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Legacies of Paul de Man


Marc Redfield, Claremont Graduate University

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. This essay appears in _Legacies of Paul de Man_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. More than twenty years after his death, Paul de Man remains a haunting presence in the American academy: a ghost who has never quite been laid to rest, and whose proper name still possesses conjuring power. The acrid debates about deconstruction and the "Yale School," the bitter, high-profile purgings of junior faculty ranks at places like Yale and Princeton, may seem—in some respects may genuinely be—things of the past. De Man's students, and the students of his students, hold teaching positions throughout the North American university system; they publish books and articles and contribute to special issues like the present one, and in the usual run of things they are rewarded in the usual minute ways for doing so: the c.v. grows a little longer; the annual report heftier. "Deconstruction" now figures in countless introductions-to-theory as an option on the menu (usually placed, in pseudo-chronological fashion, behind several fresher offerings—"New Historicism," "Cultural Studies," "Gender Studies," and so on). In these and in other ways, the "university of excellence" (to recall Bill Readings's memorable phrase for our contemporary academic bureaucracy) may seem successfully to have absorbed and routinized the de Man phenomenon. Yet symptoms of a persistent malaise are not hard to find. The temperature of a discussion can still rise precipitately when de Man's name appears. Deserving scholars still occasionally suffer for being too closely linked to de Manian theory—particularly if they are young and untenured, and have the temerity to demonstrate interest in something that is supposed to have been consigned to the lumber-room of the past. (It's one thing for those well-known deconstructionists to do what they do, the tolerant department head or dissertation director will say. They can't help it, they had their heads fried at Yale; just don't you do it.) At such moments we are reminded that deconstruction (and above all "de Manian deconstruction") is not really, or at least not entirely, an innocent subspecialty like any other. It is one thing to "do" narratology or reader-response criticism or even Marxist criticism, and another to "do" deconstruction: in this case, and arguably only in this case, the academy retains an interest in pronouncing a body of thought dead. Yet at the same time—and this is where things get complicated and interesting—even the most negative reactions to de Man often display a remarkable degree of fascination with the phobic object. At the 2003 MLA convention a special session titled "Is Now the Time for Paul de Man?" played to a packed auditorium: packed no doubt to some extent—but only to some extent—because Gayatri Spivak was one of the speakers. An uneasy charisma still radiates from the figure of "de Man." Who else could possibly have inspired such a panel title? Of what other dead professor could it be implied that his "time" is in question; that his presence, if summoned, might be out of joint with our "now"? At once melodramatic and timid, cautious and reckless, the interrogative composing this panel title relays the half-confessed ambivalence felt by a profession toward a figure who seems at once irremediably part of, yet also somehow at odds with, ordinary institutional life.

  2. That the "now" of de Man is a question, the question of a legacy somehow out of synch with its, or our, "time," is suggested by the strangely extended work of remembrance he has inspired. One might have expected the lavish outpourings of the Yale French Studies memorial issue in 1985 to have exhausted the personal testimonials, but there followed, of course, the discovery of the wartime journalism in 1987 and a second swell of passion, this one agonistic in mode and international in scope, with de Man rediscovered as the symbol of a "deconstruction" that many were by now desperately eager to pronounce dead—once again. Once again (though this time with varying motives) professional literary critics called up memories of de Man and talked obsessively of his life and times. And now the years have flown by, but oddly delayed testimonials have kept coming, and not insignificant ones either: Avital Ronell, remembering and reflecting on de Man in her brilliant Stupidity (2002; see esp. 97-161); most recently, Gayatri Spivak, at the 2003 MLA panel, noting that she was possibly de Man's first Ph.D student, recalling his lack of sexism and racism at a time when such attitudes were suffocatingly common, and tracing the impact his thought had, and according to Spivak still has, on hers. Ronell, writing in her inimitable style, suggests that the wartime journalism affair made visible a rupture, lag, and repetition in de Man's reception that was in fact always there, composing the temporality of his legacy:

    One can say that, following the brief and violent return of Paul de Man after his death, thinking in America—or the quasi-mythical ambience that makes one sense the advent of thought—took a nosedive. I am not saying that everyone in the academic precincts suddenly became stupid (or that de Man was the opposite of stupid), but his ghost took something down with it and disrupted a type of mourning that should have produced considerable and worthy festschrifts, a festival of thought commemorating an unprecedented insistence on rigor and recollection.

