It’s Not Working: A Reflection on Maurice Blanchot and Slavoj Zizek’s Melancholic Meditations on the Failure of the Work and…Work


When things don’t work, we get frustrated. And when we can’t find work, we get even more frustrated. To be sure, work is a fundamental part of our lives.   As for reflecting on the meaning of work, the American pragmatic tradition is interested in what kinds of concepts or words work and which do not. Many pragmatists, like Richard Rorty or William James, understand that we can all live a better and more peaceful life if we create things that “work” in accord with time and change.  For this reason, a thinker like Richard Rorty is “anti-foundationalist.” He doesn’t think that absolutes – which serve as foundations for thought, politics, etc – work anymore. His search is for things that can expand our horizons, make us more tolerant, and more able to co-exist in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller every day. In his scholarship, Rorty often turns to literature since it is constantly exploring contingency and things that are relative to this or that situation or scene rather than absolute and unchanging.   Regardless, he’s looking for what works. Parochialism doesn’t work; literature does.

In contrast, many European thinkers (from Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille to Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and Slavoj Zizek) are more interested in when things no longer work. Because when things fail, we can start thinking or changing the way things “are” or are thought-to-be.   They are interested in the anxiety, madness, shock, trauma, and melancholy (depending on your experience of failure) that ensues in the wake of such failure since it spurs one to think differently.

Maurice Blanchot, in many of his books, discusses the notion of the “work” of art (“l’oeuvre”), purposeful activity or labor (“travail”), and unworking (“desoeuvrement”).       In The Infinite Conversation, Blanchot discusses the relationship of what he calls the “detour” or “turn” away from the work. Instead of advancing forward by way of what works, he sees the “advance” in terms of what doesn’t work and solicits a “crisis”(32).   He calls this turn the “critical turn.”   What makes it critical is the fact that it turns toward what Blanchot calls “worklessness,” the “outside of speech,” “the absence of the work,” and “madness.”

I would even say that every important literary work is important to the extent that it puts more directly and more purely to work the meaning of the turn; a turning that, at the moment when it is about to emerge, makes the work pitch strangely. This is a work in which worklessness, as its always decentered center, holds sway: the absence of work.

-The absence of work that is the other name for madness.

-The absence of work in which discourse ceasing so that, outside speech, outside language, the movement of writing may come, under the attraction of the outside. (32)

Writing on worklessness, Ann Smock points out that instead of calling upon an author or person’s “strength” to work it “calls upon his weakness, the incapacity in him to achieve anything at all; it inspires in him a kind of numbness and stupefication”(13, The Space of Literature).   All s/he knows is that there is a “demand” that rules over her to not work, that is overwhelming and exhausting. In other words, the writer cannot, if they are really a writer in Blanchot’s sense, create anything that works.   A true writer is one who experiences weakness, powerlessness, and the madness that comes in the face of a demand, in effect, to fail.

In his book, Inner Experience, Georges Bataille, echoes Blanchot’s understanding of the failed work and impossibility of working.   But while Blanchot does this in a very harsh and stoic manner, Blanchot does it in a humorous manner. He accepts his failure like a sad clown. He affirms that he – like most of humanity – is a joke. And his laughter at his failure “opens up an abyss”(91).

Laughter intuits the truth which the rupture at the summit lays bare: that our will to arrest being is damned. Laughter slips on the surface, the whole length of slight depressions: rupture opens the abyss. Abyss and depressions are together a same void: the inanity of being which we are. (91)

For Bataille, it is “through an ‘intimate cessation of all intellectual operations’ that the mind is laid bare”(13).   It is through a mystical kind of exercise, which always seeks to break the system or frame down, that one can see things as they really are: as a chaotic, mad mess that un-works all and denounces work-as-such.

Bataille wrote these words in the 1950s. Over half a century later, Zizek writes, in his 2014 book Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept, that the event “undermines every stable scheme”(7). And it is through the experience of this undermining that we can “experience something new.”   But this unworking of the frame is not a joyful event. In fact, Zizek suggests that the melancholic gives us a model for how we should receive the new or, as he says citing Lacan, “the Real” (which Zizek associates with “the repellent forms of life” that we deny).

He cites the film producer Lars Von Trier’s words on this film Melancholia to describe melancholy:

The psychiatrist told him that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under extreme pressure or the threat of catastrophe – they already expect bad things to happen.   This fact offers another example of the split between reality – the so-called universe of established customs and opinions in which we dwell – and the traumatic meaningless brutality of the Real. (19)

Zizek tends toward melancholy since it suggests an attitude that things will never work. This is, so to speak, the preface for an experience of the Real. We see this, Zizek argues, in Von Trier’s film, which eschews fantasy in the name of a melancholic truth:

Justine really is melancholic, deprived of the fantasmatic gaze. This is to say, melancholy is, at is most radical, not the failure of the work of mourning, the persisting attachment to the lost object, but their very opposite: ‘melancholy offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object’. Therein resides the melancholic’s stratagem: the only way to posses an object that we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as already lost. (23)

This is not just Jusine’s strategy, is also Zizek’s since, as goes on to say, it’s goal is to destroy the “frame as such.”   By seeing everything as “already lost,” one can apprehend the Real without, so to speak, a filter (or as he says, a “frame”). We can experience the “event,” which is another way of saying, as Blanchot would put it, “worklessness.”

Zizek likes to tell jokes but, ultimately, he, like Bataille, is a melancholic comic. They aren’t interested in what works so much as using every “strategy” they can to make this or that project fail.   However, as Zizek argues, the belief that something works is already a fantasy.   That suggests that the only thing they are breaking is the illusion of the work or the illusion of work. In the end, perhaps we can say that neither Zizek nor Batialle worked a day in the their life.

Happy labor day!

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