Nazism, Bigamy, and the Problem of Paul de Man

By Seth Studer

It’s time to beat up on Paul de Man again.

And yes, he probably deserves it.

In Monday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett revealed the juicy details of Evelyn Barish’s new biography The Double Life of Paul de Man (due out in March 2014). Barish suggests that de Man emigrated from Belgium in 1947 to escape embezzlement charges. He was eventually convicted in absentia of stealing one million Belgian francs (roughly US$300k today) from his own publishing house. Barish also discovered that de Man never held an undergraduate degree, and that in his interactions with friends, family, and colleagues, he was sometimes a total dick.

This in addition to what we already knew: de Man was a deadbeat dad, a temporary bigamist, and the author of several blatantly anti-Semitic articles for a pro-Nazi newspaper during the German occupation of Belgium. The articles were disclosed in 1987, three years after de Man’s death. English professors across the nation responded with horror (or schadenfreude) because, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Paul de Man led the vanguard that introduced deconstructionist theory into American universities[1]. He was a big deal.

deconstructionExcept he wasn’t.

Unlike his friend and fellow deconstructionist, Franco-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida, de Man’s scholarship focused narrowly on literary language. He argued that literary texts, through their own internal tensions and oppositions, effectively read themselves. (Your copy of Moby Dick is reading itself, even as it sits dusty on your shelf!) Derrida, meanwhile, wrote about everything from semiotics and political philosophy to his pet cat. Derrida’s writing was difficult, but often in a fun way – weird, cheeky, playful.

Also: if you’re a layperson, you’ve probably heard of Derrida. His obit appeared in the New York Times[2]. He was one of several influential French thinkers who emerged alongside 1960s anti-de Gaullist radicalism. You know them by their surnames: Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida. De Man was the Belgium to their France; he is virtually unknown outside literature departments. But he, more than any other figure, set the hermeneutic agenda for U.S. literature departments in the ’70s and early ’80s.

The news that de Man had authored Nazi propaganda could not have emerged at a worse time for his students (by then major scholars in their own right) or for deconstruction in general[3]. By 1987, cultural studies and politico-ethical concerns were pushing deconstruction out of the humanities. Deconstruction was too apolitical, too textocentric. This was a sideshow in the Culture Wars: as many professors adopted radical politics, ardent deconstructionists appeared reactionary and insular. Meanwhile, deconstruction’s apparent nihilism was being attacked by positivists, scientists, traditionalist lit scholars, and even social conservatives outside the academy. The de Man-Nazi revelation offered proof of what many already suspected: that deconstruction was nefariously closed-off, vapid repressive, even quasi-totalitarian. By the ’90s, deconstruction had lost its cache.

The problem is that Paul de Man was so good.

blakeDerrida was unfairly dismissed as an emperor without clothes, but he also reveled in appearing to waltz through the kingdom naked. For a certain type of student (e.g., me), de Man was much more satisfying. De Man explained heady concepts without Derridean playfulness. He wrote heavy, dense, substantive prose. He reads like a serious scholar applying a theory rather than performing or practicing it. My favorite of his essays is “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” an account of how representations of time are the basis of literary language. He describes how well-known devices – allegory, symbolism, irony – interact with time. He slowly develops an argument that slippage occurs between allegory and symbolism in Romantic poetry, despite the Romantics’ best effort to keep them separate. On this premise, he introduces two “modes” of representing time in literature: “allegory” (which partially includes symbolism) and “irony.”

Toward the end of the essay, de Man writes:

The dialectical play between the two modes [allegory and irony]…make up what is called literary history.

Deconstructionist jargon like “play” aside, de Man’s declaration is downright old-fashioned. Here is an account of literary history premised on literary analysis. When I read this in graduate school, it felt ballsy and refreshing. No hedging, no contextualizing, no whining, no kidding around, just straight-up confidence in his own system: “this is literary history.” I was floored.