    Instead we got the often brilliant, sometimes ridiculous, and altogether exceptional Responses volume [in 1989—my parenthesis, MR], which exhausted itself in the defensive feints that it was forced to perform. It was as if everyone was wiped out by the rescue mission demanded by the afterlife of Paul de Man. Nor was it clear that he had survived the crash, but he was bound to return again, in one or another of his forms, after the fog of a collective stupor had lifted. For some of us he had never really disappeared, no more so than when he was alive. In any case, a break had occurred, redoubling, perhaps, the rupture in his life when he tried to break away from Europe and the calamity he had cosigned in his youth. As with so many signs of rupture, the break was merely the repetition of prior, more sullen breaks and could not be limited to one moment. (105)

    To be sure, the nachträglich, quasi-traumatic temporality of de Man's reception has hardly prevented people from writing about him: sometimes, as Ronell says, brilliantly. In addition to the personal testimonials (and I shall return in a moment to the question of why a memorializing, personifying imperative seems to be an inseparable part of de Man's reception), the critical studies have kept coming: Reading de Man Reading (1987); a special issue of Diacritics (1990); Critical Encounters (1995); Material Events (2001)—to mention only essay collections focused on de Man, and of those only the most prominent; if one were to list even a representative sampling of the essays, books, and book chapters on de Man that have appeared over the last twenty years, the bibliography would be impressive indeed.1 Rodolphe Gasché's condemnation of the "general dreariness of the more recent de Man studies in North America" (269) is one of the few weirdly wrong statements to be found in what is otherwise an exemplary contribution to a complex and by no means univocal reception. For a thinker so often caricatured as a charismatic leader of "disciples," de Man has inspired a remarkably diverse body of work, even within the relatively narrow circle of critics who, in their varying ways or styles, regard themeselves as his heirs.

  3. And the specialized studies are only part of the story. Whatever de Man's legacy may be (and it is the task of this special issue to try to keep in mind how opaque the figure of "legacy" may prove in this case), it is surely no simple or easily localized inheritance. Much has been said about this critic as a peculiarly powerful teacher, but de Man's influence on academic literary and cultural criticism far exceeds the limits of an identifiable school or clique, and often manifests itself in sketchy and unacknowledged fashion within scholarly work that may not desire (or even know that it has) a filiation to de Manian rhetorical reading. Sometimes other proper names possessing their own institutional force intervene (Butler, Derrida, Sedgwick, Spivak); at other times, in certain contexts, a concept or term turns out to carry, among its sedimented layers of meaning, stubbornly de Manian associations or concerns ("allegory," for instance, in Romantic studies). The notion of "trauma" that has lately enjoyed considerable popularity among literary and cultural critics bears within itself, as a kind of metatrauma, residues of Cathy Caruth's and Shoshana Felman's powerful redeployment of a de Manian idiom.2 One can make an even stronger claim. The reasonably widespread if often vague notion that super-close reading results in undecidability rather than organic unity; the not uncommon, if typically undisciplined assertion that texts predict and choreograph the foibles of their interpreters—these tics of contemporary professional critical writing bear the faint but unmistakable trace of de Man's signature.

