Killing What Is Already Dead: 'Original Materialism,' Translation, and Romanticism after de Man

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Killing What Is Already Dead: "Original Materialism," Translation, and Romanticism after de Man (With a Coda on Coleridge and Carlyle)

Tom Toremans
KU Leuven

1.        Without doubt one of the most incisive critical inquiries into (post-)Romantic notions of materiality to date was pursued in Paul de Man's later essays on aesthetic ideology, and more particularly in the Messenger Lectures he delivered at Cornell in 1983. In a parenthetical remark in his Mémoires: for Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida located in de Man's work an "original materialism" that precedes "the metaphysical oppositions in which the concept of matter and materialist theories are generally inscribed":

([...] There is a theme of "materiality," indeed an original materialism in de Man. It concerns a "matter" which does not fit the classical philosophical definitions of metaphysical materialisms any more than the sensible representations or the images of matter defined by the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. Matter, a matter without presence and without substance, is what resists these oppositions. [...] Matter of this sort, "older" than the metaphysical oppositions in which the concept of matter and materialist theories are generally inscribed, is, we might say, "in memory" of what precedes these oppositions. But by this very fact [...] it retains an essential relation with fiction, figurality, rhetoricity. Matière et Mémoire is the title I could have given to this long parenthesis [...]). (52-53)
Later in the Mémoires Derrida adds that "[o]ne cannot understand this privileging of allegory –I was long puzzled by it for thus very reason—if one is not familiar with the internal debates of Anglo-American criticism concerning Romanticism" (77). Driven by the desire to locate a "sort of affirmative thought" (66) in de Man's relentless rhetorical reading, Derrida parenthetically puts the notion of materiality at the center of his reading of de Man's analysis of G.F.W. Hegel in "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics" (1982), and briefly allows the Anglo-American Romantic critical tradition to enter his argument when he turns to de Man's comments on Coleridge in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" (1969). In the questions that conclude his lecture, Derrida marks "a kind of spacing, a gap that is not contradiction" (85) between both essays and their respective analyses of allegory and irony. Without entering into the complex questions of the relation between de Man's early and later writings (and between de Man and Derrida, for that matter), [1]  my purpose here is to pick up Derrida's suggestion and address this gap in terms of the renegotiation of the relation between materiality, Romanticism, and translation in the Messenger Lectures. As the structural unity of the argument developed over the six lectures has suffered somewhat from their posthumous dispersion over different volumes, [2]  this renegotiation has been insufficiently explored in their critical reception. Symptomatic of this fragmented reception is the systematic isolation of the famous concluding lecture on Walter Benjamin from this broader argumentative context. [3]  Restoring de Man's reading of Benjamin to its original context of the Messenger Lectures, I argue, allows for a more accurate analysis of the proximity of his critique of translation to the notion of materiality introduced in his reading of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, which constitutes the central event of the lecture series. This closer analysis, moreover, refers de Man's later writings back to the British Romantic tradition, more specifically to the initial forging of an English critical idiom in the translation of German Idealist philosophy by, among others, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. As an elaborate analysis of the latter by far exceeds the limitations of this essay, my aim here is to prepare the ground for such a return to British Romantic aesthetic theory through de Man by means of a close reading of the latter's critique of translation. In a coda, I will briefly sketch the form that such a re-entry into the rhetorical complexity of the Biographia Literaria and Sartor Resartus in terms of materiality and translation can take.

2.         Although, as Rodolphe Gasché has noted, translation already figures in Allegories of Reading as referring both to the totalizing drive of metaphor and its disarticulation in rhetorical reading, [4]  it is in "Conclusions: Walter Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator'" that de Man most directly addresses the issue of translation as a concrete process that allows him to reconfigure the terms of his rhetorical critique of Romantic aesthetics. De Man's turn to translation in the essay in fact concludes an elaborate argument developed over six lectures, the main theme of which was announced in the opening lecture on "Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric" as "the major crux of all critical philosophies and 'Romantic' literatures," i.e. "the continuity of aesthetic with rational judgment" (239) or "the seamless articulation, by way of language, of sensory and aesthetic experience with the intellectual assurance of affirmation" (244). From rhetorical readings of Charles Baudelaire and Heinrich von Kleist, the lecture series progresses to a discussion of the Hegelian sublime, to the disarticulation of the category of the aesthetic in Kant and its humanistic recuperation recuperation in Friedrich Schiller, so as to finally arrive at a reading of Benjamin's comments on translation in his famous preface to his own translation of Baudelaire's "Tableaux Parisiens." Baudelaire is not the only element endowing the Messenger Lectures with a certain circularity, as they are structured as a series of disarticulations of received notions of the aesthetic, ideology, history, and translation that center on the notion of materiality introduced halfway through the lecture series in "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant."

