Kojeve treats the intellectual as an animal because he lacks self-transcendence.

What the intellectual seeks to express is merely his

“talent” or his “nature, ” that which is given and which he has not

himself created. Thus the intellectual’s activity “alters nothing and

opposes nothing” ( Phenomenology, 23 7 ). Because he operates in a

purely literary mode, the individuality that expresses his talent does

not achieve any self-transcendence through a genuine and therefore

creative negation. The nature that is expressed remains a given, animal nature;

it is not dialectically transformed in the process of expression.

“The intellectual negates nothing; he therefore creates nothing, only

manifests his ‘nature’: he is a ‘spiritual’ animal [das geistige Teirreich]

” ( Kojeve, 93). Even more fundamentally, the intellectual is an

animal because his literary mode leaves him always short of the

struggle for recognition that is the constitutive moment of human, or

more precisely, for Kojeve, an thropogenic desire. As Michael Roth puts

it, the intellectual ” only speaks . . . [he] neither triumphs as a master

nor works as a slave” ( Roth, 1 06). He pretends to be disinterested and

only concerned with the impersonal purity of what Hegel calls “the

matter in hand” [ die Sache selbst] . He fails to insist on recognition, the

hallmark  of  human desire in Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel. Rather

than forcing the others to recognize his value, the intellectual withdraws

into the posture of disinterestedness . This implies that there is

no such thing as an intellectuel engage, because the intellectual risks


Both commitment and disinterestedness are moments of a

dialectic of deception and imposture. This point can also be expressed

by saying that there is nothing social in the action of the intellectual.

Hegel ends “The Spiritual Animal Kingdom” by emphasizing that

what is essential is the “action of each and everyone.” For Kojeve,

however, because the intellectual sidesteps the mediation of struggle

and labor, both of  which necessarily involve a social dimension, the

universalization that he is engaged in is inevitably false. “The action of

the intellectual is purely thought: for him the Tun Aller und Jeder [sic],

collective action, means that his thought must become universal, universally

valid” (Kojeve, 94). This universalization is false not because of

its content, but because it is too immediate; it neglects to pass through

the action of the collectivity, to become effective ( wirklich ) in the

social life of a people, to engage in the struggle of history.

This analysis  allows us to see what is most paradoxical in

Blanchot’s  use of Kojeve. Blanchot rejects any opposition between literature

and action, any account of literature as a pure passivity. Against

Kojeve’s account of the animality of the intellectual, Blanchot deploys

Kojeve’s own definition of labor as an activity of transformation and


But what is a writer doing when he writes? Everything a man does when

he works, but to an outstanding degree. The writer, too, produces something –

a work in the highest sense of the word. He produces this work

by transforming natural and human realities . . . . In order to write, he must destroy

 language in its present form and create it in another form . . . . [305/3 14]

This analysis of writing as labor  –  simultaneously transformation  and

Negation – implies that there  is no such thing as a “mere intellectual, “

or if there is, it would be one who does not write. The writer is not an

animal in Kojeve’s sense. Blanchot’s writer fundamentally chooses human

death over animal  life. On the basis of this reversal, the rest of

Kojeve’s critique of the intellectual is accepted, or more precisely, assumed  –

that is, it ceases to be a critique and becomes a positive characterization

of the literary project. Like the animal, the writer operates

in a domain of  immediacy. He negates, but he negates too easily (no

matter how difficult it may be to write). His mode of negation sidesteps

empirical conditions and possibilities of realization and proceeds immediately

to “absolute freedom. “

Insofar as he immediately gives himself  the freedom  he does not have,

he is neglecting the actual conditions for his emancipation, he is neglecting

to do the real thing that must be done so that the abstract  ideal

of freedom can be realized. His negation is global. This is why this

negation negates nothing, in the end, why the work in which it is

realized  is not a truly negative, destructive act of transformation, but

rather the realization of the inability to negate anything. [306/3 1 5 ]

The labor involved in Blanchot’s literary freedom fails to create because

it  is insufficiently destructive. The relations  it entertains with

the world  of productivity and politics  –  of determinate means and

ends  –  can only be based on a mutual misunderstanding. This misunderstanding

is indicated by the second half of the title of Hegel’s chapter,

“deceit, or the ‘matter in hand’ itself [ der Betrug oder die Sache

selbst] . ” Blanchot quite accurately summarizes the sense of this term

as “no longer the ephemeral work but something beyond that work :

the truth of the work” (300/308 ). Hegel’s characterization of die Sache

selbst appears as the unity of individual action and the objectivity that

the work gains from existing for other individualities; thus it stands

above the various moments that make the work something contingent

and ephemeral ( circumstances, means, reality), and therefore can be

taken to represent  the higher purpose, the truth of which the work may

only be an imperfect realization. And in principle, this higher purpose

is what author and readers can agree on as genuinely important, as the

source  of their interest in the work. Other individuals take an interest

in the work  and ” disinterestedly” offer their opinions and their aid.

