Christopher D. Morris (bio)
A review of Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller, Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin. With a manuscript by Paul de Man. London and New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
The contributors to this volume, which includes a facsimile and transcription of Paul de Man's notes for a lecture on Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator," reassess de Man's relation to contemporary criticism and to the academy. As a means to that end, they reinterpret the de Man affair, especially with regard to the role Derrida plays in it; they explore de Man's concept of the theotrope, which he briefly entertains and then discards as a heuristic for his essay on Rousseau; they argue for the greater rigor of de Man's ideas in comparison with those of many currently influential theorists—for example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, and Alain Badiou. Finally, each contextualizes de Man's work in light of contemporary discourses such as those on climate change, financial collapse, and resource depletion. (Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook are editors of the Critical Climate Change series at the Open Humanities Press, where literary theory addresses twenty-first century issues.) Each contributor thus re-engages the still-inflammatory topic of de Man's relation to the political. Together, they ask readers to see their essays less as traditional inquiries into a writer's continuing relevance or usable heritage than as explorations of how de Man's challenge to those and other historicisms calls for a reimagining of the humanities. As a result, the goals in this small volume are timely and valuable. Each essay exhibits distinctive rhetorical strategies; if they share any conclusion it would resemble J. Hillis Miller's observation that de Man's writings can indeed be of immense help to criticism today, so long as "help" is never equated with "reassurance" (88).
The posthumous discovery of de Man's anti-Semitic wartime journalism accelerated the turn of American literary criticism, already under way, from Continental philosophy to new historicism and cultural studies. Even the generosity of Derrida's ostensible defense of de Man couldn't mitigate accusations, not limited to the popular press, that deconstruction fosters a political quietism indifferent to fascism. The reassessments of the controversy by Cohen and Colebrook emphasize that the eventual eclipse of deconstruction may have been inherent in de Man's project from the beginning. If so, discovery of the wartime writings only hastened a process de Man had foreseen and initiated. According to Cohen, de Man's earliest disagreement with Derrida over Rousseau sets in motion a larger irreversibility in the movement de Man was publicly credited with co-founding. De Man pre-empts Derrida by claiming that sooner or later reading will always reveal the constitution of language in the arbitrary and the inhuman; as a result, there can be no return to hermeneutics. If such auto-deconstruction constitutes reading, then later criticism, including Derrida's (and, uncomfortably, the contributors'—or this reviewer's), can only weakly recommit the errors it sought to correct through interpretation. Cohen argues that Derrida's turn to ethics and responsibility in his late works can be seen not only as a tactical response to the polemics of the de Man scandal but also as involuntary evidence that his friend—a fraught word in Derrida's lexicon—has it right: all referential claims are errors.
Miller first provides a detailed summary of the different print and audio versions of the lecture that became de Man's Benjamin essay (60-65); these are scheduled to become part of the Critical Theory Archive at the University of California, Irvine. Prompted by the spirit of Derrida's Mal d'archive, however, Miller remains skeptical of the very idea of archives, since they predispose scholarship toward biographical criticism while perpetuating illusions of textual authenticity. (Later, he speculates on the comparable if not equal reliability of "resources" such as Wikipedia.) Miller analyzes de Man's concept of the theotrope (66-69), which is introduced in the first draft of "Allegory of Reading," de Man's essay on Rousseau's Profession de foi. De Man considered using "Theotropic Allegories" as the essay's title. De Man concludes that it is impossible to say whether Profession de foi is a theistic or non-theistic text, and "theotrope" names the donnée or generative concept that eventually discloses this condition of semantic doubt. Miller likens it to Kenneth Burke's phrase "god term," a word whose meaning is silently taken for granted but which legitimates all other words in an ideological system (71). De Man argues that those who reproach literary criticism on ideological grounds are unaware that they themselves invoke theotropes. He also told an interviewer that "Allegory of Reading" represents his first engagement with the political. On the basis of this statement, Miller concludes that for de Man, political discourses—like all of Rousseau's constative statements about faith—aspire to a spurious decidability. If Miller is right, then de Man's anti-Semitic writings, too, must be derived from theotropes. But how could de Man, in an interview or essay, speak without invoking one? How could anyone?