3.        In "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," de Man locates "a deep, perhaps fatal, break or discontinuity" (79) at the center of the Critique of Judgment. In the concluding section of the analytics of the sublime, at the moment when one would have expected the emergence of "a phenomenalized, empirically manifest principle" that would provide the necessary causal link between "a purely conceptual and an empirically determined discourse" (73) that would ultimately guarantee the architectonic unity of Kant's transcendental philosophy, sublime vision ends up as "purely material" and "purely formal, devoid of any semantic depth and reducible to the formal mathematization or geometrization of pure optics." This formal materialism "runs counter to all values and characteristics associated with aesthetic experience" (83) and, as de Man discusses at length in the fifth lecture on "Kant and Schiller," has been overlooked and reinscribed into an organic aesthetic from Schiller onwards. To be sure, this reinscription is inevitable, and also occurs in Kant's own critical philosophy: the purely material architectonic of nature, de Man argues, is juxtaposed to the organic architectonics of Pure Reason described near the end of the First Critique, in which the pure formality of sublime vision is reinscribed into an organic tropology of body and limbs. The confrontation of both versions of the architectonic occurs as one between the organic metaphor of the unity of modes of cognition as a body of articulated limbs that grows from the inside in, on the one hand, and the materiality of the sublime vision of the ocean and the heavens, on the other. Ultimately, then, both nature and the body end up disarticulated in the Third Critique, and instead of providing the eventual establishment of the aesthetic as the category that would secure the organic congruity between perception and cognition, it instead "marks the undoing of the aesthetic as a valid category" and leaves us "with a materialism that Kant's posterity has not yet begun to face up to" (89).

4.        Crucially, this disarticulation of the category of the aesthetic also affects language as such. Asking himself what the equivalent of this formal materialism would be "in the order of language," de Man at the very end of his lecture spells out the most radical consequence of his critique of the aesthetic, stating that "[t]o the dismemberment of the body corresponds a dismemberment of language, as meaning-producing tropes are replaced by the fragmentation of sentences and propositions into discrete words, or the fragmentation of words into syllables or finally letters" (89). The pure, nonteleological, and nonorganic formality of nature is transferred to language itself, so that an irrecoverable linguistic materiality emerges that resists inscription into an organically conceived process of meaning production. [5]  From the dismemberment of language emerges "the prosaic materiality of the letter and no degree of obfuscation or ideology can transform this materiality into the phenomenal cognition of aesthetic judgment" (90). That this linguistic materiality is to be taken in its most literal sense is clear from the examples de Man provides: not only does he refer to the literary example of Kleist's play with the word Fall (fall) and Falle (trap), which he discussed at length in the second Messenger Lecture on "Aesthetic Formalization," but he also refers to Kant's own language, stating that

[n]o such artful moments seem to occur, at first sight, in Kant. But just try to translate one single somewhat complex sentence of Kant, or just consider what the efforts of entirely competent translators have produced, and you will soon notice how decisively determining the play of the letter and of the syllable, the way of saying (Art des Sagens) as opposed to what is being said (das Gesagte)—to quote Walter Benjamin—is in this most unconspicuous of stylists. (89)
The example, concluding de Man's lecture on Kant, already prefigures his lecture on Benjamin, not only in its explicit reference, but also—and more importantly—in the observation that translation foregrounds the linguistic materiality that results from the dismemberment of language that took place in Kant's text. If, earlier in the lecture, de Man had introduced the notion of materiality as "the only word that comes to mind," and had added that "how this materiality is to be understood in linguistic terms is not, as yet, clearly intelligible" (82), the final example of his lecture anticipates his further exploration of this question in terms of translation in his concluding lecture on Benjamin.

5.        As de Man says at the beginning of the lecture, he will "repeat once more what I have been saying since the beginning, using another text in order to have still another version [...] of some of the questions with which we have been concerned throughout these series" (73). This repetition is most clearly legible in the lecture's argument as the gradual stripping of the Benjaminian concept of reine Sprache from its "prophetic, religiously messianic" (76) overtones and reading it instead as another version of the linguistic materiality de Man had located in Kant. De Man's turn to Benjamin's text occurs as a structural repetition of the concluding example of the lecture on Kant: highlighting shifts and errors in Harry Zohn's and Maurice de Gandillac's French translations of Benjamin's "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers," de Man foregrounds the materiality of Benjamin's own language and its emergence in translation. By subsequently repositioning translation towards poetry, philosophy, criticism, and history, de Man establishes it as a practice particularly privileged to address this linguistic materiality and its disarticulating effect. Unlike poetry, which is aimed at conveying (extralinguistic) meaning, translation "is a relation from language to language." Like philosophy—and more specifically like Kant's critical epistemology—translation is critical of imitation. As Benjamin indicates, a proper understanding of the relation between the original and its translation would imply a critical reflection similar to the epistemological critique of "a theory of simple imitation" (82). This comparison is crucial to de Man's argument, since it draws a parallel between Kant's critical philosophy and Benjamin's concept of translation, which will eventually end in the convergence of both in their rigorous exploration of pure materiality. As is the case with criticism—Benjamin's reference is to the German Romantics and to Friedrich Schlegel in particular—the original when translated is "put in motion, de-canonized, questioned in a way which undoes its claim to canonical authority" (83). Finally, like history, translation should be understood as a non-organic, non-natural, non-dialectic process. Just as we should not conceive of history as a natural process of growth and movement, de Man's Benjamin says, translation should not be seen as an organic process of imitation. Rather it is the other way around: instead of looking at the translation as somehow growing out of the original, we should look at the original from the perspective of the translation, as the latter makes us see the original in a different way—allows for the emergence of an instability that was already there. Translation lifts texts out of the safe haven of an organically and dialectically developing history and redelivers them, as it were, as the essentially linguistic, non-organic, non-human events that they always already were. It is this deliverance that relates translation to linguistic materiality as it emerged in Kant.

