Deconstructing De Man in the Digital Age

By Jonathan FreedmanApril 22, 2014

Deconstructing De Man in the Digital Age

The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish

I DIDN'T KNOW Paul de Man — and it turns out, no one else really did either. I was a graduate student in English at Yale at the time of his greatest authority, the late 1970s and early 1980s. All the cool kids went to de Man’s seminars in Comp Lit, adopted his attitude of gnomic superiority, even mimicked his smile — halfway between a Cheshire cat’s and a rictus of suppressed gastrointestinal pain. I stayed away. At first, I was too busy trying to figure out how to pass my Latin exam; later I got interested in history and theory of a different sort. It wasn’t until his illness that I noticed him as anything more than yet another sartorially challenged prof who tromped around in a hideous gray raincoat. One summer, he returned from somewhere — a vacation? a stint at the School of Criticism and Theory? — a bright and unnatural orange. The grad student grapevine, always the first and last to know, claimed that some rare form of cancer had turned him that color. Soon, it added, he was the subject of an experimental treatment whose results, when published, identified him as “Patient X.” Whether true or not — as de Man himself might have said, it doesn’t matter — the story of de Man’s transformation into the sign of absence itself had a certain appropriateness, and lent it an aspect of what that fine representative of postmodern sensibility, Stephen Colbert, would call “truthiness.” 

After attending his somewhat bizarre memorial service — how do you memorialize someone for whom impersonality is a watchword and the death of meaning an inevitability? — de Man faded from my consciousness. At least, he was in the process of fading when a Belgian graduate student named Ortwin de Graef showed up in New Haven to discuss his discovery that the distinguished, loved, and feared Yale Professor had, in his youth, contributed to Le Soir, a collaborationist wartime Belgian periodical, penning among other things a baldly anti-Semitic piece under his own name. As it happened, I was working on a new journal, The Yale Journal of Criticism, when de Graef hit New Haven, and there was some talk of publishing some of these documents, talk which blissfully went nowhere, since we founded the journal in part to disarticulate the phoneme “Yale” from the word “deconstruction.” At the time, I was struck by the remarkable intensity with which my deconstructionist-minded friends and colleagues, hitherto contemptuous of the historicism of people like me, pored through the minutiae of historical evidence. People who famously viewed all history as a text suddenly discovered a fascination with the details of [ordinary] life in occupied Belgium, the material circumstances of wartime publication, and, perhaps more importantly, with placing de Man the historical subject amidst the situation of his time. Intellectually, I was sympathetic; humanly, too. But the human part of me also experienced a quiet schadenfreude watching people devoted to deconstructing history discovering their own inability to escape it.

Journalists rushed in where deconstructors feared to tread, setting off a brouhaha that did not bring out the best in either community. My friends, having discovered the joys of selective historicism, took to muttering about a sensationalizing press. The press, for its part, took to conflating de Man’s slippery way with his own past with deconstruction’s claims to the slippery nature of language itself — the criticism soon extending from de Man, to the deconstructive theory he advocated as an inspiring teacher and as author of brilliant essays and books like Blindness and Insight and Allegories of Reading, to theory writ large. In the culture wars of the 1980s, critiques of de Man were added to attacks on the more boundary-breaking pronouncements of critics like Eve Sedgwick (remember Jane Austen and the masturbating girl?) to produce an image of intellectuals run amuck — Nazis to the Right of us, feminists to the Left of us, and whatever the popular press decided we should be doing (Shakespeare?) part of a vanishing center. As time passed, passions faded; de Man’s memory, too. The best of his students took their engagement with his work into new places — into trauma studies, for a time, or into thinking about violence, or feminism — and the rest of our profession, historicists like me, became preoccupied with different objects of study — race, class, and gender studies, for example, or, more recently, in adopting methods of data analytics to literary study.

