He perceived all the strangeness there was in being observed by a word as if by a living thing, and not simply by one word, but by all the words that were in that word, by all those that went with it and in turn contained other words, like a possession of angels opening out into the infinite to the very eye of the absolute.
Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure
The first time I learned about Maurice Blanchot was during the fall of 2022. I discovered him during a particularly low moment in my life; I was healing from a broken heart and felt like everything I said in social situations was uninteresting. I was reading a short essay comparing the work of Lucy Skaer and Becky Beasley, both interdisciplinary British artists. The essay focussed primarily on death and objects. The author cited Maurice Blanchot as being an important influence on the work of Beasley in particular. As an artist who directly references works of classic literature in her practice, for example, creating wooden, tomb-like boxes mirroring the exact physical scale of William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying and photographing a screen-like sculpture that she built that references the title character’s resistance to performing duties at his job in Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, Blanchot’s philosophical project of inquiring what language and literature is would be an obvious influence for Beasley. I decided to delve deeper and learn more about Blanchot’s work, but it soon proved to be a daunting task. Not only has he written an enormous volume of books, both non-fiction and fiction, but the way he writes can sometimes be incredibly dense. The first piece I read by him was the appendix of his long book, The Space of Literature. The book in its entirety attempts to flesh out the fact that language is autonomous and anonymous; rather than being spoken, language speaks through the person or speaker. I noticed a link between this idea and the concepts put forward by object-oriented otologists, namely how objects are autonomous entities that resist being fully comprehended. For Blanchot, language is something ungraspable and alien. In a very poetic sentence, he summarizes what he believes language to be: “Language is a thing: it is the written thing, a piece of a shell, a splinter of a rock, a brittle fragment in which the reality of the earth subsides”.
In the appendix, he writes brief paragraphs about images, and this is probably the only moment where he mentions anything visual. For Blanchot, images are something that are not fully of this world and because of this, he compares images to cadavers. The cadaver is no longer the person it once was when living, it is simply a representation. Images too are not the thing they represent. Therefore, images and corpses are not fully of this world. In relation to images, Blanchot speaks about the concept of fascination. He writes: “Of whoever is fascinated it can be said that he doesn’t perceive any real object, any real figure, for what he sees does not belong to the world of reality, but to the indeterminate milieu of fascination. This milieu is, so to speak, absolute. Distance is not excluded from it but is immeasurable. Distance here is the limitless depth behind the image, a lifeless profundity, unmanipulable, absolutely present although not given, where objects sink away when they depart from their sense, when they collapse into their image. In the experience of fascination, light is not the light of subjectivity and reason, but rather the black light of things and beings which attract one’s gaze like the dark surface of water. This milieu of fascination, where what one sees seizes sight and renders it interminable, where the gaze coagulates into light, where light is the absolute gleam of an eye one doesn’t see but which one doesn’t cease to see since it is the mirror image of one’s own look – this milieu is utterly attractive. Fascinating. It is light which is also the abyss, a light one sinks into, both terrifying and tantalizing”.
The experience of being fascinated is described as non-rational or pre-rational, the person fascinated becomes enthralled and submits to the object of fascination. The cadaver-like image is fascinating in terms of its ephemerality and strangeness. It is not an object yet as it is still present before us and it tends to withdraw the object from understanding as opposed to giving sense to it. The image is not the distance from the original object, the object as distance.
In addition to the image and fascination, death is something that is brought up again and again by Blanchot and for him, literature functions similarly to death. Blanchot was heavily inspired by Hegel, specifically Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel that took place in the 1930s. Kojève essentially summarized Hegel’s key concepts to the public in a series of lectures. One of Hegel’s ideas that was inspiring to Blanchot was negativity. Negativity is the idea that when we name an object, we annihilate or kill the particularities of that object. Blanchot, in his essay “Literature and the Right to Death”, uses the example of the word, “woman”. When we say “woman”, we do not mean a specific woman, it could be any woman. The object then is discarded in favor of the idea or concept. For Blanchot, this is simply what language does, it distances us from the immediacy of life. He calls this “worklessness”, or the information theory of language. In contrast to language, literature is a double negative, meaning it both annihilates the object as well as the concept. Literature never really means what it says, so the concept of the word is negated as well. The word then has a “fragile presence that no longer refers to the thing or the concept”. In this way, Blanchot states that death permeates language, meaning, and representation in general. When words are spoken or written or even images being created, there is an unavoidable distance that is presented between the thing and its meaning.
These ideas have very promising and fruitful ramifications for artmaking. For the past six months or so, I have been trying to find ways to integrate these ideas into my own work. Two pieces of mine include printed sections directly from Blanchot’s fiction writing, in particular his short story, When The Time Comes, a beautifully written, yet frustratingly dense story about a man who visits an old friend in her apartment. I have read essays written about this story, yet I still could not say what exactly it is about. It seems apt that Blanchot would write plotless fiction, as the work seems to be more object-like than any linear, traditional story. From reading and researching Blanchot, I have developed a more in depth and poetic understanding of the nature of images, and by extension, the nature of meaning-making processes, which I believe most of my work to be concerned with. He says that “in the image, the object grazes something which it had dominated in order to be an object – something counter to which it had defined and built itself up”. I feel that this sentence could have many different meanings, however, I feel that he is saying that there is some kind of truth to the image, or to representation in general. The image delivers us to ourselves. And I think that’s what making art does too.
 Blanchot, Maurice. “Literature and the Right to Death”