The Movement of Testimony: Suffering and Speech in Blanchot and Antelme

Lars Iyer
Lecturer in Philosophy
Centre for Research in Knowledge, Science and Society
University of Newcastle, Newcastle-upon -Tyne, United Kingdom

Maurice Blanchot: “The suffering of our time: “A wasted man, bent head, bowed shoulders, unthinking, gaze extinguished”; “our gaze was turned to the ground”. [1] Suffering in our time is not distinguishable from the great sufferings of the past. But there is the disappointment that astonishing leaps in technoscience have not prevented the omnipresence of war. The increased capacity to work, to alter the world, has not delivered a commensurate freedom. Is one compelled to resign oneself to the failure of the political, to understand politics as an economic administration? [2] Perhaps one must resign oneself to the ceaseless recollection of genocides, nationalisms and feudalisms. This resignation is one sign of the withering of theodicy and its secular variants. The sufferer – the prisoner of the Gulag, the deportee in the concentration camp – does not look up to the sky as to the city of God. It seems hardly possible to assign a meaning to suffering in terms of a freedom to come, a reward at the end of the labor of the dialectic. In particular, the equation of work and freedom that characterizes the great discourses of political modernity seems to be no longer tenable. It is not by chance that one reads the words, work liberates, on the gates of the concentration camp. The sufferer, if not immediately executed, is put to work, and with bent head, bowed shoulders, gaze turned to the ground, labors to the point of death.

Is it possible to undertake a politics that would construct, protect and maintain a kind of lacuna in memory? How might we free ourselves from a burden heavier than we can bear? How, whilst acknowledging that it is impossible to finish mourning, might we act nonetheless without setting politics completely adrift? Diogenes thought it was sufficient to take a few steps to refute the Eleatics who denied motion; but it seems this freedom to move is not ours – or rather, that we distrust the spontaneity, simplicity, and voluntarism of his gesture. Remembering Diogenes, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms asks whether a true movement, a repetition [Gjentagelse, literally a re-taking] is possible. [3] Constantin Constantius, the pseudonymous author of Repetition, reminds us that we are not condemned to make the same mistakes as we have in the past since the past is contingent; whilst it is immutable, it is not necessary. It is because philosophers do not understand repetition that, Constantius reflects, philosophy itself “makes no movement; as a rule it makes only a commotion, and if it makes any movement at all, it is always within immanence, whereas repetition is and remains a transcendence”. [4] Transcendence can occur only when we own up to the past, answering to it, as part of the resoluteness that would permit each of us to take responsibility for our existence. Would this resoluteness allow us to raise our heads, to look towards the horizon, to have faith in a future that would not be the deadening recollection of the past? [5] But this notion of repetition – present in a certain existentialist discourse from Kierkegaard through Heidegger to Sartre – might seem as voluntaristic as Diogenes’s. Can transcendence be a matter of an act of will – a simple will to move?

One might discover another kind of transcendence in the demonstrators during the Paris Events of 1968 who let loose the cry: “we are all German Jews [Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands]”. The cry expressed their solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the student movement and the son of Jews who escaped Germany in 1933, who was barred entry into his native France after a trip overseas and subjected to anti-Semitic slurs by the authorities. But it also expresses fraternity with the victims of the Nazis. I would like to suggest with Nancy that the Events are “the first announcement, still opaque to itself, of another approach to the political”. [6] I understand this announcement in terms of its repetition of the suffering endured by the deportees in the camps.

The comparison might seem inappropriate. After all, as Blanchot recalls, the participants of the Events greeted and welcomed one another regardless of age or renown, writing on the walls and tearing up the paving stones from the street, forming committees locally, provisionally, and dispersing them without plan or project. How might one claim that the bodies of the participants repeat the labouring bodies, the executed bodies, the frozen bodies, the marching bodies of the deportees? For Levinas, speaking in an interview in 1984, the Events were but a pseudo-revolution: “In 1968, I had the feeling that all values were being contested as bourgeois – this was quite impressive – all except for one: the other”. [7] The fraternity of the participants is specious; the Events themselves, for all their turbulence, are a false movement, a re-circulation of the same in the same, without any real alteration. If it appears to move, it manifests only what he calls in Otherwise than Being the “mobility of the immobile”; if it appears to constitute a revolution, it ultimately changes nothing, because it was not undertaken in the name of the Other [autrui]. [8] A Levinasian revolution would be above all an affirmation of fraternity, an opening of a relation to the Other. [9] Levinas would unfreeze the order of the same in this affirmation, setting it in motion, attesting to a relation that occurs “as grace, in the passage from the one to other: transcendence”. [10]

Blanchot, by contrast, discovers just such a grace and transcendence in the fraternity of the demonstrators. [11] The Events should not be understood according to the model of the modern revolution that would aim at reform, at a determined outcome, but a revolution of revolution itself, a burning wheel, a rebellion with no particular end, or set of reforms to accomplish, an affirmation of fraternity with those who can never have power. Yes, the cry of the demonstrators might seem inappropriate. But I will argue that it is another way of bearing witness, of taking on the unbearable not to be crushed by its weight, but to open a future despite all that has happened. This is why Blanchot brings together his reflections on Robert Antelme’s The Human Race, which relates its author’s experiences as a political prisoner at Buchenwald, Gandersheim and Dachau during the Second World War, with an account of the cry of the demonstrators during the Events. The cry in question can, I will suggest, be said to repeat what Blanchot calls the speech of the prisoners in a way that suggests another way of understanding our condition.


