Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Looking Past the De Man Case

GERALD GRAFF

In the controversy touched off since the existence of Paul de Man's collaborationist writings came to light, much of the attention has been directed at the effect of the discoveries on our view of de Man's mature work. This is not surprising. The politics of de Manian deconstruction—and of deconstruction generally—was already a topic of intense polemics in the literary‐ theory world before the facts about de Man's early journalism became widely known. Given the political tendency of this early journalism, it obviously has to color subsequent assessments of the later de Man.

Yet it seems important to ask how much illumination such a retrospective reading of the later de Man can give. Doesn't the theoretical value of de Man's mature work have to be judged on its own terms, irrespective of the circumstances and motives that may have led up to it? The question seems no less pertinent even if the effect of de Man's later work is to make treating a text or body of work on "its own terms," with the assumption of textual identity this implies, seem less simple than we thought.

It is true that our knowledge of the early de Man cannot help affecting subsequent interpretations of the later de Man. But to say this is not to settle matters, because we now have sharply conflicting stories of the connection between the two. The most hostile story constructs a later de Man who was impelled to call the concept of history into question because he had to escape or rationalize his collaborationist past. The most generous story constructs a later de Man who repudiated the earlier de Man's glorification of organic national cultures.

These accounts are not as different as they at first seem. It is noteworthy that the features of de Man's work that his supporters adduce to establish de Man's credentials as a subversive demystifier of ideology are often the same ones his enemies adduce in order to characterize de Man as an apolitical aesthetic escapist. For one group it is de Man's questioning of totalizing modes of thought that makes his work politically oppositional, whereas for the other it is this questioning of totalizations that makes it politically irresponsible and impotent. The difficulty is compounded by the ill-defined nature of a concept like "totalization," not to mention the elusiveness of de Man's claims in general, which are couched in a style of argumentation that resists measurement on a calculus of complicity vs. subversiveness.

But whatever account is chosen of how de Man's later work is tied to his earlier politics, the question still remains what relevant bearing it will have on judging the theoretical validity of that later work. If the so-called "genetic fallacy" is still a fallacy (as I think it is), then the truth-value of a theory of language or literature (or the truth-value of any generalized body of ideas)

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