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  • Paul de Man, Now More than Ever?
  • Robert S. Oventile
Review of: Tom Cohen, et al., eds., Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

As we confront the triumph of USA-centrism (“institutionalize diversity locally, maximize profit globally”), to trace our historicity, defined by punctual “material events,” we need to contest what Paul de Man calls “aesthetic ideology.” So argues Material Events, co-edited by Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski. Material Events includes path-breaking essays that examine Cézanne’s paintings, Hitchcock’s films, and Descarte’s notions about the body. With contributions by Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Arkady Plotnitsky, and Barbara Johnson, this volume is one of the most important responses to Paul de Man’s work, especially the posthumous Aesthetic Ideology, yet published.1

Material Events will upset academics skeptical of “theory” in general and of “deconstruction” in particular (however, this collection reminds us why “theory” is not the best term to define “deconstruction”). But Material Events, which examines the relevance of de Man’s arguments to psychoanalysis, political science, and law, should not only irritate academics impatient to conserve traditions and the boundaries between them. Many, but not all, instructors and researchers who want to be effectively progressive may be disturbed by the editors’ claim that aesthetic ideology dominates the contemporary university.

de Man’s study of aesthetic ideology interrogates a key procedure of higher education: the aestheticization of singularities to render them as knowable, exchangeable representatives. In this regard, the university’s pursuit of knowledge may truly participate in an exercise of Eurocentric, now actually USA-centric, power. Indeed, the example of “diversity” helps to define the import of Material Events. de Man did not address what the university now calls “multiculturalism.” But this term specifies the stakes of de Man’s last essays, especially as explicated by and expanded upon in this new collection: textual “material events” breach the aesthetic erasures of otherness that contemporary academic institutions (and their governmental and transnational corporate sponsors) thrive on while asserting their commitment to “diversity.”

The university’s academic mission is a cognitive one: to gain rational knowledge and to teach that knowledge to students. This mission cannot avoid being political, and thus ideological, especially when the university attempts to know the “diverse.” By aestheticizing “diversity” to institutionalize a knowledge of “cultures,” the university may be perpetuating rather than contesting one of higher education’s most longstanding and pronouncedly ideological projects: that of managing or containing socioeconomic conflicts by instituting “culture” as a function of what Friedrich Schiller called “aesthetic education.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s On the Constitution of the Church and State articulated the version of this project that was taken up by John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold.2

Material Events suggests that a claim de Man made in 1983 is now even more valid: “the standards... and the values by means of which we teach... are more than ever and profoundly Schillerian” (Aesthetic 142). In the sentences about “diversity” that colleges and universities include in their mission statements, one often finds an unintentional paraphrase of Schiller, Coleridge, Mill, and/or Arnold on the relations between culture, education, and the state. The likelihood, de Man might argue, that such documents’ authors have never read Schiller or Coleridge on the relations between the aesthetic and the workings of state power only underlines the pervasiveness of aesthetic ideology.

At issue is such ideology’s impact on various studies. Material Events asks: Can de Man’s work on the aesthetic help academics focused on feminist, ethnic, cultural, or literary studies to contest ideology and to access the materiality of history? Can de Man aid us in becoming better readers of Marx, Gramsci, or Althusser? The contributions relevant to this last question are those by J. Hillis Miller, Ernesto Laclau, Michael Sprinker, and Andrzej Warminski. Though de Man has often been regraded as a figure of the right, and even his defenders have not claimed a place for him in the Western Marxist tradition, Miller argues that “a deep kinship exists between de Man’s work and Marx’s thought in The German Ideology” (186...

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