6.        At the end of this series of comparisons, translation emerges as an exemplary activity that allows for a reconceptualization of philosophy, theory, and history as essentially "intralinguistic." If all three are also derived activities (from perception, literature, and action, respectively), they relate "to what in the original belongs to language, and not to meaning as an extralinguistic correlate susceptible of paraphrase and imitation." It is in the subsequent elaboration of the exemplary critical thrust of the process of translation (one that decisively transcends "the empirical act of translating") that de Man most programmatically defines it in terms of linguistic materiality. As translations, philosophy, theory, and history

reveal that their failure, which seems to be due to the fact that they are secondary in relation to the original, reveals [...] an essential disarticulation which was already there in the original. They kill the original, by discovering that the original was already dead. They read the original from the perspective of a pure language (reine Sprache), a language that would be entirely freed of the illusion of meaning – pure form if you want [...]. (84)
In its progression from poetry to philosophy, criticism, and history, de Man's concluding lecture ends up providing another version of the disarticulation of the organic congruity between language and meaning and the emergence of an irreducible linguistic materiality. Translation is presented as the process par excellence that allows this materiality to be addressed: "to the extent that it disarticulates the original, to the extent that it is pure language and is only concerned with language," translation gets drawn into "the bottomless depth, something essentially destructive, which is in language itself" (84).

7.        Like in his lecture on Kant, de Man subsequently concludes his argument by providing a specifically linguistic account of the disarticulating dynamics of translation, which derives from a threefold disjunction. In the first place, language displays a disjunction between the hermeneutic and the poetic, between "das Gemeinte" and the "Art des Meinens"—meaning and the way in which a work means. Benjamin, de Man argues, counters the Schillerian humanistic account of language, instead staging language as non-organic and non-intentional. The second disjunction is between grammar and meaning, foregrounding "the materiality of the letter" (89) as potentially disruptive of meaning and making it uncontrollable, the material disruption of what is assumed to be organic. The third and final disjunction, between "the symbol and what is being symbolized" (89), highlights "the unreliability of rhetoric as a system of tropes which would be productive of a meaning" (91), foregrounding the way in which Benjamin's own tropology, contrary to first impressions, in fact disarticulates its own symbolism (i.e. the symbol of the amphora) so as to perform the disjunction it addresses through translation.

8.        De Man's comments on translation to some extent repeat well-known aspects of his rhetorical critique of (post-)Romantic literature, yet they at the same time provide this critique with additional theoretical and historical incisiveness. On a theoretical level, de Man's earlier critique of metaphor is supplemented with a critique of organic conceptions of meaning production and phenomenological models of language, deriving from the disarticulation of the category of the aesthetic in Kant. Precisely to the extent that this disarticulation affects language as phenomenal embodiment of meaning, the linguistic materiality that results from it can never be addressed in language without reinscribing it into the organic tropological model of language that this materiality resists. The materiality in question, in other words, has no substance, is without matter, and can only be witnessed as an event. In terms of de Man's reading of Benjamin, pure language is something that happens in translation, be it in interlingual translation or in critical reading. In the "Conclusions" it is translation and the movement it causes in the original that makes this event happen, as it hovers around linguistic materiality and alienates language from the human and the organic as such. Reine Sprache, which has come to refer to linguistic materiality, has no substance, does not exist, except in translation.

This movement of the original is a wandering, an errance, a kind of permanent exile if you wish, but it is not really an exile, for there is no homeland [...]. Least of all is there something like a reine Sprache, a pure language, which does not exist except as a permanent disjunction which inhabits all languages as such, including and especially the language one calls one's own. What is to be one's own language is the most displaced, the most alienated of all. (92)
Translation allows linguistic materiality to be addressed as a "necessarily nihilistic moment" (92) in a movement from irreversible disarticulation to inevitable reinscription. This moment, this radical negativity that translation allows to emerge, endows it with a specifically historical agency.

