Language and the ImageDr William Large
The narrator has gone mad, we are told, because they have been struck on the head one time. We do not know why or how, or even why this would have made them go mad, but mad they are. No one could see that they were mad, because it was deep inside them, but this madness caused them to run through the streets at night and ‘howl’ . Nobody knew about this madness during the day. They thought he was calm (this opposition between the day and the night, and the different meanings that are associated with them, is significant for this story). In parallel with his madness, is the ‘madness of the world’. One thinks that this has to do with the Second World War. We are told that he was put up against the wall but the soldiers did not shoot. Perhaps they were pretending to scare him. The same incident appears in another Blanchot story, The Instant of my Death. It might perhaps have really happened to Blanchot, since he fought in the resistance during the war, at least some people think that it might have happened to him, but we cannot be sure. The incident restored him to sanity. He thought that maybe he was happy, even on the days that he ought to have been miserable, but this happiness, paradoxically, perhaps because it was so absurd, ended up making him feel sad again. They are those who wish to escape death, or perhaps dying, and then again there are those who wish to escape life by killing themselves. This is a mistake, the narrator tells us. There is a difference between men and women in this regard. They are neither afraid of death or life. For men, the terror of death can always creep into their lives, not real death, but death as the destruction and obliteration of their plans and project, which go up to make the certainty and security of their worlds.
He tells us that he is ill. Is he ill of the TB that eventually would kill Blanchot? He cannot breath. He receives some treatment, or at least it seems so. He is covered in mud, buried in the ground, like being buried alive, by the doctors. The doctors in this story are anonymous, symbols of a strange authority. He says that he is an egoist. He doesn’t like people because he suffers his misfortunes magnified through them. He says that he kills them, but we don’t know whether this is true or he just imagines it, or it is just a metaphor.
At one time, a man drove a knife through his hand. He was a ‘lunatic’. He thought by harming him that he was now his friend. He followed him through the street, shouting at him. He bled on his ‘only suit’ . He lives in the city, because in the crowds allow him to be alone. Sometimes he is tempted to talk to someone. He speaks of a woman (is it always women?), but he doesn’t say how many times this happens. He knows that it is a mistake. He had read a lot of books. When he dies, they will change imperceptibly. The margins will get bigger. He has talked to too many people. Each person is a whole crowd of people. The other is always too big for him. Before he dies, he will have to kill off more of them.
He was poor. He could afford to travel or feed himself. He used to go to libraries in the city. He befriended someone there, and used to get them books whilst they were reading. It was the activity of reading, as though it had become separated from the reader itself, which knew him for what he was really: ‘an insect’ . He didn’t really know what he was. When he was ‘outside’, he had a ‘vision’. It was a woman with a baby carriage. She was pushing the carriage to get outside. A man went into the same doorway, and came out again, perhaps to let the women with the baby carriage come out. When she did, she briefly looked up to the man – a very ordinary scene. Why call it a vision (Levinas, in his essay on Blanchot, talks about this as a moment of experiencing the Other in Blanchot). This vision made him delirious. It is the ‘madness of the day’ which is the title of this short piece? He says it is as if the ‘moment when the day, having stumbled against a real event, would begin hurrying to its end’ . We do not know what this end is, but it seems to be beginning. He went to the house, but it didn’t end. He looked inside and saw a courtyard. He feels very cold, and his height seemed to reach to the sky. It is important for him that this is real: ‘All that real: take note’ .
He has no enemies, but no-one knows him, but he tells us that one day someone, who we don’t know, he does not tell us his name, ground glass in his eyes. It nearly made him blind, and he could not look at the brightness of the day anymore, as though the day was much worse than the night, but he couldn’t stop looking. He heard the cries of animal, a hyena perhaps; he realised a little later that it was he who was making this noise. The doctors removed the glass from his eyes. Were these the same doctors as before who had placed him in the ground? They thought he was asleep, but in reality he was in a struggle against the light of the day. He thought he might be dead, and it was something quite impressive, but really he hadn’t died, rather he was ‘dying’ . It was then that he was ‘face to face with the madness of the day’, because it was the light itself, which promised order and reason, and had always done so, that was going mad . He couldn’t really see, but even though he had almost died from the struggle with the day, he wanted to see again, even if this would make him mad.
