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CAVE PAINTINGS AND WALL


WRITINGs: Blanchot's signature
Lars Iyer
Published online: 09 Jun 2010.

To cite this article: Lars Iyer (2001) CAVE PAINTINGS AND WALL WRITINGs: Blanchot's
signature, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 6:3, 31-43
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eneral culture, Blanchot observes,


would like to make to know a verb without an object: it is a matter of knowing in a way
that is absolute and substantial, not of learning
what one does not yet know (Friendship 55;
67). The notion of the work of art allows us to
draw the old and the new into the horizon of
culture: we know what it is and we know, for this
reason, what any work of art can be. Our capacity to know outpaces everything; the avant-garde
is, for us, only the outward edge of a movement
whose origins and inner dynamic are already
familiar. Likewise, no artwork is too old, too
obscure or too unfamiliar to be recognised as
what it is and thereafter restored to its place
within culture. What matters above all else is
culture as a whole, the totality or the continuity
of the knowable as it is known by those of us
who live in the West. We recognise the artwork,
we know in advance what it is and how it binds
itself to a particular history, a particular institutionalisation. We know but we do so in a manner
that is docile; we acquiesce to the substantiality
of the gallery, to the absoluteness of the
museum.
But is it not because art is already dead that
the individual work of art seems to offer itself so
completely to a certain history, a certain monumentalisation? This is why, perhaps, the crushed
face of Saint Elizabeth of Baberg and the adolescent smiles of Praxiteles statues seem strangely
complete, for they regard and smile at us from
an eternal immobility. Perhaps Hegel is right:
art belongs to the past (Aesthetics 11) since it
is no longer the absolute mode of expression and
self-understanding for European people.
Everything is ours artworks have been freed
from their subjection to religious, mythic or
civic purposes. The columns of the Greek temple
are no longer an integral component of a place
of worship, but realise and exemplify a style that
would come to influence Byzantine and Western

lars iyer
CAVE PAINTINGS AND
WALL WRITINGS
blanchots signature
church architecture. Everything is ours the
tourists who admire the spectacle of the Japanese
Shinto temple are right to understand this experience in the same way as they might the Auriga
of Delphi, the Royal Portal of Chartres,
Khmerian heads, Wei and Tang Bodhisattvas
i.e., as the distant forerunners of contemporary
art. Everything is known but the object of
knowledge is already dead; the word art
belongs, in its modern usage, to a time it has
already outlived. To think the artwork as the
artwork to think the notion of art in its
historicity is to think what has already been
killed. Art cannot be resurrected, but we could
pronounce the words Lazarus, venture forth
that would have it approach us in its death not
in order to restore it to life nor indeed to mourn
art, to restore its purity by freezing it in immobility, but in order to understand the extent of
its death and its distance from us. If art is dead,

ISSN 0969-725X print/ISSN 1469-2899 online/01/030031-13 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd and the Editors of Angelaki
DOI: 10.1080/09697250120087923

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blanchots signature
then this death cannot be made authentic,
personal, proper; it refuses itself to mourning.
The stench of death surprises us, for the corpse
of art is not like that of certain saints whose flesh
has not rotted from their bones: the saints who,
we could imagine, would rise again and walk one
day among us.
It might seem as if Saint Elizabeth of Baberg
craved for her face to be crushed or that the
caves of Lascaux waited only to be discovered in
order to fade: that the work of art was always as
it appears to us in the museum. But what we call
art, Blanchot would remind us, is real and it is
fragile; it belongs to history and is marked by its
adventures. The crushed face and the fading
cave walls are figures for a certain event that
does not befall the artwork from without as a
kind of empirical accident that is easily erased.
Rather, this event would attest to a worklessness
that can be said to unwork history, one that
implicates the history of art and, as I will argue,
disturbs historiographical and evolutionary
accounts of the origin of the human being.
Blanchot would confront us anew with the
artwork in its materiality, its ineradicable
historicity. In wresting art from historiography
and, thereby, from discourses on the history of
art and art criticism, he also invites a reconception of the step into humanity the step into
history.
In his discussion of Batailles book on the
cave paintings at Lascaux, Blanchot focuses on
what he calls the signature a fragmentary
r cit or narrative that the painter of the cave
walls leaves in order to indicate his own mastery
over the work of art: the fact that he and he
alone was responsible for it. But this signature is
a figure for a certain non-human worklessness
that divides any project, any attempt to accomplish a task, from itself.
In the second part of my discussion, I argue
that those who wrote on the walls in the events
in Paris in May 1968 can be said to append their
signature in a way that re-echoes the signature
Blanchot discovers on the cave walls. Discussing
Blanchots account of the events alongside his
discussion of Batailles book, I explore the ethical and political repercussions of Blanchots
account of worklessness.

the cave paintings


Blanchot writes:
it is certainly true that Lascaux fills us with a
feeling of wonder [la merveille; the translator
provides us with a word linked happily to the
experience in which philosophy has been said
to be sourced]: this subterranean beauty; the
chance that preserved and revealed it; the
breadth and scope of the paintings, which are
there not in the form of vestiges or furtive
adornment but as a commanding presence; a
space almost intentionally devoted to the brilliance and marvel of painted things, whose first
spectators must have experienced, as we do,
and with as much naive astonishment, the
marvellous revelation; the place from which art
shines forth and whose radiance is that of a
first ray first and yet complete. (Friendship
1; 9)

