The Political Trajectory of Maurice Blanchot (Part One): Thoughts on Ethics and Patchwork

I haven’t written on patchwork in a while now but not because I’ve stopped thinking about it. It’s just less and less central to my research interests. I nonetheless believe that we must think through a fragmentary geopolitics and contend with new ways of organising that are beyond the tired format of the state. These things are increasingly necessary but there are other things that need fleshing out in the meantime. Central to this is the ethical implications of this kind of geopolitical newness and the rethinking of community required to make it functional.

This is particularly relevant to us today, I think, because this fragmentary nature of the world used to be the norm until very recently. Particularly in Europe, there were violent wars over forms of governance and state borders as recently as the 1990s. These wars were horrendous things but there is a sense — in many recalling the politics of 1930s Europe when attempting to think through our current sociocultural upheavals, as is particularly common when processing the recent rise in fascism across the globe — that our world is far less flexible than it was then, and I wonder why that is. Is it simply the threat of war alone that stops the redrawing of our maps? Or is there something else at play?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but they linger in the background of a lot of this previous patchwork writing, and my previous readings of political philosophers from the 1930s (in France in particular) likewise inform these questions. In my own mind, the questions I ask and put forward on this blog are largely the same questions that an unruly and outsider left — broadly speaking — was trying to deal with at that time. Mourning the mainstream left’s complicity and impotence, these questions of community and praxis were discussed fervently until they were further arrested and made banal in the face of the atrocities of World War II, and yet they later emerged again as the post-Soviet world began to settle into the form as we know it today. (In this sense, it feels telling to me that so many of those who call me out for a lack of Marxist rigour and fascist sympathies are so often American. These questions are far more immediate over here perhaps. America went another way. It doesn’t know the stakes or the history.)

Following the final decline of the Soviet communist project in the 1980s to 2000s, the conversation that would take place between Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy is the most interesting enunciation of these questions left behind so long ago, and it is their rethinking of “community” which stoked my own interest in patchwork thinking as a technologically viable geo-OS for instantiating the collective subjectivities we have long sought out but never found.

So, that being said, as political paranoia continues in its feverishness on the left, I’m left wanting to chart a few influences that are of great importance to my own approach to politics of community and friendship, of comradeship, which are somewhat ill-fitting when we consider the dominant political moralism of today — and necessarily so.

I’ve written on this previously here and here but I suppose I could summarise this more concisely as a form of communism, influenced explicitly by my three favourite troubadours of moral philosophy: Levinas, Bataille and Blanchot.

Jean-Luc Nancy would write on Blanchot and Bataille’s sense of community in particular as a kind of “community that gives itself as a goal” and this is where I see a communism emerging from. There is knotted and irrational sense of interpersonal relation which is increasingly alien to our capitalist world and it is an “unavowable” work which becomes more and more important to me as “communicative capitalism” takes a firmer hold of us. (I wrote a bit about this the other day.) Interestingly, the further away from this we move, the more necessarily I feel it becoming. What is described by Blanchot as an elusive relation at the very limits of human language and articulation becomes all the more recognisable as this unspoken connection is strained more and more.

It is a form of collective identification which is not essentialist — not defined by race, nation or tradition — and which is grounded by its own “will to power”. At the most personal level, this is something that resonates with me as an adopted child and which also grounds previous articulations of an “ethics of exit“. My family is hugely dysfunctional and advice given by others has so often been: “Well, why don’t you can choose your own family?” This is something so often said, in my experience, by those who either haven’t experienced the innate trauma of losing that kind of fundamental connection to other people — read: weekend hippies — or who tell it to themselves as a self-directed platitude, like a mantra you tell yourself to cover over that which hurts you most deeply.

When living in Hull as a teenager, this sort of community was ostensibly queer. Our friendship group was made up of gay and straight men, trans women and, for the most part, lesbians. We were a surprising collection of people from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds but we all shared — whether due to our sexualities or another kind of interpersonal trauma — the sense that we were all part of a nomadic tribe of the socially dispossessed. We felt — each to a different extent — like we had been ejected from those families that we were told we could wholly depend on and so we went out into the world to try and find our own.

It is this experience which grounds my politics, for better and for worse.

