Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

By Werner Hamacher; Neil Hertz et al. | Go to book overview

"Difficult Reading": De Man's Itineraries

IAN BALFOUR

L'erreur est à tout instant possible.—Jean Paulhan

There is a moment in a late essay by Paul de Man when he confronts the matter of certain racial and national stereotypes in an early work of Kant. The text in question is Kant's Observations on the Sentiment of the Beautiful and the Sublime, one that hardly belongs to Kant's "juvenilia," though de Man can with reason refer to it as "early" and "precritical" in relation to the rest of the Kantian corpus. 1 Recalling some of the absurdities of Kant's early typologies of the aesthetic in terms of nation and gender, de Man notes how a number of disturbing remarks by Kant "make for ... difficult reading." 2 De Man is not expansive on this point, since his main interest in the text lies elsewhere, but his comment seems to convey dismay at the spectacle of an otherwise enlightened and critical thinker resorting to what he calls "distressing commonplaces." In what way are these commonplaces of Kant's patriarchal and Eurocentric text "difficult" to read? Not foremost in the sense of being hard to decipher: it is not with regard to propositions like those in Kant's Observations that de Man sometimes pondered the impossibility and necessity of reading. The distressing commonplaces of an unthought prejudice are often all too easy to comprehend: they are difficult to read because difficult to accept. In the essay on Kant the presence of such "difficulties" in no way obviates the task of reading, the most categorical of de Man's imperatives. De Man here implies something that he made clear in his teaching : that the notation of ideologically suspect moments in a text does not in itself constitute a "reading." In encountering the disturbing pronouncements of Kant's early text on aesthetics it is easy to feel momentarily more enlightened than the pre-eminent spokesman for the Enlightenment. But a reading of Kant's text—or any other—demands something more.

The question of Kant's itinerary has never posed much of a problem for his commentators: Kant himself established the terms with talk of his Copernican revolution, such that scholars do not hesitate to divide the corpus into pre-critical and critical writings. De Man too seems to see a certain progression in Kant from the pre-critical to the critical, a change fortuitously accompanied by the absence in the later work of some of the commonplaces that marred the former. But the break is not an absolute one, neither in content nor in argument. Indeed de Man is concerned to link Kant's early remarks in the Observations on the absence of affect to the later argument of The Critique of Judgment, even if Kant's "judgment" on a number of matters changed substantially in the interim. 3

De Man's itinerary is more enigmatic than Kant's: it is more "difficult" to read in a sense which has to do with the complexities of understanding texts and relations between texts whose significance is not at all self-evident. This was the case even be

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