The chance that let us witness the huge aurochs,


the unicorn, the red deer, oxen, horses and stags
is no doubt remarkable. Our curiosity is piqued
about the techniques that allowed our ancestors
to exaggerate the contours of the cave walls and
augment them with pigment. What, we might ask
ourselves, about the function of the Lascaux
paintings were the caves the focus of rituals, of
secret ceremonies? We turn to the commentaries
in the books in which we read about what we call
prehistoric art; we read learned articles about the
caves or turn the pages of reproductions. But
what incites our wonder, according to Blanchot,
is the self-affirming presence of a great work of
art. Ours would be the simple, awe-struck
response that captivated the first spectators of
the paintings. What we confront is already a great
work; at Lascaux, we discover that the cave paintings that are the birth of art reveal a profound
truth about art and its historicity: at its birth,
Blanchot writes, art is revealed to be such that
it can change infinitely and can ceaselessly renew
itself, but cannot improve (Friendship 1; 9).
The cave paintings would be both ancient and
contemporaneous, since they appear to awaken
the same wonder in us as they would in any spectator.
This account of Blanchots evocation of the
cave paintings might seem persuasive. For who
now would insist that ancient art is cruder or less

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iyer
refined than newer art? Is it not a tribute to our
universal humanism that we can place the caves
of Lascaux alongside the primitivist sculptures of
Picasso in our imaginary museum?1
Furthermore, we might agree with Blanchots
claim that art can be said to happen as the experience of wonder it incites in its viewers. Art is
what satisfies us because it offers an unequivocal
experience: one that affects us when we catch
sight of a reproduction of a Van Gogh in the
boardroom. The work of art offers itself to us as
unbreached experience, a primal non-contradiction, a unity that preserves itself despite the
commercialisation of art. We are reassured: art
remains art because the origin is not a discreet
point in the past, but continues to hold sway, to
govern, measuring out the fate of what is to
come.
But Blanchot does not confirm us in this view
of art. Granted, he makes the claim that art can
always and already be said to be complete, since
alterations and refinements of artistic technique
do not alter what is marvellous about it. He
seems to affirm that art can be said to happen or
indeed be reborn as the wondrous, re-originating
for the first spectators at Lascaux just as it will
be born again for all subsequent spectators. But
in claiming that all origination is but a re-origination that there is no absolute beginning of art
to which all its other re-beginnings could be
related Blanchot points to an experience on the
part of those who view the artwork that disturbs
the usual conception of wonder. At Lascaux,
according to Blanchot, we encounter the force,
brilliance and mastery of a power that is essentially the power of a beginning, which is always
to say, of a beginning-again that is always prior
(Friendship 10; 19).
Lascaux names a site where something has
recommenced that disturbs the inherited concept
of art. What recommences there can only be
understood if the notion of art along with attendant notions of authorship, artistry, and creativity are rethought from an experience of
transgression. What sets Batailles account of
Lascaux apart from those by specialists in art and
prehistory, Stephen Ungar comments, is his
view that the work of art is distinguished from
the products of other work by a destructive force

33

associated with transgression and the sacred


(Phantom Lascaux 258). Batailles Lascaux
links the creation of the cave paintings with the
emergence of the human being as it is bound up
with murder and eroticism. It is this aspect of
Batailles work that Blanchot draws upon in his
account of the birth of the work of art. Blanchot
argues that the experience of the work of art
permits the step from pre-human into human
existence; it is only in the context of a discussion
of humanity and a certain inhumanity that the
question concerning the happening of the work
of art can be broached.

Bataille, according to Blanchot,


shows that the paintings of Lascaux are
probably linked to the movement of effervescence, to the explosive generosity of celebration when man, interrupting the time of
effort and work thus for the first time
truly man returns to the sources of natural
overabundance [la surabondance] in the
jubilation of a brief interlude [la jubilation
dun bref interm de] to what he was when he
was not yet (Friendship 4; 12; translation
amended)
In Lascaux, Bataille sketches the initial alienation of the human being from the immanent
realm of animality that opens when the human
being becomes a creature who works. He explains
how tools, since they have no value in themselves
but only in an anticipated result, allow the positing of objects. The distinction between ends and
means introduced by the tool permits the definition of what, Bataille writes in the Theory of
Religion, is a sphere of objects, a world, a
plane (30). This positing always uncertain,
precarious and unevenly realised (Theory of
Religion 30) counterposes a subject to these
objects. The tool thus changes nature and so does
the human being at the same time; as Bataille
writes, the tool subjugates nature to man, who
makes it and uses it, but it ties man to a subjugated nature (Theory of Religion 41). Nature
becomes, in principle, the property of the human
being, but only in so far as it is available as an
object for a subject. As Bataille writes, the grain
of wheat is a unit of agricultural production; the