This lost connection is, in a word, a “genetic” relation but it is not scientific in this sense. I will always remember the day that I was given a picture of my birth mother aged 18 and the feeling of recognition that came with that. The sensation of seeing yourself in the face of another, is completely beyond expression for me. It opened up a door that I did not know could open. It wasn’t an immediate egress but a gradual one and what struck me about this experience was that so many people simply take this for granted, to the extent that perhaps they don’t even think about it, but for me it was so utterly alien. It was like drinking water for the first time as an adult.

It is precisely this innate sense of rupture and the neuroses which come with it, in striving for connection and friendship and a sense of familial intimacy far too readily, whilst likewise being somewhat private in fearing rejection, which places the ethical formulation of “community” giving itself as a goal so firmly in my mind. It is a life-long sensation given a radically resonant phrase. Suffice it to say, I feel like I am all too aware, in my day to day life, of the unruliness of our politics of belonging.

This is why I have always liked Maurice Blanchot’s writings, for his apparent synthesis of the ethical thinking of Levinas and Bataille as two seemingly disparate figures whose ontologies start at the limits of subjectivity. Traumas of death and illness and violence loom large as things to account for with the process of philosophy but, here, with these thinkers, they are made immanent to an everyday existence. The quotidian, for them, is as difficult to grasp in thought as the nature of death itself. Indeed, they are one and the same, and it is from this point that their ethics could be said to emerge — at the limit between subjects, between borders, between peoples, where connections exist and persevere but beyond the articulations and frameworks that the sociopolitical language of our neoliberal world typically allows.

This extended preamble is an attempt to lay the groundwork for what might be another series of posts where I collate my notes on the works of Maurice Blanchot and, in particular, Christophe Bidet’s excellent critical biography I picked up the other week.

The reason for starting with a mention of patchwork is that, funnily enough, I went for dinner a few weeks ago with someone who knows Mencius Moldbug IRL and I was very surprised to hear them say the phrase: “Curtis is #YangGang now”…

The trajectory from neo-monarchist to UBI-supporting democratic socialist(?) might seem like an odd one but actually it’s somewhat analogous to Blanchot’s own trajectory… And, indeed, in placing myself as someone interested in post-Moldbuggian communities, I find myself thinking through his monarchism in much the same way as I think through Blanchot’s. It contains within it the seeds of a community that is far beyond itself and perhaps that is what has happened since. Monarchism emerges as a suitably paradoxical neo-reactionary politic in that it presents us with a radical subjectivity — a grounded subject-hood; a being-subject that is both radically literal and radically other to our present. However, faced with reality, this thought requires a shift, an adaptability — here a neoreactionary neocameralism loosens up, shaking off its rigid exterior, and leaving behind the striving for communality that lies buried at its centre.

Many of the biographical snippets that circulate about Blanchot’s early life tell a similar story. Levinas would describe his high levels of intelligence, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as “aristocratic”. Blanchot loved French high culture, to the extent that his love of literature became a ground for his French nationalism.

It is no secret that, as a young man, Blanchot used to write for far-right publications, and yet Bidet’s biography lays this out in ways that make clear the ideas which he would nonetheless carry with him from this point until his death. It is this sense of carrying a philosophy — an ontology — of belonging from the right to the left that I’m interested in exploring in more detail, especially considering our present paranoia which seems to repeatedly result in people moving in the other direction, pushed away by the moralism of a left which denounces any and all inconsistencies. Most of the reasons for this are, undoubtedly, related to the left’s presently flawed conceptions of community and comradeship but perhaps Blanchot’s own shift offers some inspiration on how to reverse the present trend and our collective politics with it.

What may be surprising for many, in reading a gloss of Blanchot’s intellectual trajectory is that, despite the sort of far-right rhetoric he would engage in for many years, he struck up a friendship with Emmanuel Levinas very early on.

When the pair met as students at the University of Strasbourg, Blanchot was already settled in his right-leaning views and it was only after he graduated that Blanchot would begin his career by editing and contributing to a wide-range of Parisian nationalist newspapers. However, his encounter with Levinas nonetheless opened a door which it would take him some years to step through into the beyond of his nationalism.