I testify when I tell of an occurrence that happened to me and to me alone – to an experience I have traversed or that has traversed me. To testify is to share this experience, to make it public; but is the singular happening of an experience not impossible to share? An experience is always unique – it befalls me and I can only speak thereafter of what I lose even as I would render it communicable. This is why Derrida observes that testimony is always autobiographical since it would relate “the [shareable] and [unshareable] secret of what happened to me, to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense and feel”. [12] Any autobiographical recounting is compromised by that very recounting; to retell is to lose what happened in its singularity. Testimony, always public, has, as its condition, an event that cannot be rendered communicable. The possibility of testimony, if this word is understood as a literal recounting of what happened, has been stifled in advance. Yes, I can speak, I am perfectly capable of writing, of relating what has happened to me, but I have also lost the “object” of my testimony. I speak, I testify, but the capacity to do so retreats from me; it is not mine, or rather it would attest to what “in” me is not in my power to bring forward.

This is not to say simply that time and language divide us from our past – that there is a distance between what happened, the attempt to recall it, and the attempt to speak or write about what occurred. Nor is it here a matter of the epistemological indignity of a knowledge that is imperfect because it is bound to the vagaries of individual memory. The testimony in question leaves a mark that I will never be able to bring to presence. The “secret” in question does not offer itself to inspection; it does not grant itself to recollection.

The aporetics of testimony become an essential matter for reflection when it is an question of how we testify to the unbelievable. The notes buried near the crematoriums warn us of this. Lewental: “the truth was always more atrocious, more tragic than what will be said about it”. [13] The “truth” cannot be approached; the experiences of those who underwent the worst cannot be appeased. How can we receive the testimonies of those who bring us this undignified knowledge, this fragmented and heterogeneous knowledge of the unbearable? How might one bring them into community without threatening the sense that the community might have of the justice of its collective labour towards freedom, equality and fraternity? These are the questions that Blanchot brings to his reading of Antelme’s The Human Race. [14]

Antelme returned from Dachau weighing eighty-two pounds, his skin as thin as cigarette paper and his backbone visible through his neck. After he wrote The Human Race, Duras tells us, “he never spoke of the German concentration camps again. Never uttered the words again. Never again. Nor the title of the book”. [15] And yet, during the first days, when he was nursed by a doctor experienced in treating famine victims, he would do nothing but talk. As he writes, “Two years ago, during the first days of our return, I think we were all prey to a genuine delirium. We wanted at last to speak, to be heard”. [16] “As of those first days, however, we saw that it was impossible to bridge the gap we discovered opening up between the words at our disposal and that experience which, in the case of most of us, was still going forward within our bodies”. [17] “No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it. And then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable”. [18]

It is certainly not Antelme’s aim, one of Blanchot’s conversationalists observes, to take refuge in “telling one’s story [se raconter]”. [19] Yes, Antelme’s book is a narrative, it is written in the first person, it recounts certain events – but it does not present an abstract knowledge, affirming the calm order of truth and knowledge as if everything were a matter of adequation and sufficiency. It witnesses the unimaginable, which is to say, an experience that does not offer itself to ready expression. The Human Race keeps memory of “barbarism itself”, according to the etymological sense of this word [20] , neither sense nor non-sense but a kind of stammering that hovers on the edge of significance – a kind of speaking [parler] that hollows out a gap between addressor and addressee. The survivor cannot find the right words; the experience remains trapped in a body that can never narrate and thereby synthesize what happened. It is not a question of retrieving a memory, but of bearing witness to a trauma that was borne in common by the survivors.

Yet what is held in common is not an experience that could be shared by several fully present individuals. If Antelme writes “we” rather than “I” in recalling his experiences, it is to recall the anonymous community to which he and the other deportees might be said to belong. As The Human Race progresses, camaraderie and fellow feeling threaten disappear altogether, until, at the end, there are only bodies too weak to move, starving bodies, broken bodies, including many, like Antelme’s sister, the dedicatee of his book, who would die just after their liberation. Antelme’s book relates the flickering awareness on the part of this anonymous group that their number was too great for the SS to murder or to work to death. “They have burned men, and tons of ashes exist, they can weigh out that neutral substance by the ton. Thou shalt not be: but, in the man’s stead who shall soon be ashes, they cannot decide that he not be”. [21] The executioner’s power is finite; it is defeated by the sheer number of the others, by the human beings who remain outside their determination.


For the SS, the prisoners placed in their charge have no particularity, no existence; they are without face or, it would seem, speech. As Antelme recounts, it was ill-advisable for the deportees to allow their faces to be distinguished. “A face was not only useless but also, in spite of itself, rather dangerous”; to wear spectacles, for example, is to risk an individuation that might mark one out for punishment. [22] This is why the deportees attempted to negate their faces themselves, to bear, each of them, a “collective, anonymous face” that would allow none of them to be singled out. [23] In their identical outfits, with the same shaved heads and exhibiting the same starvation by degrees, they would disappear into the magma. This was not an extermination camp – prisoners were not systematically murdered in their thousands, but they were systematically deprived of food; anonymously, collectively, they were starved and worked to death.

Who are they? A dregs and a muddle, a jumble of vulnerable and starving bodies placed in the charge of those who would permit them to starve to death by degrees. Antelme evokes this magma in writing of thin, bloodied limbs, protruding ribs, chattering teeth, moans and cries from intestinal pain, paralysing exhaustion, empty bellies sunk inward, clothes filthy with nits and lice, chests covered in bites. “We have become untouchables,” he observes; “just cries and kicks in the dark,” shitting and pissing with dead bodies among bodies that are barely alive, hungry bodies alongside those who died of hunger, heels kicking into wounds. [24]

However, from time to time, the deportees were able to communicate to one another despite this night, catching glimpses of one another, seeing faces. Relationships existed among the deportees – occasions arose whereby one could feel oneself “momentarily a self vis-à-vis someone in particular”. [25] There were snatched communications between those who worked, moments when the prisoners broke their anonymity to signal to one another – extending a hand, speaking a word to tell others to slow down the work. Antelme evokes “Jo’s silent fraternity: my head against his back, in the car; the seeds in his hand, now his arm that I lean on”. [26] He also remembers the old Catalan and his son – “Father and son covered with lice, the two of them no longer looking their true age, coming to look alike. Both hungry, offering their bread to each other, with loving eyes”. [27] There were human signs to be sure – but ones that flashed intermittently between those who were without bond, the entanglement or morass whose every member can be substituted for any other. “The SS believe that in the portion of mankind that they have chosen love must rot, because it cannot be anything but an aping of the love between real men, because it cannot really exist”. [28] Antelme’s testimony does not permit us to doubt the existence of love, witnessing, for example, the love of the son for the father whose wrinkled yellow face looks upward from the floor of the train car. Yet it also forces us to accept that no words were exchanged between the SS and those who refused to become kapos. [29]