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blanchots signature
cow is a head of livestock, and the one who cultivates the wheat is a farmer; the one who raises
the steer is a stock raiser (Theory of Religion
41). But even as the pre-humans who made tools
and were thereby posited as subjects over against
a dimension that would be henceforward closed
to them, they became aware of an essential lack
or a weakness (Friendship 5; 12) that stemmed
from their finitude. There remain certain insecurities in the transcendent plane upon which
subjects and objects stand opposed to one
another since the human being is never just a
subject and nature cannot be objectivised. How
should we think these insecurities?
As Kant argues, there is a distinction between
the intuitus originarius of God, an original
intuition (Anschauung) that creates its own
objects, and the intuitus derivativus of the
human being, who does not create objects but
receives intuitions from them (Critique of Pure
Reason B72). As Heidegger writes of Kant,
finite intuition of the being cannot give the
object from out of itself. It must allow the object
to be given (Kant and the Problem of
Metaphysics 18). The finite human being exists
in the midst of beings that existed before him.
Clearly, the Bataillean subject who opposes
objects did not create them. The creation of
tools, which is the condition of possibility of
laying out a transcendent plane, does not hold
back a certain explosive festivity in which nature
would be revealed in its immanence in its peculiar proximity to the human being. This jubilatory interlude to which Blanchot refers exposes
that the humanity of the human being cannot be
thought in terms of subjectivity. On this reading,
the finitude of the human being is to be thought
in terms of his openness and receptivity to what
he does not create, i.e., his capacity to be
affected. The finitude of the human being is
simply another way of thinking the insecurity of
the plane of transcendence.
The insecurity to which the human being is
condemned in his finitude can be understood in
terms of the relationship between prohibition and
transgression as it structures human experience.
As Blanchot writes, Georges Bataille assumes
man used to draw a circle around human possibility from the very beginning (Friendship 5;

13). Prohibitions about death and murder militate against the experience that threatens to
reveal the inherent instability of the plane of
transcendence. Everything that has been possible
for us on this plane civilisation itself was and
is possible because of these prohibitions. At the
time, however, as they confirm the strength and
force of these prohibitions, Blanchot and Bataille
would point towards certain experiences that fall
outside merely human possibility.
Our ancestors, the ones who are not yet
human, were already enclosed by such prohibitions. However, Blanchot argues with Bataille
that whilst these incipient human beings may be
hard workers, the masters of tools and weapons,
they have yet to step into fully human existence
since they are bound by the prohibitions that
debar their societies from that which cannot be
put to work. They are not yet human, since, as
Blanchot will explain, they are not capable of
knowing the law by sovereign infraction, and it
is only by deliberately defying the prohibitions
they erect around themselves that they can
become human (Friendship 5; 14). It is not
enough to exist within the parameters that are
measured out through prohibitions. There are
two leaps, two essential moments of transgression that allow pre-human beings to become
human beings (Friendship 6; 14). In the first,
pre-humans transcend the immanence of the
natural world; in the second, they re-cross the
line that demarcates them from the immanence
of the natural realm and, through this transgression, violate the prohibitions that their ancestors
set against the dimension from which they
emerged, in so doing, revealing these prohibitions in their prohibitive force. This transgression returns the human being to the immanence
of animality and thence to that from which he
originated. Human beings become human only
by plunging back into the milieu from which prehumans emerged. The origination of the human
being depends upon the violation of the taboos
that separate us from immanence. The prehumans transcendence of nature has to be
transgressed in a return to immanence that
simultaneously contests and confirms the force
of the prohibition. In this return, the prohibitions that guarantee the integrity and closure of

34

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iyer
homogeneity are contested. Homogeneity the
plane of transcendent beings, i.e., subjects and
objects is never homogeneous enough because
it cannot be secured once and for all. It is only
when the impossibility of achieving homogeneity
as such is forcibly exposed in the moment of
transgression that essential lack reveals itself to
be constitutive of human existence.
In the instant of transgression, the essential
lack or weakness that seemed to promise a
homogenisation of nature to pre-humans reveals
itself to be doubly lacking. The movement of
transgression confirms the interdictions that
demarcate the transcendent from the immanent.
This movement is not one possibility among
others, i.e., something that can happen as a result
of work of a plan or a project. It does not
accomplish what the transgressor sets out to
accomplish. Rather, it interrupts the dimension
of the possible, i.e., the world that opens to the
human being as a plane of transcendence. It cuts
across the conscious intentions of the human
beings who would make a work or a project of
transgression. The movement of transgression
cannot be initiated through an act of will. Rather,
it disrupts all such willing, belonging to a dynamics that is dissimulated by the desire to work, in
the very setting apart of means from ends. It is
only in giving this desire its head in letting it
emerge in its difference from what are normally
construed to be desires that transgression can
occur. But this affirmation of a pre-voluntary
desire is not something the human being can be
said to be capable of as a subject who can will or
act. Transgression can only be said to occur only
in so far as it contests the prohibitions that structure the subject.
This is why, Blanchot writes, the awareness
that a return to what is variously called anterior
reality, animal reality, and the first immensity is a return that is always more than a
return (Friendship 6; 15). Although this movement may seem to allow the incipient human
being to enter these primeval, prehistoric realms
once again, he also becomes tumultuously
conscious of this impossible return, becomes
conscious of the limits and the unique force that
allows him to break these limits (Friendship 6;
15). The transgressor cannot simply become

