Wednesday, March 30, 2016

De Man
Avoiding Responsibility

Paul de Man

The late Paul de Man was one of the most influential Postmodernists.1 Paul de Man was born in and lived his early life in Belgium after World War II he moved to the USA where he taught at Yale University. Paul de Man's writing were rather turgid and difficult but beneath the verbiage we sometimes find stuff that is unintentionally revealing, such has this passage:
Yet without this moment, never allowed to exist as such, no such thing as a text is conceivable. We know this to be the case from empirical experience as well: it is always possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one. The indecision makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes because, as a fiction, it escapes from the constraints of guilt and innocence. On the other hand, it makes it equally possible to accuse fiction-making which, in Holderlin's words, is "the most innocent of all activities," of being the most cruel. The knowledge of radical innocence also performs the harshest mutilations. Excuses not only accuse but they carry out the verdict implicit in their accusation.2
The above which is from de Man's most influential work, Allegories of Reading, which aside from being an example of the baffle-gaffle that de Man often engaged in, turns out to be revealing about de Man himself.

Why? Well because in 1987 a Belgian scholar doing research quite unexpectedly came across a large corpus of writings written by Paul de Man. What they revealed was shocking. In brief the discovery consisted of more than 200 articles de Man wrote for Belgic collaboratist Newspapers called Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land. De Man while writing for these papers wrote anti-Semitic pieces and in general wrote stuff celebrating German triumphs and voices support for German victory in the war.3

After the war and while in USA Paul de Man then systematically covered up and lied about his activities during the war. De Man in effect suppressed as far as he was able knowledge of those thoroughly embarrassing articles that revealed him to be a collaborator with the Nazis. And not just a reluctant collaborator but an enthusiastic one.4

Further after the war when de Man went to the United States he lied to get his initial teaching position at Bard College.5

It is now thought that to some degree de Man incorporated in his work to some degree excuses and rationalizations for his collaboration with the Nazi and his later self-serving lies.

It is important to keep in mind that the above quote from de Man's book Allegories of Reading comes from a chapter called Excuses6 in a chapter that focused on Rousseau’s autobiographical work Confessions. Further the focus in the chapter is on excuse making and guilt although it is sometimes hard to figure out what de Man is in fact trying to say. 

However here we have de Man saying something that reads like excuse mongering. After all saying that an event exists as fictional and actual at the same time and that it is impossible to tell them apart reads like an attempt to say "What I did may never have really happened!" Further the reference to the "bleakest of crimes" seems to refer to de Man's collaborationist past at least in part. Further thus these events being possibly "fictional" escape guilt and innocence and therefore of course de Man has no reason to feel guilty because the events he was involved with may be fictional and further he has no responsibility.

If you add to this de Man's belief that authors were in some sense not responsible for the meaning of their texts, and in fact de Man's denial of authorial intent would seem to indicate at least in part de Man trying to deny responsibility for his collaborationist writings. The guilt that de Man talked about excusing is to some extent his own.

 Further de Man's comment that "it is not possible...” to decide if a particular experience is empirical or fictional is self evidently wrong. Why because we everyday make decisions about whether or not events, experiences are real or fictional. In fact if you couldn't do that you would not be able to function. And on a strictly prosaic level Judges in Courts of Law routinely decide what is empirical and what is fiction. So contrary to de Man it is often easy and is very routine to decide what is real versus what is fictional. So de Man is simply wrong to say that it is "never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities", i.e., empirical or fictional, some event etc., is. This is utterly and totally wrong. In fact it is done all the time.

Thus de Man in print contrived to escape responsibility for his acts in his writings. Of course the obvious question is, does this affect de Man's philosophy and work. Well not very much given that de Man's ideas must be analyzed in and of themselves and de Man's personal history is not very important in trying to figure out if de Man was right or wrong. In fact de Man's efforts to rationalize and avoid responsibility for his acts had only an at best minor effect on his philosophy. Post-Modernism can't be debunked simply because de Man was a slippery character and neither are his insights or theories refuted because it appears that in some respects Man was in his philosophy trying to justify his past bad behavior. In fact that motive seems to have been overall a minor point in "explaining" de Man's philosophy.

If the defence of de Man had consisted of saying that de Man's philosophy and Post-Modernism are not in the slightest refuted by de Man being a person who did bad things there would not have been much of a problem; instead far too many Post-Modernists actually tried to explain away, unconvincingly, de Man's war writings further they abandoned the Post-Modernist notion that texts had a huge fluidity of meaning and authorial intent doesn't matter. Instead so many talked about de Man being misunderstood and distorted. Thus they in effect abandoned Post-Modernism when one of their gurus was attacked.7 They did this rather than just accept that all interpretations of de Man's writings were valid and no single one or set was correct which of course would have meant that interpreting de Man has a writing Nazi collaborationist crap was in fact utterly valid. 

1. Paul de Man, Wikipedia, Here. Paul de Man lived 1919-1983. See also Evans, Richard J., In Defence of History, Second Edition, Granta Books, London, 2000, p. 233.

2. de Man, Paul, Allegories of Reading, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 1979, p. 293.

3. Menand, Louis, The De Man Case, The New Yorker, March 24, 2014, at Here.

4. Evans, pp. 233-238, Menand.

 5. IBID., Menand.

 6. de Man, the chapter Excuses, pp. 278-301.

 7. Evans.

 Pierre Cloutier

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