Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Synchronic Theory and Absolutism: Et tu, Brute? De Man's Wartime Writings

STEPHEN BRETZIUS

Antony and Cleopatra offers a useful reference for an important debate currently surrounding the work of Paul de Man. In recent years, a number of critics of de Man have referred to a tacit but deep conservatism in his "Hamlet-like detachment from the world of practical affairs." 1 For such readers, de Man's radical reduction of history and psychology to "truth's inability to coincide with itself" (AR, p.78), to an aporia inherent in representation, neutralizes from the beginning any possibility for motivated political action. Marx, of course, had made similar claims in The German Ideology regarding the Young Hegelians, and, much more recently, critics like John Fekete had written related and important critiques of American New Criticism, substituting "agrarianism" for the "idealism" attacked by Marx, and for what would later become the "quietism" associated with de Man. 2 The principal source for this reading of de Man, however, is Adorno, whose work is regularly concerned with detailing the deep investment of ahistoric theory in the totalizing powers it claims to obviate or undo. In the terms of this debate, the de Man of trope and Nietzschean forgetting is the de Man of imperative and Nietzschean power; in the terms of the play, Egypt is Rome—or rather, the more Egypt, the more Rome.

This is a reasonable thesis, and one Shakespeare seems to share. The play works like a grand deconstruction of the two worlds, and if Caesar rules Rome like a logos, Cleopatra governs Egypt according to all the deconstructive paradoxes— "makes hungry where most she satisfies," "and what they undid did," "bless her when she is riggish," and so on. Without suggesting that différance represents the punning Cleopatra for which an entire school of American literary theory has given the world, it is worth emphasizing that all the Shakespearean paradoxes that "make defect perfection" in Cleopatra represent for the play a similar deconstructive non-center, but one which has itself been deeply politicized. "It goes without saying that it cannot be exposed," Derrida remarks of différance, but gone is the extraordinary class metaphor of Enobarbus' "For her person,/It beggar'd all description" (2.2.197-98). 3 Such juxtapositions might suggest that the terms of contemporary literary theory closely parallel those of Shakespearean drama, but what the comparison really suggests is that the plays themselves are already scenes of interpretation, and that the subject, as we will determine, is their own relation to power. In this they most resemble the literary theory to which they will be referred here, increasingly powerful figurations of a progressive internalization of figure's own relation to power—what we will call, after Adorno, the figure-power dialectic.

To better see this dialectic as it functions in criticism, we

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