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Espace Maurice Blanchot -
ISSN: 1765-291X

Parham Shahrjerdi

Comité de direction

Christophe Bident, Jérémie Majorel, Parham Shahrjerdi.

Comité de rédaction

Monique Antelme, Andrew Benjamin, Gisèle Berkman, Vanghélis Bitsoris, Marco Ciaurro, Marcus Coelen, Danielle Cohen-Levinas, Jonathan Degenève, Marco Della Greca, Juan Manuel Garrido, Kai Gohara, Kevin Hart, Leslie Hill, Mike Holland, Susanna Lindberg, Charlotte Mandell, Laura Marin, John McKeane, Ginette Michaud, Marcelo Jacques de Moraes, Jean-Luc Nancy, Yuji Nishiyama, Paul-Emmanuel Odin, Hannes Opelz, Joon-Sang Park, Edson Rosa da Silva, Benoît Vincent, Serge Zenkine, Giuseppe Zuccarino.

Review of Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings: 1953-1993 Print
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Review of Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings: 1953-1993, trans. and with an introduction by Zakir Paul, with a foreword by Kevin Hart (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

John McKeane


Until the appearance of Blanchot’s Political Writings, the English-speaking reader had only partial access to this extraordinary body of work, which addresses moments from the Algerian war to May 1968, and includes texts from those written for an ‘International Review’ in the early 1960s to varied interventions made up until the 2000s on issues from Judaism to Iraq. The collection is largely based on the two Écrits politiques editions of 2003 and 2008, and as such is roughly two-thirds dedicated to elements of Blanchot’s writings of the late 1950s and 1960s, which – we learn – Derrida described as ‘some of the finest political tracts ever written’ (p. xxvii). The appearance of these texts in English is immensely valuable, and will enable readers not so much to see what Blanchot’s work would have looked like had it been completed, but to grasp that the notion of completion is only part of the fragmentary writing he was beginning to explore in this period. This can be seen in his own discussion of the posthumous editing of Nietzsche, when he asks: ‘What are we looking for in these fragile texts? Something that cannot be found in any text, the hors-texte, the word that is de trop, in order that it should not miss its appointment with the completion of Complete Works, or on the contrary, in order that it should  be forever missing?’[1]

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Zakir Paul’s translation presents texts that are often paratactic (and sometimes were not destined for publication) in a convincing and confident English idiom, admirably avoiding gallicisms and showing sensitivity to the different capacities of English and French syntax. There are infelcities, of course, but most are of a minor nature. In the case of the ‘Déclaration sur le droit à l’insoumission’, however, two points stand out. First, the translation is carelessly formatted, with the division of the text into four fragments being removed, a disappointing occurrence given that during these years Blanchot wrote extensively on the fragment’s ability to respond to political contemporaneity, for instance here: ‘The problem of division – of fracture – as Berlin poses it [...] is a problem that one can only formulate adequately, in its complete reality, be deciding to formulate it in a fragmentary way’ (p. 73, emphases original). Secondly, this text is renamed ‘Declaration of the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War’ (my emphasis). Whilst this text is doubtless often taken to perform the role implied by this title, it is a pity that the title of a text painstakingly written by committee, which went through at least a dozen re-draftings, has been altered.[2] This is because there is a subtle but important distinction between a ‘Declaration of’’ and ‘Declaration on the Right to Insubordination’: in the first case, we can only imagine the right to be something that the 121 signatories (‘writers, artists, and academics’, p. 15) have the ability to determine and authoritatively declare. However, the text itself is careful ‘not to give advice to men who have to decide personally when faced with such grave problems’ (pp. 16-17): in other words, if this right is to be truly a right and not a duty (a point Blanchot insisted on in the writing of the text, see pp. 33-34), then it must not merely be an imposition from on high.

The project of translating Blanchot raises several issues: that of his own practice as a translator;[3] that of his particular usage of the French language (Critchley writes mischeviously that ‘[h]is French is limpid and clear, it is daylight itself; almost the French of the Discours de la méthode’);[4] but also that of his relation to currents in French thought, literature, and politics. Certainly the first-time reader of these texts will be struck by the language used during the 1960s: it is with terms such as ‘resistance’, ‘occupation’, and ‘liberation’ that Blanchot inveighs against De Gaulle (‘this dead man, unaware that he is dead, is impressive with the great stature of death, with the dead obstinacy that passes for authority’, p. 90). Such a reader will become aware through Kevin Hart’s and Paul’s lucid introductory essays that in order to be fully understood, such language must be read in relation to a literary œuvre in which the place of France’s collapse in 1940 (and perhaps earlier) is fundamental yet displaced, and also in relation to a body of journalistic writing in which a nationalist Blanchot reacted to the political contemporaneity of the 1930s. As part of its overview of the sometimes polemical criticism on this period, Hart’s introduction deals with the charges of anti-semitism that have been made against Blanchot, looking at the few remarks on which they are based, but also at his denounciation as early as 1933 of ‘the barbaric persecutions of the Jews’ (p. xiv), and at the various moments in which Blanchot placed himself in danger in order to help Jewish friends under the Occupation.[5]

