Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Trappings of an Education
toward what we do not yet have.
CYNTHIA CHASEHow to take the measure of a certain kind of trap.After the emergence of de Man's 1940-42 articles, one necessarily writes about his writings differently than before—insofar as one writes about a subject they do not as such address, about an occurrence they do not see. The reappearance of those abandoned texts is something that happens to de Man's writing from the outside, which thus strikes it with blindness with regard to what is nevertheless its own situation, or rather ours, that of his students, readers. Here for the first time indubitably is an occurrence pertinent to his writing which it cannot see and about which it has nothing to say.But at the same time it says a great deal about just that predicament—the blindness of writing; and also—but why is it only now that one learns to read this?—about the implication of thought and writing in the violence of history, and particularly that European 20th-century violence, Nazism—its essence (as Lacoue-Labarthe argues in La Fiction du politique) a "national aestheticism" in which "the aesthetic ideology" finds realization. What is the economy, or the mechanism of waste, by which the writings that fail to speak of Nazism, fail to speak or inscribe the word "Nazism" (or several others, comparably specific), more than other writing make it possible for Nazism to be read? (not mistaken, that is, for the personal experience of individual guilt; nor for the sheerly aberrant event of absolute evil quite outside any history that could be "ours"). For my claim will be not only that de Man's writings on the violence of "the aesthetic state" analyze the complicities of modes of education and models of history with the fascist totalitarian state. But also that these writings' not knowing, not seeing, their circumstances—which is not a matter of repressing or concealing—is a key dimension of what they give us to read.This means therefore that one has (I have) not the possibility of writing differently about this very situation than in the ways that de Man's own writings suggest—since they both perform, acknowledge, and analyze the blindness and the violence of writing. And this (too) is the trap de Man called "aesthetic education" ; as thus in the closing paragraphs of The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1985, his first posthumous book):
As we know from another narrative text of Kleist, the memorable tropes that have the most success (Beifall) occur as mere random improvisation (Einfall) at the moment when the author has completely relinquished any control over his meaning and has relapsed (Zurückfall) into the extreme formalization, the mechanical predictability of grammatical declensions (Fälle).

But Fälle, of course, also means in German "trap," the trap which is the ultimate textual model of this and of all texts, the trap

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