9.        In fact, the entire argument of the "Conclusions" is doubly framed by questions of history—first in the lecture itself, and secondly in the larger context of the Messenger Lectures. In the lecture itself, de Man introduces his reading of Benjamin by means of an evocation of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Geoffrey Hartman as upholding a dialectical model of history in which the negativity emerging from philosophy's rhetorical self-consciousness is ultimately recuperated into "a new consciousness" (76) and "sacred revelation" (79), respectively. De Man's reading of Benjamin subsequently relies heavily on this evocation of a persistent historical naïvité, so as to stage Benjamin as a thinker who leaves "no room for historical notions such as the notion of modernity" (93), and instead radically reconceptualizes the historical through his critique of translation. Translation, as the "errancy of language which never reaches the mark," de Man argues, "is what Benjamin calls history," which "is not human, because it pertains strictly to the order of language" (92). As such, the "Conclusions" of the Messenger Lectures refer back to the opening lecture on Baudelaire, which had already ended in the emergence of the "materiality of actual history":

Generic terms such as "lyric" [...] 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 "chambre d'éternel deuil où vibrent vieux râles," then this pathos of terror states in fact the desired consciousness of eternity and of temporal harmony as voice and 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-poetic, that is to say, prosaic, or, better, historical modes of language power. (262)
This circularity of de Man's argument in the Messenger Lectures is symptomatic of its most radical conclusion. In terms of the "Conclusions," linguistic materiality is never available as such, but can only be addressed in repeated acts of translation that time and again allow it to emerge from the original, in which it was always already at work.

10.        In an important but often overlooked essay that marks a transition from Allegories of Reading to the critique of aesthetic ideology in the Messenger Lectures, de Man both anticipates this revaluation of translation and history and supplements it with a historical context that is of specific relevance to British Romantic aesthetic theory. In "The Epistemology of Metaphor" (published in Critical Inquiry in 1978 and later included in Aesthetic Ideology), de Man locates in John Locke, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, and Kant a recurring failure to clearly demarcate rhetorical from other forms of language, a failure resulting from "the asymmetry of the binary model that opposes the figural to the proper meaning of figure" (48-49). The problem first occurs in Locke's discussion of language in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In its movement from simple ideas to substances and mixed modes, de Man argues, Locke's argument actually deploys "the entire spectrum [...] of tropological totalization" and thus generates an "anamorphosis of tropes which has to run its full course whenever one engages, however reluctantly or tentatively, the question of language as figure."(42) Discussing "motion" as an example of a simple idea, Locke demonstrates that as a simple idea it is undefinable, and refers to the atomists' definition of motion as passage as an instance of "translation" and not of definition. De Man comments:

Locke's own "passage" is bound to continue this perpetual motion that never moves beyond tautology: motion is a passage and passage is a translation; translation, once again, means motion, piles motion upon motion. It is no mere play of words that "translate" is translated in German as übersetzen, which itself translates the Greek meta phorein or metaphor. Metaphor gives itself the totality which it then claims to define, but it is in fact the tautology of its own position. The discourse of simple ideas is figural discourse or translation and, as such, creates the fallacious illusion of definition. (38)
This equation of translation with metaphor, already highlighted in Gasché's review of Allegories of Reading, returns in the "Conclusions" :
The translation is not the metaphor of the original; nevertheless, the German word for translation, übersetzen, means metaphor. Übersetzen translates exactly the Greek meta-phorein, to mover over, übersetzen, to put across. Übersetzen, I should say, translates metaphor—which, asserts Benjamin, is not at all the same. They are not metaphors, yet the word means metaphor. The metaphor is not a metaphor, Benjamin is saying. [...] Amazingly paradoxical statement, metaphor is not metaphor. (83)
The example from Locke contains clear indications as to how to understand this identity between translation and figural language: translation designates a movement which presents itself as one from extralinguistic meaning to language or vice versa, while it is in fact the purely intralinguistic movement of the trope as it turns towards but never reaches this extralinguistic meaning. This troping-as-turning gives itself the illusion of meaning, yet it never reaches it and tropes and turns back on nothing but itself—one crucial example of which is the full course of the anamorphosis of tropes run in Locke's Essay.

