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  • De Man's Negativity
  • Lee Edelman (bio)

Of the many questions for which we might turn to Paul de Man's writings for guidance or insight, "What is an erection?" probably doesn't rank among the top ten. But in "Kant's Materialism," a preliminary version of "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," de Man observes that "erection… is likely to be anything but what one—or should I say men?—think(s) it to be" and then, still focused on erection, de Man asks: "What is it for Kant?" (1996b, 126). Stranger still, in seeking an answer, de Man locates, as he puts it, "a hint" in the following much-discussed passage from section 29 of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment:

If we call sublime the sight of a star-studded sky, we must not base this judgment on a notion of the stars as worlds inhabited by rational beings, in which the luminous points are their suns, moving purposefully and for their benefit. We must instead consider the sky as we see it, as a wide vault that contains everything. This is the only way to conceive of the sublime as the source of pure aesthetic judgment. The same is true of the sea: we must not look upon the ocean with the enriching knowledge that makes us conceive it as, for example, the vast habitat of nautical animals, or as the water supply from which, by evaporation and for the benefit of the land, clouds are being seeded, or even as an element that keeps continents apart, yet enables communication between them. All these are teleological judgments. Instead, one must see the ocean as poets do, as the eye seems to perceive it, as a transparent mirror when it is at peace, circumscribed only by the sky, and, when it is in motion, as an abyss that threatens to swallow up everything.

(qtd. in de Man 1996b, 126)

If this hints at what erection is for Kant, then erection is indeed quite far from what one "think(s) it to be"; for the hint consists, according to de Man, in "tell[ing] us how to look at the sublime, how to read judiciously, like the poets" (126). Whether or not the sublime as such can be "looked at" will be subject to doubt, but the problem of reading judiciously will dominate not only the content of the passage from Kant, but also, in de Man's analysis, how that passage itself gets read.

Encapsulating in its "purest form" (126) Kant's architectonic vision, these lines, as de Man will write later in "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," [End Page 471] invoke a perspective that is "purely material, devoid of any reflexive or intellectual complication," while also, and, to the same extent, "purely formal, devoid of any semantic depth and reducible to the formal mathematization or geometrization of pure optics" (1996c, 83). Such an optics returns us to the problematic of looking at the sublime, of treating it as an entity, but the question of looking gets framed as an injudiciousness of reading, one that, as it happens, characterizes the larger tradition of interpreting this very passage from Kant. That tradition, as de Man goes on to note in "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," "has seen only this one, figural, and…'romantic' aspect" of Kant's theory of the imagination "and has entirely overlooked what we call the material aspect" (83); when it comes to Kant's account of how poets read, Kant, de Man argues, has himself been read as a particular type of poet: like the Wordsworth of The Prelude, for example, or the Baudelaire of "Le Voyage." In "Kant's Materialism," however, de Man frames such misreadings in terms that invoke the very geometrization of optics at issue for Kant in the poet's vision; referring to traditional interpretations of Kant de Man writes that "a misguided imagination, distorted by the conception of romantic imagery, runs the risk of setting the passage awry" (1996b, 126).

The distortion that risks setting the passage awry takes the form of an anamorphosis, the geometral mutation of optical perspective that Slavoj Zizek, borrowing from Richard II, refers to with his...


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pp. 471-476
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