Part Two: Derrida, Blanchot and the ethics of the sublime
Part One

Derrida, Blanchot, the sublime, and writing

As I stated in the introduction, Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot both write of these limit experiences, these notions that grab us and confound us. Derrida often takes up the idea of paradox or aporia when considering such notions as justice and hospitality. He refers to them both as spectral in that they are both present and absent; they elude completion. Hospitality, for instance, is usually thought of as making other people welcome in your home, by extending a certain degree of liberty to visitors with your property when they were visiting you. Derrida commentator John Caputo writes that “the world ‘hospitality’ means to invite and welcome the ‘stranger’ (l’étranger), both on the personal level – how do I welcome the other into my home? – and on the level of the state – raising socio-political questions about refugees, immigrants, ‘foreign’ languages, minority ethnic groups, etc.” {CC 110}. Of course, Derrida opens up this term to show how it contains its opposite within itself (hospitality contains such Latin roots as hospes, hostis, which refers to the term ‘stranger’, and pets, which is bound up in notions of power {Ibid.}). Derrida sees a kind of violence at work here, in that there is an unspoken power struggle between the host and the stranger. The host supposedly welcomes the stranger, but there is already a set of limits upon how welcome the stranger can feel; also, the stranger makes an imposition upon the host’s domain. Ideally, hospitality is supposed to be something total and free of such a relationship; however, Derrida argues that this is not the case, but also that this is not necessarily a bad thing. To become fully hospitable, the host would have to annul his primacy in his own home. If he could do this, however, there would be no difference between him and the stranger, and there could thus be no hospitality. Hospitality, then, is something that is both present (in that it affects us in certain ways) and absent (in that it can never be total). For Derrida, hospitality exists in precisely that impossibility, that simultaneous presence and absence. Hospitality can only truly work if we do not already have a determinate concept of what hospitality is! We must think the impossible, move toward the infinite in the relationship between unattainable perfect hospitality and the kind of hospitality that we can practice.

The both imply and exclude each other, simultaneously. They incorporate one another at the moment of excluding one another, they are dissociated at the moment of envel oping one another, at the moment (simultaneity without simultaneity, impossible synchrony, moment without mo ment) when, exhibiting themselves to each other, one to the others, the others to the other, they show they are both more and less hospitable, hospitable and inhospitable, hos pitable inasmuch as inhospitable. {OH 81}.
The constant vibration, the back-and-forth movement brought to mind here, points to the sublime experience of conceiving of something that cannot be presented. Of course, it is easy enough to say that we understand the ways in which we are being both hospitable an inhospitable at the same time, but we would not be able to present that idea. The point here is that Derrida is presenting it in such a way as to highlight its impossibility, its infinitude, and its sublime rupture. He wants to show that it is irreducibly different and that the two senses of hospitality cannot be fully reconciled without the destruction of the subject, its relation to the other and hospitality itself.

Why is this? It is because Derrida, like Kant and Lyotard, recognizes the inevitability of terror in reconciliation. To impose a final sense of what hospitality is, is to destroy all innumerable possibilities of what it could be in any number of situations. If we restrict hospitality to just one meaning, we exclude all others, and we make it violent.

We have come to wonder whether absolute, hyperbolical, unconditional hospitality doesn’t consist in suspending language, a particular determinate language, and even the address to the other. Shouldn’t we also submit to a sort of holding back of the temptation to ask the other who he is, what her name is, where he comes from, etc.? Shouldn’t we abstain from asking another these questions, which her ald so many required conditions, and thus limits, to a hospitality thereby constrained and thereby confined into a law and a duty? And so into the economy of a circle? {OH 135}
Derrida’s concern about the violence of making hospitality a determinate concept is not only that it will become violent, but that it will not reflect true ethics, or action for the other, anymore. It will be reduced, as he puts it, to law and duty. It is better, he thinks, to leave it where we find it, beyond the realm of determinate judgment. Derrida considers it more beneficial to show its impossibility, its paradox, and the impossibility of bridging the gap between reality and concept. He therefore shows the role of the sublime in the ethical as being the safeguard, that which preserves us from terror. We should not shy away from this limit; rather, we should always be moving toward it, even though it confounds and pushes us away. “Hospitality really starts to happen when I push against this limit, this threshold, this paralysis, inviting hospitality to cross its own threshold and limit, its own self limitation, to become a gift beyond hospitality” {CC 111}.