Bidet summarises his trajectory as follows:

As a lead editor of the Journal des Débats and Aux Ècoutes, a writer of editorals specializing in foreign policy, someone with nationalist ideals, a staunch spiritualist, in the 1930s Maurice Blanchot seems to have had a single goal: restoring the glory of French culture, which in his eyes had grown corrupt, had perhaps even disappeared. He joined the young dissident milieaus of the Maurrassian far right, becoming one of its most prominent and influential members. Having initially been motivated by Catholic, traditionalist reasons directly related to his family upbringing, he adopted positions that were more and more radical, privileging antidemocratic, antiparliamentary, and anticapitalist rhetoric, occasionally of limitless violence, under the tutelage and influence of Thierry Maulnier. But he was also the friend of Emmanuel Levinas, and he lived in close relation to nationalist Jews like Paul Lévy. He shared their struggle against the resistable rise of Hitler, denouncing at a very early stage the first work camps, state totalitarianism, anti-intellectualism, warlike morality, and the mythology of organic community, all of which were prevailing across the Rhine. He quickly grasped Hitler’s threat to the Europe of nations, but his fervent anticommunism forced him to adopt strategically dubious and even — as he would later recognise — irresponsible positions in diplomatic and military terms. He sought out all ways of preserving peace and deplored the successive climb-downs by international organizations and national governments, inviting a humanity “always driven by the candid and boastful nobility of a better future” not to forget “the laws governing its difficult condition.” Over the Over the years, the increasing speed and pressure of events exploded the fragile cohesion of activism on the far right. This made Blanchot choose between the two groups that he frequented. He refused to spent further time in the company of certain anti-Semitic, fascist, radicalized, and protocollaborationist circles…

As Blanchot moved away from his nationalism, he nonetheless retained his love for that which was evoked by literature, that unground which brought him close to Levinas. Bidet notes how Levinas recognised with admiration, despite their political differences, the way that Blanchot “carried out a ‘double gesture'” that would resonate with Levinas’ own approach to being if not politics. He embodied “a questioning carried out from within literary thought or writing, a place inaccessible to philosophy itself; and an absolute affirmation, a rallying cry for the necessity of philosophy, in a context in which it was threatened institutionally and epistemologically.”

There is perhaps a clear thread from this internal quest for outsideness to the sort of comradeship the two young thinkers were to strike up. Bidet writes of their “immediate desire for friendship, in spite of and in place of political opinions (which is to say: the positions adopted regarding cultural belonging and the space it required, the community it made possible).” If Blanchot already contained this striving within him, Levinas is no doubt responsible for triggering his slow radicalisation since it is Levinas who “demands that ‘the transformation of convictions’ be thought of without any reference to compromise. Friendship alone can justify this absolute, can force us to glimpse the permanency that lies beyond change.”

This sense of friendship is no doubt unpopular today, at a time when the stakes are seen as too high to have patience for those we see as threatening our own existence. We might view Levinas the Jewish ethicist as a bit of an idiot, then, for being such close friends with Blanchot the occasional anti-Semite (caught up, in some of his later newspaper columns, with the overall feeling of the age). And yet, as Bidet continues, it seems that Levinas already saw in his friend the potential for what was to come:

Levinas sets up a paradoxical portrait of a Blanchot who was already wholly self-present in 1926, while also being completely still to come. Everything was indeed there already: the aristocracy, the loftiness, the gaze, the demand, the excess and the excellence, the ability to surprise (via little-trod paths, surprises, paradoxes). Levinas describes a Blanchot ignorant of himself, learning about himself, who would learn to recognise his aristocracy in forms different from the — imaginary — ones he inherited. The Blanchot of 1926 was a Blanchot without oeuvre, but able to impress, elevate, agitate, be insubordinate: everything was already there, everything would find its ways, but slowly, with difficulty, erratically. This slowness would respond to the demand not to judge, not to judge immediately, to know how not to be satisfied with immediate judgment, and to know how to move beyond one’s everyday life, one’s automatic opinion, one’s agitated blindness, to move beyond these by way of an unending quest which, confronting the real (thanks to the demand of friendship and the hard work of writing), would also eventually come into being. This quest allows one to approach being by way of thought, by way of a harsh apprenticeship in the most sovereign worldviews and their endless assimilations. When this apprenticeship is complete, when these worldviews have been fully absorbed and invested with a decisive experience, they can finally be critiqued and filtered by a now indefatigable personal approach, strengthened by this long faux pas, more assured due to its past mistakes and in turn with the events of current History.