Miller's answer is that de Man practices a species of ironic parody derived, per de Man's own claim, from Karl Marx's critique of Max Stirner in The German Ideology. That is, the agreement of a later writer with the work of a predecessor actually subverts the earlier work (70). Reading requires initial assent to a god term, but paraphrase sooner or later raises new questions that expose the initial agreement as having been either deliberate or inadvertent parody. (For example, Marx refers to Stirner as "Saint Max.") Thus, in his essay on Profession de foi, de Man can insulate himself from Rousseau's undecidability while he admiringly elucidates it, but only temporarily; the illuminative function of exposition becomes ironic when de Man ("perhaps inadvertently," Miller says) recommits Rousseau's error by substituting a new theotrope for his predecessor's. In this case, after consulting the Pléiade edition of Rousseau, Miller confirms that de Man substitutes the word "god" for Rousseau's word "is" (72). That error, if that's what it is, exposes the theotrope in both the original text and its subsequent criticism.
An impatient reader might object here that Miller's exposure of de Man's interpolation is only made possible by the appeal to an archive. But earlier, when discussing different versions of "Allegory of Reading," Miller discovers an error in the transcription of a manuscript (62). The point here is that no text legitimates itself, however authoritative it may be. All referential claims are made and taken on faith—the very topic of Rousseau's essay. There can be no ontological difference between any two signs, whether those of the Pléiade edition or of Wikipedia. And in consulting the Pléiade edition to check on de Man, Miller acts out, deliberately or inadvertently, the questioning of referentiality that de Man predicted would always happen.
Miller's resistance to de Man has long been evident: in a 2001 essay Miller calls de Man an "allergen" against whom readers must somehow inoculate themselves in order to prevent the contagion of irony as a kind of infinite abyss. Since 2001, Miller's work has taken several new turns. First, he increasingly emphasizes the reading skill of Derrida, de Man's rival. For Miller, Derrida's reading is original and productive, especially when it discloses how marginalized texts, like Freud's on telepathy, can illuminate ideological contradictions. For Miller, Derrida's reading is performative in the sense that it helps generate Miller's own new writing; his intensified admiration for Derrida's interventions may provide a temporary stay against de Man's threats. Another area of Derridean influence is an audacious skepticism of textual representations of witnessing. In addition to learning from Derrida, Miller actively engages topics of importance in cultural studies, including new technologies (The Medium Is the Maker) and narratives of race or holocaust literature (The Conflagration of Community). Finally, Miller's writing begins to disclose, in passing, an unusual number of personal details: not only private conversations with de Man and Derrida but also comments on his ancestors, his ethnic heritage, his neighbors in Maine, his wife, his cat. At first glance, these disclosures seem at cross-purposes with his skepticism about witnessing, but as we'll see, they actually reinforce it. In any case, Miller's emergent persona becomes more explicitly that of the generic humanities professor in America (as it might be defined, perhaps, by a psychographic profile of the MLA membership). We learn he is a viewer of PBS alarmed by Fox News, global warming, the war on terror, and the financial meltdown. Both his attention to topical matters and his self-conscious persona-building are conspicuous in the essay in Theory and the Disappearing Future: a jeremiad against our "dark" times frames his analysis of de Man's legacy, and he concludes with an allusion of doubtful provenance brought to his attention by his wife. (This last detail epitomizes the agnosticism with regard to sources, already noted in Miller's suspicion of archives.)
Miller's artificial kenosis has an effect directly opposite that of recourses to confessionalism in cultural studies (documented and championed by Aram Veeser), in Lacanianism (Žižek's allusion to his service in the army of the former Yugoslavia), and in new historicism (Greenblatt's recollection of the circumstances surrounding his first reading of Lucretius). Unlike such personal attestations, the appeals of Miller's persona are a version of de Man's ironic parody: they do not serve as extra-textual guarantors of authenticity but reveal their own fallacy. We must ask not only to what degree this overdetermined professor persona really holds such progressive views about, say, global warming, but whether, in the end, any such political opinion can matter when it accompanies an exposition of de Man, who calmly unravels all ideology. Put another way: de Man teaches that persona-creation is inevitable in language but also makes any return to a naturalized self impossible. Thus, the new details Miller cites about himself only widen the gap between his critical persona and anything real; they disclose their accumulating irrelevance to an understanding of texts—in this case those of Rousseau, de Man, and the real Miller.
