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  • De Man Today:Unreassuring Help
  • 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...

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