Resetting the Agenda: A Response to Derrida

 Originally Appeared in: Critical Inquiry: Volume 15 Number 4 | Published: Summer, 1989


Jacques Derrida offers his recent commentary (“Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War,” Critical Inquiry 14 [Spring 1988]: 590-652) on the early career of Paul de Man as an urgent intervention in a discussion he fears is going awry. The most pressing danger he sees in the recent revelations is that they have played into the Hands of de Man’s antagonists, who are now ready to denounce the whole of his career and even deconstruction itself. Against such indiscriminate critiques Derrida hurls the epithet: totalitarian. He is attempting to reseize the initiative in the discussion and to reset the terms of the debate. His agenda extends across historical, theoretical, and political questions.

He wants to affirm that a radical, indeed absolute break separates the later from the earlier de Man. He also wants to show that the young de Man, however firmly committed to fascist ideology and however much an accomplice of the Nazis occupying Belgium, at the same time regularly distanced himself from that ideology and even undermined its meanings. Moreover, Derrida boldly takes up the challenge that these revelations have cast on the intellectual movement he and de Man have shaped. Can deconstruction come to grips with the political and intellectual history of its own leading American proponent? And can deconstruction in the process make a distinctive contribution to the understanding of fascism and intellectuals’ participation in it?

Derrida has responded with two very large claims. He claims, first, that deconstruction provides the instruments of interpretation and habits of analysis without which the practices of a fascist intellectual like the young de Man cannot be understood. And, further, that the mode of philosophical and literary analysis embodied in his own and the later de Man’s work is a bulwark against totalitarianism, including fascism itself.

With these claims Derrida puts the prestige of deconstruction on the line: its political significance, its power to explain political and cultural conjunctures, and its capacity for self-understanding. If these remain staked on the procedures and outcomes of his account of “Paul de Man’s War,” the wager will be lost.

Derrida’s historical-political analysis is interwoven with an often moving testimony of his personal and intellectual ties to de Man. He does not, however, have control over the interaction of the two. The testimonial mode shows the vicissitudes of encountering texts no one could have been prepared for: the shock and recoil at recognizing de Man’s fascist sympathies, the relief or quandary in coming upon statements whose content or style might, or does, occur outside such sympathies. But Derrida then confuses these vicissitudes with the argument and meaning of the articles de Man wrote. The incongruity in reading a fascist de Man is projected onto the texts; they become ambiguous, ambivalent, undecidable: “all the propositions carry within themselves a counterproposition: sometimes virtual, sometimes very explicit, always readable, this counterproposition signals what I will call … a double edge and a double bind” (p. 607). Derrida fails to describe the many purposes, the different polemics, and the adaptability that de Man’s writings exhibit within their highly charged environment. Derrida transforms the contextual and pragmatic complexity of this fascist intellectual’s practice into a balance sheet: on one side, everything that smacks of “the worst”; on the other, everything that doesn’t….

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