Most important, Miller's ironic parody implicitly exposes the fallacy committed by de Man's critics. Why would de Man's ideas about reading be invalidated by his wartime journalism? If such a critical condemnation were legitimate and responsible, wouldn't that mean that de Man's ideas would be truer if they were expressed today by someone like us, by a viewer of PBS appalled by Fox News and the prospect of global warming? How many more additional details about de Man's life or Miller's would readers need in order to decide the value of what either has to say about Rousseau? Miller's essay reflects loyalty to de Man despite its implicit admission he has not been immune to the contagion. He takes de Manian irony to a new level but leaves readers to ponder the droll phrase de Man uses to conclude his essay on Rousseau: "The impossibility of reading should not be taken too lightly" (Allegories245).
Cohen's adaptation of de Man to contemporary problems differs from Miller's. Its ironic parody is less direct than its argument for a wholesale renaming in criticism, which Cohen models with many neologisms: anecographies, abiosemiosis, abiotelemorphosis, and the like. Like Derrida's neologisms, these are barbarous at first glance, but with re-reading they resolve into shorthands for a band of fugitive, provisional, guerilla-concepts set loose on the field of criticism, where they can run at large for a while before their inevitable capture and conviction on charges of theotropism. In previous books the invention of new critical vocabularies has served Cohen well: his exposition of "cryptonymies" and "war machines" in Hitchcock's films introduces innovative terms that can be understood interchangeably as cinematic or philosophical. A similar versatility is apparent in his recent adoption of metaphors from ecology. In her introduction to the volume, Colebrook sees Cohen's interest in climate change as betokening some inhuman, de Manian limit beyond the meteorological; her recognition of his project's ambition seems fair. Even a term like "resource depletion" can be understood as Janus-like in its simultaneous referential and ironic modes: we may be irreversibly running low on both fossil fuels and (in the light of the de Man archive or of "sources" in general) criticism.
Reinventing a humanities consistent with de Man's paradigm-shift is all the more urgent, Cohen writes, because of the way Derrida mischaracterizes his colleague's work. Derrida defensively attempt to quarantine de Man because Derrida fears the latter's piracy of the brand Derrida has invented. (All of the contributors to this volume employ tropes of capitalism in what appear to be exasperated, Adorno-like refusals to exempt themselves from participation in the hegemonic regimes they criticize.) Cohen reviews the way Derrida commemorates de Man by critiquing de Man's reading of Rousseau's Confessions. In "Typewriter Ribbon," Derrida claims that the core of de Man's deconstruction is "materiality without matter." He then builds on this misappropriation to justify his own turn to messianicity without messianism, to a future open to the realization of latent possibilities but also held at arm's length as deferred.
Cohen forcefully argues that de Man would have had none of that. He directs our attention to a 1972 sentence in which de Man refers to "nature" as "a process of a deconstruction redoubled by its own fallacious re-totalization." In a passage of extraordinary exegesis (95-98; 114-16), Cohen shows how this sentence turns back on itself and dramatizes the irreversibility in de Man that Derrida can't tolerate: if criticism reinvents nature anew, all over again each time, there can never be a future different from the repetition of such failures. (For Miller, successive reinventions of nature are the result of theotropes ineluctably generated by language's performativity; for his part, Cohen accepts repetition induced by inhuman language without speculating about its cause.) Cohen's conclusion is that Derrida's call for an orientation toward "messianicity without messianism" or "the democracy to come" is an attempt to re-open a path Derrida knows de Man has already blocked.
(A word of praise for Cohen, Colebrook, and Miller, who may well find themselves at the center of heated, renewed polemics. In Fichus, Derrida writes that what his work shares with the Frankfurt School is "the possibility of the impossible" (Paper Machine 168) which I understand to mean resignation to the prospect that the outcome of deconstruction's austere, continually-misunderstood rationality could well be nothing at all. As Wallace Stevens has it, "identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance" (72). The contributors write in a spirit of similar resignation, which they convert to exigency. Their vigilance in taking into account the most crucial current debates in the humanities earns them the inference that the only alternative they see to a new de Manian criticism, however implausible, would be silence. They seem to know that what they are trying to affirm may be impossible, so the stakes are high. Of Derrida and de Man, Miller once remarked, "These fellows play hardball" (For Derrida, 98). In this volume, he references de Man's "blank" response to certain questions from students and the "white space" at the end of his essay on Rousseau. From this vantage-point, Miller's irony, Cohen's neologisms, and (as we'll see) Colebrook's rhetorical boldness may count as the only recourse to the silence or wholesale suffocation incurred by de Man's contagion. Compared with the impoverishment brought about by de Man's irreversibility, Derrida bequeaths ample, if mirage-like, resources. The intellectual depth and range required to meet de Man's more exacting challenge is daunting; few other critics have set a bar so high for themselves.)