But this interest in the “matter in hand” displayed by all the individualities

is in fact merely a cover for their true interest in their own

action. While Hegel expressly qualifies this attitude as honesty or

integrity [Ehrlichkeit], it is clear that it is fundamentally an alibi. The

retreat into a consideration of one’s own action as the true matter at

hand, however, is equally deceptive, for the work continues to exist for

others . “It is, then, ” Hegel concludes, ” equally a deception of oneself

and  of others if it is pretended that what one is concerned with is the

‘matter in hand’ alone ” ( Phenomenology, 25 1 ).

Blanchot  gives a number of possible versions of the “matter in

hand” as higher purpose : art, the ideal, the world, values, authenticity,

etc. Even failure, silence, or nothingness can be figured as the essence

of  literature and therefore as the truth behind the work. But the dialectic

of  deception that takes place around this notion is best  illustrated

by  the example of engagement in a political ” Cause” (which is, moreover,

an excellent translation of Sache ) :

For example: [an author] writes novels, and these novels imply certain

political statements, so that he seems to side with a certain Cause.

Other people, people who directly support the Cause, are then inclined

to recognize him as one of themselves, to see his work as proof that the

Cause is really his cause, but as soon as they make this claim, as soon as

they  try to become involved in this activity and take it over, they realize

that  the writer  is not on their side, that he is only on his own side, that

what  interests him about the Cause is the operation he himself  has

carried out-and they are puzzled. It is easy to understand why men

who  have  committed  themselves  to a party, who have made a decision,

distrust  writers who share their views; because these writers have also

committed  themselves  to literature, and in the final analysis literature,

by  its very activity, denies the substance of what it represents.

[30 1 /309- 1 0]

The writer cannot commit himself to a cause because the activity

through which this commitment would be expressed, namely literature,

nullifies  any particular purpose it would represent.

On the basis of this passage, we can describe the central question of

the first half of  the essay as a critique of Sartrean engagement in terms

of the negativity constitutive of literature.

 “The right to death” therefore appears as a different relation to politics . This makes the section on the Revolution, in the middle of the essay, its culmination. For Blanchot, the relation between literature and politics  –  that is to say,

the question to which engagement is one possible response  –  cannot

be understood in immediately political terms. A relation can only be

established  between these two terms by beginning with an understanding

of  the character of the literary project as such.

We have seen that this project, for Blanchot, implies an immediate and  total negation of the world as it is given to us. Therefore a commitment to a

particular political project, a Cause, is impossible for a writer as

writer: it is an act of imposture or bad faith, which is in fact perceived

as such by both writers and militants. This is true whatever the

writer ‘s political sympathies may happen to be.

There is, however, a  political analogue to this immediate and total negation of the world, namely, the Revolutionary Terror. The writer ‘s relation to the Terror,

however, cannot be described in terms of commitment; rather, it appears

as an identification .  The writer recognizes himself in the Terror.

This is no more a question of the individual writer ‘s particular

political sympathies than is the imposture of commitment. Instead,

this recognition is founded on the nature of the literary project as such

and the relation to politics that literature allows or indeed demands .

This is in fact the fundamental point of the example of Sade : despite his

noble family background and his attachment to the ways of the Ancien

Regime, despite his relatively humanitarian behavior in 1792-1794,

the fundamental meaning of his writing as writing is to be found in an

infinite movement of negation. Blanchot’s contemporaneous essay,

“La raison de Sade, ” ( 1 94 7 ) describes this movement of negation that

accepts no limit : if at a certain moment nature appears as a positive

name for the very movement of negation, and thus becomes the totality

that contains this movement and reconverts it into positivity, it

must be negated in its turn.22

This infinite movement of negation is also the essence of the Revolution,

which is the meaning of Hegel’s phrase, ” absolute freedom. “

There is no social reality that cannot  be freely transformed. “At this

moment, ” writes Blanchot, “freedom aspires to be realized in the immediate form of everything is possible, everything can be done . ” It is

precisely this combination of  immediacy and totality that makes the

Revolution a literary event. Reality no longer resists. It “sinks effortlessly,

without work, into nothingness . ” Everyone can propose his

or her own constitution, attempt  to immediately universalize his or

her own consciousness as reality. The classic question of the relation

between literature and the Revolution concerns the “influence” of

Enlightenment  thinking.  Blanchot’s description of the Terror bypasses

this  unresolvable  question, and points to what is most fundamental

in Hegel’s analysis : the extent to which the Revolution,  as

event, has the form of  literature. The Revolution  is a fabulation:

a new world, with new men and new laws. “The speech of  fable

becomes action . . . . Revolutionary action explodes with the same

force and the same facility as the writer who has only to set down a

few words side by side in order to change the world” (309/3 1 8- 1 9).