They gave him a job at the institution. It seems that they were doing some research there about blood. One day a patient took some poison and almost died. The doctor did not find this very welcome and complained, but he thought that they should not be so hard on the patient. When he walked along the streets, he looked like a ‘crab’. This is because he had to cling onto the walls. This was peculiar, because even because of the glass, his sight hadn’t really been affected, and he could see quite well now. He saw a poster very often, and on it was written: ‘You want this too’ . He thought that this was right. He did want it. But then again he didn’t want it. He didn’t like reading or speaking. It exhausted him. When he did speak, especially when he tried to speak the truth, it tired him out.
He was poor and the streets destituted him. It was as if they were taking something from him, when they ought to have been giving something back. He looked a mess, like a tramp. The more anonymous they were, the more he became, as though they were sucking the individuality out of him. But strangely enough this just made him more visible, as poverty does.
The doctors tell him that he is wasting his talents. If there were shared amongst 10 other people, at least they would do something with them. He felt that they were persecuting him. What was his education, what where these talents that they were so sure about? The doctors had more and more authority and influence over him. They said that they owned everything, and he had given everything to them, including himself, but they still thought he was hiding something from them. Was he, or was it just his imagination. Behind them he saw the law, but rather than the law frightening him, it was he who frightened the law. But even if the law placed him above the authorities, this meant that he had no authority.
He allowed himself to be locked up. He said ‘temporarily’, and they agreed. Another inmate of this asylum, if that is what it is, jumped on his shoulders. He was an old man with a white beard. He said to him, ‘Who do you think you are, Tolstoy?’ . All the other middle-age mad men got on his back, but because he wasn’t a horse, he couldn't carry them all, and collapsed. They beat him, but even despite this, he thought that they were ‘happy days’.
The law, who previously worshipped him, now seemed very displeased. She let him touch her knee, and he wanted more, but she said that that would be ‘disgusting’. She used to play games with him, but it tired him out looking in the corner, and it hurt his eyes. Every question was the same question: ‘who threw glass in your face?’  He didn’t answer and they thought that his silence was not honourable for someone who was educated. He said that his silence was real. They had to find out the answer to this question, and he involved himself in their search.
In telling them what had happened was he telling them a story, just like this one? He then begins the story again with the same lines: ‘I am not learned; I am not ignorant. I have known joys’. He said that he told the whole story, but when he got to the end, they said that it was the beginning, and he had to start again. But he didn’t know how to tell a story about these events anymore, if he ever did. There were two of them, one a doctor for eyes, and the other for ‘mental illness’. Because there were two of them, his examination took on the form of an interrogation. There was a third one, who was neither one or the other, and perhaps didn’t really exist, but he would have asked why a writer could not tell stories. This story ends with the lines: ‘A story? No. No stories, never again’ .
Through writing the thing is transformed into the image, and it is the image that fascinates me. The image is not the presence of the thing, but the presence of its absence, a shadowy presence that accompanies the presence of the thing. We appear to gain the singularity of the thing in the poetic word, but what we really acquire is the presence of that absence. It is not that in literature language becomes full of images, but that language in its totality is an image. We have to ask ourselves, then, what we mean by the image, for in the history of philosophy, beginning with Plato, we have always taken the image to be secondary in relation to the real, a mere shadowy, and impure, repetition of the object. Is the image more than that?
First of all the image has to do with nothing. This goes back to the definition of language at the heart of ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, that the word is the negation and annihilation of the real object; it signifies in the absence of the real thing. Normally we just take this as the mechanism of language, the way that it works. But for Blanchot, what ordinary language takes as a mere instrument, literature takes as its own proper focus. There is the image, and then there is the thing, but there is also the absence of the thing, which is the difference between the image and the thing. We want to say that this absence belongs to us, belongs to our minds, since it is we who create the images, but there is way, Blanchot wants to insist, that the image also banishes us. This runs counter to the satisfaction that it merely annuls the world to create another better horizon. And yet is we who are fascinated by the image. If we stare, Blanchot says, at a face or the corner of a room, when it has ceased merely to be an object or a thing for us, don’t we lose ourselves at what we are looking at, rather than find ourselves? It is the real which gives us our power and initiative, over which we have power, and feel powerful, whereas the image strips us of all of this, and throws us back upon an extreme passivity where we are in the thrall of the object, rather than being active and vigorous. This is perhaps why philosophers have always been mistrustful of art.
