“Somebody’s done for.”
I want to speak. I want to turn my words into a wrecking ball and my writing into a weapon. I want to leave a trail of thought behind me so that even after I have died, I might be known and therefore live again. Most of all, I want to approach death face to face, and weave an embrace around it, surround it, and collapse it. I want to fight. Yet even as I try all of these things, that which I would make most intimate with me sidesteps and slips away. It is not mine to have, not mine to know. I realize that even as I sit here and pour out “my” ideas (“my very own”), so that perhaps a few people may bear witness, I am surrounded, preceded, and made subject to something utterly alien. I am faced with a horizon so deeply essential to my entire constitution as a human being that it overcomes all others. If I make a move towards understanding it, though, I am met with a blind spot. Its difference from life as I understand it, from life’s moments of confusion and clarity, is so profound that no word assigned to it is strong enough to contain it. Death. I might scream this word a thousand times a night inside my head, but its meaning is empty. It withstands my desperate attempts to pull it out of itself and into my world; I know now that no philosophy will ever help me do this. I am ready to say to anyone willing to listen that my entire engagement with every thinker I have encountered, from Aristotle to Zizek, has been my way of trying to escape the absolute anguish I am going to feel for the rest of my life. I am a prisoner of the event. I am a creature of the disaster. So are you.
The people I would like to talk about in this essay, aside from Maurice Blanchot himself, are Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. I feel that through them I see some ways in which the event and the disaster are one and the same. I will draw it out of them as best I can, and then deal with the question “what if the event turns out to be the disaster?” The question itself seems to really be asking: “if this is so, what are we going to do?” I am afraid, however, that I may not be able to respond: to give an answer seems to be another stab at capturing the disaster (which I do believe is the same as the event). I am afraid that it will escape me once more. Nonetheless, I will try. After all, isn’t trying what keeps us from collapsing? First, I will give a brief outline of what Blanchot is saying in L’Ecriture du désastre. Then I will tackle Derrida’s thoughts in Specters of Marx on Francis Fukuyama and the Hegelian triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. I will follow Derrida with Deleuze’s “Ancient Philosophy and the Simulacrum”, which appeals to the destruction of epistemological/metaphysical categories and argues for a move to becoming unlimited. Finally, I will step back and see what they have to offer in terms of answering the question we are asking.
Blanchot begins L’Ecriture du désastre with: “the disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; ‘I’ am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside.”1 It (the disaster) is not a force which directly causes an effect upon those held under its sway. It seems instead to be removed, or perhaps crossed out; Friedrich Nietzsche viewed God in this way. God cannot help us, because His existence is of an entirely different order and an on entirely different plane than ours (of course, the sense in which Nietzsche identifies the death of God bears a more multiplicitous reading than this particular one). Nietzsche’s world is natural and empirical, even as it is fraught with appearances and ambiguity. Even though we are separated from Him, the separation itself appears as the event through which our existence is experienced. Let me take a moment here to clarify what the event is, as I see it. I found the definition given by Deleuze and Felix Guattari in What Is Philosophy? to be quite helpful:
The event is not the state of affairs. It is actualized in a state of
affairs, in a body, in a lived, but it has a shadowy and secret part
that is continually subtracted from or added to its actualization: in
contrast with the state of affairs, it neither begins nor ends but has
gained or kept the infinite movement to which it gives consistency.
It is the virtual that is distinct from the actual, but a virtual that is
no longer chaotic, that has become consistent or real on the plane
of immanence2 that wrests it from chaos -- it is a virtual that is real
without being actual, ideal without being abstract3
The event is (in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms) a sort of idealized extrapolation of the particular events and conditions which make up our existence. They say that it is “ideal without being abstract”, but I would tend to disagree on that point, because the “shadowy and secret part” must be abstract by virtue of the fact that it cannot be grasped in and of itself, but must be talked about through metaphor and conjecture. In any case, their explanation seems to me to be useful, because it highlights the way in which the event is on a larger scope than everything which it encompasses. The event is not the death rate in any given country on earth, it is death itself. Furthermore, the event is not the act of dying, it is death itself, the possibility which dwarfs all other possibilities. It is the overall condition which makes talking about it possible in the first place; however, it is outside of our range of understanding, and must stay hidden. The remainder we are left with is the death rate in any given country on earth.