35

immanent he does not, as Blanchot writes,


simply lose himself in the dream of total existence; rather, he affirms himself as that which
is added to this existence (Friendship 6; 15). He
is aware, that is to say, that he is a supplement to
existence that the emergence from immanence
has always and already happened and, therefore,
that he is the minute part [la part infime] that,
at a distance and through an ambiguous play, can
become master of everything, can appropriate it
symbolically or communicate with it by making
it be (Friendship 6; 15). To transgress, then, is
only to become aware of what one cannot transgress i.e., a transcendence that it is not in the
power of the human being to reconvert into
immanence. It is in the growing awareness of
the impossibility of the return to the first immensity which is also the impossibility of ever
definitively overcoming the effort and the work
that is an ineluctable part of human existence
that pre-humans become, at last, human beings.
Thus, neither Blanchot nor Bataille simply
retrace the evolutionary process that would allow
us to designate the origin of the human being.
Blanchots paradoxical thought of the origin
conceives it in terms of the desire on the part of
the incipient human being to enact a transgression as a transgression. But this origin involves an
instant that Blanchot calls the time of difference, understood as the point of disjunction
between the desire to complete a transgression
and the prohibitive force that defeats this desire,
rendering the transgression incomplete (that is to
say, there is no absolute transgression)
(Friendship 6; 14).2 This origin has the result of
demarcating humans from pre-humans but it is,
in itself, always a lacuna it is, Blanchot writes:
as if the origin, instead of showing itself and
expressing itself in what emerges from the
origin, were always veiled and hidden by what
it produces, and perhaps then destroyed or
consumed as origin, pushed back and always
further removed and distant, as originally
deferred. We never observe the source, nor the
springing forth [jaillissement], but only what
is outside the source, the source become reality external to itself and always again without
source or far from the source. (Friendship 10;
1819)

blanchots signature

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The origin whether it is the origin of the human


being or the origin of the work of art is never
simply available. Indeed, the withdrawals of both
these origins are intertwined, for the lack of artistic ability on the part of pre-humans is emblematic of their inability to step into a fully human
existence. If what we call art is deemed to be the
expression of the humanity of the human being
as the impossible leap into immanence, then the
origin of art is as opaque as that of the origin of
the human being. Blanchot writes that the first
moments of art, of which Lascaux is an example:
suggest that man has contact with his own
beginning is the initial affirmation of
himself, the expression of his own novelty
only when, by the means and methods of art,
he enters into communication with the force,
brilliance, and joyful mastery [avec la force,
lclat et la matrise joyeuse] of a power that
is essentially the power of a beginning, which
is always to say, of a beginning-again [de
recommencement pralable] that is always
prior. (Friendship 10; 19)

The cave paintings are indeed wondrous, but


they are not so because of the ingenuity of their
creators, whose achievement is hollowed out by a
fundamental and constitutive non-achievement
i.e., the impossibility of reclaiming this origin as
such. It is the experience of the withdrawal of the
origin that is constitutive of the step into truly
human existence. In order to become human, to
step over the threshold, it is not enough merely
to be in default the retreat of immanence has
to be experienced in its retreat. But such experience is never simply at hand it is not ours to
claim for ourselves. Rather, it is art that permits
a communication with what Blanchot calls, in
The Space of Literature, the original experience i.e., the experience of the origin in its
retreat (20947; 31355).3 Communication does
not refer to the transmission of a message that
would leave sender and receiver, subject and
object, intact; it is this experience of the origin
that pre-dates all beginnings. This experience
cannot be retrospectively appropriated; it cannot
be said to return and reaffirm itself in the work
of art.
The original experience the experience of a
certain repetition of the origin alters our very

conception of artistic achievement, along with


attendant notions of genius, inspiration, creativity, etc. But it does more than this since, in
revealing the interruption of the originating function, the work of art shows how any attempt to
work is interrupted how the dimension of possibility can never enclose a certain impossibility,
an experience of the impossible. The artwork
reveals its uncanny capacity to communicate the
interruption of any plan, project or work in so far
as they take place on the plane of transcendence.
Moreover, it reveals the interruption that must
have been at play in any human creation that
appears to be stable and perduring. The
Blanchovian determination of the artwork reveals
a worklessness that always inhabits working.
As soon as art begins, the original experience the experience of the impossible that is, as
I will explain, also the impossibility of recovering
an experience as an experience invades and
contaminates the free mastery of the artist.
Worklessness always inhabits the work; the prevoluntary desire for worklessness accompanies
and contests any desire to work. There is never a
simple, undivided experience of origination,
understood as a discreet, pristine beginning that
leads to a work, since there is no stable point
from which birth whether the birth of art or the
birth of humanity can begin. There is no
assignable origin of a process of working that is
not inhabited, in advance, by a dissension of the
creative will.
Preceding the origin, as it were (but only
because it accompanies and interrupts any ostensible origin as soon as it originates), there is an
interruption of the origin. As Blanchot writes,
what is first is not beginning, but beginning
over: beginning itself is the attempt to determine a fundamental stability out of which a
world can emerge (Space of Literature 243; 327).
Whilst particular determinations of the world
qua the plane of transcendence emerge particular worlds that belong to different societies at
different times it is also true that such determinations are always threatened in their being. It
is the fact that the dissension of the origin can
never be left behind once and for all to which
Blanchot points when he writes: being is
precisely the impossibility of being for the first