In his book The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot also works with the themes of impossibility and the aporia of simultaneous presence and absence. His writing takes on a different tack than Derrida’s. Blanchot faces the disaster of the Holocaust, and the impossible task of representing it in order to bear witness. The Holocaust is an event that really happened, it affected the lives of millions of people; indeed, it annihilated millions of people. Its magnitude in terms of sheer destruction and nefarious design is absolutely unparalleled in our consciousness. Without a doubt, it has affected our world in a way that cannot be denied; however, it is also beyond the limits of our capability to represent it. In the essay “The Representation of Limits”, Berel Lang writes:

Although it is possible to write about (hence, to imagine) a historical even in terms that violate recognized physical limits, nothing more than that would need to be known to discredit the account: anachronisms (for example) not only do not, but cannot represent the past. {RL 304}
Lang’s article appears in the book Probing the Limits of Representation, which deals with the question of whether or not it is possible or appropriate to try to represent the Holocaust. In another essay from that book, Anton Kaes writes that “in his book The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot constitutes Auschwitz as an unrepresentable even which has nevertheless left its impressions and traces on every sector of the political and cultural life, reminiscent of the devastations of an earthquake long ago” {HH 207}. Indeed, in The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot struggles with the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of inscribing the devastation of the Holocaust so that we can bear witness. At best, it seems, he can only do it in fragments: the example of a particular person’s experience, allusions, poetic imagery, and so on.
I think of that young prisoner of Auschwitz (he had suffered the worst, led his family to the crematorium, hanged himself; after being saved at the last moment – how can one say that: saved? – he was exempted from contact with dead bodies, but when the SS shot someone, he was obliged to hold the victim’s head so that the bullet could be more easily lodged in the neck). When asked how he could bear this, he is supposed to have answered that he “observed the comportment of men before death.” I will not believe it. As Lewental, whose notes were found buried near a crematorium, wrote to us, “The truth was always more atrocious, more tragic than what will be said about it.” Saved at the last minute, the young man of whom I speak was forced to live that last instant again and each time to live it once more, frustrated every time of his own death and made to exchange it every time for the death of all. His response (“I observed the comportment of men…”) was not a response; he could not respond. {WD 82}

Here Blanchot shows that the event was beyond the ability of those affected by it to account for it, to sanitize it by means of an adequate concept. This does not put us, those who must bear witness, in a very good position. Furthermore, it is only in fragments like this that Blanchot (or anyone, for that matter) can convey the disaster of the Holocaust. It is hinted at; when we read a passage like this, we can feel it approaching. The more we read, the more we become swept up in the horror and squalor of it all. Our mind, however, will recoil before the disaster arrives. We are spared “the calm, the burn of the holocaust, the annihilation of noon – the calm of the disaster” {WD 6}. We are spared destruction, yet we are touched by it. We do not feel the finality of it, and are instead given over to the agitation of the sublime. We cannot provide an adequate representation for something that we feel must be shown and brought to light.

Blanchot sees this as part of a never-ending task. We must continuously push toward that impossible representation. We must strive to close the gap, to provide an object and make it complete; yet, at the same time, we can never and must never make this happen for once and for all. It is of the utmost importance that we do not let this go! To be “still in need of the truth and of putting it above ‘error’” {WD 89}, this is of no importance when we realize that no representation of the Holocaust can be above error. Consequently, we must realize that any representation of the Holocaust will lessen its stature and significance, because no concept can ever grasp the reality. Any concept will have the unavoidable consequence of trivializing what has happened. This goes not only for inscribing it in a text or other form of documentation, but also for reading that text: “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” {WD 10}. In other words (and once again), there is an incommensurability between what really happened and the concepts we use to capture it. This is for the best, though. If we were to accept one concept, one determination of what the Holocaust was, what it is, and what it has done (and continues to do), it will become too safe and frozen in time (and words) to be of any use. If we continue to point out and acknowledge that the Holocaust can never be captured by any concept, it will remain dynamic, something which always overwhelms us, and something which makes our relationship to it be very alive. The task of bearing witness, which is ultimately an ethical task – one that cannot but have an impact upon the present and the future – requires this kind of sublime emotional response. It is not important to have a determinate account of the Holocaust, to have a ‘present’ meaning for it. Blanchot writes “keep watch over absent meaning”. Charles Molesworth meditates on Blanchot’s advice:

This phrase is deeply ambiguous – it can mean either we must continually wait upon the place where meaning is not, hoping that it will appear, or that we must be sure to leave an opening, an aporia in our constructions of meaning or else risk the disasters that follow upon the pride of totalization. This is not a call for mystification, but rather a reluctant and hard-won recognition that some darkness may persist, no matter how ‘scient ifically’ we illumine the historical record. {AM 313}

In other words, do not focus on what you have decided is there, focus instead on what you cannot put there; focus on what could be there, do not become fascist and do violence because you desire finality.

The Kantian experience of the sublime emotion or what Lyotard calls the sentiment of the sublime figures heavily into these very ethical accounts. We are faced with ideas that we cannot conceive of; however, we can still sense their magnitude and importance. The emotion we feel when we reach the limits of sense is, for whatever reason, one of exhilaration (although some would characterize it as relief). In any event, when we experience the sublime, we are not contented by it. We are aroused, and wish to engage it further. For Kant, this ultimately says something about the nature of the human subject; I do not wish to follow that line of argument. Instead, I want to, and have tried to, show the way in which the sublime preserves and spurs on the possibility of ethical thought – from a slightly different viewpoint than Kant’s, to be sure. However, much of his formulation of the sublime can be brought out in the work of Derrida and Blanchot. The emphasis on maintaining the separation between reality and concept (something that someone like Hegel did not pay attention to) is key here: it is this separation, and our respect for it that prevents terror and violence in ethical thought. If judgment is reflective, we are always open to possibility; at the very least, we are not dogmatically committed to one answer or one story about the way that things are. On this view, we will always be faced with incompletion, but whether or not this is a problem is a matter of perspective. The attempt to gain totality is very dangerous; totality excludes and violates. The desire for totality, coupled with the knowledge that totality is impossible and hazardous, seems a better route. On the former view, we are already finished, and essentially already dead. On the latter, we are always moving because we always have work to do. This work will never be finished, because that which exceeds sense and completion is the absolute or the infinite. Our experience of this will always be sublime, because we are pushing the limits of possibility and impossibility and trying to bring them together. If, as thinkers like Kant, Lyotard, Derrida, and Blanchot, believe, the ethical lies in the unreachable and the incomplete (that is to say, the indeterminate), then we will always be in the position of experiencing and relating to the sublime sentiment. This may always appear to us as a lack or as privation, which could lead to despair; however, perhaps Blanchot’s words may serve as a rallying cry: “learn to think with pain” {WD 145}.

Glossary of abbreviations/Works cited

AM: Molesworth Michael. “The Art of Memory: Anselm Kiefer and the Holocaust”, Postmodernism and the Holocaust, ed. A. Milchman and A. Rosenberg, Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998.
BD: Hartman Geoffrey H. “The Book of the Destruction”, Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. S. Friedlander, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
CC: Caputo John. “Community Without Community”, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.
CJ: Kant Immanuel. Critique of Judgment, trans. W.S. Pluhar, 1790;Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987.
HH: Kaes Anton. “Holocaust and the End of History: Postmodern Historiography in Cinema”, Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. S. Friedlander, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
OH: Derrida Jacques. Of Hospitality, w/ A. Dufourmantelle, trans. R. Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
PC: Lyotard Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington & B. Massumi, 1979; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
PF: Lyotard Jean-François. Postmodern Fables, trans. G.V.D. Abbeele, 1993; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
RL: Lang Berel.“The Representation of Limits”, Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. S. Friedlander, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
WD: Blanchot Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster, trans. A. Smock, 1980; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.