It is therefore not so much that the writer identifies with the

Revolution  – he does, but this is in fact secondary. The Revolution

realizes literature. B u t because it realizes literature, it is in fact completely

derealizing. It is in the Revolution as revolution, or more

precisely, as permanent insurrection, and not as the realization of

particular if  universalistic values, that this literary ambition comes

to pass. The Revolution is not a state, but an infinite movement of


Blanchot’s most direct and most important borrowing from Kojeve

is the title  phrase, “the right to death. ” Kojeve had written, in one of his

most deliberately provocative formulations :

We have seen that death voluntarily confronted in a negating struggle is

Precisely  the most authentic realization and manifestation of  absolute

individual  freedom. It is thus indeed in and by the Terror that this

freedom spreads throughout society, and it cannot be attained in a

“tolerant” state which does not take its citizens sufficiently seriously

to assure them of their political right to death. [Kojeve, 5 5 8 ]

The right to death is therefore something that must be claimed, and

that must be claimed precisely because it represents the highest fulfillment

 of human (literary? ) freedom. The terrorist is one who has already

claimed his right to death, claimed it for himself before claiming

it also for others, and is therefore speaking as one already dead. The

frequent invocations made by Robespierre and Saint-Just ( as well as by

a score of less notorious orators of the period) of  their impending deaths

are thus not ” mere ” (that is to say, dispensable) rhetorical flourishes.

They in fact define the lieu d ‘enonciation of their discourse, and the

possession of this rhetorical position is one of the major sources of

their political power. The terrorist speaks from beyond the grave, as

one who is already dead.

Robespierre’s virtue, Saint-Just’s relentlessness, are simply their existences

already suppressed, the anticipated presence of their deaths, the

decision to allow freedom to assert itself completely in them and

through its universality to negate the particular reality of their lives.

Granted, perhaps they caused the Reign of Terror to take place. But the

Terror they personify does not come from the death they inflict on

others but from the death they inflict on themselves . . . . the Terrorists

are those who desire absolute freedom and are fully conscious that this

constitutes a desire for their own death. [3 1 0/3 1 9-20]24

The Terror suppresses individuals, killing them off as if their particular

lives had no meaning. It is, indeed, because rather than in spite of this

fact, that the Terror is the fulfillment of humanity for Kojeve (Humanism

as Terror), just as, for Blanchot, it is the fulfillment of literature.

But an essential difference must be remarked here. Whereas for Kojeve

the historical function of the Terror is to prepare for the universal

(Napoleonic-Hegelian-Stalinist) state, in which humanity will be fully

satisfied and thus history at an end, for Blanchot what remains after

this moment is poetry. If  prose is the most truly murderous form of

literature, poetry ‘s concern for what remains after this hecatomb is

inhuman, but perhaps thereby more humane. ” Ponge ‘s descriptions, “

writes Blanchot, “begin at that hypothetical moment after the world

has been achieved, history completed, nature almost made human,

when speech advances to meet the thing and the thing learns to speak . “

They express “not existence as it was before the day but existence as it

is after the day, the world of the end of the world” (323 /335 ). Literature,

Blanchot says in conclusion, is “the life which supports death and

maintains itself in it ” (330/343 ). But while this death may be what is

most human in the world, indeed “a power that humanizes nature”

(325 /33 7 ), the life that survives it is not our life. Literature is what

survives humanity.

For a historiographical interpretation of the Terror that reaches remarkably

similar conclusions, see Claude Lefort, “The Revolutionary Terror, ” in Democracy and Poli tical Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press,(1 98 8 ), particularly 86- 8 7 : “The Terror is revolutionary in that it forbids anyone to occupy the place of power; and in that sense, it has a democratic character . . . . Robespierre was constantly obliged to cover up the paths that had brought him to power, but this was not because of some character trait; as we said above; it was because everyone who sought power was under an obligat ion to disappear as an individual . “


Revolutionary Sentences

Yale French Studies


The Place of Maurice Blanchot

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