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iyer
time (Space of Literature 243; 327). Any appeal
to the origin must negotiate this pre-originary
dissension, the play of worklessness within work,
of the inhuman within the human and the immanent in the transcendent.
Blanchot would show how the source is always
redoubled, that the desire for homogeneity and
work coexists with the uncanny attraction of
heterogeneity and worklessness. It is the fact that
we, the spectators, are implicated in this attraction, that we are carried, in advance, towards
what we will not allow ourselves to want, that
allows us to discern a fear in the experience of
wonder itself. I have argued that a disjunction of
time can be said to open between the time of the
project, the time in which plans are made and
tools deployed, and the joyous moment in which
human beings are returned to the first immensity
to which they bear an ambiguous relationship. It
is the possibility of such a disjunction one that
we can never have done with which makes us
fear even as we wonder. To wonder is also to be
afraid: it is to discern the retreat of the origin
and, along with it, the retreat of those powers
that are constitutive of fully human existence, the
threat of the return to a time in which no human
being had entered history. The beasts on the cave
wall take us back before the origin to the time
when the human being did not exist. They
confront us with the dreadful abyss of the prehistorical: of a recurrence of an instant that
cannot be brought under retrospective control.
Our wonder shelters a fear: the fear of what the
artwork would communicate: the terror of an
instant without history.

In the prehistoric cave paintings of this period,


there are few representations of human beings.
The painters bring beasts vividly to life, restoring
them to a joyous and unambiguous presence
one full of an innocent truth without equivocation (Friendship 11; 20). But when human
beings appear, they are depicted with extreme
crudity. In the same cave complex at Lascaux, an
enigmatic tableau can be found hidden at the
bottom of a crevasse. It portrays a stretched out
man with a birds head and an erect penis who
appears to have speared a wounded bison. For

37

Blanchot, as for Bataille, this peculiar addition to


the cave paintings at Lascaux strangely and
perfectly corresponds to the fundamental
enigma, i.e., the question of the coming into
the world, the advent, of man (Tears of Eros
5253). As Blanchot comments, it is striking
that with the figuration of man, an enigmatic
element enters into this work, a work otherwise
without secret; a scene also enters it as a narrative [r cit], an impure historical dramatisation
(Friendship 11; 20).
This portrayal introduces a dimension previously absent, since the presence of this intriguing
individual is not of the same unambiguous order
as that of the great beasts. We do not, Blanchot
argues, welcome this image with the same spontaneous pleasure we do not wonder as we do in
front of the beasts on the cave wall. The naivety
of this depiction surprises us, as does the place of
this figure within the tableau of which he is part.
We may ask whether this individual is asleep or
dead, or enquire as to the sense of the fragmentary narrative of which he seems part, but
Blanchot claims that the meaning of this
obscure drawing is nonetheless clear; it is, he
claims: the first signature of the first painting,
the mark left modestly in a corner, the furtive,
fearful, indelible [furtive, craintive, ineffaable]
trace of man who is for the first time born of his
work, but who also feels seriously threatened
[gravement menac ] by this work and perhaps
already struck with death [frapp de mort]
(Friendship 11; 20). Blanchot goes further than
the Bataille of Lascaux in attributing a meaning
to what he calls the signature. In Lascaux,
Bataille provides a brief survey of some of the
secondary literature on the enigma of the cave.
Abb Breuil argues that it commemorates a fatal
accident that befell a hunting expedition.
Windels, Brodick, and Lechner follow his interpretation; but, in so doing, they do not take
account of what, for Bataille, is the strangest part
of this scene the birds head. For Kirchner, by
contrast, the tableau does not present a hunting
incident; the prostrate man is not dead, but is a
shaman in an ecstatic trance, recalling
Sierozewskis discussion of the sacrifice of a cow
by the Yakuts. The nudity and erect penis of the
medicine man would be part of this ritual, but