When philosophers talk about imagination, then they usually say that the image comes after the object. First of all we see things as they are, and later we imagine them, perhaps the same or differently. We collect images and rearrange them, and from this power art emerges. What does this ‘after’ mean Blanchot asks. It means that the object must be removed so that it can be substituted by the image, it must be replaced and supplanted. There is, then, at least in relation to reality, something violent about the imaginary. The imagined tree, with all its foliage and bursting branches, obliterates the real tree which was its origin. The distance between the object and the image is not, therefore, merely one of movement, as though the image came after the object on a conveyor belt, and remained exactly the same, rather, in replacing the object, the image completely changes it. The image does refer to the object, but to the absence of the object, and this is something very different. In the image, the object reappears as something ‘ungraspable’. It is still the thing that it is, but now as something that I don’t really know or comprehend. This is the unnerving aspect of literature. Everything that is contained in it is of the world, but changed into a shadowy and half existence, where the word ‘cat’ no longer just means cat. What returns in the image is what was at the heart of the object, but what it had to master and control in order to just be that object and nothing else. It sets limits to itself, and it is these limits that are shattered by the image. It overflows every boundary that has been constructed in order to organise and categorise the world. This absence of order that the image allows is what Blanchot calls the ‘worklessness’ or the work of art, when it sets aside the arrangement of the world of action and projects. This is why the work of art isn’t about truth, if by ‘truth’ we mean the limit of the object bounded by meaning, where the word ‘cat’ really does just mean cat, and nothing else.
Isn’t there something, Blanchot ask, ideal and spiritual about this world that is created by images. Haven’t we banished the real world for the sake of a fictional one, and aren’t we back to a world behind this one, which we can enjoy and flatter ourselves with, a secondary and playful world without seriousness or import? This would undermine the strangeness of the image, that it isn't all ‘plain sailing’. This is why Blanchot associates the image with the cadaver, for the dead body has the ambiguity that the image has. What is the dead body before us? Of course it is a thing like anything else, but it isn’t just that. It is also an image of the person who has died, but it isn’t the living person either. There is, therefore, the presence of an absence in the corpse, it is the presence of the absence of the living person. Death has removed the presence of the person in the world, but the dead body isn’t a simple presence either. It doesn’t immediately have the status of a thing, there is an aura that surrounds it, which means that this dead body isn’t quite of this world either, which might explain all the rites that surround it. There is something troubling, mysterious, and unsettling about the corpse. One reason, why in modern times, we have completely shut ourselves off from it, and have given it over to undertakers and funeral parlours. We do not want to see the corpse which is both the presence and the absence of the person we loved. The person who has died is very close to the thing, which we can touch, and manipulate, but is also the presence of the absence of that person, this absence Blanchot says, is not the same as that living presence, but that presence changed through the modulation of an absence, which is anonymous and impersonal, which is the very power of death itself. It is precisely because of this presence, however, that the corpse begins to resemble the person who died, is more that just a dead thing. Resemble, but more than just the living person as he or she was, but rather is doubled through the image of the corpse, becomes more than they were. Is this image not the same as the images of classical art, where the original, through the power of the impersonality of death, returns greater and stronger through the image? This is why we need to be careful when we say that art is idealist, or only has to do with images. For what is at the heart of the image is the strangeness of the presence of an impersonal absence that makes the replacement of the object by the image possible, and returns the object not as itself, but as something ‘unusual and neutral’ , which can no longer be inserted within the world of meaning and action. The image does not resemble the object, rather it only resembles itself, it is the object as self-resemblance, and only through this process does it separate the thing from the web of significance that gives it its bounded meaning. Also, only as this double resemblance, does it reach the singularity of the thing, not as object, which is never singular but always universal, but only as image with this self-doubling resemblance, when the tree only reflects itself, and like a black hole sucks all the significance of the world into itself. This explains why when we look at a picture, or read a book, that we see the whole world there, but we have to careful and not read this significance as the significance of the world, as its secret key and meaning. It attracts the whole world, only so the whole world reflects it as a singularity. The image does not refer to reality that lies behind the object, rather it only refers to itself; or better the image is the object when it only resembles itself and not the idea of itself.
