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Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory (review)
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MLN 115.5 (2000) 1158-1164



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Book Review

Material Events:
Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory


Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, Andrzej Warminski, and Tom Cohen, eds., Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 408 pages.

"Why de Man today?" begins the introduction to a collection of essays that looks at the late work of Paul de Man, Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. The volume, edited by Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, Andrzej Warminski, and Tom Cohen, contains work by many of those associated with de Man during his lifetime and after, as well as some surprises. In addition to the editors, Michael Sprinker, Arkady Plotnitsky, T. J. Clark, Laurence A. Rickels, Barbara Johnson, Ernesto Laclau, Judith Butler, and Jacques Derrida have contributed essays on the question of materiality and [End Page 1158] the aesthetic, its relation to the "historial" and inscription. The question that initiates the anthology serves, in part, to mark the historiality of de Man's corpus, the hostility and hospitality that continue to nurture its afterlife. The temporicities of today wander throughout this volume in the materialities of a time and history that no longer facilitate the incontrovertibility of the present. De Man is today, and perhaps always was, the authors suggest, profoundly untimely, requiring, as it were, a thinking of the materiality of time and its untimely nature.

Taking as their point of departure de Man's posthumous collection of essays Aesthetic Ideology (1997), the authors of Material Events extend de Man's conception of materiality, ideology, and the aesthetic into the registers of political thought, sexual difference, painting and film, and technology. The editors respond to their own challenge with this provisional claim: "What remains unengaged in de Man's text addresses the possibility of intervention in the mnemonic, the programming of the 'historial,' and a treatment of 'materiality' that compels a rethinking of technicity and the 'sensorium' on the basis of inscription." At stake is a rethinking of materiality and aesthetics, but also the politics of time, memory, and the human. They note in their preface the shift in de Man's late writing from "tropological systems" to the "materiality of inscription," a move, they claim, which makes possible new considerations of aesthetics and politics and the logic that connects them. This collection of post-de Manian inscriptions serves as an untimely rejoinder to the critique of theory and the dismissal of de Man and deconstruction, on the basis of a "mimetic politics." Can Aesthetic Ideology be read in the current intellectual climate? Can it contribute to a new line of inquiry that moves beyond the impasses of this historical moment in a manner that also understands the historiality of this historical moment, its momentary materiality as history? "At a time when the untimely might feel at home, when the aporias not of theory but of mimetic historicist and cultural criticism are becoming transparent in all issues pertaining to institutional politics and agency, Material Events would pose this question too."

The conception of this volume began, the editors explain, with a 1998 conference at UC Davis that sought to situate the "afterlife" of theory and "de Man's recent abjection in critical studies." From this premise, à propos of de Man after his death, the authors have initiated a reevaluation of de Man's conception of materiality "without any agenda." The very materiality of evaluation and reevaluation, the materiality of the value of theory--and its costs--leads to the question of legacy and the material economies that are opened by its historicities, temporalities, and debts. Material Events seeks to take account of the legacy of de Man, in part, its debts, paid and unpaid, but also to understand the possibility of a de Manian materiality yet to come, yet to fulfill as legacy, the materiality of the future. Says Derrida, "this thinking could only belong to the future," it even "makes the future possible." A future that speaks to the demands of poetry and literature, art and...