It’s odd, then, that Evelyn Barish’s new biography of de Man should be receiving so much attention at the current moment. Many, many years in the making, and many more years in finding a publisher,  The Double Life of Paul de Man emerged to a chorus of responses in the opinion-making, high-middlebrow press — The New York Times, The New Yorker — that hearkens back to culture wars now 30-years in the rearview mirror. True, the titillation factor here is high: there are new and gory details, for example, about the extent of de Man’s collaborationist activities during the war and his embezzlements of funds from a publishing house he founded after the war. Not all of this was unknown in the 1980s; in his excellent 1988 Times article, James Atlas recorded that at the same conference where de Graef outed de Man’s wartime antics, Belgian critic and former friend George Goriely announced that de Man left Belgium in 1947 under a number of clouds and that “swindling, forging, lying were, at least at the time, second nature to him.” But in this new light, de Man’s behavior does seem quite amazingly brazen in all its larcenous glory. And in consistency: Barish shows us a de Man capable of stiffing his best friend on shared rent in his established 50s as well as a scruffy de Man defrauding investors in his knockabout 20s. Too, the book offers details about de Man’s checkered early academic career — he seems to have made a habit of impressing prominent people, who helped get him appointments to distinguished posts (the Harvard Society of Fellows; Bard College) where alleged double dealing (teaching a Berlitz course, in violation of his contract with the Society of Fellows), or continued financial chicanery, or marrying a student while still married to his first wife (not clear which is the greatest violation to Barish, who knows only one note, sustained outrage) got him fired. He may or may not have done the translations for which he took credit. He persistently falsified his credentials. He lied about his past to friends, lovers, colleagues.

Barish’s bill of indictments is long, detailed, sometimes overwrought, sometimes startling. But it also seems oddly beside the point.  Her demystification has a tenuous relation to de Man’s actual critical work, which Barish claims not to really understand — which is an excuse our students might give but which few of us (from them, at least) would accept. The book, in any event, ends in 1960, before de Man’s most important work, so the extension to his actual achievement needs to be made inferentially, if at all.

This has, it should be said, not stopped reviewers and commentators from making it: such a linkage was the focus of the Times coverage, for example, and of an evisceration of de Man by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of a defense of deconstruction by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, and so on. And at first, the case seems clear: deconstruction à la de Man posits that there is no such thing as truth, that the figurative nature of language creates systematic patterns of misrecognition that engender the delusion that there is such a thing, that an enabling condition of our insights is our blindness to the conditions that frame them, and vice versa. What theory could be an easier alibi for a liar, a cheat, a bigamist — much less a moonlighting Berlitz instructor!

Perhaps this is the case with de Man, perhaps not, but the focus on de Man has limited the case to deconstruction tout court. No one has accused Nietzsche of being a con man or a bigamist, for example; yet, all of de Man might be thought of as an explication of Nietzsche’s claim (so oft-repeated in New Haven as to seem a part of the atmosphere, like the smog that gathered between East and West Rock in the summer) that truth is

a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

The last sentence of Nietzsche’s aphorism serves as one of the many texts on which Derrida builds his essay White Mythologies, reminding us that de Man was not the only artificer of deconstructive theory — nor necessarily the best. What he possessed, which the rest of his peers did not, was a seeming rigor, which might here be rephrased to mean that he had an ability to see the stakes of the critical tradition that eventuated in deconstruction, and to put those stakes in the clearest and pithily polemical form. If while seeming to be austere and impersonal in his intellectual concerns, he turned out to be — the Nietzsche reference is inevitable — human all too human, this might either be a refutation or a confirmation of his theorizing. Either way, it’s more interesting than the inference which has gathered around the biography’s claim that there’s a direct line from his bespeckled human life, to his theory, to theory itself.

