The Power of Contestation. Perspectives on Maurice Blanchot.
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Reviewed by Emmanuelle Le Texier
Kevin Hart is a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. Geoffrey Hartman is the Sterling Professor (Emeritus) of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. Both editors brought together eight essays by scholars from various disciplines to focus on Maurice Blanchot's interest not only in questions of language and meaning, but also in literature, politics, ethics, community, philosophy and criticism. Contributors to the book are Gerald Bruns (University of Notre Dame), Leslie Hill (University of Warwick), Michael Holland (St Hugh's College), Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (University of Strasbourg), Vivian Liska (University of Antwerp), Jill Robins (Emory University) and the editors themselves. The volume edited by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004 takes its title from the "contestation" defined by Blanchot in L'expérience intérieure (1943). The collection of essays accurately examines Blanchot's work and brings new perspectives on the French intellectual.
Blanchot was born in 1907, two years after Sartre and wrote first for papers like Le Rempart, L'Insurgé, Journal des Débats, and then from the mid-1940s for the Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française. He wrote extensively for nationalistic journals such as Combat and Réaction. Nevertheless, he renounced his political commitment after the end of the war and frequented René Char and Marguerite Duras, both involved in the French Resistance. He later signed the manifesto of the 121 to reject de Gaulle's war in Algeria and supported the Youth movement in 1968. He dedicated his life to the "question of literature," living on his pen. He is better defined as a philosopher than a novelist. After the novels Thomas l'Obscur (1941), L'Arrêt de mort (1948) and Le Très haut (1949), he abandoned the genre to prefer the récit and essays. Blanchot's impact over French thinking has been extremely important, as it anticipated the practitioners of the nouveau roman, post-structuralism, and debated Sartre, Derrida and Levinas among others. In the 1940s and 1950s, the French intellectual questioned the links between literature and politics, especially the linguistic turn. For Blanchot, "literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question."
In the introduction to the edited volume, Kevin Hart and Geoffrey Hartman present Blanchot as one of the heirs of the modern philosopher Heidegger. Blanchot thinks that finitude is the very condition of understanding: "To write is no longer to situate death in the future," he says, but is "to know that death has taken place even though it has not been experienced" . Literature indicates our relation with death; it does not signify le vécu, but rather experience as a danger. Contestation converges with mysticism, scepticism and nihilism. Experience is a "relation without relation." What is contested is then the self itself. The word contestation conventionally involves a sense of disputation but also of passive vitality, which is not a simple opposition but a relation to the concept of le neutre. In other words, contestation is the suspension of the antagonistic relation which opposes the one to the other. The edited volume is focused around the definition of contestation. This review only tackles some major points of selected essays. How can literature be a source of contestation? What difference does exist with the Sartrian littérature engagée? For Blanchot, literature is the site of contestation because it relies on the suspension of the question of its own possibility.
In his article entitled "An Event without Witness: Contestation between Blanchot and Bataille," Michael Holland compares the concept of Bataille's "inner experience" with what Blanchot defined as the principle of contestation. What Bataille calls "inner experience" is questioning what a man knows about the fact of being, a version of nihilism. Both French intellectuals were confronted to the French state crisis of the 1930s and to its contestation. This allowed them to reflect on the relation between language, contestation and communication. The author argues that "Communication thus remains a human relation for Bataille. For Blanchot, on the contrary, it marks the annihilation of the human: as communication, it leads to nothing" .
The second essay targets the question of language and responsibility with regards to the Holocaust. Geoffrey Hartmann, in " Maurice Blanchot: The Spirit of Language after the Holocaust," asks the following question: what are the conditions of possibility for an ethical relation of communication? "For Blanchot [...]. The morality of interpersonal relations enters primarily through language and in the context of a link between extreme receptivity and ‘impersonification’ “ . Given the complexities of 1930s and 1940s politics and Blanchot's writings of that time, Blanchot's relation to Judaism has to be studied carefully.
The fourth essay by Vivian Lisk, entitled "Two Sirens singing. Literature as contestation in Maurice Blanchot and Theodor Adorno" is probably the most challenging. It focuses on the relation between literature and politics by comparing Blanchot and Adorno references to the Homeric episode of Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens. It has often been stated that the content of the Sirens' songs is nothing but the promise of a song, and that what they promise to sing is the Odyssey itself. "But while Adorno devises literature as an alternative way of escaping and therefore overcoming their mythical song, Blanchot rescues its power and turns it into the secret source and magnet of the literary experience" . Is there an inherent power of contestation in literature?
In the sixth essay, by Gerald Bruns, "Anarchic temporality. Writing, Friendship, and the Ontology of the Work of Art in Maurice Blanchot's Poetics,” as well as in the fifth written by Leslie Hill "A Fragmentary Demand," the authors reflects on the fragmentary writing as art's self questioning. It implies a disruption to the discourse, the impossibility of narrative and thus contests the genre, as a form of transgression. Where does literature begin? "From Mallarmé, Blanchot inherited the idea that poetic writing is not a mode of lyricism but an exercise of language, where language is not an instrument under my control (not, pace Sartre, a prosthetic device)" . One answer is that the writer in his "essential solitude" is suddenly gripped by his pen and forced to write. Gerald Bruns refers not only to Mallarmé but also to texts by Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, Levinas, Réalité et son ombre, Deleuze, "Logique du sens" and Derrida, "La Double séance". The ontological question is that the singular is the difference in itself. In the last chapter, Kevin Hart comes back to Blanchot's "relation without relation" concept. In fact, he suggests that the inner experience of dialectics is in a way a form of counter-spiritual life (which is the title of the chapter). The literature experience is essentially a mystic experience, combining the ideal of naming the possible and responding to the impossible.
The principle of contestation takes a specific and multifaceted significance after reading the collection of essays. As a concluding remark, Kevin Hart quotes Blanchot who wrote that "Contestation always implies exposures to some other (or to the other) who... can bring me into play" and doubtless it implies self-sacrifice . Because literature is a site of contestation, it is an interruption of temporality that by definition is a political and ethical principle. Blanchot's question on the possibility for ethical communication remains open.