To return to Nietzsche, though, we are left with an estranged God, who cannot save us and who does not do anything for us. This is the event in which we are living. In a sense, though, God comes back (God is a revenant?), carrying His own estrangement with Him. God cannot do anything for us or even to us directly, but His death, His being dead (that is, persisting in that condition, rather than simply being totally obliterated) looms over us without having a tangible, temporal effect. Despite the fact that it is alienated, and alienating, the death of God makes things the way they are . The death of God is the death of metaphysics; more importantly, it is the disappearance of our chance for salvation. If we cannot count on God, then the question of the afterlife becomes more troublesome, and death becomes a greater problem. While we may feel liberated in this alienation, it also signifies a certain collapse of horizons of meaning. At the same time, in this midst of this newfound confusion and uncertainty, we find ourselves, our whole existence as humans, being ordered by this event. “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” I believe that we can see the connections here: the event and the disaster are merging and passing into one another. I’d like to turn to Derrida and Deleuze, and set to work.
Derrida: politics of the disaster
In Specters of Marx, Derrida disputes Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that the birth of liberal capitalist democracy has brought us to the fulfillment of Hegelian historical dialectic, otherwise known the end of history. Fukuyama uses the advent of the end of history to rail against Karl Marx’s work, saying that it has been proven wrong and has been rendered irrelevant. Derrida says that Fukuyama’s stance points to – and even calls for – “not only the end of societies constructed on the Marxist model but the end of the whole Marxist tradition, even of the reference to the works of Marx ... in the euphoria of liberal democracy and of the market economy”4. Marx is to be crossed out and made less than a trace. Fukuyama sees a homogenous condition (the Hegelian end of history) under which we are all now living, and fails to see the way in which it may be opposed by suppressed sentiments (Marx’s model). While Fukuyama sees one system reigning over human life (and he is giving the rest of the world time to catch up!), Derrida sees a heterogeneity of thought and activity which cannot be buried forever. While the liberal democrats celebrate their freedom, multinational corporations buy out smaller companies and sell out to bigger ones until the world’s wealth is controlled by a small number of nodes in a vast network. This was Marx’s prediction5 : where the end of history – a full stop – should be, there is still a dialectic going on.
We cannot say, though, that Marx may ultimately defeat Hegel in the end. I believe that Derrida is shining light on the heterogeneity itself: it is the event. It is also the disaster, or at least the effect produced by the disaster6 . This is why we see Derrida saying that “time is out of joint”: he is suggesting that the unyielding adherence to belief in a final point, or victory of one system over the other, is a source of anxiety. Where we seek completion, we are faced with gaps and disorder. Marx himself says that we “suffer not only from the living, but from the dead”7.
While Derrida does point out that the past always crashes down on us, (which causes time to be out of joint) I am more interested in what the future and the present mean to us in terms of the disaster. If we take Fukuyama’s stance, we want to believe that we are living beyond the struggles and conflicts of historical progress; however, we see old forms returning and new forms arising. This occurs without our doing and is beyond our control. Nevertheless, we may continue to be dogmatic about our ideals and keep trying to maintain a coherent view of life. Unfortunately, this is not feasible, because the state of affairs show that the event itself is quite different than what we believe it to be. The enduring endeavor to keep a hold onto homogenous discourse about the world is actually its own undoing: “’false unity, the simulacrum of unity,” writes Blanchot, “compromises it better than any direct challenge, which, in any case, is impossible”8. Our own view of the world meets resistance because it cannot even be contemporary or fully present to itself, and is always disrupted. The disruption caused by counter-discourses leads us to question whether we really are living in the event that we think we are. We end up experiencing anxiety and uncertainty. The disaster is at work here, causing disarray to assert itself. For Derrida, the answer seems to be to allow these waves of heterogeneity wash over us and to experience them fully. We cannot ever make them go away, but we cannot ignore them, either. We must simply relive and remember them time and time again, because that is the condition of our existence. It is a therapeutic activity, which may help assuage the distress of holding onto continuity. He calls it “the new International”, and then immediately suspends the name:
it is a link of affinity, suffering, and hope ... an untimely link,
without status, without title, and without name, barely public
even if it is not clandestine, without contract, “out of joint”,
without coordination, without party, without country, without
national community (International before, across, and
beyond any national determination), without co-citizenship,
without common belonging to a class. The name of new
International is given here to what calls to the friendship of
an alliance without institution among those who, even if they
no longer believe or never believed in the socialist-Marxist, in the