  4. Yet it is not obvious what such a legacy means, when the legator is such a peculiarly fetishized and disavowed figure. We can at least say that all the signs suggest a pathology irreducible to the feelings of love, hatred or ambivalence one can have for a particular human being. Elsewhere I have argued that de Man haunts the professoriat as a phantasmatic embodiment of "theory"—that when the chips are down and ideological pressures build, this much-inflated, much-circulated and thoroughly vague signifier typically undergoes personification and becomes a specter that can be denounced (or defended) as "de Man." Hence the scale and intensity of the wartime journalism debate (hence, too, the minor but persistent tradition in high-literary-theoretical writing according to which de Man represents a deviation from Derrida that must, over and over again, be condemned and expelled).3 As the icon of theory—of a theory that theorizes theory as nothing more (or less) than the resistance to its own impossible, skewed "being" (de Man, Resistance, 19)—de Man is an uneasily betwixt-and-between figure. Routinely taken to personify routinized academic "deconstruction," he routinely becomes an irritant in excess of the obsessions he inspires. And though on the one hand the reasons for this must be sought in the theory itself, and ultimately have little to do with de Man as a person, on the other hand the work of personification, to which the "theory itself" teaches us to attend, constantly returns us to the name, figure, and institutional-pedagogical event of Paul de Man.

    * * *

  5. The present collection began as a pair of special sessions at the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism conference at the University of Washington in 2002. Over the two years it took to get from conference panel to special issue, two or three additional essays were solicited, including one (Rei Terada's "Seeing is Reading") from the MLA panel mentioned above. (We regret that, despite some promising overtures, we were ultimately unable to persuade Gayatri Spivak to contribute her paper.) Because the notion of legacy immediately raises questions about the institutional transmission of thought—about the relation between theory and pedagogy—I have also included two appendices containing relevant factual material: a list of courses de Man taught during his decade at Yale, and a previously unpublished document, almost certainly by de Man, proposing the undergraduate course that, in the spring of 1977, debuted at Yale as "Literature Z," team-taught by de Man and Geoffrey Hartman. Headnotes to the appendices discuss the importance of this course, both as a pedagogical effort and as an institutional base for the propagation of "de Manian" rhetorical reading.

  6. The essays themselves offer a revealing cross-section of the kind of good work on de Man being done at the present time. Some are by well-known critics; some are by younger scholars. Some of these authors studied with de Man; some studied with his students; some have no straightforward pedagogical tie to de Man, but became interested in his work thanks to other intellectual and institutional mediations. The divisions under which, for the sake of expediency, I have organized these essays do not do justice to the complexity and subtlety of these texts, but may perhaps serve to draw attention to a few of the themes that have predominated in the reception of de Man's thought over the last two decades.

  7. All of the contributions to this volume engage de Man's great theme of reading, but our two opening essays focus with particular clarity on reading as a concept and praxis—on the ways in which and reasons why reading is never simply one theme among others, and indeed never entirely succeeds in becoming a "theme" at all. Weaving back and forth between de Man's "Anthropomorphism and Trope" and Jacques Derrida's "White Mythology," Cynthia Chase draws attention to moments in these essays in which "an abrupt slowing down of the reading" occurs, a slowing-down that exacts from us "a double-take, a surprise, or deepening uneasiness." In de Man's essay this moment occurs as de Man follows out Nietzsche's famous pseudo-definition of truth in "On Truth and Lie" ("What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms....") and encounters the word "anthropomorphism." Whereas metaphor or metonymy name substitutive patterns that underwrite an unthreateningly tautological and propositional definition of truth ("truth is a trope" in the sense of "truth is a proposition"), anthropomorphism disrupts the easy flow of this list of substitutable rhetorical terms for modes of substitution. Anthropomorphism may be a trope, but it is also an act of naming: it signals not just one more pattern of substitution, but also "an identification on the level of substance" (de Man, Rhetoric 241). In anthropomorphism, one could say (though neither de Man nor Chase put it this way) that trope and the forgetting of trope intertwine. Chase finds a similar moment of slowdown and surprise punctuating Derrida's analysis of Aristotle's analysis of metaphor, at the point when Derrida, tracking a sequence of exemplary metaphors in several of Aristotle's texts, derives the possibility of tropological substitution from the catachresis "sun as sower." The sun is the grounding referent in the figural system—it is the figure of figuration and of generation—yet here the sun as sower retreats from visibility ("where has it ever been seen," Derrida asks, halting us in our tracks, "that there is the same relation between the sun and its rays as between sowing and seeds?" [Margins, 243, his emphasis]), because this sun-sower is functioning as something like a proper name and an anthropomorphism: as the blinding, impossible site of the positing of trope. Noting that both de Man and Derrida explore the "possibility...that words might turn to names and names to unreadable inscriptions," Chase concludes with remarks that suggest the value of thinking about de Man's legacy in terms of a kind of impact or shock, transmitted by and as reading. "My own reading was prompted by my sense of a rhetorical effect," she affirms—the effect of a double-take, or (to invoke the legacy of an author about whom both Chase and de Man have had much to say) a shock of mild surprise. Read rhetorically, such shocks become the traces of "a kind of disconnecting" that, impossibly, makes sense-making possible.