Blanchot’s later writings are also vividly concerned with contemporaneity: he writes on the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, and in the upheavals of May and afterwards, whilst declaring himself an adept of ‘a communism of writing’ (p. 85), he sought to open the events of Paris towards the dissidents in Prague. In truth, his attention to the other (and wish not to circumscibe it within a traditional political discourse) sees him writing on topics as diverse as madness, the concentration camps, the man in the street, and whoever or whatever he names the neutre (meaning either the neuter or the neutral). Blanchot’s thought in this period is in flux, demonstrating a striking number of variations – suspending or erasing numerous terms, for instance ‘mankind’, even as he insists on the importance of Antelme’s The Human Race. And a similar uncertainty inhabits his relation to the terms ‘politics’ or ‘the political’: if his writing demonstrates the urgency of political intervention, it nonetheless seeks to displace the reigning mode in which such intervention would have been primarily understood in post-war France, that ‘known under the simplistic label of “Sartrean commitment”’ (p. 60). The question (which Hart also asks in his foreword) is not so much which of Blanchot’s texts are political, but which are not: The Last Man? The Most-High?

The writing translated in this collection, then, demonstrates a complex relation to political discourse, which is glossed by Paul in his introduction as a response to the two demands of the possible and the impossible, which mean that ‘the whole is cleft into two’ (p. xxxii). Hart picks up the same notion, but goes further in his interpretation: ‘[i]n leftist politics we must always speak two languages at the same time, one dialectical and one neutral, which is his inflection of the French distinction between la politique and le politique’ (p. xxvi). It is likely true that Blanchot’s writing has more pertinence as a critique of the left – of ‘humanism [as] a theological myth’ (EI 369) and of ‘liberal stupidity and hypocrisy’ (p. 103) – than it does as an analysis likely to be adopted by Gaullists. In this vein, Blanchot’s engagement with the political is less an adoption of a pre-existing (leftist) discourse than it is an alteration of it: for instance, he writes that the man in the street ‘evades all authorities, whether they be political, moral, or religious’ (EI 366). It is significant that such a statement should be found in the period when his work ostensibly opens to the political more than in the late 1940s and 1950s. This overarching movement is one where previously distinct genres such as narrative, criticism, philosophy, and the political dissolve into fragmentary writing. Thus a proposition that is key to what Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy name ‘the political’ (they are Hart’s sources for the term), namely that ‘everything is political’ demands to be brought into relation with the ‘everything’, the fragmentary, dehiscent totality to which Blanchot’s new mode of writing devotes considerable energy (in the ultimate perspective of escaping totality).[6] If the proposition that ‘everything is political’ defined an era of thought for Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, the paradoxical effect is that this extension of the domain of the political means that the political itself loses its specificity : ‘the political becomes non-apparent (it has the obviousness of what “goes without saying”) and [...] its non-apparency is in direct proportion to its omnipotence. And vice versa. This is what caused us to discuss the “withdrawal [retrait] of the political” as part of the same phenomenon’.[7] Thus it is by questioning the ubiquity of the political, the ‘everything is political’, that it might be possible to make the retrait (withdrawal) a retrait (a treating anew). And Blanchot’s translated Political Writings seems an excellent place to start.



[1] In Le Pas au-delà, p. 158, my translation.

[2] See Jérôme Duwa, ‘La Déclaration des 121: un manifeste écrit par tous et non par un’ in Blanchot dans son siècle, ed. by Monique Antelme, Gisèle Berkman, Christophe Bident et al. (Lyon: Paragon, 2009), pp. 274-88

[3] See Leslie Hill, ‘“A Fine Madness”: Translation, Quotation, the Fragmentary’ in Blanchot Romantique, ed. by myself and Hannes Opelz (Oxford: Lang, 2010), pp. 211-31.

[4] In Very little... Almost Nothing (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 31.

[5] Hart mentions a long letter that Blanchot wrote to Laporte, discussing his early political life (p. xxiii). In the early 1980s this letter was part of a Cahiers de l’herne project on Blanchot, to be edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, which never appeared. This letter has recently (after this article was mainly written!) been published and presented by Jean-Luc Nancy in Maurice Blanchot: Passion politique (Paris: Galilée, March 2011), where he calls it a ‘récit’ (p. 41).

[6] In ‘Ouverture’ in Étienne Balibar, Luc Ferry, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe et al., Rejouer le politique (Paris: Galilée, 1981), pp. 11-28 and ‘Le “retrait” du politique’ in Jacob Rogozinski, Claude Lefort, Jacques Rancière,  et al., Le Retrait du politique (Paris: Galilée, 1983), pp. 183-200. The latter has been translated as Retreating the Political, ed. by Simon Sparks (London: Routledge, 1997). Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy do not claim the coinage of this term, but instead state that was beginning to enter circulation. And indeed, it features for example in Barthes’s Le Grain de la voix (1981), p. 206.

[7] Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in ‘Le “retrait” du politique’, p. 188 (emphasis original), my translation.

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