- Afterword:Re-Inscribing de Man
What is one to do with the writings and thinking of Paul de Man these days? We are now at a sufficient distance from the high-water mark of debates about "theory" as well as, more specifically, the period of deconstruction being a primary mode of literary, cultural, and philosophical analysis. The days of it being de rigeur to contend with are long gone too, though that is not to say that a good many of the issues and problems raised by deconstruction are a thing of the past. To some extent, many of the "lessons" and protocols, as even Stanley Fish once argued, were folded into practices of criticism not flying under a banner of "deconstruction," much less the non-existent entity of "deconstructionism." The querying of relations of form and history, the status of performative language, the stakes of rhetoric, and the force of discourse in the force-fields of difference are relatively alive and kicking. Whatever one's attitude to the work of Derrida, de Man, and others associated with the fragile term "deconstruction," their works remain of value to think with and through and against.
We are also at a distance from the belated scandal of de Man's early collaborationist past and from the days, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, when graduate students and early-career teachers were tethered by lines of filiation to de Man and his direct influence. We are now in a good position, without a lot of brouhaha, to look at de Man's writings afresh and ask "What is to be done?" That entails achieving some sense of the status of de Manian readings and reading in themselves and in relation to pertinent others across the fields of criticism and theory, including formations of psychoanalysis, Marxism, gender and queer studies, postcolonial work, and critical race studies, to name just some dominant modes. This is a modest task but one that seems to require rather more modesty than at some moments in recent history. We are also well past the age of the (mainly French) maitre-penseurs (Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Kristeva) and the succeeding generation of somewhat less masterful thinkers (Badiou, Rancière, Nancy), which is also to say the moment, especially in the former era, when so many paradigms were being shifted. The essays collected in a volume some years ago, Theory Aside, argued collectively for both the non-fetishization of a small number of uber-canonical thinkers and the lifting of the burden of theoretical-critical [End Page 483] work to be relentlessly paradigm-busting.1 This is not unrelated to the recent emphasis in literary theory, in the work of Wai Chee Dimock, Paul Saint-Amour and others, on "weak theory."2
It may well be that the work now done in relation to de Man will and should be conducted more in the mode of weak theory, which is not far from what de Man meant by reading, even if a good many of the pronouncements in the name of readings and reading by de Man were grand, absolute, or hyperbolic. Also on the agenda, I think, should be figuring out to what extent de Manian readings co-exist easily or uneasily with others addressing the same texts or bodies of texts. Does a de Manian reading challenge or undermine or simply take its place beside those others? Do those others challenge or undermine or just take their place beside de Man's or de Manian readings? It would stand to reason that de Man is hardly exempt from the law of blindness and insight he enunciated in his early work, and there could well be blind spots or lacunae of sorts not thematized by de Man. Not everyone can do everything, of course, not even the most dialectical or negatively dialectic of readers. But it would be good to have some synthetic sense of how such readings relate to each other, not least on the matter to which we will turn to in a moment, de Man's notion of materiality.
It's not, I think, an accident that several of the essays collected here—essays...