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Désoeuvrement

Michael Krimper

Blanchot deploys the concept of désoeuvrement at multiple junctures in his


writing without fully defining the term. At one point, he asserts that the concept
of désoeuvrement is among those in his lexicon that defy all conceptualization.1
It refuses fixed meaning, grasp, and determination. To gloss a concept that defies
conceptualization would already amount to a daunting task, but what complicates
things further is that Blanchot’s technical use of désoeuvrement proves to be
considerably difficult, if not impossible, to translate into English. Though
we can more or less translate the common French usage of désoeuvrement as
“idleness,” “doing nothing,” or “unemployment,” Blanchot extends its semantic
range beyond any state of “inaction” or “being unoccupied.” Ultimately, this is
because he puts into play the negation (dés) of the root noun (l’oeuvre) in the
word dés-oeuvre-ment. Within this configuration, the concept of désoeuvrement
opposes not only the concept of travail in the sense of work as “productive
activity” or “labor,” but also the concept of oeuvre in the sense of the “literary
work” or “artwork” (l’oeuvre d’art). Such an opposition between “work” and what
we might call for shorthand “non-work” (désoeuvrement), furthermore, does
not involve a dialectical operation of contradiction as much as an irreconcilable
movement of contrasting forces and tensions. The immeasurable current of non-
work under question for Blanchot would seem to insinuate itself into the overall
work undertaken by humanity in the modern era. It would seem to run counter
to the dialectical labor of the negative whereby human being strives to transform
the totality of the given for the sake of achieving its own self-realization and
fulfillment in the course of Western history.

1
See Maurice Blanchot, “Tomorrow at Stake,” in The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson
(Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993), 420.
300 Understanding Blanchot, Understanding Modernism

Yet the term “non-work” only approximates Blanchot’s dynamic use of the
concept of désoeuvrement. What makes désoeuvrement arguably impossible to
translate from the source to the target language is that its meaning oscillates
between the passive pole of idleness, on the one hand, and the active pole of
the refusal of work, on the other. The translation of désoeuvrement, then, must
signify the suspension of ordinary work coupled to an altogether different
way of (non)working, no longer governed by the dialectical principles of
mastery, appropriation, and realization. While some readers of Blanchot have
consequently chosen to render désoeuvrement into English as “worklessness,”
others have coined the promising term “unworking” (at the same time many
other translations have proliferated, most notably “inoperativity”). Nevertheless,
even if “worklessness” and “unworking” retain the negation of the root noun
“work,” they still slightly distort the equivocal meaning of désoeuvrement; for
whereas “worklessness” accentuates its passivity, “unworking” accentuates its
activity. Indeed, if the concept of désoeuvrement is untranslatable into English,
then it is because the target language lacks a word for its irreducible ambiguity:
“worklessness” and “unworking” at once.
In order to sketch the active-passive ambivalence of désoeuvrement, let us
briefly consider some of the ways in which Blanchot applies the term in The Space
of Literature. There, he begins to experiment with the concept of désoeuvrement
in at least two interconnected ways. First of all, it bears on the social predicament
and experience of the writer in modernity, which, in Blanchot’s view, is
characterized by exclusion. The writer, he argues, is excluded not only from
work in the everyday sphere of productive activity and labor, but also from
the work of literature itself. Insofar as a writer like Kafka assumes the infinite
demand of the work, he inevitably becomes exhausted by the impossibility of
the task, and, at the limit, is given nothing to do but submit to the experience of
being strangely “out of work” (désoeuvrement) or workless (SL 23). The writer
becomes the “inert idler” (le désoeuvré) cast outside and deprived of the work
(24). And yet, for Blanchot, the activity of writing is paradoxically borne out of
such an experience of sheer passivity, powerlessness, and exclusion. To write is
to undergo the depersonalizing experience in which the “I” is abandoned to the
work, in which “I” am dispossessed, and at which point “one” cannot help but
write without end. For Blanchot, it is precisely the impersonal and anonymous
experience of désoeuvrement that animates the creative production of the work
(l’oeuvre).
Désoeuvrement 301

This brings us to the second and much more well-known way that Blanchot
uses the term désoeuvrement, designating the fragmentary dispersal and
undoing of the work. The concept of désoeuvrement, in this sense, bears on the
contestation of the work from within the work, above all the contestation of its
identity, unity, and totality. Perhaps Blanchot’s rewriting of the myth of Orpheus
stages this non-dialectical movement of désoeuvrement in its most condensed
scene. According to Blanchot’s version of the myth, Orpheus desires to reach
the origin and essence of the work beyond the possibility of its accomplishment.
Orpheus, more specifically, wants to transgress the prohibition against looking
at his deceased lover, Eurydice, in the underworld—the prohibition that would
otherwise enable him to complete the work and to ascribe a meaning to his
creative activity, but only on the condition that he turns away from its source
of concealment. However, when Orpheus puts everything at stake by looking
back and breaking the interdiction, he sees nothing. He sees nothing, that is,
but the enormous presence of Eurydice’s absence, the endlessness of dying,
the inessential and insignificant non-foundation of the work. Drawing on the
non-revelatory gaze of Orpheus, Blanchot traces and retraces, as he puts it,
“the ordeal of eternal inertia” (l’épreuve du désoeuvrement éternal) at the heart
of the work (173). And reading Mallarmé, he similarly lays bare the profound
emptiness and silence of the “inertia of being” (désoeuvrement d’être) at the heart
of the work (46). What Blanchot’s literary interrogation of the essence and origin
of the work hereby lets us glimpse is the worklessness out of which the work is
generated, as well as the unworking that destines the work to irremediable ruin,
thereby indicating elements of difference, discontinuity, and plurality in excess
of the whole.
Throughout his writing, Blanchot does not stop trying to think the active-
passive movement of the work, or the absence of the work, at times under the
sign of désoeuvrement, at other times with another distribution of mobile and
fluid terms. Without settling on any fixed definition, genealogy, or filiation, he
subjects the concept of désoeuvrement to constant modification and mutation,
later to be taken up and elaborated otherwise by Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe
Lacoue-Labarthe, and Giorgio Agamben, among many others.