Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nancy, Derrida, Blanchot, Work

Thinking about Derrida's "The Pit and The Pyramid" (Margins of Philosophy) together with a remark of Jean Luc-Nancy's in "A Finite Thinking" (in his amazing book of the same name) elucidated a few things for me and also made them more intriguing.
One is always tempted--and this "one" includes Derrida himself--to explain "work" (tekhné, craft, labor, art) in Blanchot's sense, primarily as he talks about it in The Space of Literature. But for necessary reasons this must be resisted, if one is to think a "work" that functions, labors, proceeds--in short, works. Nancy succumbs to this temptation while maintaining a distance from Blanchot, while Derrida does not and yet tries to make this temptation permanently possible: that is the difference between the two thinkers, and Derrida sketches it out brilliantly throughout On Touching--Jean-Luc Nancy in his constant references to Nancy's
 "exactitude" (this is how I would read those seemingly offhand remarks, that is).
Both think work that works, a work that purely functions without any respect for what it works on or what it produces by virtue of its work or--and this is the real key to thinking work that works--even without regard to its own functioning or operation. That is, both think a work that might always cease to function if it is to continue functioning purely: it must do so in order for it to be a work that operates without respect to its own functioning. Work without guarantee of the continued being of the work ("without reserve," as Derrida says): only this non-work in work would make work work (see my paper on Derrida and tekhné in The Gift of Death--where I precisely describe things in Nancy's way, due to the English translation--for a more coherent explanation of this).
Nancy explains this working or non-working of the technical in the following way, however:

The "reign of technology" disassembles and disorients the infinite sealing off of a Sense. In the same way, undoubtedly, as it disconcerts and displaces, endlessly, the completion of a "work," in such a way that technization could, in all rigor, be called "un-worked," or without work [dès-œuvrée].
-"A Finite Thinking," in A Finite Thinking, 26

The last term is Blanchot's. But notice how it turns our simple "non-work" into an "un-work," a
 failure of work to work that undoes what is working in its working. At the exact point (this is an example of the exactitude) at which there is work, there the work can just as equally as working it can be un-working itself.
This is crucial. For throughout the original text of "The Pit and the Pyramid," though the English translation by Alan Bass continually suggests this phrasing, Derrida will consistently avoid collapsing his explanation of the non-working of work into an un-working. In fact, he will never explain this non-working as non-working: if it is necessary for a machine or tekhné that works not work, this not-working is never simply the opposite or the undoing of work. It is not a negative of the term "work" at the heart of its operation. Notice how Derrida always moves between the words "travail," and "fonctionnerait," "marche," and, elsewhere in the text, "œuvre," so as to always attempt to equate one with the other and thereby disrupt their synonymous relationship--that is, so that one cannot name work a work that is un-work. Notice also that he starts precisely with Nancy's formulation "at the point at, at the moment in which," etc., only to move into this greater indecisiveness that is uniquely Derrida's own:

Or le calcul, la machine, l'écriture muette appartiennent au même syatème d'équivalence et leur travail pose le même problème: au moment où le sens se perd, où la pensée s'oppose son autre, où l'esprit [Hegelian Geist] s'absente de lui-même, le rendement de l'opération est-il sûr? ... et qui, en somme, en tant que négatif, mais sans apparaître comme tel, sans se présenter, c'est-à-dire sans travailler au servie du sens, réussirait? mais réussirait, donc, en pure perte?
Tout simplement une machine, peut-être, et qui fonctionnerait. Une machine définie sans son pur fonctionnement et non dans son utilité finale, son sens, son rendement, son travail... ce que Hegel, interprète relevant de toute l'historie de la philosophie, n'a jamais pu penser, c'est une machine qui fonctionnerait... L philosophie y verrait sans doute un non-fonctionnement, un non-travail, et elle manquerait par là ce qui pourtant, dans une telle machine, marche. Tout seul. Dehors.
-"Le puits et la pyramide," Marges de la philosophie, 126

I'll elaborate on this later, perhaps. It is enough to collect the three thinkers together for now.

1 comment:

Cecilia Wu said...

Hi Mike, Thanks for pointing me toward Nancy's Birth to Presence. he has an idiosyncratic writing style that i have yet to get used to. and also an amazing micro-structural sensibility - he pays attention to the prepositional nuances of the conceptual trajectories. in this way he gains a unique traction on, and penetration into, the seismic surfaces of the derridian earthquakes. i have to take a closer look, but so far, i get the sense that he is more angular, and perhaps more architecturally precise, which might partially account for derrida's comment with regard to his exactitude. i find your considerations of labor particularly fascinating to consider in relation to pregnancy and gestation. perhaps derrida sustains the fetus in the womb and experiences interminable contractions, while nancy gives birth to himself and experiences the alienation and separation acutely as an infant announcing its first cry.