  8. The possibility that reading involves "a kind of disconnecting" also occupies Jan Mieszkowski in "Reading, Begging, Paul de Man," as he addresses himself to the problem of what "unreadability" is. Can unreadability be read? Taking as his initial example a sentence from Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," Mieszkowski shows us both how "even the most unassuming of prose paragraphs is rife with wild leaps of faith," and how we always make these leaps anyway, willy-nilly. As a theme, in other words, unreadability is thoroughly readable, and is thus, paradoxically, a comforting distraction from the actual puzzles and discontinuities that reading, as a praxis, endlessly encounters. Unreadability is an act that cannot coincide with its own knowledge of itself. The problem of unreadability is, of course, inseparable from whatever we seek to define as de Man's legacy; and Mieszkowski suggests that the epigrammatic power of de Man's writing repeats the problem of unreadability—that de Man's formulations, precisely because of their pithy acuteness, can divert us from the very difficulties they seek to describe and analyze. In his essay's final movement, Mieszkowski offers a reading of Heinrich von Kleist's short story "The Beggarwoman of Locarno" as "an example of the failure of language to exemplify either readability or unreadability." Pursuing the play of letters by which a beggarwoman (Bettelweib) comes begging (bettelnd) and is given a bed (gebettet)—before being rousted from it, slipping and dying, and coming back to haunt the castle—Mieszkowski suggests that "the whole story stands (or lies) under the shadow of a German proverb, Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man—You've made your bed, now lie in it." Mieszkowski (though he does not use this vocabulary) is identifying here what Michael Riffaterre would call the text's hypogram; and as he traces the text's slippages and uncertainties, showing us how, in Kleist's story, "the very acts of standing up and lying down...become ghostly fictions," he implicitly rewrites the Riffaterrean hypogram as a de Manian inscription (see de Man, "Hypogram and Inscription," Resistance, 27-53): as, that is, the haunting pressure of "a randomness that could never be integrated into a story free of the specters of chance or accident." Such, Mieszkowski suggests, is de Man's necessarily tenuous legacy and lesson: unreadability as the ongoing performance of its own undecidability.