In his effort to keep criticism alive across this dry terrain, Cohen seeks to recast undecidability as a form of climate change. Seeing language as inhuman affords us a new, twenty-first century opportunity to view the planet post-anthropically, and that's a gain. (An aside: achievement of such a cosmic perspective has long been the grail of unification in physics, too, and de Man's work has already been studied in this context by Arkady Plotnitsky.) The problem for contemporary America is that this almost-available insight constantly recedes from the horizon when, as so frequently happens, it is approached through a particular theotrope, the blind reinstatement of organicism—whether of ecological wholeness, of the earth as Gaia, of the homeland, of Levinasian discourses of emancipation, or of any number of Lovelockian, Hawkingian, Lacanian, Žižekian presences, all of which are in their own way just as misleading as Derrida's hypostasized future democracy. This is the trance that Cohen defines as "the American way of life" (100).
In his probably impossible quest for a non-anthropomorphic nature, Cohen finds a potential ally in Timothy Morton's Ecology without Nature (2007). Following Derrida and Adorno, and close-reading the depiction of nature in literature and visual art since Romanticism, Morton exposes a continuing tradition of anthropomorphism in environmental art. He often writes with refreshing self-strictures: no criticism is innocent; we must all "muck it out." (This resonates with the contributors' Adorno-esque acknowledgement of complicity.) But Morton never mentions de Man. On the one hand, Morton's concluding call for "dark ecology" seems compatible with the goals of Cohen and Colebrook's Critical Climate Change project; on the other hand, Morton's project implicitly confirms the position of Jeffrey Nealon, whom Cohen faults for arguing that the future of critical theory requires de Man's deletion (94). This raises the issue implied by all such volumes comprised of multiple readings of the same text, including Theory and the Disappearing Future. Is consensus desirable? Possible? It is odd that despite all the debate over the existence of a scientific consensus over climate change, no one has yet paused to ask what consensus is. Is it a theotrope? Perhaps de Man's secret is that he has made consensus—about his work, about how writing should continue—impossible. Perhaps, as Bill Readings writes, we should all prefer dissensus (166-67).
Claire Colebrook appears to share the outlooks of Miller and Cohen, starting with her account of how the de Man scandal enabled American criticism to contain deconstruction and to reassimilate literature into the larger historical system de Man's works had had the temerity to challenge. Like Shoshana Felman, Colebrook understands the lesson of the wartime writings to be that no speech act can be pure; thus, in claiming the moral high ground, de Man's critics speak in the name of a quasi-fascistic purity similar to the arrogance of which they accuse him. Colebrook finds parallels between the reception of de Man and that of Foucault (137), the supposed legitimator of cultural studies: both de Man and Foucault vigorously oppose the identification of the human with disclosive history, a refusal ignored in Hardt and Negri's Empire. She reads similarly ideological elisions of de Man in the work of Badiou, Žižek, and especially Agamben, whose search for the inaugural moments of sovereignty conceals the quasi-Aristotelian assumption that the human has a proper place, which is in the polity. Agamben's mistake aligns recent theory with the thriving disciplines of evolutionary psychology and cognitive archeology (139). On the contrary, Colebrook asserts, de Man and Foucault question the assumption of continuous life that underlies these historicisms.
Nowhere is that assumption more dangerous, Colebrook argues, than in the hubris that permits cultural critics to speak in the name of an "us." (Cohen makes a similar point by ironically echoing Levinas when using the phrase "entre nous" to address the reader.) Colebrook questions Terry Eagleton's comforting assurance that he knows who "we" are and what "we" mean. She sees the same presumption in the ideologies of right and left: the Tea Party would reconstitute the polity on the basis of a hypothetical condition of purity prior to sovereignty; environmentalists would merge polity into theocracy. In both cases, the "we" is an artifice that silently permits other theotropes ("nature" or "the organic polity") to pass unnoticed. In both cases, criticism has forgotten the lesson de Man drew from Benjamin: the impossibility of translation shows us how "we"—however that pronoun may be configured within any particular language-community—are neither the source nor destination of meaning. Every word, "we" included, is an arbitrary fragment of heterogeneous systems operating independently of any particular language, and indeed, of the human.