So as deconstructionists went, de Man was a straight shooter, on the page if not in his life (perhaps he viewed his two wives as “two modes of dialectical play”). Unlike Derrida or even Barthes, de Man wasn’t messing with me, wasn’t trying to fool or trick me. Even if he believed (along with his intellectual kin) that “everything was a text,” he generally confined himself to literary or rhetorical analyses. I continue to find him useful, which I can’t say about most of his contemporaries. De Man’s work represented deconstruction at its best.

Fractal_swastika_(IFS)But try as I may, I can’t help but detect a bit of the Nazi in it all: the exegetical totality, the confusion (or manipulation) of text and meaning, the all-encompassing instability. And yeah, the biography.

It matters little whether a good physicist was a Nazi, because Nazism probably didn’t contaminate his work. You can kill the Nazi physicist or hire the Nazi physicist, but the physics itself will contains no traces of Nazism. This is slightly less true of a Nazi biologist, who may have covertly adopted Nazi theories of race. For a philosopher, however, the possibility of cross-contamination is so great as to warrant quarantine. Indignant defenders of de Man who separate his scholarship from his anti-Semitic writings are denying this obvious reality. (Derrida’s defense of de Man was better than most because it allowed for cross-contamination[4].)

De Man was a crook and a cheat and a Nazi collaborator. For most literary scholars today, de Man is interesting but irrelevant: deconstruction happened thirty years ago. It had a good run and probably outlasted its expiration date. Meanwhile, those who, like me, find de Man’s insights useful can argue that his political beliefs are functionally irrelevant to his scholarly work. A Chinese wall exists between the Nazism and “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” To reject or to deny? Neither option is good, and Paul de Man isn’t going anywhere, as Barish’s biography proves.

Literary scholars don’t sever Barthes or Foucault from their social, historical, and ideological roots. De Man should be no exception. It’s naive to believe that, before de Man, the humanities weren’t already poisoned by the ugliest ideologies, but it’s impossible to ignore his collaboration with Nazism. So what would it mean to accept both the scholarship and the potential evil attached to it? To not only refuse to let ourselves off the hook, but to actively get on the hook? De Man offered a compelling and useful explanation of literary language, and he also used the written word to collaborate with Nazis. Does deconstruction have Nazi roots? I don’t trust anyone who says “no” reflexively.

C’mon, let’s not be dismissive or defensive or squeamish! Let’s not be afraid of a little blood on our hands!


[/1]  You might think you know what “deconstruction” is, and you’re probably wrong. But you’re also probably correct, more or less. From a literary standpoint, deconstruction holds that a poem (or whatever) consists of oppositions that differ and defer to each other in a process Derrida called “play.” This play both creates and subverts the meaning of the poem (or whatever). For de Man, this meant that a poem (or whatever) is self-interpreting.

[/2] Derrida’s obituary was a minor literary event in humanities programs. I’ve seen it assigned on English syllabi, as an instance of productive misreading or something.

[/3] My favorite student of de Man is the late Barbara Johnson, who applied his theories of literary language with intelligence and clarity to topics ranging from Melville’s Billy Budd to the rhetoric of abortion. Her 1994 book The Wake of Deconstruction describes the de Man scandal.

[/4] Derrida, who as a Jewish child was persecuted by the Vichy French government, defended his friend in typical Derridian fashion: he tweaked the anti-Semitic language and found differing oppositions. The full defense is not available online as far as I can tell, but its substance can be gleaned from Jon Wiener’s intelligent, and disapproving, analysis.


Google Autocomplete and Global Sexism

By Amanda Grigg

UN Women has a new campaign that uses google autocomplete to demonstrate the scope of sexism worldwide. Ads in the series place autocomplete search results for queries like “women cannot” and “women should not” over close-ups of a diverse group of women. According to creator Christopher Hunt, “The adverts show the results of genuine searches, highlighting popular opinions across the world wide web” (more on whether Hunt is right about this below).

