Refugees of a Crisis in Reference: Holocaust Memoir and the Deconstruction of Paul De Man

By Lawrence, Patrick | Intertexts, Spring-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Refugees of a Crisis in Reference: Holocaust Memoir and the Deconstruction of Paul De Man


Lawrence, Patrick, Intertexts


Since discovery of Paul de Man's wartime journalism, the debate over perceived ethical deficiencies in the philosophies of postmodernism in general, and deconstruction in particular, has intensified. At times more or less vitriolic or persuasive, this debate has brought about a crisis of scholarship to accompany the crisis of reference that is one of its central points. (1) At the horizon of the discussion is the Holocaust and its potential to reform modes of representation. As Jeremy Varon notes in his essay "Probing the Limits of the Politics of Representation":

  the premises and insights of a variety of discourses, notably
  postructuralism [sic], deconstruction, psychoanalysis in its newer
  versions, metahistory, and postmodern theory in general, have at once
  been applied to and checked against the Holocaust. Such discourses
  often approach the Holocaust as a kind of limit case that tests the
  strengths and weaknesses of their various interpretive strategies.
  (Varon 84)

It seems natural because of its (perhaps incomprehensible) magnitude and significance that the Holocaust should occasion self-testing and soul searching on the part of a variety of discourses, notably those that already inclined to such activities. (2) Because of its status as at once radically historical and radically ahistorical (in that its import for history cannot be denied, but that the scope of its horror may transform notions of historicity), the Holocaust calls for a reassessment of all aesthetic, poetic, and theoretical paradigms. In the context of such novel and difficult historicity, the problematization of reference that de Manian deconstruction occasions takes on new and complex implications that need particular attention. This is especially important because, like American deconstruction, artistic representations of the Holocaust also assert a new, problematic relationship with their referent.

My intention is not to delve into this debate exhaustively. Rather, I attempt an understanding of the problems of some specific critical-theoretical tenets proposed by Paul de Man as they interact with Holocaust memoirs. Doing so may be a way to understand the larger issue by exploring its expression in a narrow vein: that of literature. Holocaust memoirs as a group have been read as making new claims about their relation to a particular referent--about the inability of fully representing the Holocaust in existing modes--but they also make simultaneous claims about the utter necessity of attempting to do so. It will be helpful to see how this revolution of the relationship of writing to its referent is perhaps at odds with that other similar revolution, that of de-construction. I also attempt to put this potential conflict into a frame that may elucidate the reasons for their disconnect, using Lyotard's well-known attempt at establishing an order of postmodern ethics: The Differend, as well as approaches to trauma and memory suggested by Derrida.

My aim here is also not to delve into judgments of guilt or innocence with respect to de Man himself and his activities during World War II. I instead venture into the ways, both positive and negative, but inherently problematic, that his writings come into contact with an event recognized by many as a limit event, one that demands recognition of its historicity, even as it engenders a body of literature that expresses the difficulty of understanding the event itself.

There is much in de Man's writings that forces us to consider the restraints and potential of the means of construction of written texts. Exploring this can lead toward a better understanding of the way that individual texts create and manipulate meaning. To this end, much can be gained from de Manian criticism that makes apparent the contradictory tendency of linguistic constructions to indicate something outside themselves (their referential potential), even while their structures and conventions cast in doubt the reality of this "something. …

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