Colebrook is particularly astute in exposing these illicit takings in the political realm. The financial crisis precipitated the twin personifications of "Main Street" and "Wall Street," a binary that posits authenticity in contrast to parasitism (141). According to Colebrook, de Man would have pointed out that the supposed aberrancy of the latter is actually made possible by the figure of the organism silently assumed in both terms. With regard to the Supreme Court's ruling in U.S. vs. Citizens United—serendipitous title, from her perspective—Colebrook finds that the opinion's identification of corporation and person is facilitated by what de Man calls the "double rapport" disclosed by translation: if laws must be simultaneously general and specific, it becomes impossible to determine their referents (144). The necessity of translation requires the translator to intervene unilaterally to resolve an undecidable: for the left, America has been stolen by illegitimate corporate interests; for the right, America has been stolen by an illegitimate government. Neither side understands that the necessity to articulate mandates the assumption of a ground that itself distinguishes legitimacy from illegitimacy; only in retrospect can such a putative ground be seen as a theotrope. It is here where Colebrook asserts de Man's cautionary value in today's polemos: before leaping to assign blame and responsibility, both sides need to reflect on the "we" in whose names they presume to speak and to purge their ideologies of the numerous nostalgias they summon up. Maybe "we" never were. (More reason to think consensus, alas, may also be a theotrope.) Only when that preliminary dissociation is accomplished—a kind of de Manian epoché—can political debate begin without the errors of seeing the human as a self-owner or as a proper body surrounded by an environment. Begun this way, debate can finally envision—Colebrook concludes with breathtaking boldness—the destruction of humanity as a positive or affirmative event (152).
By calling for such an impartial envisioning of the unthinkable, Colebrook defies grave, foreseeable risks: the same critics who leapt to label deconstruction fascist may now leap to repeat charges of nihilism. (It is odd that this polemical stick is so often wielded without any knowledge of the term's provenance as the deathly opposition that Nietzsche fought against, a heritage both de Man and Derrida respected.) In this predictable eventuality the responsibility will lie with those who could not discern the lucid austerity of Colebrook's desire to at last free readers from the complacency of contemporary criticism and to replace it with the kind of restless, permanently unsettling experience de Man thought the most rigorous writing could induce. This may be what Miller has in mind when he says de Man can provide us help without reassurance.
Do the contributors succeed in escaping from de Man's dilemma? No, but their failures may be more helpful, as cautionary examples, than are many apparent successes of more confidently grounded theory in the humanities. Readers who turn to criticism not for reassurance but for inquiry informed by self-restraint, skepticism, and rigor will find the latter in short supply today—a situation that may warrant consideration of essays like these and the notes de Man wrote for his lecture on Benjamin.
Christopher D. Morris
Christopher Morris is Charles A. Dana Professor of English, Emeritus, at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. His books are Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E.L. Doctorow; The Hanging Figure: On Suspense and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock; and The Figure of the Road: Deconstructive Studies in Humanities Disciplines. He is at work on a book on Mark Twain and continental criticism; his recent work on Mark Twain has appeared and is forthcoming in Journal of Narrative Technique, Papers on Language and Literature, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, and University of Toronto Quarterly.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California, P, 1969. Print.
Cohen, Tom. Hitchcock's Cryptonomies. 2 vols. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.
———. "Toxic Assets: de Man's Remains and the Ecocatastrophic Imaginary (and American Fable)." Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller. Theory and the Disappearing Future. London: Routledge, 2001. 89-129. Print.
Colebrook, Claire. "The Calculus of Individual Worth." Theory and the Disappearing Future. 130-52. Print.
———. "Introduction." Theory and the Disappearing Future. 3-24. Print.
De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982. Print.
———. "Transcript. Notes on 'The Task of the Translator.'" Theory and the Disappearing Future. 25-54. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. "Fichus: Frankfurt Address," Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.
———. Mal d'Archive. Paris: Galilée, 1995. Print.
———. "Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2)." Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. Ed. Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 277-360. Print.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998. Print.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.
———. For Derrida. New York: Fordham UP, 2009. Print.
———. The Medium is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida and the New Telepathic Ecotechnologies. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2009. Print.
———. "Paul de Man as Allergen." Material Events. 183-204. Print.
———. "Paul de Man at Work: In these Bad Days, What Good is an Archive?" Theory and the Disappearing Future. 55-88. Print.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
Plotnitsky, Arkady. "Algebra and Allegory: Nonclassical Epistemology, Quantum Theory, and the Work of Paul de Man." Material Events. 49-92. Print.
Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1965. Print
Veeser, H. Aram. Confessions of the Critics: North American Critics' Autobiographical Moves. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.