Autocomplete results are known to vary by location, which inspired me to do some quick google searching of my own (I also thought it was time to get the men involved) and I found a little something for the optimists/male breastfeeding proponents:


Of course I also found this (thanks patriarchy/E.L. James):


and found out that the male version of this:

women should not

is this:

men should not

Fellow Jilter (Jilted?) Graham noted that the search results of autocomplete suggestions don’t always perfectly match the sentiment of the autocomplete. So, an autocomplete of “women shouldn’t vote” for a “women shouldn’t” search conducted in New York might turn up a couple of articles about the women’s suffrage movement (my search turned up this) in addition to more recent coverage critiquing someone who opposes women’s right to vote (here and here) and not turn up much in the way of meaningful opposition to women voting. I don’t think that this makes the campaign any less powerful or accurate as a reflection of sexism, for two reasons. 1. the campaign is global and we could imagine that there are places where correspondingly sexist results would turn up and 2. as far as I can tell, autocomplete is based on popular searches not popular content, so regardless of what the search turns up, the suggestions reflect a large group of people searching for those (sexist or anti-shortsist) terms. Of course we can’t be sure of what people wanted out of their search – they could have been declaring a personal opinion or searching for arguments against women serving in combat for a term paper. So I’ll give some ground on whether all autocomplete results are direct evidence of sexism and maintain that there is ample evidence elsewhere that sexism remains a global issue.


The Politics of No Future

By Kindred Winecoff

When Fred Armisen paid a sort of tribute to Margaret Thatcher this Spring most took it as straight satire. Perhaps it was. But there is an argument to be made that part of punk rock’s driving force was rooted in the same dissatisfaction with postwar political economies that led to the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal moment. The 1970s were thus a decade of economic as well as cultural transition, and as the decade wound down things were not going well. England was on an IMF bailout program and suffered from a Winter of Discontent. As part of this, trash collectors went on strike, so London was literally covered in garbage. It must have made a sort of sense to wear garbage bags as clothing in response.


In New York (which had gone bankrupt in 1975) crime was near its peak, entire neighborhoods — and practically a whole borough — had burned to the ground, and the subway looked like something out of, well, the bleak movies a coked-up Martin Scorcese was making at the time. The Keynesian consensus had not anticipated stagflation; the postwar compromise between capital and labor had calcified.

The politics of the ’77 punk movement is assumed to be of the left. This is questionable. In the 1980s the punk and hardcore communities were solidly leftist in their opposition to the Moral Majority and other neoconservative forces, but most of the 1970s groups had no politics, or their politics was obscure. In New York, punk was an extension of the avante-garde art and fashion communities, and London (at first) simply mimicked New York. The first signs of politics were anarchist when not nihilist. ’60s collectivism was as worthy of mockery as ’50s individualism. The mantra of “God Save the Queen” is not republican but simple defeatism: “no future”. This was the Blank Generation. They had no ties to the labor movement. They issued nothing like a Port Huron statement.

The Clash summed up the situation in “Career Opportunities”: there were none worth taking. The British economy was being crucified by entrenched corporations, corrupted trade organizations, and a hapless Labour Party. “Career Opportunities” was written in 1977, two years before Thatcher came to power but describing a social condition without which she never could have gained authority. The Clash saw one way out: a “White Riot” to match the civil unrest exemplified by black activists. (The Sex Pistols may have wanted anarchy in the UK, but the Clash proposed a mechanism. To the extent that punk had clear politics it was anti-racist. To the extent it had potential as a movement it was anti-statist.)

Some kind of structural transformation was needed, and had begun earlier in the decade with the final abandonment of the Bretton Woods system of pegged exchange rates. The entire edifice of postwar capitalism was evolving, and the frictions were clear. Even on the left there was some suspicion, as Christopher Hitchens put it, that on some matters Thatcher might just have had a point. When the face of American labor is Jimmy Hoffa there is not much hope in that direction.

Johnny Ramone was famously conservative, and even claimed that punk itself was fundamentally conservative. This is wrong. To the extent that punk politics have ever been articulated they are oppositionist[1]. In the late-1970s oppositionism meant pushing back against the stagnant institutions and slogans of postwar social democracy. These were controlled, at the time, by the parties of labor. From that fixed point only two roads extended: anti-democratic communism or neoliberalism, and by then even the communists were beginning to liberalize. Few punks were Thatcherites, but Thatcher was the only one who would provide the sort of destruction — the massive societal reorganization — that they were asking for.