11.        When de Man subsequently turns to Kant, the term translation again pops up—albeit this time as a translation of a Kantian term by de Man himself as he discusses the figure of hypotyposis. The latter refers to the sensory representation of supra-sensory concepts of pure reason (ideas) by way of symbols. Commenting on the necessarily metaphorical nature of philosophical language (de Man cites the Kantian examples of "ground," "to depend," and "to follow from"), Kant states that such metaphors are "a mere translation [Übertragung] from a reflexion upon a represented object into an entirely different concept, to which perhaps no representation could ever correspond" (47, de Man's translation). De Man takes on the "perhaps" to mark a possible non-correspondence between concepts and their metaphorical representation, so that the figure of hypotyposis confronts Kant's philosophical rhetoric with the potential uncontrollability of metaphors rather than reassures it of their conceptual power and epistemological reliability. De Man's use of the word "translation" for "Übertragung" subtly repeats his reading of Locke earlier in the essay: while Kant's language would ideally translate supra-sensory ideas into philosophical terminology, what actually happens is that it ends up in an intralinguistic process of metaphorical substitution that never reaches beyond itself, persistently referring itself to itself rather than representing extralinguistic meaning. While this rhetorical condition by no means coincides with the disarticulation of the category of the aesthetic in Kant, it already anticipates de Man's reading of Kant five years later in the Messenger Lectures, as it is symptomatic of the disarticulation of language as phenomenal representation and its corresponding emergence as pure formality. [6] 

12.        "The Epistemology of Metaphor" thus supplements the Messenger Lectures with a context that is of specific relevance for British Romantic theory. It stands out in de Man's writings as one of the few instances in which he actually discusses the British empiricist tradition, which in turn is of crucial importance for the British Romantic translation of German Idealism by authors such as Coleridge and Carlyle. [7]  In the essay, de Man suggests a far-reaching revision of the traditional narrative of modernity in terms of a rhetorical condition that reaches across philosophical traditions and affects our received notion of "Enlightenment" as such. If there is validity to his readings of Locke and Kant, de Man claims, then we might conclude that "our own literary modernity has reestablished contact with a 'true' Enlightenment that remained hidden for us by a nineteenth-century romantic and realist epistemology that asserted a reliable rhetoric of the subject or of representation" (49).

13.        From the Messenger Lectures thus emerges a notion of translation that, not unlike what de Man in "The Resistance to Theory" calls "the linguistics of literariness," presents itself as a powerful tool in the "unmasking" of aesthetic ideology by going "against a powerful philosophical tradition of which aesthetics is a prominent part" (11). As such, this notion of translation allows for a return to the "gap" suggested by Derrida between "The Rhetoric of Temporality" and de Man's later writings. Retrospectively, the Lectures make legible in the 1969 essay the emergence and premature abandonment of the question of materiality. In his discussion of Coleridge's theory of symbol in the broader contexts of European (pre-)Romanticism and post-Romantic criticism, de Man focuses on the ambiguous valorization of symbol over allegory in The Stateman's Manual, and phrase this ambiguity in terms of materiality: while Coleridge devalues allegory as suffering from "a lack of substantiality," the symbol's "material substantiality dissolves and becomes a mere reflection of a more original unity that does not exist in the material world." Coleridge's conception of symbol as organic form ultimately ends up in a "spiritualization of the symbol [that] has been carried so far that the moment of material existence by which it was originally defined" vanishes and is replaced by a notion of "translucence" (192), which turns it (with allegory) to its transcendental source and away from the world of matter. In the remainder of the essay, de Man then abandons this "materialist" line of questioning, and instead recasts it in the subjectivist terminology of the disjunction of the empirical and the linguistic self. In a later lecture, de Man will criticize this approach, and provide an alternative through a rhetorical reading of Johann Gottlieb Fichte that to a substantial degree announces the argument of the Messenger Lectures. [8]  After the latter has taken his theoretical critique towards aesthetic ideology, materiality, and translation, Coleridge ends up looming large as the "acknowledged 'father' of theory" (Trott 69) whose translation of German Idealist philosophy forged a critical idiom that stands at the origin of post-Romantic Anglo-American criticism and that includes de Man in its dynamic exchange with aesthetic ideology.

Coda: Translating Romanticism

14.        Such a return of de Man's critique of aesthetic ideology to Coleridge's aesthetic theory would have to turn to the Biographia Literaria, more specifically to the philosophical chapters (5 to 13) of the first volume, in which the transcendental deduction of the imagination is pursued and famously abandoned in the "letter from a friend." While these chapters have already been elaborately discussed from a wide variety of angles, [9]  de Man's reconceptualization of materiality and translation provides a point of re-entry into their intricate rhetorical self-reflexivity and their eventual premature abortion. Postponing a detailed close reading to another occasion, we can already outline the main lines along which such a re-entry would develop.

