Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Opting to Know: On the Wartime Journalism of Paul de Man
S. HEIDI KRUEGER
I
Certainly de Man is the fiercest of the Yale deconstructors, with a rigour not easily explained unless in ethical terms. 1The single quality most associated with the later writings of Paul de Man is arguably epistemological rigor. It is epistemological rigor, applied to language, which leads to, and characterizes, his particular kind of deconstruction; 2 epistemological rigor which governs his translation of ethics and pathos alike into logical and linguistic terms; 3 and epistemological rigor which strikes on the limits of rigor itself— thereby at once confirming the authority of "epistemologically rigorous methods as the only possible means to reflect on the limitations of those methods" (AR, p.115), and demanding that we renounce confidence in the ability of "the analytical rigor of the exegetic procedure" to guarantee the "epistemological authority of the ensuing results" (BI, p.289).These consequences of de Man's election of rigor have angered some and disturbed many—some for the seeming (but only seeming) denial of the essentially human importance of ethics and pathos, some for the recognition of "epistemic failure," which, for writers like Frank Lentricchia, seems (but only seems) to "snuff out" the possibility of future action. 4 Most controversially for the present debates about the relationship between de Man's wartime journalism and his late work, the election of epistemological rigor seems to have authorized a rejection of the options of self-justification and confession, although in different ways at different moments in his career. Thus in a 1966 essay on Rousseau and de Staël, the choice is between self-justification and the renunciation which self-knowledge demands:
To move from self-justification to self-knowledge, the reflection must be able to renounce, not only the hope of overcoming the sorrow, but also the hope of justifying oneself by means of this sorrow.... 5
In Allegories of Reading, however, it is the renunciation of epistemological triumph itself which undercuts confession. For there de Man implies that what we want from confession is not so much relief from guilt as the security of knowing that telling the truth is enough, that we reside in an element where truth triumphs, even over considerations of guilt and innocence:
To confess is to overcome guilt and shame in the name of truth: it is an epistemological use of language in which ethical values of good and evil are superseded by values of truth and falsehood.... (AR, p.279)

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