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blanchots signature
Bataille complains that this view overlooks the
bison and his wound. What, then, are we to
conclude about this scene (Lascaux 140)? Bataille
draws no conclusion in Lascaux, although in The
Tears of Eros, published a few years later,
Bataille follows Blanchot in discovering an
essential and paradoxical accord between
death and eroticism that is signed in the
closed space at the bottom of the crevasse (52).
For Bataille, as for Blanchot, the fear and tentativeness of this first step into humanity is
revealed in the act that renders Lascaux ambiguous i.e., the signature of the first artist.
The signature bears witness to a transgression
that redoubles the ambiguous origin of the
human being. As the realisation of affirmation,
expression and communication, art remained
foreign to the pre-humans. It took the arrival of
the transgressor the one who was no longer
simply himself, whose being was not, in a certain
sense, assured to bestow its possibility. The
first human being is the one who is drawn into a
transgression that contests the power and the
authority of the taboo in his experience of the
work of art. It is by and through the creation of
this work of art that this individual is in turn
born as a human being through an act of sovereign infraction.
This signature is ostensibly a way of allowing
the artist to stand back from what he has accomplished as the work of art, and proclaim his
mastery. It is his work; he has exhibited power
over the materials at hand in order to render
something beautiful, and he has every right to be
proud of his virtuosity. But, for Blanchot, the
signature attests to a struggle inherent to
artistry to a tension between a bold self-affirmation and a certain fearfulness of the painter.
The work of art does not, he claims, emerge
out of the creative activity of the artist qua free
and sovereign human being. In the time of difference, there is no agent or subject to carry
through the creative process; there is no one qua
I or agent there to realise the work in its real
existence. Instead, there is only the pre-subjectivated space that opens in the extraordinary
experience that the original experience names. To
create an artwork of this kind is to undergo the
experience in which the author is rendered

passive beyond the usual notions of passivity. It


is to be receptive to the original experience to the
extent that artistic creation always involves a
moment that passes into forgetting. The time of
difference, the time of the absence of time, the
paradoxical happening of an instant to which all
of Blanchots writings point, always intervenes
the disjunction between the time of production
and work and the other time in which there is
no one there to remember.
It is this traumatic experience that Blanchot
writes when he claims to discern evidence in the
signature of the work that the artist of this first
painting is seriously threatened by the artwork
and struck with death. The signature is an
attempt on the part of the author to reclaim what
is not his to reaffirm authorial sovereignty over
the happening of the work of art in so far as it
escapes the usual measure of experience and,
therefore, the processes of memorisation, of the
synthesising of the past into a present. The artist
who laboured at Lascaux gives a sign of his traumatic memory in his depiction of the recumbent
figure stretched out between a bison and a rhino.
In this signature, Blanchot discerns the fearful
mark of the one who struggled with memory in
his participation in the working of the work. The
one who signs whose identity as an author is
granted by an experience he is not there to
experience does so because he fears an experience, an excessiveness over the possibility of
memorisation that resists his sovereignty and his
mastery. The artist signs because he is afraid that
his signature is provisional. 4
In his reading of Bataille, Blanchot is not
endorsing or offering another historiographical
account of the birth of art. The antiquity of
Lascaux, the marvellous chance that preserved
the paintings on the cave walls and the miracle of
its discovery are only figures for the surprise that
the cave walls present the same enigma as any
work of art, ancient or modern. The artists of
Lascaux can be said to be our contemporaries,
because what we call their work of art attests to
the opening up of what will forever remain out of
joint.
In this sense, Lascaux is simply the name of
an inaugural scene that already attests to a
dissension of the origin to a division that turns

38

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this classical scene of origination against itself.
This dissension opens in any such origin any
time, indeed, that an artwork can be said to originate dividing the artist from himself and,
thereby, frustrating the historian of art who
would tell us a tale about the origin and development of art. This kind of recounting depends
upon an ascription of authorial agency upon a
conception of biography that would retrace the
origin of the work of art to a creator. If my
presentation of Blanchots arguments is correct,
then no such ascription is possible. The origin of
a particular artwork is not the artist; likewise,
the origin of art as such the origin of what we
have only recently learned to call art does not
occur as a conventionally datable occurrence.
Despite their significance to a certain historiographical recounting of the origin of art, the cave
paintings at Lascaux are merely an example
an example among other examples. 5 But what
does this example exemplify? If there is no
origin of art if there is only a pre-originary
dissension that tears the origin from its originating function then no particular artwork,
including the one canonically defined as the
first, can be more than an example. By exposing
the interruption of the origin that always and
already disturbs the traditional recounting of the
beginning of art, Blanchot draws attention, in
the most powerful sense, to the inadequacy of
the language of origin and inception, history and
historiography, in so far as it fails to account for
what happens at the canonically defined birth of
art. Lascaux is exemplary for Blanchot only in so
far as the birth of art points towards an experience that outstrips historiographical reckoning.

the wall writings


What is remarkable about Blanchots writing is
that he allows his signature to tremble; he can be
said to write from the trembling his signature
bears. He writes out of fear but he does not fear
his fear; this is why he is able to write of the
other of anamnesis, the traumatism that
precedes, founds, and ruins memory. His signature is the condition of his work, but in allowing
his writing to reveal its trembling, to permit its
ruination by the very excessiveness of its