15.        In the Biographia's philosophical chapters, the threat of linguistic materiality is legible in the dynamic exchange between divine ventriloquism and translation. In its most literal sense, of course, the Biographia eclipses translation at the basis of its philosophical argument by not acknowledging significant portions of this argument as translations from Friedrich Schelling. [10]  Yet the Biographia's evasion of translation transcends the strategic gestures of plagiarism, and should be read as an essential part of the articulation of its transcendentalist argument and its persistent confrontation with its own language as representative of transcendental ideas. Ideally, Coleridge's language would participate in a process that it famously calls "divine ventriloquism"—a process of organic revelation of divine truth across languages based in a transcendental principle of unity that is immediate and in which ideas and their representations coincide. While this process safely subsumes linguistic mediation as a mere supplement to organic revelation, the matter of mediation repeatedly forces itself on the Biographia as it translates Schelling’s Transcendental System. This re-emergence of language already occurs at the moment of the introduction of the notion of "divine ventriloquism" in chapter 9. Coleridge's claim that "I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed, if only the words are audible and intelligible" (164) ideally posits divine truth as one speaking itself across languages under the unifying drive of organic revelation. The addition of "if only the words are [...] intelligible," however, immediately conditions this ideal and foregrounds linguistic mediation against organic revelation. In fact, it is as a translation that the Biographia is continually forced to confront the question as to its comprehensibility, since the latter depends "rendering the system itself intelligible to my countrymen" (163), an audience deeply afflicted by "that compendious philosophy, which talking of mind but thinking of brick and mortar, or other images equally abstracted from body, contrives a theory of spirit by nicknaming matter" and reduces all things to "impressions, ideas, and sensations" (235). The language of British "mechanical" philosophy represents the threat of a purely material language, as when Coleridge indicates that "existence of an infinite spirit, of an intelligent and holy will, must on this system be mere articulated motions of the air" (120) and that "a God not visible [...] can exist only in the sounds and letters that form his name and attributes" (121). To secure his own philosophical rhetoric from this threat of a purely material language, Coleridge subsequently appeals to "the ascertaining vision, the intuitive knowledge" (239) that precedes linguistic materialization and translation. In order to establish its own language as an instance of divine ventriloquism, Coleridge's argument has to articulate the transcendental principle from which this ventriloquism emerges. In the actual articulation of this principle, however, it is translation that exposes the principle of organic unity as originating in an imposition of difference rather than as an original principle of immediate identity. As David Ferris's close reading of Coleridge's translation of Schelling has compellingly demonstrated, Coleridge's translation adds to Schelling's system a decisively religious dimension, and deviates the latter's argument in a much more overtly organic direction. Perhaps the clearest example of this imposition of difference occurs immediately before the discussion of the subjective and objective ways of knowledge, when Coleridge rephrases the "postulate of philosophy" as "the heaven-descended know thyself!" (252). As Ferris argues, "[w]here Schelling exposes the principle systematically and, in so doing, provides it with its own means of justification, Coleridge takes it over as if it were a God-given truth" (57). The postulation of a divine origin that ultimately grounds a total organic unity of opposites marks a strategic recovery of linguistic transmission in Coleridge's translation. As Ferris states:

the point where Schelling's philosophy attains completion is the point at which it gives authority to itself and so becomes self-grounded. The promise of such a philosophical resolution is essentially what Coleridge takes from Schelling and applies to the whole series of apparently intractably divided terms and oppositions he is concerned with, namely, subject/object, original/copy, author/text, truth/authority, critic/text and philosophy/poetry. (60)
Coleridge's translation of Schelling's Transcendental System, in other words, effects a "disfiguration" (49) of its systematic and self-grounding articulation. A further analysis of this disfigurating impact of translation and its continuous reinscription in the organic ideology of divine ventriloquism in the Biographia, I would argue, could lead to a productive revaluation of the relation between its anti-materialist philosophical argument and its rhetorical performance as a continuous confrontation with—and evasion of—an irreducible linguistic materiality that leads to the premature abortion of its argument.

16.        What is more, this dynamic between translation and materiality should be further contextualized in British Romantic aesthetic theory and its continued impact on the Anglo-American literary-critical tradition. A text certainly to be taken into account in this respect is Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which, as I have extensively argue elsewhere, [11]  emerges as a highly experimental exploration of the process of translation that ends in the disarticulation of the transcendentalist aesthetic it was intended to bring home to the British reader. What is often overlooked in readings of Sartor Resartus is precisely the fact that it does not coincide with the Teufelsdröckhian Clothes Philosophy it contains, but presents a fictional account of its translation. Framing the articulation of a transcendentalist aesthetic in such an account of its translation, Sartor foregrounds the latter's rhetorical disarticulation in translation. In this sense, Sartor Resartus presents the "end" of Romantic aesthetic theory in a final act of sustained self-reflexive rhetorical scrutiny: in the progression from the Biographia to Sartor a foregrounding of the process of translation occurs, eventually ending up in the disarticulation of the transcendentalist aesthetic these works set out to articulate.

17.        From this brief excursion to Coleridge and Carlyle, a central question emerges that de Man never turned to, but towards which his later essays on aesthetic ideology certainly gesture, i.e. that of the British Romantic aesthetic theory as essentially occurring in the mode of translation. Addressing this question would entail a study of Romanticism in terms of the materiality emerging from the disarticulation of the aesthetic in Kant, and would entail both a historical and comparative reinterrogation of British Romanticism's position as mediating between the philosophical traditions of empiricism and Idealism. In this sense, de Man can and should be seen as "a thinker of affirmation"—or at least as a thinker putting us before the task of reading and translating the theoretical discourse of and on Romanticism, so as to confront it with the material event that ruptures aesthetic ideology and destabilizes the critical terms we use to address it.