The image, then, does not refer to the ideal, but to what remains ‘ungraspable’ in the object when it becomes nothing but itself, mute in its appearance apart from itself. When it becomes itself, however, it resembles nothing but the nothing, the complete absence and disappearance of itself. This is the paradox of art. We want the picture on the wall to resemble something. What we mean by this is that we want the work of art to mean something outside of itself. This meaning can only have a function if it is inserted with the general significance of the world, but it is precisely this generality which is robbed by art. The sunflower does not mean ‘sunflower’, if you mean by that the idea of ‘sunflowers’, rather the image only refers to itself, doubles itself up, but in so doing, obliterates the limited and bounded meaning of the idea of sunflower. The image always unmakes the object it refers to; it doesn’t just repeat it again at some ideal level. This is why the image, Blanchot says, ‘has nothing to do with signification, meaning, as implied by the existence of the world’ . It isn’t the meaning, hidden or otherwise, of the object, but on the contrary, withdraws it from every meaning. This does not mean that we cannot take the image and re-insert it with the world; nothing stops people from looking for meaning in art, and looking for art to tell them the meaning of their lives. But this also reverses the relation between the image and the object. The image no longer comes after the object, rather the object comes after the image, and the image becomes its ‘follower'’. We look to the object, and the world in which it exists, to become the meaning of the image. In this sense we can completely nullify the strangeness of the image, and its unsettling power to dissolve our world. And there might be a necessity for this, since it would be impossible to live one’s life within the image: ‘practical life and the accomplishment of real tasks demand this reversal’ . This reversal is also the meaning of the idealism of classical art, which takes the negation the image as a rising up of mundane life to a higher ideal, in the way that the classical statue obliterates the imperfections of the human form, by appealing to the impersonality of true form. But this idea of impersonality merely covered over another meaning of impersonality of the double resemblance, where in the image, the object merely resembled itself. This is why we must speak of ‘two versions of the imaginary’ which comes from the two meanings of death or the image, one the operation of truth and work in the world, and the other the worklessness of the work . It is true that modern philosophy, and it is clear that Blanchot is referring to Heidegger here, recognises death in the acknowledgment of the impossibility of infinite knowledge, but it only accepts the possibility of death by nullifying it, by turning death into an idea which would orientate and give meaning to my life.
We stand apart from the real so that we can order and determine it. The image is when the distance between us and the object is reversed; when the distance captures us, rather than we capture the distance. Distance is then opened up as an abyss that swallows us up, rather than a background in which we insert objects each in their right place. The image does throw us back upon ourselves, but only because we are no longer ourselves, or that our inner most lives are now outside of us. This is why Blanchot says that to experience the event as an image (and literature is nothing but the experience of the event as an image) is not the same as having of an image of the event before you, because the image is now what seizes us, rather than we who seize it. And in so doing it places us outside of ourselves as the source of meaning and sense of the world. The image has two sides. It can negate the thing so as to allow the ideal of the thing to emerge in its place, but it is also the absence of the thing, this absence as a presence. This ambiguity does not offer us a choice between ‘either…or’, because it is the double meaning which exists prior to the alternatives, and is the condition of their possibility. Ambiguity is not the choice between two possibilities, but that these two possibilities are intertwined at a level which precedes the determinate difference between them; the ideal is contaminated by the presence of an absence, as the absence is already purified by an ideal that would save it.