39

object, Blanchot gives a sign of a happening


that perturbs all works.
The signature attached to the particular work
of art is but an extrinsic sign of the dynamics of
origination. But its significance and the stakes of
Blanchots discussion of the work of art are
greater. The happening of art exposes the prior
inextrication of working and worklessness and
hence a certain disjuncture of time that determines any kind of production. I have quoted
Stephen Ungar who explains that, for Bataille,
the work of art is distinguished from the products of other work by a destructive force associated with transgression and the sacred
(Phantom Lascaux 258). I am not sure I would
agree, since what Blanchot calls the signature,
along with the aporia of the origin to which it
attests, is discernible in any work. The artwork
differs from other products only because the
signature is visible in a different sense not
merely obtruding into the space of the artwork
but opening that space itself. Nevertheless, any
work that is the outcome of a process of production can be said to exhibit a certain fear and
trembling.
Perhaps we must learn how to read the signatures that are inscribed on the bodies of those
works that we take to be ours; perhaps, too, we
will have to understand how the signature signs
us, each of us that it is written across the
bodies that we take to be ours. On the most
solemn monuments of our age on the institutions of the government and the university, on
the most imposing works of philosophy, of
history, the signature is legible. What do we read
there? In a late essay, Blanchot invokes the
memory of the events: When a number of us
took part in the May 1968 movement, they
hoped to be preserved from any ambition in the
singular (Intellectuals 224; 38). Despite the
differences between the participants that
revealed themselves in incessant disputes,
there was an underlying community between the
participants (Intellectuals 224; 38). In one
sense, it was perfectly possible to distinguish
between the young and the old, the famous and
the obscure; in another, all were bound in a relationship to one another that allowed each person
to recognise themselves in the anonymous

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blanchots signature
words inscribed on the walls and which, in
the end, even when on occasion they were the
result of a collective effort, never declared
themselves the words of an author, being of all
and for all, in their contradictory formulation
(Intellectuals 224; 38). The question concerning the authorship of these words cannot be
resolved by tracing them back to an individual
or a group. What is inscribed on the walls is a
figure for the trembling of signature that signs
itself in any work.
Let us read them in From Paris 68:
Imagination has seized power, Run comrade,
the old world is behind you! (66), We are reassured, two and two no longer make four (68),
The revolution is incredible because it is real
(70), Under the paving stones, the beach (72),
Dream is reality (74), The walls have ears.
Your ears have walls (76), Poetry is in the
street (78), Let us ban all applause, the spectacle is everywhere (80), It is forbidden to
forbid (86), My desires are reality (88), To
exaggerate is to begin to invent (90), Speak to
your neighbours (92), To live for the moment
(94), A cop sleeps inside every one of us, we
must kill him (96), Alone, we can do nothing
(104), We are all undesirables (110), Action
must not be a reaction but a creation (112),
Politics is happening in the street, To be free
in 1968 means to take part, The barricade
blocks the street but opens the way (114). It is
not in order to translate such proclamations into
a substantive political programme that Blanchot
writes of the wall writings. Indeed, it would be
better to remember the graffiti that would indicate its own provisionality: I have something to
say but I dont know what or, more simply, I
have nothing to say, Im playing, Quick!
(From Paris 68 70, 72, 84) slogans that like
specks of foam splash up from the wave that
crashed anonymously, impersonally and collectively through the streets of Paris: specks,
traces, but nothing more. The participants of the
events recognised them as signs of the experience that exposes each of them to worklessness:
a sign of the experience that has no one as its
subject. Like the signature hidden in the
crevasse at Lascaux, the wall writings would be
an extrinsic figure of the movement of trans-

gression that was affirmed, albeit briefly, on the


streets of Paris.
Was it affirmed, then, too, for the society
from which came the ones who realised the
paintings at Lascaux? The signature seems to
attest, in its clandestinity, to an experience that
was mysterious and difficult of access.
Nevertheless, in so far as it is always at play at
every level of production including the work
of the subject to maintain itself as itself over
time the worklessness that divides all works
against themselves can never be preserved as the
object of an esoteric knowledge. What the participants recognised in the writings on the walls was
what the incipient human beings witnessed as
they stepped into humanity.
What they saw, then and what the spectator
of the work of art would see now is the
evidence of an experience on the part of the
artist that re-echoes in the experience of the ones
who stand before the artwork. The words,
wonder, marvel, amazement, etc. can never
describe this experience, unless it is thought in
so far as it shelters an experience of fear. Fearful,
trembling, the signature is inscribed in the
artwork attesting to an opening of the world
the eruption, the transgression of the prohibitions that permit the laying out of the plane of
transcendence. The wall writings were there for
anyone to see. They are the exoteric counterpart
of the esoteric signature. The enigma of the pit
is brought into daylight: it is discernible, obvious, but recognisable only to those who participate in what Blanchot calls the movement of
May 1968.
That is why Blanchot writes of the events as a
feast; they open a group of human beings to
an experience that transgresses them in their
subjectivity (Unavowable Community 29; 54).
Does this mean that the events would be a blueprint for a future revolution: that one would
have merely to imitate such a programme in
order to reveal the play of the signature?
Blanchot reminds us that, although the events
were exceptional, they provide no solution;
this happening is sufficient unto itself
(Intellectuals 224; 38). Perhaps they could be
said to provide us with an idea of a revolution
that does not need to succeed or achieve a fixed