dictatorship of the proletariat, in the messiano-eschatological role
of the universal union of the proletarians of all lands, continue
to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx ... and in order
to ally themselves, in a new, concrete, and real way, even if this
alliance no longer takes the form of a party ... but rather a kind of
counter-conjuration, in the ... critique of the state of international
law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to
renew this critique and especially to radicalize it.9
What Derrida is suggesting is a new form of critique which tries to mimic
the rhythm of the disaster, or perhaps more appropriately, the effect of the disaster. It resists being named, organized, codified and crystallized in one homogenous and continuous entity. The way in which the critique is carried out should and must change as necessary; nothing about it should be permanent or static. We are not trying to conquer, we are trying to encounter radical difference on its own terms as best we can, so that we are not burdened by the rigidity of a particular, entrenched mode of thinking. This is not necessarily armchair political philosophy; this allows us to think of new ways to conceive of and deal with what may otherwise be social and political dead ends. We will never be able to win and be in control, not in any permanent sense. If we move with the effect of the disaster, we may avoid being trampled by it – at least for some time.
Deleuze: metaphysics, writing, and the disaster
“Ancient Philosophy and the Simulacrum” is a deconstruction of Plato’s epistemological categories. In it, Deleuze suggests that Plato hints at the reversal of his own argument, which undermines correspondence theories of knowledge. The colour red does not correspond to a form of “redness” if we take this view, it is just an effect caused by a productive force. That force is known as the simulacrum. Deleuze says that
the simulacrum implies huge dimensions, depths, and distances that the observer cannot master. It is precisely because he cannot master them that he experiences an impression of resemblance. This simulacrum includes the differential point of view; and the
observer becomes part of the simulacrum itself, which is
transformed and deformed by his point of view. In short, there is
in the simulacrum a becoming-mad, or becoming unlimited, as in
the Philebus where ‘more and less are always going a point further,’
a becoming always other, a becoming subversive of the depths, able
to evade the equal, the limit.10
The simulacrum is disastrous! Deleuze shows how we organize our experiences into a coherent manner, thus assigning resemblance, similarity and relation to various objects11 . We cannot experience or appropriate the simulacrum, though; we can only apprehend the effects which it produces, and even then not completely. The simulacrum itself evades our understanding and refuses to let us know it. It promises us nothing but disarray, yet once again we see that it is behind the way in which we experience existence, so we are in fact being produced by it as well. The simulacrum is therefore also the event, because it is the condition realized in the state of affairs, even though it remains at least partly hidden from our ability to probe it. What I mean here is that if we are living in a world of produced effects and appearances, the simulacrum mechanism (the capacity to produce effects), is what brackets our "milieu of existence".
Deleuze sees possibility here, just as Derrida sees possibility in Specters. Referring to the work of James Joyce, Deleuze claims that new modes of producing art and literature can oppose the misery of finding ourselves in a disordered state of being. In Joyce, he finds the “power to affirm all the heterogeneous series”12 ; Joyce’s writing does not adhere to any traditional methods of writing, and relies on the creation of its own rhythm and resemblance to itself through a certain repetition of form. It creates its own significance. Accordingly, Blanchot writes that
we constantly need to say (to think): that was quite something
(something quite important) which happened to me. By which we
mean at the same time: that couldn’t possibly belong to the order
of things which come to pass, or which are important, but is rather among the things that export and deport. Repetition.13
Joyce attempts to create something new, something significant, by virtue of its own power, which is not bound to meet any criteria presented by “real” English. Of course, even in doing this, he is still using the same twenty-six letters of the alphabet that any other English speaking author would, so he is not truly escaping or moving to the outside: "we have no access to the outside, but the outside has always already touched us on the head, for it is the precipitous”14. To reject the disaster, to reject the event (in this case, language; meaning, even if it has been produced and precedes us only provisionally) is to still try to oppose it directly and therefore to engage it: “he who criticizes or thrusts the game away, has already entered the game”15 . I think, though, that the way Joyce rejects traditional writing is only a rejection of one particular tradition (or possibly the notion of “tradition” itself), and an affirmation of the sense in which the simulacrum makes radical difference (as well as similarity) possible. Again, we see mimicry of the disaster’s effect: different rhythms, different modes, evasion and movement. It cannot be complete, permanent, or even under our control, but by writing this way, Joyce tries to work with the disaster, rather than against it. Deleuze (as I interpreted him in “Ancient Philosophy”) sees this kind of activity as an affirmative, joyful acceptance of disorder, something liberating - that is to say, he doesn't see it as a disaster.