Works Cited

Attell, Kevin. "The Muse of Translation: 'Pure Language' in de Man, Derrida, and Agamben." The New Centennial Review 12.2 (2012): 69-105. Print.

Bannet, Eve Tavor. "The Scene of Translation: After Jakobson, Benjamin, de Man, and Derrida." New Literary History 24.3 (1993): 577-595. Print.

Chase, Cynthia. "Translating Romanticism: Literary Theory as the Criticism of Aesthetics in the Works of Paul de Man." Textual Practice 4 (1990): 349-375. Print.

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

Cohen, Tom, Claire Colebrook and J. Hillis Miller, eds. Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Bollingen Series LXXV. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983. Print.

Dayre, Eric. L'absolu comparé. Littérature et traduction. Une séquence moderne: Coleridge, De Quincey, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. Paris: Hermann, 2009. Print.

de Graef, Ortwin. Titanic Light: Paul De Man's Post-Romanticism, 1960-1969. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Print.

de Groote, Brecht. A Frightful Co-Existence’: Thomas De Quincey, Translation, and the Prospect of Modernity. Diss.. [n.p.]: KU Leuven, 2014. Print.

de Man, Paul. Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. Print.

---. The Resistance to Theory. Ed. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. Print.

---. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Mémoires: for Paul de Man. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

Ferris, David S. "Coleridge's Ventriloquy: The Abduction from the Biographia." Studies in Romanticism 24.1 (1985): 41-84. Print.

Gasché, Rodolphe. "'Setzung' and 'Übersetzung': Notes on Paul de Man." Diacritics 11.4 (1981): 36-57. Print.

McQuillan, Martin. Paul de Man. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Newmark, Kevin. "Paul de Man’s History." Reading de Man Reading. Ed. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 121-135. Print.

Redfield, Marc, ed. Legacies of Paul de Man. Romanticism Circles Praxis. Web. 2013-08-02.

---. The Politics of Aesthetics. Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.

Toremans, Tom. "Disagreement as (Possible) Event: Derrida contre de Man." Contre Derrida: Countering the Contemporary Critique of Deconstruction. Ed. Allison Weiner and Simon Morgan Wortham. New York: Continuum, 2007. 82–94. Print.

---. "Sartor Resartus and the Rhetoric of Translation." Translation and Literature 20.1 (2011): 61-78. Print.

---. "Surfacing Materiality. Wordsworth, Kant and de Man's Epistemological Critique of Reading." Oxford Literary Review 33.1 (2011): 65-82. Print.

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Warminski, Andrzej. "Ending Up/Taking Back (with Two Postscripts on Paul de Man's Historical Materialism)." Critical Encounters. Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. Ed. Cathy Caruth and Deborah Esch. New Brunswick and New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1995. 11-41. Print.


[1] For an interesting commentary on the theoretical intricacies involved in trying to impose a "historical" development from early to late de Man, see Andrzej Warminski's "Ending Up/Taking Back" (esp. the lengthy eighth footnote on p. 35-37), the concluding chapter of Ortwin de Graef’s Titanic Light (“Resurrexi” 203-215) and Kevin Newmark’s “Paul de Man’s History”. On the relation between Derrida and de Man in terms of materiality and irony, see my "Disagreement as (Possible) Event." BACK

[2] The six Messenger Lectures were delivered in the spring of 1983, just months before de Man's death in December of that year. The lectures were: "Anthropomorphism and Trope in Baudelaire" (published as "Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric" in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 239–62), "Kleist's Über das Marionettentheater" (published as "Aesthetic Formalization: Kleist's Über das Marionettentheater" in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 263–90), "Hegel on the Sublime" (published in Aesthetic Ideology, 105–18), "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant" (published in Aesthetic Ideology, 70–90), "Kant and Schiller" (published as edited transcript in Aesthetic Ideology, 129–62) and "Conclusions" (published as "'Conclusions': Walter Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator'" in The Resistance to Theory, 73–105). For commentaries on the lectures and the notion of materiality on which they center, see the essays included in Material Events and Legacies of Paul de Man. For a discussion of de Man's notion of materiality in relation to his theory of rhetorical reading, see my "Surfacing Materiality." BACK

[3] For a useful situation of the essay in the broader context of de Man's other writings, see Martin McQuillan's Paul de Man. Within the field of translation studies, de Man mainly figures, with Derrida, as an example of deconstructionist appropriation of Benjamin. As has been noted by Eve Tavor Bennet and Kevin Attell, however, their respective readings do diverge on decisive points. An interesting new development in the essay's reception was the recent publication of Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin, containing a transcript (and facsimile print) of de Man's handwritten notes for the lecture, with critical commentaries by Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook and J. Hillis Miller. BACK

