- InterruptionsPassage to the Act and the End of Interpretation
They interrupt, they disrupt, each other in such a fundamental way that this very possibility of disruption represents a threat to all assumptions one has about what a text should be.—Paul de Man, "The Concept of Irony"
In the new millennium, before the publication of the latest biography, Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul de Man, interest in Paul de Man's work has declined noticeably.1 In that period, the essay that I want to focus on, "The Purloined Ribbon," has received only one significant interpretation. And that one, Walter Benn Michaels's 2006 The Shape of the Signifier, took as its true aim an interpretation of de Man, Shoshana Felman's from her Testimony. Against this background, my purpose is not to figure out what has contributed to this downward trend—Was it the waning importance of allegory, irony, deconstruction, and a turn to an ever popular literalism? Was it de Man's past? Was it a general trend away from theory and the humanities?—nor do I want to take side of the recent, lone collection on de Man titled Theory and the Disappearing Future, trying to bring, in J. Hillis Miller's words, de Man back because he "may be the theorist for the twenty-first century" (Miller 2012, 56).
Rather, since I don't accept the archived version of de Man, or the definition of theory it is based on, I want to go over "The Purloined Ribbon" one more time and discover a de Man that [End Page 107] was seldom engaged, one that differs from his canonical twin in two main respects. First, the de Man we encounter in the "Ribbon" is fascinated with Lacanian psychoanalysis, so much so that he adopts it as one of his own analytic discourses. Second, this de Man uses deconstruction in a very specific and limited sense, as an interruption of a classical mode of textual approach, which in turn reorganizes the meaning of interpretation.2 In the "Ribbon," de Man moves beyond meaning as a quality or a state—even a state whose "true" form cannot be decided—and the classical or foundational theory in the sense that, for instance, Arkady Plotnitsky gives to it in his The Knowable and the Unknowable, which suggests that postclassical theory is an anti-foundationalist departure from the classical norm and does not treat the possibility that postclassical theory reorganizes the historical view itself and, therefore, the sense and the direction of any "departure" and the importance of foundation. And de Man suggests instead a different view on deconstruction as an interruption that follows when meaning is recognized as a process or a performance being created in the very moment we are writing, which is the kind of postclassical and poststructuralist theory that "Ribbon" also enacts.
My main point of contention with canonical works on de Man like Theory and the Disappearing Future is a view on the foundation, which in Miller's version (in "Paul de Man at Work") is typical for de Man's followers and disciples. The most obvious example is on page 66, where Miller cites de Man's explanation that "illocutionary utterances, . . . as a consequence of their referentiality, necessitate the passage from speech to action. They force one to choose, but, on the other hand, they undermine the grounds of all choice" (de Man 1979, 131; Miller 2012, 66). In the subsequent commentary, Miller does not mention the allusion to Lacan's passage to the act—"the passage from speech to action"—and its importance for de Man's "Ribbon," though is so obviously present in the quoted excerpt originally written by de Man. Miller reads the claim the way he usually does, in an obsessive fashion, repeating his point about the undecidable, how we are forced to choose but [End Page 108] don't have reliable criteria or foundation to make our choice. My contention is that Miller's performance of repetition, the focus on the undecidable, as well as Miller's by now predictable reading strategy, function as a foundation of sorts, which arrests and incapacitates deconstruction...