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  • Materialism and Aesthetics: Paul de Man’s Aesthetic Ideology
  • Jonathan Loesberg (bio)

Declaring theories dead is an old and venerable method of declaring an end to our need to read them. As a result, theories die these days with dizzying frequency. It took most of the nineteenth century before Benedetto Croce declared what was dead in Hegel, and at least he intended to recuperate what he declared to be living. At the 1996 MLA convention, in the space of only a couple of sessions, I heard both new historicism and cultural studies declared dead. Compared to Croce’s somewhat resigned attitude to Hegel’s mature demise, one must mourn the first theory, cut down suddenly in its vibrant adolescence, and the absolute infant mortality of the second. But surely the deadest of all dead theories is deconstruction. Indeed deconstruction must be dead, since its death has been declared with roughly the same frequency with which old vampire movies declare the death of the protagonist, who we know will nevertheless dependably arise for the next installment. Paul de Man, in particular, considering the regularity with which he is declared dead, threatens to become our most undead theorist. Certainly, he has published far more prolifically since his seeming demise in 1983 than he did prior to it. He made a prominent postmortem appearance when his World War II collaborationist writing emerged, and for a period, it became all but impossible to write about his later literary theoretical work without addressing these fifty-year-old newspaper articles. 1 By 1990, though, one could see de Man’s death reoccurring, though rather ambiguously. Thus in two articles written only a year apart in Diacritics, the same author first declared that de Man’s work was available “in near entirety” and that “substantial progress has been made in [its] interpretation” [Redfield, “Humanizing De Man” 35] and then later opened a second essay arguing that the theories had “not become any easier to assimilate” [Redfield, “De Man, Schiller, and the Politics of Reception” 50]. And now, with the doubly posthumous appearance of Aesthetic Ideology, the assured certification of deconstruction’s death occurs again. 2 For instance, a review in the New York Times, warning off those readers who might be attracted to the book because of the “lurid glow 8cast by the opportunistic anti-Semitism of the wartime years,” declares not merely de Manian deconstruction but the aesthetic theories of Kant and Hegel to be without current [End Page 87] interest. 3 And Lingua Franca, in a piece reporting the end of Minnesota’s Theory and History of Literature series (Aesthetic Ideology and Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory mark the last books of the series), sums up this last work in the series and possibly the last work of de Man this way: “the book also reminds us—in its pristinely linguistic approach to ‘great’ literary and philosophical texts—that the moment of unadulterated deconstruction has long since passed.” 4 Astonishingly, Minnesota Press sent this death certificate to me as part of the publicity packet it sends to reviewers.

Of course theories die differently. Since their extinction, putative or actual, is not human, we may declare their death joyously and without guilt, or work toward their revivification without messy transactions in graveyards. They die so readily and return without melodramatics because they lack a real biological limit to which we attach their significance. When we see their significance, we declare them alive. Either not seeing their significance or wishing they had none, we as easily sentence them to death. Whether or not de Man’s theories of reading or language are living or dead, to this process of declaring theoretical death and life, Aesthetic Ideology relates directly. In the first instance, it does so in its status as a published object. In a certain sense, it is, as we have seen, dead on arrival. Its central essays on Kant and Hegel—“Phenomenality and Materialism in Kant,” “Sign and Symbol in Hegel’s Aesthetics,” and “Hegel on the Sublime”—have already been published and have received commentary as part of a larger coherent work on aesthetics that has long been announced. Even the previously unpublished essays—“Kant...