That is, punk as a cultural force and neoliberalism as a political force are fixed in history. They were responses to the times, and each articulated a key insight: the contradictions of democratic Keynesianism had come to a breaking point. That punk emerged in the several years before Reagan and Thatcher came to power is not an historical accident; it was a warning. That neither punk nor neoliberalism exist as identifiable movements — rather than nods to fashion — in the U.S. and U.K. today demonstrates their contingency[2].

The fact that punk rapidly developed both left and right political factions — little-s soviets and Nazi punks, to give two examples — that were well beyond one standard deviation from the mean in response to Reagan and Thatcher is indicative of this. Some first-wave punk was assimilated into neoliberal political economies — we usually call it “new wave” for no clear reason — while others remained deeply oppositionist. During the 1980s the latter group included much of the emergent hardcore, the working class (often-nationalist) oi segment, and the avant-literate (Dead Kennedys, Minutemen); the former was on MTV.

Punk remains oppositionist but the political ideologies have shifted. Labor parties are the conservatives once again. Once again, the revolutionaries are on the right. The contradictions of the previous economic development model — the Reagan-Thatcher model — were made quite clear, but our political economy has so far not adapted. The rudderless nature of Occupy is illustrative of this, as is the return of vague Utopianism. As is the simple fact that in the U.S. and U.K. there is no cultural force equivalent to first-wave punk.

This could be temporary, but there are signs that it may not be. Mature political economies have gotten quite good at muddling through their contradictions; we’re six years on from the start of the crisis and we’re still muddling. Political demands are of the form “fix it!” rather than “destroy it!” Marginal tweaks appear more likely than systemic overhauls: revolution is incomprehensible, and anarchism is similarly unattractive. It’s not very fashionable but that’s the correct conclusion. The world is much better in 2013 than it was in 1977: we don’t have to wear garbage bags as clothes. And we have no need for another Thatcher.

[/1]Conservatism has periodically taken this “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'” mask, but Corey Robin’s definition of conservatism as fundamentally counterrevolutionary is, I think, a much more useful characterization of the core impulse than oppositionism.

[/2]”Neoliberalism” is a descriptor that lost its usefulness in the U.S. and U.K. well before Third Way liberalism adopted the Reagan-Thatcher platform more-or-less entirely. Any contemporary use in reference to Anglo-American political economy is usually an attempt at bullying.

I Admit It — I Like Ads

By Graham Peterson

I’ve had an advertising epiphany: I like it.  And that’s a big step for someone whose lion share of social thought came out of, wait for the name, Adbusters Magazine for years.  But Google has started sending me ads to incredible furniture stores I didn’t know about.  Should I be ashamed that I’m grateful?

Most of the cultural criticism of advertising, at least the part that’s not motivated by deep-roots Marxian theorizing like Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci, comes I think from the sheer fact that advertising often annoys people.  And who wouldn’t be annoyed with a message constantly blaring in your face that you don’t want to hear?  Imagine a guy follow you around and pestering you to buy something you have no interest in buying – print and digital and billboard and TV commercial ads aren’t much different.

These advertisers have made efforts to tailor their advertising.  In rhetoric we call it consideration of audience.  At the bar they call it having a clue.  Nobody was wheat-pasting feminine hygiene product posters at Wrigley Field in the 1950s.  Soap operas actually began as filler in between soap commercials aimed at upper middle class housewives who were home during the day.  Toys get advertised during Saturday morning cartoons.  Etc.  So why the indignation and fear that companies are tracking our web browsing?  Ok, it’s a problem if the government does it.  Separate issue.

People’s attitudes towards advertising and sales-y-ness will begin to change as advertisers know more about who they’re talking to and when.  Us academic libertarians tend to believe that anti-market sentiment comes from a history of a small cadre of activist intellectuals who enjoy disproportionate influence.  That’s as likely as the right wing conspiracy to exploit the poor and destroy the environment is – not very.

At least half the reason the populist perception of markets has been negative is that markets seem like a disingenuous, inauthentic, and impersonal place when you’re being approached constantly with homogenous products, most of which you don’t even want.  But as technology advances and products become cheaper, they become more tailored to taste.  Working class toilet brushes now get designed by professionally trained artists.