  9. Part II of this collection, "Reading History," turns to an issue that, as all careful readers of de Man know, was constantly at stake and under scrutiny in his work: the question of what history is, and what literary history is—a problem that often, for de Man, could be troped as the question of what "romanticism" is. In "History against Historicism," Ian Balfour sets out to unpack de Man's famous (in certain circles, infamous) closing sentence of "Literary History and Literary Modernity" ("the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars and revolutions"), first by putting this sentence back into its rhetorical and historical contexts, and second, by reading it closely. Those two gestures—putting into context and close reading—are in fact, Balfour emphasizes, intertwined, even though since the Enlightenment they have often been represented as the binary opposition of "history" and "theory." Balfour draws our attention to the sentences in de Man's essay that precede and set up the closing sentence about the textuality of history: "To become good literary historians," de Man writes, " 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" (Blindness, 165). In what sense might (conventional) literary history have nothing to do with literature, and in what sense might (good) literary interpretation actually be literary history? Balfour's answer is both theoretical and historical: recalling de Man's critique of formalism in the 1950s, he sketches the differences between de Man's notion of rhetorical reading, on the one hand, and canonical forms of New Critical analysis, on the other, and proposes an evolution in de Man's understanding of the role of undecidability in reading, from the relatively "circumscribed undecidability" invoked in de Man's chapters on Yeats in his 1960 dissertation, to the radical undecidability dramatized in "Semiology and Rhetoric" (1972) as an intratextual clash between mutually exclusive positions. That clash has a historical dimension to the extent that the text is a historical event: an event, in other words, that makes a difference that demands to be read. Literary interpretation is literary history not just because good reading requires philological knowledge, but because a literary text entails and demands its own critique. Drawing on Adorno's Aesthetische Theorie, Benjamin's Begriff der Kunstkritik, and the latter's invocation of Friedrich Schlegel's essay on Wilhelm Meister, Balfour emphasizes that the literary text demands criticism as its own supplement. The historicity of the artwork is the reading it generates: "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."

  10. In "Discontinuous Shifts," Andrzej Warminski begins by emphasizing the centrality of the question of romanticism in de Man's work, as a way of framing the question of history. This last is a double question: it addresses the problem of what de Man's notion of "history" is, yet also that of the historical mode of the de Manian text itself. How are we to read the shift in de Man's work from the existentialist idiom he favored in the 1950s and 60s to the rhetorical approach he developed in the 1970s? Warminski's subtle meditation on de Man's famous Kehre asks us to think the shift from history to reading as a "failure" that in fact—in its own failing, shifting, or slipping—marks a shift from reading to history: to, that is, history as material occurrence, rather than history as theme. Warminski develops his reading by way of two of de Man's 1967 Gauss lectures. In "Patterns of Temporality in Hölderlin's 'Wie wenn am Feiertage'," de Man reads Hölderlin both with and against Heidegger, suggesting that Heidegger's mischaracterization of Hölderlin as an apocalyptic poet stems from Heidegger's insufficiently nuanced understanding of the temporality of poetic form. Emphasizing the importance of form, language, and consciousness, de Man presses to conclusions that Warminski reads as double or split: "On the one hand, what de Man ends up with is a still more thorough 'ontologization' of language and of poetic form than Heidegger's....On the other hand, the conclusions of de Man's reading of Heidegger nevertheless go in an entirely different direction and prohibit such a 'super-Heideggerian' ontologization of poetic form." On the one hand, de Man re-ontologizes the poem's discontinuous temporality by locating it "in the structure of being itself"; on the other hand, he insists on the irreducibility of the formal dimension of language, and, groping for ways to describe the poem's discontinuities, turns to a rhetorical terminology. This tension comes to fruition in the second Gauss lecture Warminski discusses, de Man's "Time and History in Wordsworth." Here again, a nominally Heideggerian reading strains at the seams to account for the temporality of poetic form; indeed, Warminski suggests, de Man was possibly pushed to rewrite this lecture in 1972 (substituting rhetorical for phenomenological terms at key moments) because of the deep instabilities already at work in the 1967 version. But Warminski's point is not that de Man thereby passes from an inadequate critical vocabulary to an adequate one: a rhetorical terminology is no less improper than any other—no less unequal to the task of capturing poetic discontinuity. "Already here," he insists, "at the very pivot of de Man's 'shift' to rhetoric and rhetorical terms, the move to rhetoric is already a move past rhetoric, to an awareness that tropological textual models will also not be able to account for what actually happens, what actually occurs, in and as the texts of Hölderlin and Wordsworth." It is precisely here that Warminski locates the irruption of material history: as "the passage, the passing, itself." The shift from history to rhetoric is already a shift to—or, better, a shifting that "is"—history as occurrence.

