Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Documents: Public Criticisms

THOMAS KEENAN

Ce vice impuni, la lecture ...
(Paul de Man, Le Soir, 22-7-41)

The advance reviews of this volume were not altogether favorable.

The publication of de Man's pro-Nazi articles [...] will be accompanied by comments from critics; fifty have been invited to contribute, including both those who have previously supported his work and those who have criticized it. Some have refused to contribute; one critic who was very close to de Man but asked not to be identified, commented, "I am shocked that there is a symposium. Paul must have known the Jews of Belgium were being carted away. We are discussing the butchery of the Belgian Jewish community, down to the babies. To treat this as one more item about which to have a symposium is outrageous. The people who are organizing this have lost all moral perspective; they are so much under the sway of the man they cannot bear to consider what they are doing." (Jon Wiener, The Nation, 9-I-88)

What is, exactly, this outrage about responses? About public, signed responses?

Paul de Man's writing in Le Soir and elsewhere during the German occupation of Belgium was a public act, signed with his name and exposed to the public scrutiny of reading, then and now. Some of it was outrageous, some of it truly terrible. The unidentified critic warns against the traps of this public sphere, wisely: de Man's wartime journalism cannot be engaged merely as one more item for discussion, as one more commodity for academic or journalistic consumption. To do so would be to risk reproducing precisely its reduction of public space and time to the present of a market in which selected possibilities have been fixed as necessities, where it remains only to choose from the available "solutions" to a "problem." But neither can we treat it as a pretext for an individual agony of conscience or a private friendship which asks not to be identified, in the name of a "moral perspective." We cannot hide from this anxiety of influence or of political contamination. Public acts demand public responses, something the well-known anonymous critic knew well, of course: the refusal to contribute to one forum is offset by the very public appearance in another, another of a highly spectacular and stereotyped kind, where even anonymity is a signature. The question is a strategic one; publication happens, even and perhaps especially to shocked refusal, and the responsibility of the one who discusses is to negotiate with that public sphere as it is presently constituted while exposing it to what it seeks to exclude, to what the shock-seeking and problem-solving newsymposium cannot dissolve. And hence to open it. onto another public, a future public. Although public discussion guarantees nothing, the attempt to restrict it in the name of morality or pseudo-psychology, and to censure

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