A sense of intimacy and understanding will grow as markets become more personalized and people can more effectively forge relationships with companies.  With increasingly cheap communications technology, market persuasion is increasing in quality.  Ads are becoming less of a pain in the ass.  Just like life in general in a progressive market economy.

Madness Is Not In the Methods – It’s In the Theory

By Graham Peterson

When I was an undergraduate studying economics, my then advisor, Deirdre McCloskey, would tell me bench science is what mattered.  Her point, that I stand behind, is that social scientists ought to model themselves after engineers, empirical physicists, or field biologists – not philosophers, literary theorists, or pure mathematicians.

So as I read what I eventually discovered was called “methodology,” I literally got the picture in my head of a scientist with method A, at a bench placing an object on one side to measure it with a yard stick, versus method B, placing it in a tub of water to measure its volume.  Maybe in constructing his theory, he would go get a Vis-à-Vis dry erase marker and from first principles, draw what the object should look like on an 8.5×11 transparency, then hold that transparency up in front of the object on his bench with one eye closed to see how close the lines fit.*  In any event, methodology, when I was studying economics, seemed to connote actually doing something.

In contrast, when I’ve been involved in discussions about methods and methodology in sociology, they are rarely about a statistical procedure, or about how to interview ethnographic subjects without them bullshitting you –  but rather just about a way of thinking.  That’s fine.  We need theory.  And I am even on board somewhat with the idea that frameworks of thought themselves act, by selecting within that framework, what the beholder of such a framework will allow herself to, or be prone to, see.

So fine, thinking is in itself doing.  But let’s not pretend that it’s not a philosophical point.  “Methodology” is not a fancy word for “different schools of thought.”  I realize there are very technical phrases and a whole corpus of social theory lain out, arguing for one epistemology or ontology or another.  Honestly, after about three years of studying such things with some determination, I still have only a very vague sense of what the difference between epistemology and ontology is – and I have quite less interest in learning it in order to dress up my ideas about human behavior and impress my colleagues.

And as for the usual alternative put forth, I’m even less impressed by the mathematical economist’s (or mathematical sociologist’s or just mathematician’s) sense that by doing mathematics he is going above and beyond the mere talking of other theorists.  Verbal and mathematical theorists both end up on runaway trains with obtuse vocabularies that no one can penetrate except their coauthors or reviewers (who are on other days co-authoring).  The social relevance of a theory is a linear and increasing function of the number of people who can read it.

Obtuseness flies in the face of, for math-o’s, claims to parsimony, clarity, and cleanliness – and for the word-processor-o’s, so too the opposite claims of illuminating complexity, enlightening duality, and real-world grittiness.  Both reduce empirical complexity with metaphor; both make qualitative logical statements; both fail their goals in extremum.

If we’re going to talk about methods, let’s keep a nice straightforward definition of what a method is: measuring, counting, recording, estimating, translating, interviewing, surveying, observing.  To be sure there are different ways to go about theorizing.  And we could call these methods of doing theory.  But they don’t deserve the word.

Theory is theory.  It is a simulation, an interpretation, an a priori derivation, a categorization – the work with the Vis-à-Vis pen before holding the transparency up to check the empirical error.  It’s just thinking.  Systematically, sure, but just thinking.  Watching people argue over who has put themselves through greater pains—err rigor—in their thinking, is a lot like watching two Iowans argue over the kids on Judge Judy: “Math is hard!”  “Well, thinkin’ don’t pay the rent, honey!”

There are already enough dead ends with David Bowie in strange makeup in the labyrinth of theory, without confusing theory for empirical methods.  To those favoring the primacy of thought and culture and so forth in action: we admit it.  We surrender.  All social science is merely story telling.  But the goal is to tell better stories, and the only way to do that is to discipline our stories with empirical methods.  If one wants to be a philosopher or mathematician or novelist, one ought to be honest and get a degree in it and call oneself one professionally.  Or there’s always bloggin’.

*Credit is due to Peter McMahan, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, and Wild Turkey 101 for the transparency metaphor.