This patience, that investment in a friendship which seeks no return, would influence the pair’s philosophies in other ways. It seemed predicated on an eerie relation — this solidarity without similarity functioning as an eerie politic, as a failure of presence and a failure of absence. Bidet writes:

The dialogue between the two friends is woven together by the fact that, in place of the assurance of Heidegger’s es gibt Levinas places the ubiquity of the there is and Blanchot hears the presence of the neuter. They would quote each other on this point, this “destiny of the void”, this “murmur of silence”; “something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to one’s ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise.” As early as 1947, in From Existence to Existents, Levinas refers readers to the first pages of [Blanchot’s] Thomas the Obscure and their pure description of the there is: “the presence of absence, the night, the dissolution of the subject in the night, the horror of being, the return of being to the heart of every negative moment, the reality of unreality are admirably expressed there.”

This bridge between the two thinkers would eventually come to bear on Blanchot’s politics explicitly. At first, as a result, he saw little redeemable in Marxism. For him, the “revolution had to impose itself as the ‘sudden passage from the impossible to the necessary,’ breaking its way through and imposing it ‘inalienable and incoercible presence,’ even and especially if the revolution always appeared to be anything but possible and necessary…”

Bidet writes of a Blanchot who condemned “the abandonment of revolution as a clear utopia”, condemned “Marxism for providing a counterimage of revolution”. For Blanchot, “revolution is the sustained refusal, in all its demands and excesses, of any form of spiritual disorder” but the reality of Stalinism arrested “the ‘sudden move from the impossible to the necessary’ [and] allowed refusal to be caught in the trap of its own condemnations.” A sentiment that is familiar again today.

It was precisely this impotent cycle of condemnations and inaction that led to Blanchot’s eventual withdrawal from politics — at least for a time, as the night of an encroaching war made the writing of columns an embarrassment.

Bidet discusses the content and context of Blanchot’s last article for the journal Combat:

The article discusses dissidence, a weapon in the service of purity, but a double-edged sword. […] Perhaps Blanchot was a dissident among dissidents […] Perhaps he was already abandoning nationalism, having criticized the nation too much, and thus illustrating the law of dissidence that he had just formulated: “The true dissident nationalist is someone who foregoes the traditional formulae of nationalism, not in order to move toward internationalism, but in order to combat internationalism in all its forms, amongst which feature economics and the nation itself.” The latter two entities would later become the frequent object of his critiques. The anti-internationalist and antinationalist nationalist, the anticapitalist and anticommunist communist. Such were the types of dissident to whom Blanchot was appealing in December 1937. The factors that would establish the revolutionary demand for movement and for friendship in the 1960s could serve, at this stage, only as a way of thinking clearly about a personal dead end. This inertia was also the beginning of withdrawal, the crisis that would set his thinking to work.

It is here that we might hear echoes of patchwork writings from around the blogosphere but present positions have far more in common with the later Blanchot. My personal favourite patchwork post, “Lover’s Flight“, features this version of his thought heavily. It is not simply an anti-internationalist and antinationalist nationalism or an anticapitalist and anticommunist communism — as if there were anything simple as those positions. It instead speaks to something far more fundamental which state apparatuses cannot capture.

Nonetheless, the persistent fear and accusation amongst so many interlocutors seems to be that this is indicative of a swing in the wrong direction — from left to right — or that an attempt to salvage a new leftism from rightist grounds is a naive and futile gesture.

It’s not. As far as I am concerned, and which Blanchot’s intellectual history (which we’ll return to) demonstrates so clearly, post-war Europe demanded an engagement with a variety of questions and demands that we later dropped, related to how a collective subjectivity could be rethought in a way that wasn’t simply dictated by the winners: the capitalist states that made up the Allied forces. Moldbug’s NRx thinking may have invigorated this far-right thought for a new era but to take it to its own conclusions, just as Blanchot did, is to find oneself in a radical leftism that is as alien to our world today as it was then — and that is its strength.

Too many point to the 1930s today as an antecedent to our present moment in order to inflame sensationalist readings of our culture wars, but few pick up those ethical questions again here anew. This blog has consistently attempted to do this and will continue to. Pointing to ideological complexities and impurities does nothing if we cannot carry these observations forward to new ground, beyond the questions that were formulated and carried with great difficulty throughout the decades that we continuously reference but with an ignorance to the aims that so many carried with them, buried under the neoliberalism of our present moment, which infects the thought of our radicals — on both sides of the political divide — more frequently than they themselves are ready to admit.

To be continued…


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