Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Blindness and Hindsight

CATHERINE GALLAGHER

There are presumably many people in this profession who didn't know Paul de Man and who care very little about either the details of his biography or the vicissitudes of his posthumous reputation. The fact that de Man wrote articles for a collaborationist journal has been generally known since last September, but that news did not seem momentous to many of us on first hearing it. Slowly, however, a set of contested and countervailing narratives about de Man, literary theory, and the state of the humanities has come to command the interest of even the most indifferent among us; each of these stories has claimed that something very important can be learned from the recent disclosures. I'm going to discuss three such narratives in order to ascertain just what we have learned from these months of discussion about the subject of Paul de Man.

First I'll consider the story told in the mass press, of which the February 15 Newsweek article is an excellent example. Newsweek turned the discovery of de Man's early writings into a sign of the failure of the humanities in general and literary studies in particular. The discovery fit very nicely into a story about literature departments that the medium has been telling for years and that goes like this. Some time in the I960s, literature departments forgot that their job is to preserve, appreciate, explicate, and provide for the orderly communication of "our cultural heritage." Deconstruction seemed in this story to resemble Marxism, feminism, ethnic studies or anything else that challenged Arnoldian assumptions of value, but deconstruction was also different and especially pernicious because it seemed to make all discussions of value obsolete. "Undecidability" was read as meaninglessness, and meaninglessness translated quickly into nihilism. The end of the story either was upon us or was soon to be: social chaos, cultural disunity, widespread illiteracy, and a general inability to distinguish right from wrong.

The discovery that de Man had written for a collaborationist journal fit beautifully into this story because it provided a perfect symmetry between the beginning and the end. Deconstruction was no longer just the harbinger of outrages against humanity ; it actually originated in such outrages. The outcome could no longer be in doubt because it was contained in the origin. All that remained for the Newsweek reporter to do was remind us that similar thefts and perversions of our cultural heritage, practiced by "the new militant cultural materialism of the left" yet go unexposed: "There's more than a trace of deconstruction in 'the new historicism'—" the article concludes, "which is one reason traditional humanists hope that it, too, will self-deconstruct in the wake of the de Man disgrace."

Why can the presumed discovery of the Nazi origins of deconstruction so effortlessly segue into an attack on the left? Be

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