If we were to think this ambiguity, we would say that there are three levels to it. At the level of the world, ambiguity is the possibility of multiple meanings, that one word can always have another meaning, and so on. At the other level, there is the ambiguity of the double imaginary, where the image both speaks of the world, but also the ‘indeterminate region of fascination’ of the solitude of the work, where we can use literature to add meaning to our world, but also experience it as the absence of all meaning, where all objects have been reduced to an echoing image of their absence. When we think this ambiguity, we tend to think it in terms of an exclusive difference: first the one thing and then the other, as though this ambiguity was like the swing of a pendulum, whereas true ambiguity would say ‘both together’. Then it not that meaning ‘escapes into another meaning’ but ‘all meaning’, where nothing has meaning, but everything seem to have meaning, where meaning has been replaced by the resemblance of meaning . Before the play of the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’, there is the ambiguity where negation and affirmation have become indistinguishable, and where dissimulation precedes negation. Literature does not negate the world, it dissimulates it, and it does so by recreating it as image of itself.
Perhaps one reason that we find what Blanchot has to say about literature so difficult is that we have a very scientific way of understanding language, but it is not absolutely certain that his is the best way of approaching literature at all, or even the meaning of language. Heidegger begins his famous essay on language with the following sentence by Novalis: ‘precisely what is peculiar to language - that it concerns itself purely with itself alone - no one knows’. This idea that language concerns itself with itself alone echoes Blanchot’s argument that the image merely resembles itself and we should not look for something outside of the image, a reference, the object or the idea, for its meaning, or absence of meaning. Yet Heidegger adds to this remark of Novalis, which is meant to be a definition of what language is, that we should not expect any kind of scientific understanding of language to develop from it. But why should we take scientific understanding to be the only way of understanding something? When it comes to language, perhaps it is language itself which might be our better guide.
The ancient definition of what it meant to be human being is that we are the kinds of being that has language. Language is what distinguishes us from the other animals which do not speak. We are already in language before we are anything else, and everything that we do is done through language, and this will always be so. Just because language belongs to us, however, does this mean that we are in anyway close to what language is, that we really understand it as it is. Or is it so familiar to us that we do not even need to understand? Such closeness can exactly be a barrier to understanding rather than access to it. It might even be that language itself prevents us from understanding it. What we are attempting, Heidegger says, is ‘to bring language as language to language’. This can end up sounding like an empty formula if we are not careful, but what this repetition of the word ‘language’ signifies is that we are already in language, and this is true of linguistics as it is for philosophy, when we begin to search for language. Our attempt must be to show language as language; that is to say, not to interpret language by something else, or some reality, that lies outside of language. Our attempt, therefore, is to show this language that we are already in before we even begin to investigate language, scientifically or not.
We understand language as speech, and we imagine speech as what is most proper to us, and something that we always possess. But of course we can lose this power, since we can be ‘speechless’ with ‘terror’. Or we can lose the power of speech through a stroke or some other kind of brain mal-function. Whatever speech is, what we seem to mean by it is ‘articulated sound’ and it is this sound which is lost when we lose the power to speak. It is this ‘articulated sound’ which is studied by linguistics and it is taken to be the essence of language. All this is caught up within a metaphysics of language, which is admirable described by Aristotle in On Utterance where letters, spoken or written, are the externalisation of our minds, and what is in our minds is the expression of what impresses upon me from the outside the world. I look at a tree, I think tree, and then I vocalise the word ‘tree’. In all three instances of ‘tree’ there is a complete analogy. Language is speech, and speech is understood as that which bears meaning, and meaning brings to presence what it is that I am talking about: ‘Speaking is one form of human activity’, like any other. Nothing about this picture of language has changed for centuries, and it reaches its culmination in the work of Humboldt, whose work is the basis of modern linguistics.
We might ask whether this view of language, which is so predominate, has really reached language as language, or whether it always sees language as tool as an instrument for something else, such as the externalisation or expression of thought. For example in Humboldt, language is that by which human beings create a world, in which this creation is seen as the activity of a subject which forms and shapes his or hers external reality: ‘Humboldt's way to language goes in the direction of man, passing through language on its way to something else: demonstration, and depiction of the intellectual development of the human race’. This way of understanding language, Heidegger repeats, can’t really show what language is as language. It always interprets language through something else. This means that to go after language as language we are going to have to give up linguistics, which is hard for us to do since we take science as the only access to the truth of things.