As Blanchot acknowledges, “no language is possible” between the SS and the deportees. [30] The deportees were addressed as brutally as they treated them, barking orders, speaking, shouting and receiving acquiescence in turn. It is out of this magma that each deportee appears briefly, instantaneously, when his name resounds in the roll-call:

Laughter when my name is called, and I reply “Present”. It sounded so outlandish in my ear; but I’d recognised it. And so for one brief instant I had been directly designated here, I and no other had been addressed, I had been specially solicited – I, myself, irreplaceable! And there I was. Someone turned up to say yes to this sound, which was at least as much my name as I was myself, in this place. And you had to say yes in order to return into the night, into the stone that bore the nameless face. [31]

The SS are the masters of speech; they alone retain the power of naming, summoning the deportees as from non-existence like the Adam of Hegel’s draft of the Phenomenology, who names and brings what is named into existence. [32] Antelme’s name, butchered in the mouth of the SS, summons him from a dark indeterminacy in order to say “present”. The unnoticed stone in the night, the skull without face or name is brought into the world; for a moment, dangerously, he is noticed. “Laughter when my name is called”: it is not the laughter of Robert Antelme in the first person, but the laughter of the deportee whose name can only be spoken by those who tear him from a safe anonymity. Antelme’s name is no longer a name, but an order, a summons to be present before those who hold the power of life and death. There is laughter: how might he respond but with laughter, instantly suppressed, at the irony of the danger the pronunciation of his own name announces, exposing him, making him vulnerable until he can reply to his name and return into the morass, relieved because he is once again substitutable.

No, speech is not possible. To be addressed at all is a risk. The deportee can only assent to authority, he can cringe and apologise in the hope of functioning perfectly and disappearing into his function like the perfect tool. But there is another kind of speech, a kind of signification that presents itself in the abject silence of the deportee - a speech of affliction, the still-living accusation of the starving and bedraggled deportee in his hunger and his filth. The SS were confronted with the fact that these fatigued, beaten, frozen and famished bodies were bodies just like their own. This is what the bodies continue to “say” in the murmuring “speech” that continued to move forward in them, escaping the measure of their oppressors’ power. For a German Meister, walking by briskly, the deportees should simply “’Weg!” – Get the hell out of the way!” [33] The deportee hears “I don’t want you to exist” in the citizen’s dismissal; but each deportee exists as an infinitely substitutable individual, a blank face among other blank faces, as a living refutation of this dismissal, because, as Antelme emphasises, each knows that the magma endures, that “we are still there” and in their survival, address their captors. [34] All they say, but this is enough, is here we are, behold us, we survive despite everything.

No doubt it was this infinite disruption of their powers that drove the SS to desire to destroy the prisoners. As the conversationalists of Blanchot’s essay insist, “Man is the indestructible that can be destroyed” [35] : one can destroy the deportees one by one, but how might the SS rid themselves of every deportee and every potential deportee? Whence the madness of the camps, diverting essential resources to destroy the ultimate object of fear: the indeterminable morass that would have eventually included every human being.


When he foregrounds the speech the deportees would address to their captors, Blanchot doubtless recalls the transformation of his own discourse at this time, which allowed him to place his work in closer proximity to Levinas’s than was hitherto evident. Indeed, the essay on Antelme was originally joined to a reflection on Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. [36] The separation that occurred with its republication does not make this link any less apparent; it is clear, indeed, from its opening lines: “Each time the question: Who is ‘Autrui’? emerges in our words I think of the book by Robert Antelme”. [37]

Blanchot’s reading of Antelme does more than draw his reader’s attention to The Human Race, underlining the general lessons that its author draws from the camps. Blanchot would account for Antelme’s experiences by appealing to the kind of account Levinas provides of the suffering and the relation to the Other. In particular, he follows Levinas’s distinction between two kinds of suffering.

Levinas’s distinction is foregrounded in the essay “Useless Suffering”:

there is a radical difference between the suffering in the Other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and suffering in me, my own experience of suffering, whose constitutional or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning, the only one of which suffering is capable, in becoming a suffering for the suffering (inexorable though it may be) of someone else. [38]

Suffering is useless, that is, good for nothing, because it binds the sufferer to the present. The sufferer is aware only of the pain from which he or she would distance him or herself. Suffering is claimed to gain meaning, however, in a relation to the Other. Such a relation does not occur voluntarily, that is, through the act of will that would allow one to take on what has happened. Suffering achieves meaning in the pre-voluntary assumption of the relation to the Other as it is woven into the constitution of the subject. As such, one’s own suffering occurs in a kind of restricted economy. To concern oneself with oneself is to belie the opening that has already occurred. But the apparent freedom to determine oneself for oneself dissimulates the suffering for the Other that Levinas elevates to the status of a “supreme ethical principle”. [39] Yet this dissimulation always comes after the fact; the opening to the Other always and already permits the “I” to escape the evil of its own suffering. This is why Levinas can link time and the Other, as he does in the title of an early book, showing that the relation to the Other grants a future to the self that would otherwise be mired in immanence. [40] It is in this way that he links time to goodness and the transcendence and fraternity of the opening of the Other to genuine movement, which is always a movement in response to an “other” law, to a heteronomous encounter.

Whilst Blanchot always hesitates about adopting the letter of Levinas’s arguments, he does follow him in allowing an equivocalness to suffering. As I have shown, the prisoners barely exist for themselves, except in rare moments of camaraderie or communication. They experience the horror of an existence without end, mired in what Blanchot calls a “base impersonality” or a “base eternity”, an empty perpetuity where nothing can happen. [41] As in Levinas’s account of suffering, one finds here an experience that cannot be brought into the grasp of the subject. [42] But the relation to the Other in Blanchot’s work is always presented in a way that is more equivocal and disturbing than in Levinas’s work, being linked to an indeterminable experience that can no longer be called good or offer itself as the bestowal of the ethical. [43] It is to be understood as an interruption of the economy of the self, of a certain measure of power. “It is truly as though there were no Self other than the self of those who dominate”, one of Blanchot’s conversationalists comments of the camps. The deportee is left “to an anonymous presence without speech and without dignity”. [44] And yet, the force of the SS has a limit: “he who literally can no longer do anything still affirms himself at the limit where possibility ceases: in the poverty, the simplicity of a presence that is the infinite of human presence”. [45] An opening occurs, despite everything; the SS endure an inability to alter the prisoner into something other than a human being. It is in this way that Blanchot would attempt to account for Antelme’s experiences.


One might understand the horror of Nazism as its attempt to overcome the inability to abolish speech, to surmount finitude. This recalls Nancy’s attempt to think totalitarianism as the movement that would posit a total order that must be produced and maintained through work – as an immanentisation of relations that begins in the movement to identify. [46] Indeed, as Blanchot comments, “the immanence of man to man also points to man as the absolutely immanent being because he is or has to become such that he might entirely be a work, his work, and in the end, the work of everything”; this, he notes, is “the seemingly healthy origin of the sickest totalitarianism”. [47] Yet the movement towards immanence is phantasmic; it is impossible to achieve a total mobilization since a certain transcendence always refuses to be put to work. It reaches us from a place we are unable to determine. This is evident in Antelme’s understanding of the camps: the non-voluntary opening to the deportee, to the Other, entails a displacement of the structure of the identity of the SS, opening it up, or rather, revealing the opening that was already there. It is therefore impossible for the SS to maintain the  organisation of an inside that would be symmetrical and commensurable with an outside (the Jew, the Other). 

It is true that the deportees say nothing, but they do not retain an ability to be silent – pausing to think, refusing to answer, and thereby participating as conversationalists at the same level of discourse. They say nothing – but Blanchot hears a cry in their speech, a depersonalised murmuring, which might, like the horns of Jericho, ruin the walls that enclose them, or, rather, have shown that these walls were already ruined. The deportees are preserved in a distance and a difference that remain infinite. Their separation from their oppressors is neither symmetrical nor commensurable. One cannot cross this distance through the interposition of an impersonal term that would allow one to know the Other. Indeed, there is no longer an addressor and addressee who could be said to remain as the terms of the relation in question. One might invoke only an experience of exposition, in which the individual SS or the German Meister of Antelme’s example is exposed to a speech that cannot be synthesized or incorporated. [48]

To claim that there is no longer a threshold, an indivisible line or frontier between the SS and the deportee is not to collapse the situation of the SS into that of the deportees. A distinction between kinds of suffering is maintained. The SS are the locus of a response even as they would exert their authority. To receive the speech of the Other means to acknowledge that they are each of the same race as the Other; that there is indeed only one race. Each of the SS is displaced with regard to himself as if his place was the usurpation of the place of his prisoner. In this way, the SS can be said to have been deported. A reversal has already occurred, whereby the powerless and dispossessed prisoners wound and exhaust their captors, hunting and tormenting them in turn.

Antelme emphasises that the deportees bear a transient awareness of this obscure torment of the SS. The deportee is aware of a certain capacity to call the power of their oppressors into question, to compel the SS to, in Blanchot’s words, “receive the unknown and the foreign, receive them in the justice of a true speech”. [49] Is it possible to envisage, as one of Blanchot’s conversationalists suggests, that “the one who is dispossessed must be received not only as ‘autrui’ in the justice of speech, but also placed back into a situation of dialectical struggle so he may once again consider himself as a force, the force that resides in the man of need, and, finally, in the ‘proletarian’”? [50] Would it be possible for the proletariat of Antelme’s testimony to enter the dialectic?


Antelme’s reflections often suggest some kind of continuity with the discourse of an official communism. As he observes, the behavior of the SS is “a magnification, an extreme caricature – in which nobody wants or is perhaps able to recognize himself – of forms of behaviour and of situations that exist in the world”, but these reflections are rare in a text that sets itself the task of delineating the disaster that befell not only its author, but others like him. [51] When Antelme uses the word proletariat, he does not refer to the immediate, unreflective bearer of the universal. Noting that the prisoner who feeds on potato peelings experiences “one of the ultimate situations of resistance”, “the proletarian’s condition in its extreme form” [52] , he discloses a new, terrible figure, which Blanchot’s conversationalists call the “proletariat in rags”, “the man fallen below need, the shadow of the slave exiled from slavery who labors outside a formative relation with work.” [53] The proletarians in question are not the embryos of a revolutionary subject-position; they are not the ultimate subject of history and cannot look forward to the proletarian community to come. Nor are they the slaves who would constitute an independent and universal absolute from whom the master would seek recognition.

Yet, in their rags, they still possess the flickering awareness of which Antelme writes, that is, what he calls, “the ultimate feeling of belonging to mankind”. [54] Killed in huge numbers, starving to death, forced to work in the harshest conditions, they are aware that they remain an enigma for the SS. They cannot become the perfect tool or the perfect raw material. Even in death, they refuse to become anything other than human corpses. And even if they were ground down to become industrial waste or agricultural slurry, there are still others in this anonymous community who would replace them. There will always be another proletarian in rags who would continue to address the SS as the absolutely Other [l’autre]. [55] This is why Blanchot allows his conversationalists to return to the phrase, “man is the indestructible that can be destroyed”: the human being, who can always become proletarian, who is always exposed to the chance of being enclosed the anonymous community of the starving and bedraggled, cannot end otherwise than as a human being. [56] The power of the SS remains finite. Doubtless this is why they behaved as if it were infinite – as if they could create a new division in the human race itself. But as Antelme observes, despite the “SS fantasy to believe that we have an historical mission to change species”, “the distance separating us from another species is still intact. It is not historical”. [57]

 Antelme also remarks that the behavior of the SS is a “magnification” or “caricature” of our behavior. [58] The “extraordinary sickness” the camps reveal is indeed a “culminating moment in man’s history”; it confirms the behavior that can always occur as soon as it is decreed that “‘they aren’t people like us’”. [59] Yet it is also the case that the proletarians, the human race will always outlive this sickness: “It’s because we’re men like them that the SS will finally prove powerless before us. It’s because they shall have sought to call the unity of this human race into question that they’ll finally be crushed. [60]

For Blanchot, too, the camps retain an emblematic force. As he comments, “all the distinctive features of a civilization are revealed or laid bare” [61] , by which he refers to the ongoing process of exclusion that occurs in the collective work towards freedom. Here, it is not only those who are exploited in their work who become proletarian, but those who lack a formative relation to work, who are entirely excluded from labor and, for that reason, are in perpetual danger of being treated like industrial waste or agricultural slurry. As Blanchot observes, drawing close to Levinas, the proletarian “is always the other”, always “man as autrui, always coming from the outside, always without a country in relation to me, strange to all possession, dispossessed and without dwelling place”. [62]

Is this what Blanchot indicates when he allows a conversationalist to claim that the other is always the proletariat? “Autrui is not on the same plane as myself. Man as autrui, always coming from the outside, always without a country in relation to me, strange to all possession, dispossessed and without dwelling place, he who is as though ‘by definition’ the proletarian (the proletarian is always the other) does not enter into dialogue with me”. [63] Speech, for Blanchot, is not primarily a matter of dialogue. To respond to speech, to invoke the speakers and to address them, as occurs before any conscious or voluntary reaction, is already to have be ex-posed, turned from oneself because of the dissymmetry that is at play in the relation. The response of the SS, before everything, announces the powerlessness, destitution and the strangeness of the Other, that is, of the proletariat who escape the measure of power.

But to claim that true discourse is a response to the Other must also be to acknowledge that the relation between the SS and the deportees in the camps is analogous to the relations between us, any of us. We are always enclosed by a whole network of forces, which does not mean that we cannot become Other for other human beings around us. It does not prevent others, likewise, from assuming this role with respect to each of us. Is this why Levinas claims “the unity of the human race is in fact posterior to fraternity”? [64] Blanchot, following Antelme, proposes a conception of the human race that depends upon a potential relation of substitutability each of us possess with respect to the anonymous community of those who are excluded. This is why the community in question is as large as the human race. It is also why the unity of human race dissimulates a constant play of relations, whereby we might expose others in becoming the Other, or might be exposed by the Other in turn.


They aren’t people like us: is it the Jews who have indicated a relation to the Other that cannot be rendered simultaneous or commensurate? Blanchot quotes Levinas’s remark: “Judaism is an essential modality of all that is human”. [65] He follows Levinas in understanding the Jews primarily as a people of the Book, that is, as a people to whom an awareness of a horizontal transcendence has been vouchsafed through the scriptures. [66] This is the horrible irony: the Nazis persecuted those who were bound by their relation to the Book to answer to the relation to the Other, that is, to speech. [67] The objects of persecution were those who would be able to indicate another experience of God and another rendering of the notion of fraternity.

Blanchot would no doubt follow Lacoue-Labarthe in understanding the persecution of the Jew in terms of this experience, this other God:

it was not at all by chance that the victims of that annihilation attempt were the witnesses in that West of another origin of the God who was venerated and thought there – if not indeed, perhaps, of another God – one who evaded capture by the Hellenistic and Roman traditions and who thereby stood in the way of the program of accomplishment. [68]

Jewish monotheism retains an important meaning for Blanchot – unlike the God of “power, promise and salvation, of whose retreat Auschwitz is the mark”. [69] Yet some have been worried by the passage that follows in which Blanchot writes, with a self-confessed brutality that he understands this monotheism solely in terms of the relation to the Other. After invoking the “great gift of Israel”, that is, “its teaching of the one God”, he remarks:

I would rather say, brutally, that what we owe to Jewish monotheism is not the revelation of the one God, but the revelation of speech as the place where men hold themselves in relation with what excludes all relation: the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign. God speaks, and man speaks to him. This is the great feat of Israel. [70]

The Jewish God issues the call from the outside, the call that elects a people to leave their abode. It is God who called Abraham into exile, who allowed the slaves to become a people in the deserts of Egypt, a people without land, hunted, anxious even as they were elected to observe the Law and to preserve an ethos. [71] The words heard by Abraham, “leave your country, your kinsmen, your father’s house”, take on meaning for Blanchot as a summons to a positive errancy, to a new, nomadic relation to the earth. [72] But in making this claim, does he not erase the specificity of the Jews?

This erasure might seem to be confirmed in the fact that Blanchot privileges Antelme’s book in his reflections both on the relation to the Other and of the camps. As Bruns notices, Antelme himself compares the plight of the deportees he describes to that of the Jews, writing, “around here the SS don’t have any Jews to hand. We take their place”. [73] Bruns comments that Antelme is being “metaphorical”: “’being Jewish’ is the condition of absolute abjection […] anyone who suffers in extremis is, by transference, Jewish”. [74] Is Blanchot also being metaphorical in foregrounding a book by a non-Jew that records its author’s experience of a hard labor camp where there were no Jews? By seemingly incorporating Jews to the more general category of the proletariat, denying them their specificity, does he not confirm a tendency that Mole argues characterizes a certain “poststructuralist discourse”, a “discourse of alterity” that reifies the Jew, thereby “reducing the very open-endedness it would figure”? [75]

But to claim that Antelme’s book witnesses the horizontal transcendence of the Other in a manner analogous to that of Judaism entails no such reduction. To witness the relation in question is not to lay claim over it once and for all. There cannot be an absolute exemplarity with respect to speech. One must understand the peculiar election that would make the Jews a people vulnerable “to find itself, overnight and without forewarning, in the wretchedness of its exile, its desert, ghetto or concentration camp – all the splendors of life swept away like tinsel, the Temple in flames, the prophets without vision, reduced to an inner morality that is belied by the universe”. [76] But Antelme reminds us that the situation in the camp is a sign of a more general situation, that is, the fact that beyond the color, class, or the custom of human beings “there are not several human races, there is one human race”. [77] There is one human race, whose members are all vulnerable to the violence that could force them to become a member of the anonymous community. Levinas shows us that the scriptures attest to a relation that escapes this violence. Yet Antelme, too, bears witness to the extraordinary awareness on the part of the prisoners that they, or others like them, are the infinite, indeterminable reserve who would survive the SS. This is to say that, as Blanchot shows, The Human Race, like the scriptures and like Levinas’s own philosophy, attests to the transcendence that happens as speech. [78]


“In common we have: burdens. Insupportable, immeasurable, [unshareable] burdens”; but how are we to bear this unbearable burden and to move and open ourselves to a future? [79] This is the question Blanchot would entrust to us: how might we attest to the openings that would allow us to invoke the community to which we are called, even chosen, because we belong to the human race? Such belonging, as I have shown, requires that we exist in a relation of displacement with ourselves and with our work and with the “cum” of a community that would protect and maintain something shared.

Is this what we witness in the explosive joy of the Events, each of the participants learnt to face one another in a “camaraderie without preliminaries” because they were present not as persons or subjects “but as the demonstrators of a movement fraternally anonymous and impersonal”? [80] Is this not analogous to what Constantius would call a repetition, that is, the true movement of fraternity that was sometimes permitted between individuals who, in Antelme’s account, appeared and disappeared into the magma? And when Blanchot writes that the men of power were confronted by “a carnivalesque redoubling of their own disarray”, is there not a repetition of the disarray of the SS before those over whom they would exert their dominion? [81]

A genuine revolution, according to Levinas and Blanchot, would answer to the pre-voluntary opening to the Other, thus unfreezing those spaces that have allowed themselves to be determined in view of collective work. As Blanchot writes, one must heed the murmuring cry – the “cry of need or of protest”, the “cry without words and without silence, an ignoble cry”; “the written cry graffiti on the walls” – without synthesising it or reducing to a moment of the unfolding of discourse. [82] It is not simply a matter of indicating the proletariat, of identifying their needs and coming to their aid, but of keeping memory of the instant in which language is pledged in speech. I have suggested that Blanchot’s conception of the proletariat – and perhaps his communism, as he signals his allegiance to this word [83] – answers the need to keep memory of those situations when, in the words of “Humankind”, the presence of the Other “puts the power of the Powerful radically into question”. [84]

[1] Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 81.

[2] I draw on the discussion made by Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy in documents relating to the Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political, held on a monthly basis at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the early 1980s. In their opening address to the Centre, they place emphasis on the phrase “re-treating the political” with the intention of marking a necessity to withdraw the political “in the sense of its being the ‘well-known’ and in the sense of the obviousness (the blinding obviousness) of politics”, Retreating the Political, ed. Simon Sparks, Routledge, 1997, 112. This phrase also calls for the re-elaborate the political, by rendering possible “a question which refuses to confine itself to the categories ordinarily grouped under ‘the political’” (112). “That is my place in the sun. That is how the usurpation of the whole world began”: has a certain politics, marked by a discrete triumphalism overturned every other conception of politics, to the extent that it renders itself obvious (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. Martin Turnell, London: Harvill Press, 1962, 141)? The question concerning the political is a response to this supposed obviousness.

[3] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/ Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

[4] Repetition, 186.

[5] See Caputo’s Radical Hermeneutics, Indiana University Press, 1987, for a genealogy of repetition from Kierkegaard through Husserl and Heidegger.

[6] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. Jeffrey S. Libbrett, University of Minnesota Press, 1998, 116.

[7] He continues “Nobody ever said that the right of the other man – despite all the liberation of the spontaneous ego, despite all the license of language and contempt for the other as other – remained unpronounceable”, Is it Righteous to be?, ed. Jill Robbins, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, 99. Interestingly, Levinas seems to have changed his mind on this point by the interview with Salomon Malka in 1984 from which these remarks are taken. In “Judaism and Revolution”, a commentary on the Tractate Baba Metsia a year after the Events, he writes: “those who shouted, a few months ago, ‘We are all German Jews’ in the streets of Paris were after all not making themselves guilty of petit-bourgeois meanness” (Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990, 113). Since Levinas accords a metaphysical status to what he calls the “adherence to France” because of the “moral and philosophical” emblem of trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity inscribed on the front of public buildings (Difficult Freedom, 260-61), might one suppose that the 1789 Revolution would enjoy an exemplary status in his work as a revolution?

[8] Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981, 33.

[9] Caygill, in his Levinas and the Political, London: Routledge, 2002, is right to place emphasis on this term in Levinas’s work as a whole. See Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins, Verso Books, 1997, itself intended as a belated contribution to the Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political, in which Derrida exposes the danger of the appeal to here to the notion of brotherhood, to a “a schematic of filiation: stock, genus, species, sex [Geschlecht], blood, birth, nature, nation – autochthonial or not, tellurian or not” (viii). Fraternity, he suggests, should be subjected to a “loosening [déprise]” (p. 57 n.1 and p. 47-8, n.15). This “should” gains its prescriptive force because it belongs to the same demand that the anonymous commentator would have us answer – the refusal of the Other to be determined by any of the familiar categorisations of our social existence. Derrida directs his comments to Bataille, Blanchot and Nancy, but it is clear that they also apply to Levinas. See my “The Impossibility of Loving. Blanchot, Community, Sexual Difference”, forthcoming in Cultural Values, for an exploration of the implications of Derrida’s argument for Blanchot’s work in particular.

