Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

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Anecdotes aren’t very de Manian, but I will begin with one anyway. (De Man focused on texts as objects torn from anything like ‘life’, praxis, humanity, ecology or unity. Texts, like ‘life’ and unlike anecdotes, tend to destroy relations and connectedness, tend to annihilate what have come to be known as ‘aha’ moments. That said, de Man’s textual objects were never sacred and selfenclosed works but possessed a destructive power that could – if read – allow for a radical disturbance of the present). My anecdote is this: I began writing on de Man while living in Manhattan. I was surrounded by educated, well-read, thoughtful, highly literate but not necessarily academic types. When I mentioned that I was writing on de Man they all either knew about de Man almost solely via the ‘de Man affair’ or had de Man introduced to them there and then (by me) through an account of the de Man affair. It seemed that if I were to explain who de Man was then the first significant detail would be his notoriety. I would like that not to be case. I would like a world in which other aspects of de Man’s existence were more significant, but that world does not exist, both because of the scandal that came to mark de Man’s work but more because of de Man’s unreadability, which made any canonization of his work outside scandal and journalism almost impossible. To use the term unreadable here is not to signal a particular difficulty or obscurantism of de Man’s work. On the contrary, de Man often said the most important things quite directly, including his statement – explored by Miller in this volume – that one should not take the impossibility of reading too lightly. That is a clear enough statement, and yet de Man was often read as though he took the impossibility of reading very lightly indeed – so much so that he supposedly said anything at all about the texts he was reading. De Man also, in his talk on Benjamin (transcribed in this volume), was very clear that one could neither return all texts to some original intention, nor read a text without some orientation to what the text really says. Yet despite the clarity of some of his most important claims he was both deemed to be unreadable (in the sense of being willfully misleading) or, worse, he was simply not read. What he was saying about reading would have required the sort of thinking and intellectual labour that many seemed simply unwilling to undertake. As a result de Man emerged from the 1980s as a ‘black box’: Many critics held very strong opinions of the effect of de Man’s work, and where one ought to go in order to overcome the damage he had caused, even if what de Man actually wrote was not examined with the sort of rigor de Man expended on the texts he analysed, nor with the sort of scholarly standards that many accused de Man of destroying. The aim of this volume is to create what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1994, 76) referred to as a conceptual persona, which is quite different from, though not unrelated to, biography. (A biography includes all possible concrete facts that one might list about an individual, but a conceptual persona is that same biography as narrated in the understanding of a concept: How could we understand ‘the unconscious’ without a certain story about Freud?). At present de Man is a figure in a conceptual landscape. If we want to know what deconstruction as a concept is then we also encounter the persona of Jacques Derrida (and to a lesser extent, de Man). Derrida has a biography, including his birth-date, his Algerian origin, and so on. But his persona is crucial for the concept: Just as we think of Descartes as the philosopher who came and doubted, and need to do so if we want to understand the concept of the cogito, so we need to have some notion of Derrida the French philosopher who harangued literature departments in order to understand ‘deconstruction.’ Part of the concept of ‘deconstruction’ today includes the figure or persona of de Man on the horizon: Deconstruction can now be deemed to be ethically responsible and properly philosophical because of a certain story. Deconstruction once threatened to be playful, literary and irresponsible but avoided this fate by creating a relation between an ethical Derrida and scandalous de Man (O’Rourke 1997). If a thinker creates concepts then he or she does so also by co-creating a dramatic figure; in de Man’s case this persona – as so many of the denunciations and apologies suggest – is tied to a melee regarding responsibility. De Man’s created concepts – of irony, allegory, materiality, history and modernity – were all written in such a way as to shift the terrain or plane upon which discussion took place. Concepts not only require assumed personae, they also occur in complex connections and establish a plane of problems: We cannot think about irony without thinking about texts, reading, meaning and (after de Man) temporality. De Man used these concepts in ways that rendered the traditional terrain of literary criticism – or the interpretation of texts for the sake of meaning – null and void. Irony would not signal an original intent that has been concealed or deferred, but a capacity of a text to be detached from any grounding sense. De Man used concepts that were once tied to projects of meaning and interpretation (concepts such as ‘history’) to signal a certain machine-like or inert and dead quality of textual objects. In doing so he created a new ‘plane’ of responsibility where a text could be interrogated not in order to disclose its original animating intent, but to examine its force or the ways in which it operated outside anything like our usual understanding of human communication. So there would be two ways (at least) of approaching de Man: One would be to restore his quite alienating and inhuman work back into what we.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTheory and the Disappearing Future
Subtitle of host publicationOn de Man, on Benjamin
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781136657375
ISBN (Print)9780415604529
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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