How then do we begin our investigation again, this time staying closer to what language is? We too must begin with speech, but we must try and understand speech on its own terms. Speech belongs to speakers, that is true, but we must not understand this relation, first of all, as cause and effect, as though the only meaning of speech were that it is caused by the brain of the speaker. This isn’t false, but it tells us only about the function of brains and not the meaning of speech. The more authentic way of understanding the relation between the speaker and speech is as ‘presencing’. In talking to another person, I bring what I am speaking about into presence, but also what I am speaking about can withdraw and fall back into absence. Presence and absence is the play of speech. Thus what is spoken about in speech comes from the unspoken, what is not present, but also the unspoken always remains alongside speech. Thus, rather then thinking of speech as that which is caused by the brains of the speakers, we can thing of what is spoken separating itself from both speakers in what remains unspoken, and it is the speakers which attend to what is spoken, rather than the spoken merely being an effect of the speaker’s brain. I listen to the other, but I also listen to what is spoken, both by me and by the other. This explains the truth that language always speaks more than I can grasp or comprehend, which is entirely absurd if we think that speech is merely the effect of brain functions. It is the showing that is inherent in language which draws the speakers together, and not the other way around.
This does not mean that speech isn’t an activity of human beings, but it doesn’t get to the essence of language as language, to our experience of language as that through which something comes to be said through a saying. We speak, and it is probable that machines also speak, but in this speaking nothing of any importance is said. Saying is when something is said in speech, and what matters to us in what is said can never be the object of any kind of phonetics or physiology.
But what does 'saying' mean, and is this the essence of language as language? Saying, Heidegger says, should be understood primarily as a ‘showing’. A showing lets something be seen or heard for the first time. Thus, when I speak to you, this means that I am saying something to you, and you to me, and in this speaking something is made manifest to us, even the unspoken which is yet to said, or may well even remain forever unsaid. None of this can ever be understood in terms of sounds.
A ‘saying’ is not meant here as merely a witticism or folklore, rather it means to show. A saying is that moment in language in which something is shown, and we must remember most of the time when we speak nothing is shown at all. Perhaps the opposite of saying, therefore, is prattle. Another ways of thinking of the showing of language, Heidegger says, is as a ‘pointing’. This showing or pointing is more fundamental to language than a system of signs. A sign is sign only first of all because it is a showing or a pointing.
Something can be shown, however, only because first of all it lets itself be seen. In terms of language, we can characterise the priority of this ‘lets itself be seen’ in terms of hearing. Of course, hearing, doesn’t just mean hearing sounds, as speaking doesn’t just mean articulating sounds. Hearing here means being attuned to that which lets itself be seen in language. This means letting language speak, hearing what is spoken in language. Here for this first time we are getting close to the aim of our investigation: ‘to bring language as language to language’. To hear what language speaks is not to listen to the sounds of language. A mechanical device could do that; it means, on the contrary, to listen to what is spoken in language as a showing, to let language show what has remained unspoken, even to the speakers who have spoken the words, and only from this showing can we who speak, speak authentically, and not merely prattle.
The showing that is inherent in language should not be seen as some mysterious region that floats above human speech. Human speech and language are inseparably intertwined. This does not mean that language is merely ‘articulated sound’. It is first of all a showing and a pointing in which what is unsaid comes to presence.
When we think of Blanchot’s work, we can see how far it goes in this direction of language, and how far it does not. Like Heidegger, Blanchot's conception of language has nothing at all to do with linguistics. Science has already decided what language is, and it is caught up within a metaphysics it cannot see. To understand language as information is no longer to be within the region of language itself, but to understand language as a means or instrument for something else, as the result of brain operations, as the expression of consciousness, or as the medium of cultural transmission. But before language is any of these things it is already itself. For Heidegger, language is primarily a showing or a pointing; it brings to presence what remains unsaid. For Blanchot on the contrary, language is the opposite of a showing. It lets the unsaid remain unsaid, and what it makes appear is not a presencing, but an ‘absenting’, an absence which is more primordial and dangerous than any presence.
 Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays (New York, Station Hill Press, Inc., 1999) 191.
 Ibid 418.
 Heidegger ‘On the way to language’ in Basic Writings 397.
 Ibid 398.
 Ibid 400.
 Ibid 402.
 Ibid 405.
 Ibid 406.
 Ibid 409.