[10] Levinas, Is it Righteous to be?, 111.

[11] As Leslie Hill reminds us, Blanchot comments on the cry “We are all German Jews” in one of his anonymous writings published in Comité. He cites Blanchot as follows: “’Never’, he claims, ‘had this previously been said anywhere, never at any time: it was inaugural moment of speech, opening and overturning borders, opening, overthrowing the future’” (Blanchot — Extreme Contemporary, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, 219). The text in question, “Les Actions exemplaires”, Comité, 1, October 1968, 17-18, 18, was published anonymously in a short lived journal. However, Blanchot included a short essay entitled “War and Literature” in Friendship, published in 1971, originally a response to a Polish questionnaire, in which he recalls the spontaneous demonstration in question, commenting “this was to signify the relation of solidarity and fraternity with the victims” (109). References to the Events are rare and encrypted in texts published under Blanchot’s own name until the 1980s and 1990s when he refers to them on a number of occasions.

[12] Jacques Derrida, “Demeure. Fiction and Testimony”, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, 43. I am indebted in the following pages to Derrida’s discussion of the problematics of testimony in Blanchot in his Demeure. Derrida provides a micrological reading of The Instant of My Death raising questions, as his title suggests, about the relationship between fiction and testimony – “we will study the meshes of the net formed by the limits between fiction and testimony, which are also interior each to the other” (Demeure, 56) — and, more generally, answering to the theme of the conference, Passions of Literature at which it was delivered. Quoting every line of The Instant of My Death, Derrida argues that Blanchot’s récit testifies to the passion of literature in general, understood as a remaining [demeurer] or abiding [à demeure] in the aforementioned “between”.

[13] Cited in The Writing of the Disaster, 82.

[14] Antelme’s The Human Race, trans. Jeffrey Haight and Annie Mahler, Evanston:  Marlboro Press 1992, was published in 1947 to good reviews but general indifference. It has since become a classic of testimonial literature. The essay on Antelme that appears in Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press 1993, has a complex publication history. It was originally published as part of a longer essay “L'indestructible” in La Nouvelle Revue Française 112 (April), pp. 671-80, 1962. This longer essay was separated in two by Blanchot and emended. The first half, “The Relation to the Third Kind: Man without Horizon” appears in the first part of The Infinite Conversation and the second, the meditation on Antelme, as the second half of a chapter entitled “The Indestructible” in the second part of The Infinite Conversation. The first half of this chapter is an essay “Being Jewish”, originally published in two parts as “Être juif” published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1962. This division of the original long essay for republication is unsurprising: its first half clearly belongs alongside other essays on Levinas in the first part of the three part The Infinite Conversation and the second alongside essays that provide a more concrete, embedded elaboration of Blanchot’s earlier reflections. Yet it has aroused suspicion; the facts surrounding the republication of the essay on Antelme are significant in view of the claims that Blanchot refuses to acknowledge the specificity of being Jewish, which I will take up in section 7 of this essay.

[15] Marguerite Duras, The War. A Memoir, trans. Barbara Bray, New York: The New Press, 1986, 65.

[16] The Human Race, 3.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] The Infinite Conversation, 134. Like many of the other essays in that volume, “The Human Race” in the form of a written entretien, a conversation or encounter. It is significant that the theme of these essays is a certain relation to the Other, that, it would seem, demands a way of writing that figures a certain interruption that occurs in that relation. Of course this is only a figure; the conversations in The Infinite Conversation can only recall us to the fact that discourse is not all of a piece – that is, homogeneous and continuous.

[20] Barbarism has been linked to the Sanskrit barbaras, to stammer ((John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, Bloomsbury, 1990, 52). The Infinite Conversation, 78.

[21] The Human Race, 74.

[22] The Human Race, 52.

[23] cf. Ibid., 52

[24] Ibid., 265.

[25] The Infinite Conversation, 134.

[26] The Human Race, 275.

[27] Ibid., 262

[28] The Human Race, 263.

[29] The kapos consisted of those prisoners chosen to administer the day to day lives of the deportees. They were typically German criminals.

[30] The Infinite Conversation, 135.

[31] Ibid., 21.

[32] Berlin Phenomenology, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1981, § 462.

[33] The Meisters were German civilians who supervised the prisoners who worked in factories. The Human Race, 51.

[34] Ibid.

[35] The Infinite Conversation, 130. The conversationalists return to this phrase several times in this essay.

[36] See endnote 14 above.

[37] The Infinite Conversation, 130. Or, better, his commentary evidences a transformation of Blanchot’s discourse that places his work in closer proximity to Levinas’s work that was hitherto evident. See, on Blanchot’s encounter with Levinas, my “The Sphinx’s Gaze. Art, Friendship and Philosophical in Blanchot and Levinas”’, Southern Journal of Philosophy, Summer 2001, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 189-206, and my “Literary Communism. Blanchot’s Conversations with Levinas and Bataille”, Symposium, Journal of the Canadian Society for Hermeneutics and Postmodern Thought, Vol. 6, no. 1, 2002, pp. 45-62.

[38] Levinas, Entre Nous, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, London: Athlone Press, 1998, 94.

[39] Entre Nous, 94. Here, it would also be necessary to attend to the dialectic of Levinas’s early lecture series, Time and the Other, where the relation to the Other opens up the future for the “I”.

[40] See Time and the Other, trans. Richard Cohen, Duquesne University Press, 1987.

[41] The Infinite Conversation, 120.