There’s a second way in which Barish’s argument seems odd. Even if one could draw such a line from de Man as scoundrel to deconstructive theory as institutionalized practice, who cares? The profession of literary study has been through so many phases of emphasis since the salad days of high theory that it seems a fairly academic exercise to return to them at this point. All of our undergraduates, most of our graduate students, and some of our colleagues weren’t even born at the moment of de Man’s death; these controversies must sound to them like listening to old Mensheviks denouncing Bolsheviks in a rundown Paris restaurant between the wars. And while juicy academic gossip is always welcome, there’s a lot out there far juicier than this; just ask the University of Colorado’s  Philosophy Department.

Nevertheless, the wide attention the book is getting suggests that the de Man affair continues to resonate for some reason, and not merely because aging academics remember it so vividly. I would suggest that the return to de Mania is significant because it marks the end of something important that transcended de Man, indeed that transcended theory: something I would grandiosely call the end of critical reading. One of the things that is missed in the stories that we tell about de Man, both positive and negative, is the way that he served, along many of his émigré peers and his friends and companions a generation younger than they, as the conduit for a whole wave of European thought into the United States at the moment when the American academy had not yet discovered it. By this I don’t mean deconstruction, which he was indeed pivotal but not entirely unique in introducing into the American academy in the 1970s; I mean earlier and more than that the high European tradition of comparative philology one associates with Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, with the French tradition of explication de texte, and with the philosophy of Nietzsche and Heidegger, all of which Americans were thoroughly ignorant of until the war brought a wave of European intellectuals, largely Jewish in origin and mandarin in tastes, to these shores.

De Man was a mediocre student (largely because he took engineering and chemistry courses), but he was steeped in different traditions than his US peers: existentialism, modernism, the avant-garde both before and after the second World War — indeed in America, he served as an important conduit to European thought, writing on Walter Benjamin before it was de rigueur, engaging in dialogue with Derrida when Derrida was largely unknown, turning in his later works to an encounter with Adorno. And there remain important continuities between de Man and his European elders. It’s important to remember, for example, that one of de Man’s major late essays is called The Return to Philology, by which he meant a return to a rigorous attention to the linguistic specifics of a text in and of itself without recourse to any humanistic pap or moral, ethical, or hermeneutical hijinks. Whether this is an adequate “return,” I leave to the philologists to debate; what seems important is that late in his life, de Man affiliated himself with a tradition of European thought that began, as Jeffrey Harpham has reminded us, in the 18th century’s demystification of Biblical texts and thence to Nietzsche’s madcap philologism before it rolled across the seas in the 20th century. More generally, explication de texte as a method was rooted, in its Comparative Literature aspects, in philology, and competed with — even as it ultimately merged into — the superior pedagogically (because more accessible) but inferior intellectually (because un-self-critical) Anglo-American “New Criticism,” with its emphasis on close reading as a method. Deconstruction in its de Manian guise needs to be understood under the sign of this genealogy, as an attempt to bring the demystifying essence of the philological perspective and close attention to literary detail inherent in the explication tradition together as a critical method. This is why de Man spent so much time emphasizing what he meant by “reading,” which involved a close attention to the swerves from what he called, in his Belgian-accented English, “trut” that not only literature, but language as such, enacted in its very problematic essence.

Deconstruction as a coherent, self-contained system has, as I have said, had its day. But the practices of critical reading in which it was embedded lived on, zombie-like, after the deaths of de Man and Derrida. They moved into such venues as ideology-critique (which is where de Man, nimble as ever, claimed in his late years it was heading), cultural materialism, even critical race and gender theory, in all of which the essential deconstructive emphasis on the critical, demystifying reading of texts (understanding that the social itself could be, as the journal by that name suggested, a text) remained in place.

