- The Disappearance of Literature: Blanchot, Agamben, and the Writers of the No by Aaron Hillyer
When working with writers like Maurice Blanchot and Giorgio Agamben, how does one know which conversational threads to pick up, which to acknowledge and then lay aside, and which to ignore, since it’s impossible to address, or even identify, them all? Aaron Hillyer faces that question in his book The Disappearance of Literature: Blanchot, Agamben, and the Writers of the No, and provides insightful analysis of a number of important conversations that link Blanchot and Agamben—indirectly, through their separate engagement of writers like Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin, and Franz Kafka, and, also indirectly, through Agamben’s veiled communication with Blanchot himself. While much of Hillyer’s book draws attention to the way that Blanchot and Agamben pursue similar inquiries into the notion of désoeuvrement and its relation to community and to literature, he argues that Agamben subtly critiques moments in Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, where Blanchot fails to preserve the perpetual oscillation of désoeuvrement. Agamben never actually names Blanchot in those critiques, but Hillyer proposes that we can still perceive the conversation between the two and that it is worthwhile to consider the ways that Agamben quietly distances himself from certain trains of thought in The Unavowable Community. Hillyer claims that zeroing in on the distinction of the two writers, rather than conflating their perspectives as has been done in previous books, provides a fresh look into their works. And, beyond those moments of dispute, Hillyer wishes to consider the way that Agamben dedicates himself to unfolding and perpetuating other specific aspects of Blanchot’s thought as a means of reflecting upon the question of literature’s future. In order to do that, [End Page e-4] Hillyer turns to the works of “the writers of the no,” who “play out” some of the conversational threads running through Blanchot and Agamben’s texts.
What makes Hillyer’s book interesting comes less from its insistence upon Agamben’s subtle critique of instances where Blanchot arguably slips into a logic of the transcendental sacred, and more from his readings of the hybrid texts of Anne Carson, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Cesar Aira. In addition, Hillyer’s examination of the concept of “study,” which arises at the midpoint of his work, presents an innovative and compelling framework for the complex ontological questions in Blanchot’s thought and focuses on the manifestation of those questions in Blanchot’s later work. Hillyer’s study does feel like it’s moving in a few different directions—directions that all have definite strengths but sometimes require the reader to search and dig for his thesis, which should presumably serve as a sort of “home base,” after we have necessarily wandered off to follow various conversations and trains of thought into a Blanchotian labyrinth. In my own reading experience, I finished Hillyer’s book not quite sure how to piece the parts together, but then reread the introduction and found it to make perfect sense. Yes, his book wanders and seems to have a few different objectives rather than offering a sustained approach with a single objective, but, with a little extra effort and attentiveness to the plan Hillyer sets out in his introduction, the reader can arrive where he wants us to go.
Returning to the specific chapters of Hillyer’s book in more detail, I would like to take a look at some of the main claims that he makes, which ultimately lead us to his reading of the hybrid fictions at the end of the book. The first chapter, “Blanchot and Agamben on Désoeuvrement,” provides a convincing and thoughtful analysis of Agamben’s engagement of both Bataille and Blanchot, in addition to following paths into the works of Alfred Jarry, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and Alexandre Kojève. Hillyer’s ability to insert himself into the conversations we find in Agamben’s and Blanchot’s texts, The Open and The Unavowable Community, respectively, is impressive and...