I wrote about Deleuze’s essay for my first term paper in a class earlier this year and came to that conclusion; however, after receiving comments on the paper, one question in particular struck me and has stayed with me ever since. I was asked why this new mode of thinking was more liberating than being stuck in Platonic categories. If we affirm the simulacrum, we are taking up a stance similar to Nietzsche’s, which is not necessarily the same thing as being “liberated”. I am not sure that I can ever properly answer the question, but at this point I can say that if our horizons are uncertain (and it is certain that they are, as far as I and my life are concerned), we are bound to experience the anxiety of feeling as though we are walking on thin air, surrounded by darkness. Blanchot’s thoughts on reading resonate on a much larger scope: “reading is anguish, and this is because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it may be (and the more engaging it seems to be), is empty – at bottom it doesn’t exist; you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend”16 We feel no promise, no answer, no resolution, and instead encounter contingency after contingency. To use a cliché usually associated with getting a job after high school or doing well in university, it’s either sink or swim. Whether we sink, or whether we swim, we cannot avoid or escape the disaster. Deleuze chooses to affirm the radical difference of the simulacrum, to work with it, rather than to deny it and be haunted by the presence of chaos. There is no way out of the event/disaster because it fully constitutes our existence; this kind of incomplete embrace we see in Deleuze’s view of Joyce and in Derrida’s notion of the new International provides a release of tension, however temporary. It is not necessary to take up this stance – it is just as well in the long run to reject it and collapse under the weight. The choice is there. Either decision is equally absurd in terms of the disaster, yet those absurdities are not equal from a human point of view.
It seems now that I may have come up with little more than a formula to anaesthetize humans who are suffering from sensing the disaster. I am unsure as to whether or not I have answered the question “what if the event turns out to be the disaster?”, which is really “what are we going to do if the event is the same as the disaster?”. I think the question fails because of the word “we”. The disaster approaches all of us, yes, but we cannot face it as a community or an organized front. I would suggest that our relation to the event/disaster is personal: we are born alone and we die alone. The disaster, in its unapproachable, defiant heterogeneity, prevents us from experiencing it together. Because it is the same as the event, it is integral in the way we experience life, yet each of our experiences are different and the emptiness of language cannot help us bridge the gap. In other words, we cannot conquer the disaster together - or alone for that matter. If we choose to live, we live as an absurdity, temporarily soothing the agony of knowing that the disaster approaches without motion. We live knowing that the disaster has always already17 destroyed hope, while at the same time has produced everything we know. If we echo the disaster, if we move with its rhythm, then perhaps we can break the tension; however, we must do it over, and over again. Derrida’s new International and Deleuze’s joyful affirmation of the simulacrum both present
concrete examples of this therapy. We must turn away from trying to experience the disaster in and of itself, to dominate and control it. It is of no avail. Finally, we must know that no matter what path we choose, it is in vain. Nobody gets out. Even if we die, we have already been touched by the disaster.