Or so it seemed until recently, as the academic study of literature started to morph in new and complicating ways, turning to more empirical, less interpretive agendas. The hot panels at the Modern Language Association for the last few years have focused on the so-called digital humanities. A recent issue of the once reliably New Historicist journal Representations entitled “The Way We Read Now” sets the polemical tone: enough with what its editors call symptomatic reading. Franco Morretti similarly announced, in a recent book, the advent of “distant,” as opposed to close reading. The future is with the archival study of the book as material object, with the application of “Big Data” (a phrase now comprising, to the chagrin of software engineers, data-mining, databases, computer-generated searches, etc.) to the study of genres, the study of literature as a system, the recovery of key words, and related projects. Six months before it turned to de Man’s biography, The New York Times was heralding this approach in an article breathlessly announcing the arrival of big data methods in literary study and cultural analysis, leading to such projects as asserting the stylistic influence of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen in the 19th century or tracing the syntactic structures that make movie tag-lines memorable. The participants in Moretti’s high-tech Stanford Literary Lab are engaged in such enterprises as rethinking genre at the moment of the rise of the novel, wondering what subset of contemporary fiction would represent the moment as a whole, or using markers within exclamations in 19th-century fiction to assess the quality of loudness represented therein.

The emergence of this new critical movement has whisked me back, I must confess, to the affective state I wallowed in during the days of high deconstructive theory. While aspiring not to become one of those curmudgeons I frequently encountered in my salad days, I nevertheless have felt alienated by work I’ve encountered on, say, database as critical form. Here, again, I felt, all the groovy kids were rushing into the study of this complicated thing called literature, ignoring this equally complicated thing called history, and positing highly abstract responses that in the end didn’t do justice to the texture of either. In such a moment, the questions posed in and around the de Man scandal — the questions of textuality and history par excellence — seem irrelevant. They take us back to a much different critical moment, one that focused on interpreting texts and lives in tandem with each other. The double life of de Man, the double life of textuality — these linked concerns seem so last century in comparison with a high-tech methodology that can sweep through millions if not billions of words to establish coherent and meaningful patterns out of the mass of print that is our past’s legacy to us.

But these questions, and their reminder of a critical practice that seems superannuated, also seem increasingly germane.  A skeptical, de Manian observer might note that limitations of the post-interpretive “big data” dispensation can be glimpsed in the insipidity of the projects it proposes. To say that Austen and Scott were crucial to their successors is to say very little that other critics, speaking on the basis of reading maybe a couple dozen long books, didn’t otherwise say; to say that constructing a database of Whitman is a powerful critical act ignores the way that Whitman’s work itself offered, in its catalogs and its interrogation of them, a celebration and a critique of databases avant la lettre; and don’t get me started on loudness in the novel. It’s not inconceivable that there could be interesting applications of these kinds of methods to literary study. But then, what kind of literary study would it be? In some ways it would be de Manian: this criticism would answer the late de Man’s call for a completely objective criticism, uncontaminated by human sentiment or affective misrecognition. But then it also might be subjected to a critique on other grounds: that its interest still depends on the capacity of the critic to ask interesting questions — the act of interpretation, itself drawn from and made possible by previous acts of interpretation, still precedes the digital whiz-bangery that it generates. And more: the relative paucity of interesting questions that Big Data has wrought — yet again, the rise of the novel? really?? — may stem from the incapacity of the medium itself to answer any but the broadest questions. Either way, the very promise of the digital — its claim to comprehensiveness, completeness — impedes its ability to recognize the key quality necessary, deconstruction reminds us, for any rigorous critical thought — which is to say, the digital’s own limits. Big Data methods may sweep through oceans of text, but they seem thus far unwilling, if not unable, to turn back and question the constitution of those methods themselves.

Blindness, in other words, remains insight; insight blindness, and as much as I am loath to admit it, the lesson of reading this fascinating but deeply flawed book at the moment of digital humanities is to remind us that, whatever kind of scoundrel de Man may have been in his youth, we need the deconstruction he advocated in his maturity more than ever.


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Jonathan Freedman is Professor of English, American and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Freedman is Professor of English, American and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan. He’s written on late-19th- and early 20th-century literature, film, and Jewish-American cultural formations. 


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