- Paul de Man Now, or, Nihilism in the Right Company1
[Walter Benjamin’s] “Theologico-Political Fragment” ends up on the word “nihilism,” and mentions nihilism as such. One could say, with all kinds of precautions, and in the right company, and with all kinds of reservations, that—and I think that’s a very small company—that Benjamin’s concept of history is nihilistic. Which would have to be understood as a very positive statement about it.—Paul de Man2
Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin gathers essays by J. Hillis Miller, Tom Cohen, and Claire Colebrook.3 The book also contains a set of notes by Paul de Man from which he delivered “Conclusions: Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator,’” the last of the Messenger Lectures de Man gave at Cornell in 1983. Two sets of these notes exist, a shorter and a longer. Theory and the Disappearing Future reproduces the longer set. Colebrook contributes an introduction to the book and transcribed de Man’s notes, which appear both as a facsimile of de Man’s handwritten notebook pages and as the transcription. These notes give the reader entrance into de Man’s workshop of thought, especially if the reader compares the notes with the lecture on Benjamin as it appears in de Man’s posthumous The Resistance to Theory.
Three decades have passed since de Man delivered his Benjamin lecture. Catastrophes de Man did not survive to witness now press institutions [End Page 325] toward their limits: religion-inflected wars of choice, teetering capitalism, and climate change. Theory and the Disappearing Future addresses these disasters. Cohen focuses on climate and economic collapse, Miller on religion via de Man’s discussion of the “theotropic,” and Colebrook on attempts to reboot “left” politics to address capitalism’s endgame. The three literary scholars make no claim to be academic specialists in climate change, religion, or political economy, but each has expertise in reading literature for aesthetic appreciation and in distinguishing between the aesthetic as manifest in novels, poems, and plays and aesthetic ideology as manifest in (supposedly) critical discourses.
In “Toxic assets: de Man’s remains and the ecocatastrophic imaginary (an American fable),” Cohen argues the implications of climate change expose the humanistic disciplines in U.S. academia as milling about in a precritical cul-de-sac signposted with exhortations toward “inclusion.” In their claims to speak for “social justice,” these disciplines show themselves unaware of or in confusion about the game-ending logics climate change brings. Cohen questions narratives of progress advocating an “empathic” reaching out to some “other” in a gesture of “inclusion.” On the one hand, to gather more persons into the levels and types of consumption upper-middleclass Americans enjoy can only exacerbate the environmental impacts speeding up climate change. On the other hand, this notion of inclusion operates as the benign face of a planetary war to domesticate and dominate, an ongoing, transnational war insuring, for example, that 5 percent of the globe’s populace (the U.S.) may consume 25 percent of global energy production (129).
The economic dynamics, political institutions, social structures, and ways of life that evolved under modernity’s banner of humanity are inseparable from the consumption of fossil fuels. The resulting pollutions drive climate changes that are making untenable those ways of life, social structures, political institutions, and economic dynamics. Our modes of thought, habits of narration, and imaginings of horizons need to catch up to this situation. Jeopardizing the concomitants of the “human,” climate change prompts a questioning of that category as an aspect of a now unsustainable modernity. Foucault thought an unforeseen “event” might lead the regimes of knowledge positing the human to “crumble,” and, as a result, “man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”4 The “event” precipitating a shift in knowledge regimes and so the erasure of the human, Cohen suggests, is climate change, with rising sea levels bringing, literally and figuratively, the waves Foucault predicted would dissolve the “face drawn in the sand.” However, climate change may also result in the extinction of the species...