Blanchot quotes Mallarmé, saying “’There is no explosion except a book”18 . Yet books converge and diverge; the exploded fragments may be reordered, resurrected, and brought to life in a new way. He writes, “the circle, uncurled along a straight line rigorously prolonged reforms a circle eternally bereft of centre”19. We may walk the line again and again, bringing starts and finishes in touch with one another, making them bridges over the unfathomable emptiness beneath. Finally, and once again, he says “repetition”. With that in mind, I would like to end this paper with the first thing I read this past year which had an effect on me, to create resonance through repeating and bringing together fragments exploded across a field of nothingness:
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink
Downward to darkness, on extended wings20
If we move in rhythm (while not ignoring or forgetting) with the absolute dissimilitude, the anguished ambiguity of our existence, we may be able to fly until we cannot fly anymore. On the other hand, we may choose to embrace the pain of trying to refuse and overcome the disaster, but we will most certainly be grounded. These words were a flight, a tightrope act over an abyss; I am already looking for the next one. Bear witness21 .
- Maurice Blanchot, L’Ecriture du désastre, 1
- The “plane of immanence” here is the plane on which we experience the actual affairs which are bound to the event itself. In it, all of our experiences and movements are captured and collected. All that is captured becomes present to itself in terms of being on the same plane (the non-metaphysical, empirical plane, for instance) as itself. The plane of immanence is a (or perhaps the) milieu of existence.
- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? 156
- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 56.
- “That which is ... to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many”. Karl Marx, The Portable Karl Marx, 492.
- Caution is always of the utmost importance here. We can never take too many steps back; every analysis is bound to be incomplete and will be resisted in the end. “To want to write:” says Blanchot, “what an absurdity. Writing is the decay of the will, just as it is the loss of power, and the fall of the regular fall of the beat, the disaster again” (Blanchot, 11). The activity of writing, especially about the disaster, is frailty; it is the wreck of power and strength. At the same time, this frail confrontation may hold something for us.
- Marx, 434.
- Blanchot, 2.
- Derrida, 85-6.
- Gilles Deleuze, “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy”, 258
- By the same token, the capacity to see resemblance also makes difference possible. The simulacrum confounds all limits and is outside all differences as well as similarities.
- Deleuze, 260.
- Blanchot, 9.
- Blanchot, 6.
- Blanchot, 10.
- Blanchot, 11.
- There, I said it!
- Blanchot, 7.
- Blanchot, 2.
- Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”, in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 70.
- Friday, April 11th, 2003: While writing this paper, I felt a certain restlessness. Every time I write that “such and such makes things the way they are”, I see a certain lack – a lack which arises from assigning such a sense of completeness to each of these conditions (the death of God, the fragmented social world, and so on). I started off with thoughts about death because death is the most extreme horizon for humans. Blanchot commentator Leslie Hill notes that “Each human is condemned to live his or her own death in irreducible solitude, with the only certainty that death, at the limit, is precisely what cannot be lived. Death is here no longer a familiar possibility, it is a strange impossibility. It is constitutive of what is human, but it necessarily exceeds all that is human, which is why it can be addressed at all (as Bataille Points out) only indirectly, through ritual, myth, or fiction” (Hill, 182). Death may be the most extreme limit, yet death is not the disaster itself. The disaster is found in the impossibility of death; the disaster is found in our lives which are snarled and broken (while at the same time left intact!) by the specter of a difference as profound and inaccessible as death. The disaster, however, is also found (as we shall see) in the incoherence of the events of life; the family, which is always already corrupted in terms of the ideal notion of “the family”, is just such a manifestation of the disaster. The effects of the disaster are found in multiple places, then. “I will not say that the disaster is absolute; on the contrary, it disorients the absolute. It comes and goes, errant disarray” (Blanchot, 4). I apologize, then, if it has appeared as though I have been placing the disaster squarely within the bounds of one effect or one phenomenon. The disaster (and the event as well) is difficult to write about or speak of. It seems too messy to ever capture properly. As a result we are always going to wind up with incompletion.
- Blanchot, Maurice. L’Ecriture du désastre. trans. Ann Smock. 1980; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
- Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. trans. Peggy Kamuf. 1993; New York:
- Deleuze, Gilles. “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy”. In The Logic of Sense. trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. ed. Constantin V. Boundas. 1990, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. pp 253- 266.
- Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix. What Is Philosophy?. trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Graham Burchell. 1991;New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
- Hill, Leslie. Bataille, Klossowski, Blanchot: Writing at the Limit. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Marx, Karl. The Portable Marx. ed. Eugene Kamenka. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Viking Penguin, 1983.
- Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. 1961; New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
- Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: