History against Historicism, Formal Matters, and the Event of the Text: De Man with Benjamin

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Legacies of Paul de Man

History against Historicism, Formal Matters, and the Event of the Text:
De Man with Benjamin

Ian Balfour, York University

The essay argues that 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.  De Man, not unlike Walter Benjamin, posits the text as a kind of historical event that has to be read accordingly. This essay appears in _Legacies of Paul de Man_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.

  1. In the dynamics of the past four or five decades of literary theory and criticism, one could witness an often palpable struggle between the competing claims—and the partisans—of "theory" and "history." The structuralism born in Saussure and reaching its methodological acme, say, in the writings and teachings of Lévi-Strauss was thought—in its freezing, if only momentarily, of cultural history—to be relatively indifferent to what counted as history, if by history, one understood change, contingency, temporal heterogeneity or difference that had to be registered if any given moment or sequence of moments were to be understood at all. This charge may well be unfair and certainly does not apply equally well to all those commonly called structuralists, certainly not the early Barthes, for one. No doubt, the sort of theory that came, as we are told, immediately in the wake of structuralism, the so-called "post-structuralism," understood difference—or in Derrida's case, différance—to include, if not quite to foreground, historical difference. But the critics of post-structuralism, and especially those who yoke it with post-modernism, still find that mode of thought to be "soft" on history, not least on the grounds of post-structuralism's putative relativism. But it is hard to generalize about the precise status of history in the varieties of thought in the loose, baggy monster called post-structuralism. The sweeping charges made against post-structuralism in the name of history tend themselves to be weakly historical.

  2. At least since Hegel—and one might have said since Vico, had that almost solitary figure been more widely read and influential—it has been pervasively on the agenda of philosophy and of the human sciences to try to reconcile and do justice to the double demands of history and theory, to treat the subjects and objects under scrutiny historically ("in their contexts") and theoretically—for their conceptual import—at one and the same time. It was in the Enlightenment broadly understood, the canonical and largely persuasive story goes, that historical consciousness dawned on European philosophy in a profound way, well beyond even the polar oppositions of "us" and "them" codified in the various "quarrels" of the Ancients and the Moderns.1 The item remains on the agenda of the humanities today and shows few signs of fading away.

  3. How are we to understand Paul de Man's works in the light of this conjunction of—or tension between—history and theory? One reason de Man's work fell out of favour in the last two decades surely has to do with the rise of the New Historicism and related historicisms and materialisms: the swing of Foucault's pendulum, as it were. A widespread sense prevailed that de Man's thinking posed, in unduly formalist fashion, the literary text against or outside of history rather than embedded in it. Or perhaps that de Man reduced history to a matter of textuality, narrowly construed. Routinely cited as proof of this reduction is one of de Man's most notorious dicta, namely the provocative conclusion of the essay "Literary History and Literary Modernity," where he claimed that "the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars or revolutions" (Blindness and Insight 165). Even though very different theorists, Jameson for one, make essentially the same claim for the necessarily textual character of history—that is, "the bases for historical knowledge"—de Man's formulation rankled people a lot more, presumably because we know from elsewhere that Jameson treats at length a good deal of what normally passes for history ("what hurts"), not least the brutal determinations of class. And about de Man we tend to be not at all certain and perhaps downright suspicious, all the more so ever since the posthumously revealed collaborationist writings. It's safe to say that de Man's position was widely held to be promoting textuality—such was Edward Said's fairly representative view—at the expense of history (Said, 161ff.).

  4. Yet the axiom that the bases for historical knowledge are written texts comes only as the climax, if that is the word for it, of a long and dense passage that conveys a somewhat different and fuller picture of de Man's stance towards history, especially literary history. Immediately preceding the famous pronouncement on the textuality of history, de Man claims: "To become good literary historians, we must remember that what we usually call literary history has little or nothing to do with literature and that what we call literary interpretation—provided only that it is good interpretation—is in fact literary history" (BI 165.). None of this is so self-evident and it seems to run counter to the standard genealogies of deconstruction, especially in its de Manian mode, often traced partly to the once New Criticism. And so we might step back for a moment and consider New Criticism as a mode with and against which de Man worked out his early positions and postures about the critical project.

  5. The New Criticism was associated in America, especially in its academic contexts (i.e., apart from, say, the institution that was T.S. Eliot), with Cleanth Brooks, William Wimsatt and the transplanted (from England) I.A. Richards but also, in de Man's case, particularly with Reuben Brower. Its paradigmatic object was the lyric poem, mined for its verbal ironies, paradoxes, and ambiguities: most typically, the poem's complexities were all chalked up to aesthetic richness. Donne might well stand at the pinnacle of the New Critical canon, with his densely intellectual poems constituting a congenial aesthetic counterpart to the prose of the New Critics themselves, who prided themselves on or aspired to many of the same virtues embodied in Donne.

  6. And it's no small matter that the focus on the lyric poem was so well suited to the scene of pedagogy. Not only were the great professors of New Criticism authors of scholarly books and essays, many of them wrote textbooks widely used in high schools. Their influence, direct and indirect, was massive. Almost all of a sudden, in the heyday of New Criticism—in the 40s, 50s, and 60s—the exemplary scene of teaching in an American high school would not be one more installment in a sequence of classes on Huckleberry Finn but a close reading of a poem by Robert Frost.

  7. De Man describes the parameters of teaching and learning with Reuben Brower in the famous Hum 6 course at Harvard as follows:

    Students, as they began to write on the writings of others, were not to say anything that was not derived from the text they were considering. They were not to make any statements that they could not support by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge. (The Resistance to Theory 23)
  8. In this same mode, Brower also advocated what he called "reading in slow motion," rather in the spirit of Nietzsche, who claimed that whatever shortcoming classical philologists had, at least they read slowly.2 This discipline, more often called "close reading," was thought—misleadingly, I think—to be antithetical to historical understanding, as if close reading meant pressing one's eyes too near to the page and so losing sight of the world beyond the text. Even a cursory glance at the works of New Critics suggests how much they knew about history and how they were concerned to articulate it—one need only consult Cleanth Brooks on Faulkner or Wimsatt on Pope—even if their sense of history was certainly pre-Foucauldean and non-Marxist, to say the least. Rarely do any of the trinity of race, class, and gender surface in a significant way in their analyses, though some questions of power and hierarchy do. In The Well-Wrought Urn Brooks had tried to assuage some critical readers of his earlier Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), not least by including a long appendix on "Criticism, History, and Critical Relativism," in which he pointed out how the various readings of The Well-Wrought Urn looked forward to a "new history of English poetry," agreed that to understand Shakespeare we need "to know what Shakespeare's words mean," (thus entailing at least some historical or philological work), and so on (Brooks, 215, 236ff.). One can, in Brooks's view as well as de Man's, be doing literary history without providing a thick description of the historical moment of the text's production. But programmatic statements about history—even appeals to history—are one thing and the texture of historical understanding evidenced throughout a sustained analysis of a literary text is another. Some of this same divergence may be pertinent within the writings of Paul de Man.

  9. Within the uneasy alliance of all those called New Critics, William Empson cuts a singular figure in numerous respects and, as it happens, Empson was the New Critic who fascinated de Man the most. Empson was perhaps the most complex and seemingly contradictory of the New Critics, for he was author of, on the one hand, a veritable blueprint of "formalist" close reading in Seven Types of Ambiguity (as well as the related, more "linguistic" project, The Structure of Complex Words) and, on the other, far more historically, sociologically and politically oriented studies such as Some Version of Pastoral, which offered a sustained meditation on "proletarian literature," among other things. And this is to say nothing of his vividly cranky style of polemics, which demonstrated time and again that the act of criticism was thoroughly enmeshed in the "real world." It is instructive to re-read de Man's old essays on the New Criticism, such as the one on "The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism" (originally in French as "l'impasse de la critique formaliste" ) to find him critiquing the very thing—namely the limits of a certain formalism—of which he would later be so roundly accused. Thus, at least fairly early on in his career, and perhaps spurred on by his understanding of historicity and temporality in Heidegger and his understanding of allegory in relation to temporality and history in Benjamin, de Man argued for a kind of criticism that attempted, among other things, to account for the claims of history. But not at the expense of—and indeed any accounting for history, literary or otherwise, was to be informed by—what was commonly called close reading.

  10. For de Man, close—or as he preferred to call it—rhetorical reading radicalized and transvaluated the categories of New Criticism, with the epistemological and ontological stakes raised and rendered problematic as, for example, in the shift from ambiguity to undecidability. One can glimpse something of the texture and the stakes involved in such a shift by juxtaposing de Man's reading of the famous ending of Yeats's "Among School Children" with the readings of critics in the orbit of New Criticism such as Frank Kermode's or Cleanth Brooks, the latter contained in The Well-Wrought Urn. In the long section on Yeats in de Man's dissertation, reprinted as a chapter in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, de Man rehearses Kermode's reading of Yeats where the poet is "presented as the successful seeker for 'the reconciling image'" (RR 188). For Kermode, in de Man's gloss, "the image of the dancer is said to be the supreme instance of the reconciliation (a reconciliation which presupposes, of course, an initial severance) because it contains the ideal attributes of both body and imagination" (188). In this nexus of concerns, the poem "Among School Children" is "singled out" as "heralding the triumph of the reconciliatory image" (197), crystallized in the famous final lines of the poem:

    O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
    Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
    O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    How can we know the dancer from the dance?

    Immediately following this citation, de Man comments: "It might seem far-fetched or even perverse to find here anything but a splendid statement glorifying organic, natural form, its sensuous experience and fundamental unity. Tracing back the images of the dancer and the tree in romantic and symbolist poetry, Mr. Kermode adds the testimony of history to the instinctive delight with which one welcomes a climax for which everything in the poem…seems to be a perfect preparation" (198). But de Man provides an alternative "tracing," an alternative history within Yeats's oeuvre, reading the passage in question as, in Yeatsian terms, an emblem rather than an image (corresponding roughly to the distinction between allegory and symbol in the vocabulary of Romantic theory and in general). In this light, de Man claims the famous closing lines can acquire "very different connotations." He goes on to say: " Assuming…that a difference exists between what is represented by the dancer and what is represented by the dance, by the leaf, and by the blossom, the question could just as well express the bewilderment of someone who, faced with two different possibilities, does not know what choice to make. In that case, the question [How can we know the dancer from the dance?] would not be rhetorical at all, but urgently addressed to the 'presences' in the hope of receiving an answer" (200). Whereas here, as later in "Semiology and Rhetoric," de Man opposes two different possibilities—rhetorical question or real question—considered to be mutually exclusive (the line can't be mean both at the same time), at a late moment in the dissertation chapter, de Man comments: "The ways of the image and the emblem are opposed; the final line is not a rhetorical statement of reconciliation but an anguished question; it is our perilous fate not to know if the glimpses of unity which we perceive at times can be made more permanent by natural ways or by the ascesis of renunciation, by images or emblem" (202). It seems unambiguous here that the true reading of the line is the "negative" one, the one that stresses the difficulty of knowing rather than celebrates the inseparability of dancer and dance. By (partial) contrast, the later, official reading proposed in "Semiology and Rhetoric" leaves the matter suspended in properly undecidable fashion, with the two mutually exclusive readings existing side-by-side, thus constituting a decisive difference from the New Critical norm, a difference that underscores difference.3 Even Brooks, in the ringing conclusion of his essay, which so often stressed the priority of form, returns to the thesis of organic inseparability:

    But we cannot question her as a dancer without stopping the dance or waiting until the dance has been completed. And in so far as our interest is in poetry, the dance must be primary for us. We cannot afford to neglect it: no amount of notes on the personal history of the dancer will prove to be a substitute for it, and even our knowledge of the dancer qua dancer will depend in some measure upon it. How else can we know her? "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" (191)

    Brooks's end was in his beginning, for despite the significant attention to literary or textual ambiguity (which can have no very precise counterpart in nature) the very title of Brooks's chapter on the poem is "Yeats' Great Rooted Blossomer," thus enlisting the organic, natural image from the poem to describe the poem itself.

  11. This juxtaposition of readings shows something of what is at stake in thinking though formal matters and their relations to the thematic. In the context of de Man's chapter from the dissertation, this attention to form, rhetoric, grammar, image and emblem, and so on, is enlisted in a properly literary historical problematic. To determine with precision what exactly Yeats's poems are saying will allow one to gauge more accurately Yeats's relation to the tradition, distinguishing the specificity of his work (and the phases of his work) from various Romantic and Symbolist precursors. Such work is literary-historical but not exactly in a way that we would now generally recognize as "historicist." There is little in de Man's long chapter that would situate Yeats's poetry in the world of Irish politics, say. For example, when de Man treats Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War," there is little sense of the war itself. Nor is there any discussion of a poem such an "Easter, 1916," surely now of the most canonical of Yeats's poems.

  12. The undecidability that de Man discerns in "Among School Children" remains primarily an epistemological affair, not—or not yet—the undecidability of the later Derrida, where it becomes the very site of, and a provocation to, responsibility. (For Derrida, an easily decided decision is no decision at all. Such decisions can more or less be programmed and as such are not properly decisions in the first place.) Still, even this more modest or circumscribed sort of undecidability seems linked to difference and even, most particularly in Yeats, to the "controlled violence" (189) so characteristic of his later work, and thus by no means simply non-historical.

  13. At the outset of the early essay, "Form and Intent in the American new Criticism," de Man had charted, in retrospect, an opposition between the highest and most characteristic achievements of the major European and American critics and found the latter lacking in one respect: "In evaluating what American criticism had to gain from a closer contact with Europe, one would have stressed the historical knowledge and a genuine feeling for literary form" (BI 20). De Man went on to contend that the New Criticism "was never able to overcome the anti-historical bias that presided over its beginnings. This inability was one of the reasons that prevented it from making major contributions in spite of considerable methodological originality and refinement" (20). European literary criticism, in de Man's characterizations, tends to stand for a historically informed study of literature or, even better, a synthesis of attention to both history and form. That is the standard against which the New Critics fall somewhat short. Empson, once again, is the exception or near-exception. On the one hand, there is the attention to what counts as history noted above, to say nothing of his politically antinomian positions. On the other hand, sometimes what Empson conceives of as historical, such as the tension between nature and society in the pastoral tradition, turns out to be, in de Man's view, primarily a version of a more purely structural, in the sense of non-historical, division between nature and mind in general. Thus in the latter respect, Empsonian criticism would be somewhat blind to its status as pseudo-historical.

  14. In his most searching work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, most searching at least in methodological terms, Empson explores the complexities of language in one local analysis after another, such that the analyses of the various types of ambiguity reach a point where the author comes to confront what would later be christened, in deconstructive writing, "undecidability." In this, the seventh and last type, we are no longer, according to de Man's account, dealing with ambiguities whose richness can be easily be admired but rather with mutually exclusive significations whose uneasy co-existence defies reconciliation. This for de Man is more than a matter of a local difficulty in interpretation but has, instead, full-blown ontological implications, insofar as the division in signification points to and is a version of nothing less than a division within being itself. To the extent that the literary text is shown to expose in a profound way the ontological status of poetic language, as a heightened version of language as such, it is not simply historical, though it is also always emphatically that.

  15. But let us return now to the passage from de Man with which we began and inquire further into why it might be for de Man that we usually call literary history has "little or nothing to do with literature"? In de Man's view, what counts as "literary history" seems normally to operate at one or more removes from the literary text and what passes for history is often a rather clumsy application of period concepts, producing analyses that confirm what one thinks one knows in advance, that a poem generally thought to be Romantic will turn out to be—quelle surprise!—Romantic. Or, in related fashion, "literary history" will tend to read through what de Man terms "the screen of received ideas," as noted in the passage about Brower's course quoted above. The common-garden variety of literary history constitutes a sort of non-reading that is, in effect, not even open to what a text might actually, in its specificity, be saying. Such literary history is thus non- or, worse, pseudo-historical.

  16. But why would literary interpretation, provided only that it is "good interpretation" be, of necessity, literary history? To begin with: because the text is, of itself, already historical—indeed a kind of event—and a certain historical, philological knowledge is a necessary basis for even beginning to read it. Figuring out what a text is saying—and de Man will often ask in the "most naïve," "most literal" fashion what a text is saying—will produce historical understanding or knowledge. And the very historical being of a work of art cannot be separated from what might appear merely posthumous to it. Consider this passage from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which seems to me close to the spirit of de Man's thinking on history:

    …if finished works only become what they are because their being is in a process of becoming, they are in turn dependent on forms in which their process crystallizes: interpretation, commentary, critique. These are not simply brought to bear on works by those who concern themselves with them: rather they are the arena of the historical development of artworks in themselves, and thus they are forms in their own right. They serve the truth content of works as something that goes beyond them, which separates this truth content—the task of critique—from elements of its untruth. If the unfolding of the work in these forms is not to miscarry, they must be honed to the point where they become philosophical. It is from within, in the movement of the immanent form, of artworks and the dynamic of their relation to the concept of art, that it ultimately becomes manifest how much art—in spite of, and because of its monadological essence—is an element in the movement of spirit and of social reality. The relation to the art of the past, as well as the barriers to its apperception, have their locus in the contemporary condition of consciousness as positively or negatively transcended; the rest is nothing more than empty erudition.…The opposite of a genuine relation to the historical substance of artworks—their essential content—is their rash subsumption to history, their assignment to a historical moment. (194)

    Adorno's claims are derived in no small measure from Walter Benjamin, whose mark on de Man's thinking is profound. Both these thinkers are generally, and not without reason, thought to do more justice to the demands of history than is de Man. In the long passage quoted here Adorno is drawing on Benjamin's notion of "critique," formulated in the most elaborate fashion in Benjamin's dissertation, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism). There Benjamin himself drew on Friedrich Schlegel's exemplary reading of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister to formulate a far-reaching theory of the work of art as both entailing its own critique (in advance, so to speak) and necessitating a critique "external" to the work, a strangely "necessary" supplement to what seems like the autonomous work of art. Benjamin extended Schlegel's notion of critique by conceiving of the work of work as that which gazes at the reader or spectator and in turn demands its gaze be met. This already means that it makes little or no sense to consign a work of art simply to the moment of its production. The reflection that is critique is required of and by the work, in principle, again and again and simply is not able to be limited to one and only one historical moment. Critique, then, is nothing if not historical, insofar as repetition and difference are built into the notion of the (critical) work of art, but it perhaps is not historical in the conceptual framework that prevails in "historicism."

  17. This structure of critique bears an affinity with translation, as theorized in Benjamin's landmark essay "The Task of the Translator" and as commented on by de Man. Here too, the translation emerges as an oddly necessary supplement. (Il faut tout traduire, Derrida once said.) And it is a structure than brings us close to Benjamin's concept of history (Geschichte), insofar as the paradigm for historical knowing—and even of historical action—is the relation of one moment to another, the moment known and the moment of knowing (Erkennen). Translation stresses the finitude and even, provisionally, the finality of the relation between original and translation, given the fact that one tends not to translate a translation, such that the historical dynamic set in motion by the original is brought to an end (Ende) by the critical reading that is translation. But the translation had already set the original in motion, de-stabilized it, de-canonized it, according to de Man, which is another way in which critical reading or translation is something like a historical act in relation to the already historical act that is the literary text.4

  18. To consign a work of art to its past, to the moment of its production, for Adorno and de Man is also, in effect, not to read it. And what, in any event, is the moment of its production? Is it the moment or moments of its conception, its first or final inscription, its publication, its being read? Derrida raises some of these questions in his long essay on Paul Celan by asking what is the "date" of a poem and suggesting that the singular "date" of a poem is traversed by the iterative structure of dating and its complex histories. The problem of the date would be one version of the more general problematic of the difficulty of consigning a work of art to a discrete past and would be related to what de Man calls variously, in the "Shelley Disfigured" essay, "burying" or "monumentalization". "Einmal ist keinmal," Benjamin ventriloquizes. "One time is no time." The dictum is the traditional opening for the fairy-tale, translated, usually and aptly, as "once upon a time." It is this fairy-tale tag that Benjamin finds emblematic of "historicism." In Benjaminian—and Derridean and de Manian—history there is no pure "once upon a time," even if a text also always demands to be read in its singularity. It is just that the singularity of the text is partly constituted by its citational character: the text always cites, but it does not cite just anything and it cites in a certain way, never being just of the order of sheer citation, as even in Borges's mind-experiment of the Don Quixote written by Pierre Menard, repeating the original word for word and yet still somehow with a (historical) difference.

  19. Benjamin claims in the drafts to the Theses that "the true historical method is a philological one." By this he did not mean to reduce history to textuality but to foreground, once again, how the historical encounter is structured as a relation of one moment to another, and thus structured like reading or, more precisely, the precise form of reading and writing that is citation. Like the violence of quotation, this negatively dialectical model of text and reading wrenches the text, momentarily, from the homogenizing, totalizing, containing narratives within which literary history likes to enfold it. This is not to say that the quotation is not somehow historical. Indeed, citation, in Benjamin's theses, is the very model for revolutionary action, following the lead of the spectacular opening pages of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.

  20. It is in the theses "On the Concept of History" that Benjamin most resolutely takes what he calls "historicism" to task for the naiveté and insidiousness of its "once upon a time" view of history. Benjamin links such historicism with the politically and epistemologically suspect phenomena of no less than fascism and vulgar Marxism. Benjamin argues for a revised mode of historical materialism that would do justice to the structure of history as an anti-narrative relation of moments, for a history against historicism. Close to the end of "Shelley Disfigured," de Man contends that "Reading as disfiguration, to the very extent that it resists historicism, turns out to be historically more reliable than the products of historical archeology" (RR 123).

  21. De Man's insistence on the event of the text no doubt owes a good deal to Austin's foregrounding of the speech act and especially the performative character of crucial and unacknowledged dynamics of language. All texts are events, even when largely constative. And then within this general class, some texts for de Man—his chief examples are from Rousseau, such as the organizing excuse of The Confessions—are more of the order of "textual events" than others. De Man explicitly admitted that his notion of "textual event" was rather obscure (RT 103-04). Derrida agrees about the obscurity but registers a proximity to de Man on just this obscure matter in his essay "Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2)," where he draws attention to the conjunction of the categories of the event and the machine in de Man, which have to be thought together. (Derrida, 2000). The de Manian "textual event" seems to occur in situations where the stakes are higher than usual, as in the politics of the social contract, but the problematic is that which besets the text in general, of which de Man says, "A text is defined by the necessity of considering a statement, at the same time, as performative and constative, and the logical tension between figure and grammar is repeated in the impossibility of distinguishing between two linguistic functions which are not necessarily compatible"(270). This general problematic of the textual event requires reading in each and every instance, and unlike the discourse of the natural sciences, literary theory, like political theory, always has to confront the singularity of the example—which is not only or not fully an "example"—in question. The grandeur and the misery of the example is that it pretends to be fully exemplary of the whole of which it is meant to be an example and yet it is never quite. Not all examples—as anyone who has ever tried to teach or even just to persuade anyone else knows full well—are equally good. It is out of conceptual rigour—and against the grain of a potential popularity and perhaps even efficaciousness—that Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason steers clear of example.