[4] In fact, Gasché's review of Allegories of Reading highlights the intricate proliferation of the issue of translation as a process including de Man's own critical praxis into a dynamic of translation, re-translation, and de-translation, characterizing de Man's rhetorical readings as "retranslations" that are "de-translations, i.e. operations by means of which the static and closed off instances of totality are referred back to the 'original' mechanics of the text" (49). Although it is certainly an essential part of further inquiry into the issue of translation in de Man's writings, the inclusion of the latter in such an interminable process of translation will only be indirectly addressed in this essay, since it would complicate matters beyond the scope of my present argument. Another commentary to take into account in this context is Cynthia Chase's "Translating Romanticism." BACK

[5] If, as Marc Redfield has argued, aesthetic ideology depends on the production of transparency and the obliteration of linguistic mediation, language resists this effacing gesture and persists "not as meaning, not as semantic or intersubjective communication, but as an opacity, a stumbling, a transport or drift or mutation irreducible to meaning or intention." In other words, language "persists as language, as the technical supplement that in itself can never properly exist" (23). As de Man states in "The Resistance to Theory" (another late essay, which first got rejected by MLA, was subsequently delivered at Amherst College in 1981, and finally published in the volume with the same title), the analysis of this resistance marks the beginning of literary theory as such: "Literary theory can be said to come into being when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic, considerations or, to put it somewhat less crudely, when the object of discussion is no longer the meaning or the value but the modalities of production and of reception of meaning and of value prior to their establishment" (7). BACK

[6] It is no coincidence, then, that the issue of hypotyposis recurs in the Messenger Lectures. In the conclusion of "Kant and Schiller," for example, it appears as another version of Kant's materialist resistance to Schiller's humanism, when de Man addresses "the particular necessity which philosophy has, to take its terminology not from purely intellectual concepts but from material, sensory elements, which it then uses metaphorically and frequently forgets that it does so. [...] [H]ypotyposis for Kant is certainly a problem for understanding [...]; whereas here it is offered by Schiller as a solution [...]. The sensory [...], unlike the hypotyposis in Kant, becomes a metaphor for reason." (154) In the "Conclusions," de Man again refers to Kant's hypotyposis and the way in which it "invites us to become aware of the use of metaphors in our own philosophical discourse." (75) BACK

[7] Another instance, which is suggestive of the direction that my argument takes de Man's notion of materiality, is the reference to Hume in "The Return to Philology" (published in The Resistance to Theory):

In its origin and development, aesthetics has been the province of philosophers of nature and of the self rather than of philosophers of language. Neither has aesthetic theory succeeded in its admirable ambition to unite cognition, desire and morality in one single aesthetic judgment. Professor Bate "in an article on "The Crisis in English Studies" " asserts as a matter of course that it suffices to 'turn to Kant' to lay to rest a linguistically motivated scepticism like that of David Hume. [...] Whether a reading of The Critique of Judgment ... would confirm this assertion certainly stands in need of careful examination (25)

[8] A key moment in this autocritical turn is the 1977 lecture on "The Concept of Irony" (included in Aesthetic Ideology), in which de Man criticizes this analysis of the trope of irony in terms of "a dialectic of the self as reflexive structure," implicitly referring to "The Rhetoric of Temporality" when he states that "[i]t is in this way, to the extent that I have written about the subject, that I have dealt with it myself, so what I have to say today is in the nature of an autocritique, since I want to put in question this possibility." (169-170) The lecture's reading of Fichte to an important degree anticipates both the argument of "The Epistemology of Metaphor" and the line of questioning of the Messenger Lectures when he states that "[i]rony and history seem to be curiously linked to each other" and that "[t]his would be the topic to which this would lead, but this can only be tackled when the complexities of what we call performative rhetoric have been more thoroughly mastered" (184). BACK

[9] An interesting recent commentary on Coleridge in terms of de Man and translation, which has as yet been insufficiently picked up by Anglo-American Coleridge criticism, is Eric Dayre's L'absolu comparé. BACK

[10] Next to the acknowledged translations, the "Editors' Introduction" to the Bollingen edition indicates that a "maximum of a quarter of the total material in the philosophical chapters is used without citing its source" (cxvii). For an extensive commentary on the issue of plagiarism in the Biographia, see the section on "The German Borrowings and the Issue of Plagiarism" (cxiv-cxxvii) of the "Editor's Introduction." BACK

[11] See my "Sartor Resartus and the Rhetoric of Translation." Apart from Carlyle, another key Romantic author-translator to be taken into account in this context is Thomas De Quincey, whose complex engagement with translation has as yet not received the close critical attention it deserves. Notable exceptions are Eric Dayre’s aforementioned study and Brecht de Groote’s recent dissertation on “‘A Frightful Co-Existence’: Thomas De Quincey, Translation, and the Prospect of Modernity.” BACK


Published @ RC

February 2015