lost: each day we ignore the spectral we live in a world that is devoid of a revolutionary future or past. So, through the disastrous, we are constantly destroying while leaving intact. The disaster thus doesn’t ‘occur’ in the sense of something that becomes present. Rather, as revolution in the liberal democratic world, the disaster always slips away from us:
when the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. The disaster is its imminence, but since the future, as we conceive of it in the order of lived time, belongs to the disaster, the disaster has always already withdrawn or dissuaded it; there is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment (Disaster 2).
That is the first example: the spectrality of the revolution (for us) is politically disastrous.
The second example involves a series of works by Robert Smithson’s that he calls nonsites. Smithson (who died in 1973) was an artist who might be classified as ‘conceptual’ in that he was interested in concepts. But, unlike a lot of conceptual artists, the concept wasn’t the end or the totality of Smithson’s work: he wasn’t simply a herald of the death of the object. He continued to ‘create’ objects in the traditional sense, but hoped to situate these objects in such a way as to question their object-hood. What I’m interested in here is a series of his works that he called ‘nonsites’ that, I think, question presence and absence, here and there, in exactly the same way that Blanchot’s ideas about the disaster do.
First, it might be useful to describe what exactly a nonsite is, and how Smithson thinks about them. Smithson states:
The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork) is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site… It is by this three dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it—thus The Non-Site. To understand the language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three dimensional picture which doesn’t look like a picture. … Between the actual site and The Non-Site there exists a space of metaphoric significance (Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites,” 364).
So, to engage in a little bit of empirical description, the nonsite is (generally) composed of a logical picture of an actual site: a real place in the world. Let us take Non-Site, Franklin, New Jersey (1968) as an example. There are two separate pieces that compose the ‘object’ which is placed within the gallery or museum. First, there are 5 trapezoidal boxes 16 ½ inches high and of varying dimensions in which are placed metallic ore and rubble extracted from the actual site itself. These trapezoidal boxes correspond to the second object, which is an aerial photograph also divided into five trapezoidal segments, of equal proportion to the boxes. The photograph is also of the Franklin, New Jersey site. Now, the most interesting aspect of the object (for my purposes, and for the theory of the nonsite) is that the boxes each contain a precise portion of ore, a portion that corresponds to the amount of ore found in the actual site from which the ore was taken (as illustrated by the aerial photograph). Thus, rather than simply a map or a picture of the site, the object aspect of the nonsite is, as Smithson notes above, a “three dimensional logical picture” of the actual site. While a picture is often taken as a literal re-presentation of a place, or an object, Smithson’s objects are abstracted representations that directly correspond to the site. Now, if the objects themselves were all that Smithson was worried about, his work would be more like Abstract Expressionism and of no interest (for my purposes). The interesting part is that Smithson sees the site itself (the place where the ore and rubble were extracted from) as intricately involved in the nonsite. While the object corresponds to the site, the site also corresponds to the object. Smithson believes that the act of removing the ore, even the fact of visiting these sites, are all part of the nonsite. A dialectic is created between the art-object and the site itself.
The nonsite does in fact present the viewer with an object, but, at the same time, this object presents the viewer with (in some sense) the absent, or, that which is unpresentable. The presentation of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey (the ‘subject’ of another nonsite) in the gallery never actually occurs. Instead, the viewer is presented with the absence of such a presentation. While the nonsite may attempt to transport the site itself into an easily digestible form that can be viewed in a barren white room in a museum, the very presentation hints at, and may even be based upon, absence. Rather than simply emptying a gallery to focus on absence (as a number of people have done), Smithson participates in what he describes as a dialectical movement. The object itself (the thing in the museum) is neither interior nor exterior: while it is placed in the gallery, it always represents/refers, not to its own immanent aesthetic considerations (nor those of the viewer), but to a very real exterior site. Similarly, the ‘real’ physical site (the Pine Barrens) is not simply exterior or ‘natural’. While this site exists in a relation of marginality (compared to the center of, for instance, New York), this exterior/marginal position is necessarily interrupted by the (re)presentation/reference made by the nonsite object. Neither is this movement between site and nonsite simply a reversal; the site is not made the center, nor is the nonsite object made marginal. Unlike, say Ansel Adams, who attempted to authentically present the American west through photographs, Smithson never allows either the site or the nonsite to take over. He is interested in the “space of metaphoric significance” (Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites,” 364) that occurs in the relation between the two. Here I find the connection to Blanchot.
While Blanchot sees the disaster as something that never quite arrives, or is never quite presented to us (but haunts us, or makes us anxious) Smithson’s nonsites are equally unstable. They aren’t fully present: the object in the gallery merely confronts or presents us with an absence. But, alternately, the site itself disturbs the opposition between presence and absence. The sites Smithson visists are desolate, often industrial leftovers like clearcuts, quarries or strip mines. Their distance and alterity make the gap between their presence and the presence of the gallery an experience of absence. Blanchot notes:
The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual (Disaster 7).
Similarly, Smithson’s nonsites don’t get beyond presence and absence, as someone like Heidegger or the Derrida of Speech and Phenomena might be, rather, they show us that instead of a clear opposition, there can be a sort of blurriness between presence and absence, that it is more of a spectrum than a rigid distinction.
Hamlet says to Horatio (about the ghost): “as a stranger give it welcome/There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet Act I, Scene 5). It might be cliché now but the quote is apt here. Rather than rejecting the spectral, or ignoring it, we should welcome the stranger (the ghost, the nonsite, the margin, the disaster) in order to “speak to it”. Through a political dialogue with the disastrous Derrida thinks we might be able to effect (at the very least) a new way of approaching our past, our potential futures, and the work of Marx more specifically. Similarly, through an aesthetic problematization of ontology (though not necessarily disastrous) Smithson’s nonsites allow us to rethink questions of centrality, and the status of the ‘object’ (whether an art object or not). Both of these re-thinkings allow us to get pass seeming impasses. First, we are either bound to the despair that the revolution will come and destroy everything, or we are bound to the idea that the revolution has already come and everything is perfect. Derrida’s specters allow us to move between these: the revolution has come, and has its place, the revolution may come again, could come again, and will have its place, the ‘present’ (if it exists) may also be ‘revolutionary’. We can, in fact, do Marx justice. Second: we have been stuck with either conceptual or ‘objectual’ art. We either focus on the work itself, or what the work ‘means’. Smithson’s nonsites take those categories and move between them, the object becomes a concept, and the concept becomes an object; but, through the combination of both, we arrive at a new, impure object/concept: the nonsite.
I think Blanchot’s thinking and writing of the disaster can effect a similar change for criticism and the object of criticism, and I think the book (The Writing of the Disaster) is evidence of this.
- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, translated by Peggy Kamuf (Routledge, London, 1994).
- Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock, (University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska, 1995).
- William Shakespeare, "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark", pp.670-713 in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Wordsworth Editions, London, 1999).
- Robert Smithson, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996).