  11. Any collection that seeks to deepen our understanding of the "legacy of Paul de Man" had better at some point turn, as we do in Part III, "Institutions of Pedagogy," to a consideration of de Man as a teacher and as an institutional presence. In the first essay in this section, Sara Guyer turns our attention to a rarely-studied text in the de Manian corpus: de Man's introduction to the special issue of Studies in Romanticism that he guest-edited in 1979. The special issue was originally intended to be an outlet for work emerging from his 1977-78 NEH seminar at Yale, though it wound up showcasing the work of students in de Man's regular Yale seminars as well. Thus, de Man's brief introductory text, both in itself and in its relation to its occasion and context, offers rich resources for critics interested in "de Man" as an institutional and pedagogical event. Guyer attends to figures and fantasies of legacy, teaching, and reading legible both in David Wagenknecht's correspondence with de Man about the special issue, and in de Man's introduction: both texts bear witness to a violence constitutive not just of teaching but of discipleship. De Man's text, for all its brevity, turns out to be a highly complex performance: "While refusing to read the essays [in the special issue] as merely following in his own footsteps, and refusing to reduce their violence and their impact to an 'oedipal struggle,' de Man nevertheless frames their event as a betrayal." De Man represents his own generation as consciously burdened with failure and guilt, stemming from its inability either to synthesize the competing claims of close reading and history, or to ignore the synthesizing imperative. In contrast, the students, having learned their lessons all too well, commit their parricide without anxiety or guilt—oblivious, like Kleist's dancing marionettes, to the mutilations they perform. Guyer remarks the mutual violence of the exchange (the students' alternately explicit and unknowing acts of parricide; the teacher's canny, devastating act of infanticide), but she presses toward a subtler reading of de Man's text that discloses a paradox at the heart of the de Manian "legacy": the students' freedom from anxiety is both recuperative and disruptive, and the teacher's knowingness is also a submission to blindness. The students are not as free as they seem, since their unwitting betrayal of the teacher—a betrayal inseparable from following the teacher, learning his lesson, trying to be like him—reinscribes them within a legacy. This legacy is precisely what de Man calls parricide: a rupture that reaffirms a filiation. And the teacher, writing into his text the legacy that is his own death, ultimately writes blindly: "which is to say," Guyer concludes, "that this legacy bears the structure of an event."

  12. My own contribution, "Professing Literature," offers a critique of John Guillory's influential chapter on de Man in Cultural Capital (1993). Guillory's powerful, though in my view deeply flawed, reduction of de Manian theory to sociological symptom occurs as a triple movement: he argues, first, that de Manian theory "objectif[ies] the charisma of the master teacher as a methodology" (Guillory, 179); second, that de Manian theory itself, in its equation of literature with rhetoric, constitutes an ideology that has as its rationale an institutional defense of literature; and, finally, that de Manian theory offers an "imaginary reduction of the social to an instance of the linguistic" (237): the pathos of rigor functions as an unconscious recapitulation of contemporary "conditions of institutional life" (245). Guillory thus 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. My objection to this reading is at times straightforward—Guillory, I believe, at crucial points systematically misrepresents de Man—but my overall ambition is to argue that Guillory is both right and wrong: he is right that de Man's performance as a teacher and critic is inseparable from the professionalization of reading, but he is wrong to imagine that de Man's text fails to reflect on this aspect of its own coming-into-being. In laboring to characterize de Man's text as blind, Guillory's misreadings blind themselves to their own insight, which is that de Man was always—usually indirectly but often enough quite directly—writing about institutionalizations and illusions of aesthetic pedagogy. On the one hand, Guillory's text reads as a summa of anti-de Manian clichés that have circulated ever since de Man's work began to gain wide attention in the 1970s—and that, of course, is one reason why Cultural Capital has been so happily received by the professoriat; 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 fundamental reflection on institutionality and pedagogy precisely because it focuses so stubbornly on the problem of reading reading.

