On Blanchot and Writing

In between dissertation writing, I have been participating in a fantastic reading group composed of graduate students and professors.  We just finished our first book, The Writing of the Disaster, by Maurice Blanchot. One of the professors in our group has written a three-part blog post series on Blanchot which I highly recommend. Below is an excerpt from part I of his series. (See also, part II, and part III).

The Ruination and Salvation of Life/Writing, Part I

The myth of the origin of written language as told by Socrates in the Phaedrus: Theuth declares that written language, the materiality of the word, will make the Egyptians wiser by improving their memory. But Thamus instead insists that the technical gift of letters will, in fact, produce forgetting. When Egyptians rely solely on writing to remember, they are reminded from the outside with foreign signs and no longer trust the authentic memory emanating from within their souls. How could writing, as seen from this perspective, ever bring about an ethical relation?

It can be argued, perhaps, that it was not until Blanchot, who lived at the junction of phenomenology and poststructuralism, and within the milieu of post-World War II French philosophy, that writing finally could be accorded its inherent ethical essence, that the intrinsic ethical nature of writing could be uncovered. Is it simply that thinkers since Plato never fully examined the phenomenality of written language? Perhaps so. Approaching an answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this project. Nonetheless, we can most likely agree that Heidegger’s work on language began to set the stage for this rather late development that sought to locate ethics within writing. Heidegger’s verdict—“Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins.” —begins to reveal not only the ethos (ήθος qua dwelling—das Haus—as well as ethics) of language but also—and equally important to Blanchot’s project—the daof Dasein, the thereness of human being which Blanchot, by way of Lévinas, will come to understand as the terrible il y a of non-relational, neutered ontology.

For both Lévinas and Blanchot, language serves as the only escape from neutered being. Lévinas comes to understand, at least initially, dialog and conversation (interpellation) as the site where relational metaphysics (ethics) can occur. We need to remember, however, that for Lévinas, one’s subjectivity is always already riddled with alterity. That is, I cannot (ever) be myself without the (prior and primordial) dispersion of identity across the differential field of otherness. At its most fundamental, I would never have been myself had it not been for the genetic material inherited from my parents and grandparents or for the historical exigencies that moved my family from Europe to theUnited States. But Blanchot goes even further: he problematizes the pharmacology of the text by putting into question the question of writing and its relational distance to and from non-subjectivist ethics.

Dissertation Abstract: Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition

If everything goes according to the plan, I am scheduled to defend my dissertation the last week of August (at this time the exact date has not been given).  Below is a copy of my dissertation abstract for those interested.

Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition


Cynthia R. Nielsen, Ph.D.
University of Dallas, 2011
Director: Philipp W. Rosemann


Michel Foucault offers penetrating analyses of how subjectivities are constructed. His statements regarding the ubiquity of power relations have been misinterpreted as both a denial of human agency and a death blow to the subject. Against this entrenched view, I argue that his understanding of power relations presuppose free subjects and, in fact, creates a space for resistance possibilities.

Foucault articulates a “metaphysically thin” account of agency. That is, a free subject is one whose relations with others produces a field of possibilities for acting on one’s own as well as others’ actions. That field may, of course, become severely restricted. Nonetheless, even in extremely oppressive situations, an agent retains her freedom as long as she is able in some way to resist.

Here our dialogue with Douglass and Fanon proves fruitful. Douglass, for example, was forced to live in an inhumane slave society; yet, he engaged in subversive acts, allowing him to re-narrate his subjectivity. Although Douglass’s freedom was constrained, he was not rendered completely passive. Through examining Douglass’s and Fanon’s concrete experiences of oppression, I demonstrate the empirical validity of Foucault’s theoretical analyses concerning power relations and subject-(re)formation.

Unlike Foucault, Douglass and Fanon were forthright concerning their moral evaluations. That is, they condemned as intrinsically evil the practice of slavery and colonization. Foucault’s reticence to make transcultural moral judgments signals a weakness in his account not unrelated to his reticence to affirm universal structures of human being. Consequently, Foucault’s anthropology and “ontologically minimalist” view of agency creates an obstacle for our modern and premodern dialogue partners.

I then turn to Augustine whose critique of Roman narratives, awareness of social conditioning, and processive view of the self exhibit striking similarities to Foucault’s reflections. However, Augustine’s ambiguous position regarding agency coupled with his (strong) doctrine of sin is, for Foucault, unpalatable. Enter Scotus. Scotus’s notion of agency affirms the power for opposite acts, and his “thick” account of the will and freedom establishes a basis for transcultural, moral critique. Scotus thus serves as a via media, facilitating constructive dialogue with (post)modern thinkers evincing emancipatory concerns and attunement to social construction.