Legacies of Paul de Man
This essay introduces the special issue "Legacies of Paul de Man." It argues that, more than twenty years after his death, de Man remains a haunting presence in the American academy. A ghost who has never quite been laid to rest, and whose name still possesses conjuring power, de Man continues symbolically to embody an aspect of "theory" that resists easy routinization. Routinely taken to personify routinized academic "deconstruction," de Man routinely becomes an irritant in excess of the obsessions he inspires. His legacy, therefore, remains ongoing and uncertain, yet also massive and unavoidable.
This essay examines John Guillory's influential reading of de Man in Cultural Capital. Guillory characterizes de Manian rhetorical reading as a symptom of, and a defense against, the increasing marginality of literary culture, and the increasing bureaucratization of the professoriat. Redfield argues that Guillory is right to claim that de Man's performance as a teacher and critic is inseparable from the professionalization of reading in the modern university, but that he is wrong to claim that de Man's text fails to reflect on this aspect of its own production. On the one hand, Guillory's text reads as a summa of anti-de Manian cliches that have circulated ever since de Man's work began to gain wide attention in the 1970s; on the other hand, Guillory's forceful misreading opens up a truth beyond the reach of more timid interpretations. In the wake of Guillory's flawed but productive interpretation, it becomes possible to think of de Man's oeuvre as a reflection on institutionality and pedagogy precisely because this oeuvre focuses so stubbornly on the problem of reading reading.
In "Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric," de Man argues that Nietzsche's sentence identifying truth as tropes takes on critical power through an anomaly in Nietzsche's list of rhetorical terms: "anthropomorphisms." Derrida's exploration in "White Mythology" of Aristotle's conceptualization of truth and metaphor reaches a similar conclusion: he finds among the premises identifying truth with language—Aristotle's inaugural figurations of metaphor and truth—a catachresis, one becomes not a trope but a proper name. In both essays, a surprising inflection of their rhetorical mode signals the discovery of such a disruption. Both Derrida and de Man associate these disruptions of an organized system of figures with Nietzsche—his texts' singular framing of the philosophical thought's tying together of trope and truth. The disruption reflects a possibility inhering in the configuration of trope and truth, tropes' passage into ideology.
Focusing on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" and Heinrich von Kleist's "The Beggarwoman of Locarno," this essay explores Paul de Man's claim that reading is "a praxis that thematizes its own thesis about the impossibility of thematization." In Poe's story, the cryptic assertion that a particular book does not allow itself to be read becomes part of a larger structure of self-reference in which legibility is no longer a factor of clarity or obscurity. In Kleist, the notion that language can tell a coherent story about its own signifying capacities is unsettled as even the most rudimentary distinction between form and content proves to be at once too specific and too abstract. In the final analysis, Kleist's work confronts us with an event of language that is governed by neither a representational nor a lexical logic. From this perspective, de Man's understanding of allegory helps us to see why textual reflexivity cannot be modeled on a figure of historical self-consciousness.
The essay argues that Paul de Man, far from being simply opposed to history or the historical understanding of literature, comes closer to the contrary position, and indeed argues that close reading must be literary history. This is elaborated primarily in the essay "Literary History and Literary Modernity." De Man, not unlike Walter Benjamin, posits the text as a kind of historical event that has to be read accordingly. Though de Man's appeals tend to be programmatic and abstract (without the texture, say, of Marxist literary historiography), the claims about history need to be taken seriously. It's not a matter of indifference that de Man's appeal to a certain kind of history against historicism coincides in striking ways with Walter Benjamin's outlining of a similar position in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" and elsewhere.
The essay argues that de Man's fabled "shift" from "history" to "reading" and "rhetoric"—to the "rhetoric of reading," as the Preface to Allegories of Reading puts it—was in fact always already a shift past rhetoric and to an other "history." This shift occurs and becomes legible in two particularly overdetermined moments in de Man's 1967 Gauss lectures on "Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism": the critical reading of Heidegger's interpretation of Hölderlin; and the reading of Wordsworth's "Boy of Winander" together with one of the Duddon sonnets. In the lecture on Wordsworth—and its two "layers" (1967 and 1971)—the shift actually occurs as a "material inscription." Thus it turns out that the notion of history de Man comes up with here is already what he calls "material history" or the "materiality of actual history" in his last essays.
This essay focuses on a 1979 special issue of the journal Studies in Romanticism edited by Paul de Man. The volume collects essays by de Man's graduate students and members of an NEH seminar that he organized. In the introduction, de Man endeavors to articulate the relation between his students' work and his own. In so doing he accuses his students of undertaking an unwitting "parricide." This essay argues that in accusing his students of betraying him through a "blind" repetition, de Man also figures his own legacy, not as the possible continuation of his intellectual project, but rather as the question of the possibility of legacy itself.
Proceeding from Kant's Critique of Judgement, and de Man's reading of Kant, the article discusses certain specific concepts, first, of singularity and, second, of the relationships between the invidual and the collective, based on this concept of singularity. Although deriving from Kant's analysis of aethetics, this last concept entails radical forms of epistemology and, correlatively, of historicity. This conceptual architecture also translates into a political concept of community or, the article argues, parliamentarity. As a result, aesthetics, epistemology, philosophy, history, and politics become interconnected in a new way, and each field becomes refigured in the process. The aim of the article is to explore the nature of this interconnective reconfiguration.
De Man's notion of phenomenality is compared with the idea of "material vision" attributed to him in the recent reception of his work and with ideas of mental "seeing" or the impossibility thereof in the work of Elaine Scarry and Timothy Bahti. These various critical constructions of literary phenomenality reinstate transcendental models of mind for divergent ends. The editorial framework of Material Events, a recent collection of essays on de Manian materiality, claims to find in de Man's work inspiration for a utopian project of intervention in structures of cognition. Material Events' desire to be in on the ground floor of cognition has more in common with Scarry's humanist fantasy of seeing mental images under authorial instruction, however, than with de Manian reading. De Man's material vision may be understood, in contrast, on the model of Kant's use of hypotyposis, as a figure for the analogy to which we rightly resort when dealing with speculative propositions about cognition.