  13. The title of this collection's final section, "Theory, Materiality, and the Aesthetic," invokes themes that have dominated much of the discussion of de Man's late work. But rather than offer further summaries of "theory as the resistance to theory" or of "aesthetic ideology" by way (say) of Schiller's reading of Kant, the two essays presented here reflect more broadly on what theory is, and how aesthetics remains both a resource and a trap for theoretical thought. More than any of the previous groupings in this collection, this one hints at possibilities of intellectual combat, for Arkady Plotnitsky's and Rei Terada's essays seem to pull at times in different directions. In his ambitious position paper "Thinking Singularity," Plotnitsky discloses the mutual inextricability of "aesthetics, epistemology, history, and politics," as his subtitle puts it, by focusing on the (non-)concept of singularity that becomes thinkable in the wake of de Man's readings of Kant and Hegel. In his essay's first movement, Plotnitsky teases out ramifications of Kant's insistence, in the third Critique's "Analytic of the Beautiful," that "all judgments of taste are singular judgments." Because judgments of taste must be radically singular and free, the sensus communis that underwrites aesthetic judgment is nothing less than the possibility of its own failure: "this essential possibility of failure of sensus communis...defines the universality of the judgment of taste." A certain "parliamentary model" of aesthetics and politics emerges from this structuring moment of possible failure. Plotnitsky then develops a contrast between what he calls "classical" and "non-classical" theory: whereas classical theory posits its objects as knowable or at least thinkable, non-classical theory understands its objects as irreducibly non-thinkable. Though a certain work of idealization is required to posit or conceive of an object as non-thinkable, nonclassical theory presses on to "an epistemological double-rupture" whereby the idealization is identified as such. The unthinkable "is placed inside and is made, as the unthinkable, a consitutive part of this theory, rather than positioned beyond the purview of or otherwise outside the theory." Such thinking is materialist in its refusal of "any mystical agency, divine or human." Non-classical thought, following out lines of thought initiated by Kant, emphasizes the singularity—the "lawlessness of an object or event in relation to a given law"—of any judgment concerning the beautiful and the sublime. De Man's reading of Kant teaches us a "strong" form of nonclassical theory, under the terms of which the unrepresentable is "unrepresentable even as unrepresentable," and leads toward an understanding of history as discontinuous event. When de Man speaks of an irreversible movement from the tropological to the performative, he invokes the irreversibility of nonclassical processes: processes generative of effects that prohibit historical understanding from tracing them back to a cause. History—and like Balfour, Warminksi and Guyer, Plotnitsky recalls that a privileged name for history, in de Man, is "Romanticism"—history is thus, for de Man, at the furthest remove from cognitive-historical understanding. Plotnitsky sees a "gain in terms of knowledge that now becomes possible and was not possible classically"; he stresses, however, that "each nonclassical reading may itself be unique."

  14. In "Seeing is Reading," Rei Terada sets out to restore a proper degree of complexity to the relation between "seeing" and "reading"—a binary opposition that, like "phenomenality" versus "cognition" (or versus "materiality") has become something of a habitual tic in much de Man-influenced criticism. Reminding us that "the word 'seeing,' in all its ambiguity, does not necessarily belong to the conceptual apparatus of aesthetics," and (as a word) is itself "split between the perceptual and the cognitive," Terada warns against our tendency to retranscendentalize de Man's unredemptive materialism. She cautions in particular against what she sees as a "philosophically reactionary transcendentalism" influencing the techno-rhetoricism of the introduction written by Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, and J. Hillis Miller (henceforth "CMC") for their Material Events volume. We may say (though Terada does not put it this way) that she brings to this text a version of Heidegger's critique of technology: if, for Heidegger, technology represents the culmination of Western metaphysics in its objectification of the world in the service of a will to power, for Terada, CMC's transformation of de Manian materialism into "arche-engineering"—into a technology capable of envisioning a reprogramming the human sensorium—amounts to nothing less than a thoroughgoing if subtle retranscendentalization. Despite the enormous differences in sophistication and political orientation separating CMC's de Manian arche-engineering from Elaine Scarry's anti-de Manian aesthetic ideology, Terada suggests that these disparate projects share a fundamental aestheticism: "The notion of the sensorium as film studio (in the head or in the world), replete with engineers, set designers, directors, and projectionists, is one of western metaphysics' favorite motifs—the fantasy production lot of the aesthetic project." Scarry's humanism shares in this technoaestheticism: "Her version of mimesis is strong enough for virtual worldmaking: it is a specific, repeatable method for stimulating in the human body an image that responds to the content of a particular idea." Terada, for her part, emphasizes the skeptical thrust of de Man's writing. She offers a close reading of Kant's discussion of hypotyposis in section 59 of the Critique of Judgment as a meditation on the insoluble complexities of "seeing." Hypotyposis, like seeing, is "a figure whose effects are themselves described figuratively"; it is thus not only like seeing, but (therefore) like de Manian materiality. Materiality, according to Terada, serves as "de Man's X at the spot where aesthetics can go no farther": therefore, she suggests, we might best think of de Man's work as a kind of "radical empiricism."