[42] As one of the conversationalists writes, “it is precisely in affliction that man has always already disappeared: the nature of affliction is such that there is no longer anyone either to cause it or to suffer it; at the limit, there are never any afflicted – no one who is afflicted ever really appears. The one afflicted no longer has any identity other than the situation with which he merges and that never allows him to be himself; for as a situation of affliction, it tends incessantly to de-situate itself, to dissolve in the void of a nowhere without foundation” (The Infinite Conversation, 131-132).

[43] See, on the relationship between Blanchot and Levinas, Françoise Collin’s Maurice Blanchot et la question de l’écriture, Gallimard, 1971, Paul Davies’s “A Linear Narrative? Blanchot with Heidegger in the Work of Levinas”, Philosophers’ Poets. London and New York: Routledge, 1990, 37-69 and Gerald Bruns’s “Blanchot; Levinas: Interruption (On the Conflict of Alterities)”, Research in Phenomenology, vol. 26, 1997, 132-154.

[44] The Infinite Conversation, 132.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor et. al. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

[47] The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris, Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1988, 2.

[48] This must not be understood as an appeal to conscience, which would require a subject present to be conscience. Indeed, once again, Blanchot must be understood in contradistinction to Heidegger. The invocation of speech and witnessing recalls Heidegger’s discussion of conscience in Being and Time. There, the call of conscience is present as a silent speech that is addressed as it were by Dasein to itself. Blanchot, by contrast, presents the call as a call of the Other. In Being and Time, conscience would summon Dasein to take over its existence as its own, to withdraw from everyday existence where it is no more than the disowned “oneself” [Man-selbst]. For Blanchot, however, one can never as it were bring oneself back to oneself: the “I” is expelled before the call in question reaches it.

[49] The Infinite Conversation, 133

[50] Ibid.

[51] The Human Race, 219.

[52] The Infinite Conversation, 95.

[53] The Infinite Conversation, 175.

[54] Ibid., 131.

[55] One of Blanchot’s conversationalists observes of this awareness: “This is what bears meditation: when through oppression and terror man falls as though outside himself, there where he loses every perspective, every point of reference, and every difference and is thus handed over to a time without respite that he endures as the perpetuity of an indifferent present, he has one last possibility. At this moment, when he becomes the unknown and the foreign, when, that is, he becomes a fate for himself, his last recourse is to know that he has been struck not by the elements, but by men, and to give the name man to everything that assails him” (The Infinite Conversation, 131).

[56] Ibid, 130.

[57] The Human Race, 219.

[58] The Human Race, 219.

[59] The Human Race, 219.

[60] The Human Race, 219.

[61] The Writing of the Disaster, 81.

[62] The Infinite Conversation, 56.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Otherwise than Being, 166.

[65] The Blanchot Reader, 249.

[66] See my “The City and the Stars. Politics and Alterity in Heidegger, Levinas and Blanchot”, Journal of Religious and Cultural Theory, vol. III, no. 3, Aug 2002, for an exploration of Levinas’s account of the relationship between Judaism and the scriptures.

[67] It would be the same understanding of Judaism that might imply the protection of Israel. In a letter to Levinas reprinted in Nine Talmudic Readings, Blanchot explains his departure from the Comité group when its members began to question the legitimacy of Israel, writing, “I have always said that there was a limit beyond which I wouldn’t go, but now I’d like to ask myself for a minute ... ask myself why these young people who are acting violently but also with generosity, felt they had to make such a choice, why they operated on thoughtlessness, on the usage of empty concepts (imperialism, colonisation) and also on the feeling that it is the Palestinians who are the weakest, and one must be on the side of the weak (as if Israel were not extremely, dreadfully vulnerable) (115).

[68] Heidegger, Art and Politics, Blackwell, 1990, 37.

[69] The Infinite Conversation 249.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] The Human Race, 76. Bruns observes, “Antelme was not Jewish, although once in his memoir he characterises himself and his fellow prisoners as stand-ins made to substitute for Jews, there being none left, as he imagined, in Buchenwald” (Maurice Blanchot - The Refusal of Philosophy, Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997, 222). He points us to the Buchenwald Report, trans. David A. Hackett (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), that reports that there were four thousand of Jews in the camp, “submerged” among the political prisoners in order to protect them.

[74] Maurice Blanchot, 327.

[75] Mole, Lévinas, Blanchot, Jabès: Figures of Estrangement, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997, 66.

[76] Proper Names, trans. Michael B Smith, Athlone Press, 1996, 123.

[77] The Human Race, 219

[78] Indeed, Blanchot insists in his literary critical essays that a certain literature is also capable of witnessing the relation in question – and he appears to aim at just such a witnessing in his novels and récits, as Levinas grants. This is one of the most important issues that divide Blanchot and Levinas. But I cannot take up these themes in any detail here. See Levinas’s reading of Blanchot’s Awaiting Oblivion, trans. John Gregg, University of Nebraska Press, 1997 in Proper Names. See my “The City and the Stars. Politics and Alterity in Heidegger, Levinas and Blanchot”, for an exploration of the relationship between Blanchot’s account of reading literature and Levinas’s Talmudic commentaries. See my “The Birth of Philosophy in Poetry. Blanchot, Char, Heraclitus”, Janus Head, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Continental Philosophy, Literature, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, vol.4, no.2, 2001, pp. 358-383 ( and my “The Sirens’ Song. Blanchot, Narrative and the Event”, Postmodern Culture, Vol. 12 no. 3, May 2002 ( for a more general account of the stakes of Blanchot’s discussion of literature.

[79] The Writing of the Disaster, 87.

[80] The Unavowable Community, 30.

[81] Ibid.

[82] The Infinite Conversation, 262.

[83] See my “Our Responsibility. Blanchot’s Communism”, Contretemps, an Online Journal of Philosophy 2, May 2001, pp. 59-73 ( for an account of Blanchot’s relationship to communism. I also explore this theme in “Literary Communism. Blanchot’s Conversations with Levinas and Bataille”.

[84] The Infinite Conversation, 133.