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  • Blanchot, Narration, and the Event
  • Lars Iyer

In this paper, I explore the contribution of Blanchot’s notion of narration to the so-called “narrative turn” in the humanities. The turn in question is aimed at foregrounding the importance of narrative in the construction of selves and communities. Narrativists focus on the way in which experience is structured through the narrative interconnection of elements in a meaningful sequence. They are often drawn to literary criticism, in which attention to narrative structures has always been important. But literary critics often posit a contrast between a narrated event and the subsequent constitution of the event through narrative representation, and it is this contrast that many narrativists want to overturn. I argue that Blanchot’s non-representational account of literature offers a more productive notion of the relationship between narrative and event since it does not depend on this contrast.

Trust the tale, not the teller—but what if the identity of the teller is given in the articulation of the tale? What if there would be not only no tale without a teller, but no teller without a tale? What if tale and teller were bound up in an interdependence that is far more complex than hitherto supposed? The “narrative turn” in the humanities is born of an insistence that there are modes of experience that cannot be captured by a theory that would transcend the historicity of experience.1 It calls for a new concretion, a new plunge into existence through the examination of the way in which experiences are meaningfully interconnected as elements in a sequence. In this sense, as David Carr argues in an admirable book, narrative is not a later imposition on pre-narrative experience but constitutes experience itself.2 To posit the real as something that is experienced and only thereafter narrated is to misunderstand the way in which human behavior is directed toward the achievement of projected ends.

The turn in question might appear to strike a great blow for the freedom of human beings to determine their existence for themselves. Likewise, the appeal to a new understanding of the role of narrativity seems to permit communities to redefine their place in the world.3 But communities themselves are vulnerable to powerful reactionary forces, and individuals, as narrativists show, are never to be considered in isolation from the communities that shape and inform their values.4 It is always possible for certain fundamentalist elements to invoke a hidden but originary orthodoxy, regulating the lives of “insiders” and governing their attitude to “outsiders.” But what is it that permits communities to, as it were, fold in upon themselves, submitting themselves to the enforcement of programmable, carefully regulated behavior?

No doubt the drive to unify, to relate everything back to a point of origin, is a liability inherent to all forms of narration. In this sense, it might be possible to invoke a grand narrative that unifies all other narratives, a broader, deeper story that always aims to perpetuate a reassuring order, regulating the relationship between members of a community and between that community and others. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard tells us that the age of the grand récit has passed, but perhaps the grandest tale of them all—the tale that is told in the elaboration of any tale—still exerts its dominion. In this way, the narrative turn risks granting dignity to a debilitating and demobilizing story of the dominance of hegemonies and elites. It becomes necessary, therefore, as part of this turn to rethink narration, treating it, as Linda Singer recommends of community, not as “a referential sign” but as “a call or appeal” (125). The turn in question calls for provocative responses, for attempts to resist the prevailing determination of meaning and value.

Maurice Blanchot, I will suggest, shows us how we might respond to an appeal inherent in the desire to narrate that would permit us to articulate a different relationship to the dominating narratives of our time. In some of his most vehement and programmatic pages, he argues that there is a desire indissociable from Western civilization (indeed, it could be said to constitute civilization itself) to recount its...

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