Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Impositions: A Violent Dawn at Le Soir
PEGGY KAMUFVirtually from the first encounter with Paul de Man's work, but with increasing certainty as his thinking developed after Blindness and Insight, I was convinced of its indispensable pertinence for any analysis of the totalitarian impulse insofar as it transmits itself in texts. To take only the most obvious example, the chapter on the Social Contract in Allegories of Reading: what other engagement with Rousseau's epoch-making text goes so far in effectively exposing the devices of a totalizing appeal to national entities, to property, and to versions of collective will? For de Man, "it is impossible to read the Social Contract without experiencing the exhilarating feeling inspired by a firm promise." Likewise, it ought to be impossible to read this essay, titled "Promises," without registering its import for the historico-political analysis of textuality in general. I quote the memorable last lines of the essay:
We are not merely pointing out an inconsistency, a weakness in the text of the Social Contract that could have been avoided by simply omitting sentimental or demagogical passages.... The redoubtable efficacy of the text is due to the rhetorical model of which it is a version. This model is a fact of language over which Rousseau himself has no control. Just as any other reader, he is bound to misread his text as a promise of political change. The error is not within the reader; language itself dissociates the cognition from the act. Die Sprache verspricht (sich): to the extent that it is necessarily misleading, language just as necessarily conveys the promise of its own truth. This is also why textual allegories on this level of rhetorical complexity generate history.

It ought to be impossible, I said, to read lines such as these otherwise than in the sense of summing up an effective analysis of historical acts, acts which are dissociated from cognition by language. The status of act in language is one of the most constant preoccupations not only of this essay but of de Man's thinking in general as reflected in all his later work. That preoccupation has always seemed to me clearly and intensely political. And yet, a chorus of de Man's detractors has attempted to persuade that this appearance is precisely contrary to the truth of his profound disinterest in or even disdain for political, historical reality. Leaving aside what may be distasteful motives for such acts of interpretation, which one senses in the fervor of an attack that has even included personal characterizations, I think it is possible to retrace some of the steps that produce the accusation of "apoliticism"—or worse—without having to look any further than these final lines of "Promises."

For what does de Man say there of the Social Contract? I) That it is a textual allegory of the sort that generates history. The Social Contract is a political text, not in the trivial sense that

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