  15. No simple disagreement separates or links Terada and Plotnitsky; but the difference between the former's resolute skepticism and the latter's systematic weaving of discriminations suggests something of the thematic, stylistic, and methodological diversity of de Man's legacy. Since this legacy turns around the paradox—the endless self-fracturing or slippage—of a theory that "is" its own resistance to itself, we need hardly be surprised that arguments about de Man can be had even among knowledgeable readers of him. The present editor wonders, for instance—to remain a moment longer with the last two essays in the collection—whether de Man's thought would allow either Plotnitsky's opposition between "classical" and "nonclassical" theory or Terada's pragmatic rejoinder "So much for that" any more than provisional stability. Reading, as de Man endlessly affirms, cannot avoid falling into error any more than it can avoid pursuing truth; this skewed pseudo-dialectic cannot resolve itself as the truth of error, because, as all of our contributors emphasize in their own ways, the act of reading fails to coincide with its own knowledge of itself. Out of this dilemma spring the various but necessarily interwoven major themes of de Man's reception. In consequence, no attentive study of de Man can really be confined to the artificial rubrics under which, for pragmatic purposes, I have organized these essays. Explicitly or not, they all address questions of history, theory, materiality, and the aesthetic, and reflect on the institutions by way of which a legacy occurs. They all help us remember that a legacy calls to us from the past only to the extent that it remains "to come," à venir, speaking imperatively to us of work to be done.


Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

-----. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Caruth, Cathy, and Deborah Esch, eds. Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Cohen, Tom, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Cohen. "A ‘Materiality without Matter"? In Cohen, et. al., vii-xxv.

Cohen, Tom, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski, eds. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

de Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

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

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Gasché, Rodolphe. The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. "The Discipline of Deconstruction." PMLA 107: (1992), 1266-79.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Redfield, Marc. Phantom Formations: Aesthetic Ideology and the Bildungsroman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

-----. The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Ronell, Avital. Stupidity. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Waters, Lindsay, and Wlad Godzich, eds. Reading de Man Reading. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.


1 A close-to-full bibliography exists: see Eddie Yeghiayan's magnificent "Paul de Man bibliography" on-line at It may not be complete, but it's impressively thorough.

2 Caruth edited special issues of the psychoanalytic journal American Imago on trauma in 1991; these were republished as a book, Trauma (1995). Caruth has offered her own extended reflections on this topic in her Unclaimed Experience (1996). For Felman's important work on trauma and the Holocaust, see Felman and Laub, Testimony (1992).

3 For my discussions of de Man as an embodiment of theory, see Phantom Formations, 1-40, and The Politics of Aesthetics, 5-9, 95-124, in addition to my contribution to this special issue. For an example of the habit (which goes back to the late 1970s) of pairing Derrida with de Man and abjecting the latter, see Nealon.

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Published @ RC

May 2005