40

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iyer
goal (Intellectuals 224; 38); but they can do
no more than this. The feast is spontaneous; the
explosive generosity of celebration that interrupts
the time of work re-opens the natural overabundance, the first immensity that floods over the
prohibitions that would hold it at bay.
The festivity of the events echoes the festivity
of those who first celebrated as they crossed the
threshold into humanity. But the events are also
a threshold; what happens there is a transgression
that permits the step into humanity even as it
reveals the impossibility of ever completing this
step once and for all. They repeat what happened
in the very eruption of the human being into the
world just because human existence cannot be
secured once and for all. In the first signature, as
in the wall writings of the events of 1968 which
are themselves a kind of signing we discover
the trace of the human being who is born
through the interruption of worklessness onto the
plane of transcendence. In contradistinction to
the threat that the work exerts over the one who
is born of his work and the society of those who
emerge into history when they view it the
events give evidence that what was feared once
need not be an object of fear. It is in an exuberant joy that the events affirm what was once, and
for so many times, feared. The mystery is not
hidden; the enigma is no longer buried in the pit
or left modestly in a corner. In the daylight,
affirmed, is the experience that is figured in the
writings of the wall: the spontaneity of a movement that is not moved by itself. Who are the
raggle-taggle, the chienlit the ones who share
nothing but their festivity, least of all a political
programme recognisable to the men of power
they oppose only through their absence of reaction (Unavowable Community 31; 54). There is
no secret; it is written on the walls, just as it was
written thousands of years ago by the ones who
stepped in joy and fearful trembling into humanity. Who were they? who, for that matter, are
we, the ones who know what art is and what it
must be? We are the ones who know without the
knowing that the absolute and the substantial
conceal what the wall writings in the events
affirmed. Blanchot would teach us of what we do
not yet know and cannot, disclosing a future that
is also the future of art. Is art dead? Not unless

41

we, too, are dead. Not unless the plane of transcendence covers over what does not fail to affirm
itself in the explosive generosity of celebration, when we
return to the jubilation of the
interlude when we are once
again what we were when we
were not yet.

notes
I would like to thank Angelakis reviewers.
1 I allude to Malrauxs notion of the imaginary
museum in his Voices of Silence: Man and His Art.
2 See Derridas Demeure. Fiction and Testimony
3343, 7071.
3 As Leslie Hill has argued, The Space of Literature,
of which The Original Experience is a part,
should also be read as an oblique response to
Heideggers recently published essay Der
Ursprung des Kunstwerks (Blanchot Extreme
Contemporary 121). There is no question that
Blanchot is profoundly influenced by Heidegger
and particularly by The Origin of the Work of
Art. Blanchot refers to Heidegger only twice in
The Space of Literature once in a footnote and as
a contemporary philosopher who has certain
views on death. Despite Blanchots expressed
reservations about Heideggers death analysis in
Being and Time, Blanchots essay shares several
important formulations with Heidegger among
them the distinction between the work of art and
equipment, and the view that the origin of the
work of art precedes both the work of art and the
artist (Blanchot Extreme Contemporary 121). This
is not the place to negotiate the relationship
between Blanchot and Heidegger a task that
would have to draw upon The Sacred Word of
Hlderlin in The Work of Fire, the long footnote
appended to The Most Profound Question as
well as Atheism and Writing and Ren Char
and the Thought of the Neutral in The Infinite
Conversation and large sections of The Writing of the
Disaster. Finally, Do Not Forget and Our
Clandestine Companion attest, later in
Blanchots career, to his enduring reservations
about the German thinker.
4 The motivations behind his act of signing might
well be opaque to the artist, but this troubled
ignorance, the withdrawal of experience from
itself, means that the anteriority of the original

blanchots signature

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experience will reaffirm itself as soon as the


creative process begins again.
5 I will confine myself to one remark on the relationship between Blanchot and Heidegger. In The
Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger introduces
a famous example, that of a Greek temple. For
Heidegger, the temple grants a certain way of
understanding the mysteries of birth and death
and fate the way space and time are experienced
by a people. Indeed, the temple is, in a certain
sense, the arbiter of the divine law: the god whose
figure it contains opens the holy space of the
temple and allows the people it inaugurates to
understand life and even afterlife in the context of
the whole. Heidegger explains that the artwork
enjoys a quasi-transcendental function, rendering
a particular understanding of being possible by
opening a world. In exploring the figure of the cave
paintings at Lascaux in Blanchots Friendship, I point
discreetly towards the possibility of giving an
account of the stakes of the Greek temple in The
Origin of the Work of Art in its exemplarity. As
Heidegger writes, The all-governing expanse of
this open relational context is the world of this
historical people. Only from and in this expanse
does the nation first return to itself for the fulfilment of its vocation (The Origin of the Work of
Art 167). World is to be understood in terms of
the way in which beings (including the human being
itself) come into appearance for a particular
people (The Essence of Grounds 112).
Blanchots Lascaux does not perform a similar
role indeed, no artwork is capable, for Blanchot,
of disclosing a people to itself. The artwork is
always the disruption of just such a disclosure. The
happening of the work of art always leads to the
disruption of the formation of a historical people;
it is always transgressive. From a Blanchovian
perspective, the refusal of the work as it divides
itself against itself in the course of its origination is
pacified by the emphasis on the world-disclosive
aspect of Heideggers account of the origin of the
work of art.

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Lars Iyer
3 Hartington Road
Chorlton-cum-Hardy
Manchester M21 8UZ
UK
E-mail: lars.iyer@chorlton.com