Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Terrorism and Testimony: Blanchot and September 11

Professor Scott Cutler Shershow.

The aftermath of September 11 suggests a double rewriting of a familiar dictum. When some commentators cite events such as the detainments of Japanese-Americans in World War II as precedents to justify detaining Middle-eastern immigrants today, one realizes that even those who do remember the past are sometimes condemned to repeat it; and that memory can sometimes facilitate the repetition. In this paper, I juxtapose such observations to the vexed question of the wartime record of Maurice Blanchot, in trying to think a form of memory that neither occludes nor merely reiterates the past. My title alludes explicitly to Derrida’s reading of Blanchot, “Fiction and Testimony,” and implicitly to Jeffrey Mehlman’s Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France, the work that brought Blanchot’s early right-wing politics to general attention, and which focuses on the figure of “terrorism” in his work. Mehlman suggests that Blanchot’s right-wing journalism from the 1930s should be restored “to a position at the core of [his] oeuvre” (83). Yet the texts from the rest of Blanchot’s long career not only espouse a radically different politics but also deconstruct the very idea of the oeuvre with the figure of désoeuvrément or “unworking” (a term now, significantly, recast by Jean-Luc Nancy as an essential figure of community itself).
I suggest that Mehlman’s reading is not the “deconstructive” one he claims, but rather, an exercise in an empirical hermeneutics which, in its search for traces of an authorial presence, is fatally complicit with the very politics from which Blanchot departs (what Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe terms a “nationalist-aestheticism”). Blanchot’s subsequent theory suggests, by contrast, a model in which literature is the site of a strange relation between terrorism and testimony, a double gesture of destruction and preservation. Such a model radically opposes the cycle of terrorism and retribution on which America has once again embarked; and against all models of nationalist-aestheticism (including the violent patriotism of the present) interposes a literature, and a community, of unworking.


Professor Scott Cutler Shershow  (United States)
Department of English
University of California, Davis

Scott C. Shershow, Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, is the author of Laughing Matters: The Paradox of Comedy (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), Puppets and ‘Popular’ Culture (Cornell University Press, 1995), and of essays on contemporary literary theory and early modern drama in journals including Critical Inquiry, Postmodern Culture, and Textual Practice. His Marxist Shakespeares, an anthology of critical essays co-edited with Jean E. Howard, appeared in 2000. He has recently finished a book manuscript entitled The Work and the Gift, which considers contemporary theoretical debates centering on these two interrelated ideas.

  • September 11, 2002
  • Maurice Blanchot
  • unworking
Person as Subject
  • Blanchot, Maurice

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)