  22. It may well be that in de Man's work the programmatic appeals to history, somewhat in the manner of Cleanth Brooks, are not or do not seem to be borne out in the texture of history elaborated in the readings proper. And indeed, even the programmatic appeals to history tend to be made in rather negative fashion, that is, outlining rather more what sort of history de Man is not doing. Thus, the resonant, provocative conclusion of "Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric":

    Generic terms such as "lyric" (or its various sub-species, "ode," "idyll," or "elegy") as well as pseudo-historical period terms such as "romanticism" or "classicism" are always terms of resistance and nostalgia, at the furthest remove from the materiality of actual history. If mourning is called a "chamber d'éternel deuil où vibrant de vieux râles," then this pathos of terror states in fact the desired consciousness of eternity and of temporal harmony as voice and as song. True "mourning" is less deluded. The most it can do is to allow for non-comprehension and enumerate non-anthropomorphic, non-elegiac, non-celebratory, non-lyrical, non-poetic, that is to say, prosaic, or, better, historical modes of language power. (RR 262)

    The italicized word historical no doubt would strike many as un-de Manian, but I hope now it should be somewhat clear, given how de Man conceives of the literary text, that the word should come as no surprise.

  23. I do not mean to suggest that de Man has somehow surreptitiously answered everyone's possible concerns about history and historicity, but I would contend that the dismissal of de Man on the grounds of his thinking being anti- or non-historical has been altogether too precipitous and largely off the mark. At the risk of appealing to ex post facto proof of the historical power and claims of de Manian reading, I would simply invoke some of the numerous examples of close reading of texts, events, and textual events partially enabled by de Man's thinking. I think of the work of Gayatri Spivak in any number of domains, especially on the postcolonial, of Samuel Weber on technology and the media, of Tom Keenan on human rights (and the media), Cathy Caruth on trauma, Shoshana Felman on testimony and the holocaust, Lee Edelman on queer textuality, Deborah Esch on the AIDS pandemic or Marc Redfield on terrorism and war. Perhaps not all of this work would have received de Man's blessing, though I suspect he would have admired it all. None of this work can be reduced to being "de Manian" (though that, as reductions go, would say a lot) but it has been partly enabled by his thinking, and the profession at large would do well to work through this body of post-de Manian thinking and acting and one of its sources, as we still continue to come to terms with the untimely thinking and writing of Paul de Man.

 

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor Wisengrund. Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Brower, Reuben A. "Reading in Slow Motion." In In Defense of Reading: A Reader's Approach to Literary Criticism. Ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier. New York: E.P Dutton, 1963. 3-21.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979.

---. Blindness and Insight. 2nd. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

---. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

---. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. "Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2)." In Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. Ed. Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller and Andrjez Warminski. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 277-360.

Jauss, Hans Robert. "Schegels und Schillers Replik auf die ‘Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes.'"Literaturgeschichte als Provokation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974. 67-106.

Levine, Joseph M. The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Said, Edward W. "Reflections on American ‘Left' Literary Criticism." The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Notes

1 On the original French "quarrel" and its aftermath in German letters, see Jauss. On the same topic, primarily in the British context, with an account of the French original as well, see Levine, especially Chapters 4, 7, 10, 11, and 12.
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2 The volume edited by Brower and Poirier (and prefaced only by Brower ) is interesting not least as a historical document of the work of a number of major critics early in their careers: Neil Hertz, Stephen Orgel, Paul de Man, Paul Alpers, and others.
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3 It nonetheless seems clear, in the later essay, which of the two readings is "preferable," for de Man, namely, the one not modeled on the organic images of the poem and the putative organicism of the final question of "Among School Children."
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4 On these matters, see "Conclusions: Walter Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator," in de Man, 1986, 82ff.
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May 2005

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