Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Paul de Man (1919-83)

Cynthia Chase
Raised throughout de Man's work are questions of history, including the conditions of literary history and texts' impingement on historical events. One way the issue is engaged is through the theorization of narrative, as in essays on Georg Lukacs's Theory of the Novel, Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, and autobiography. De Man's own chief contribution to literary history is the revaluation of early Romanticism as the decisive, not yet superseded moment of the modern period. Essays written between 1956 and 1983 gathered in The Rhetoric of Romanticism read Friedrich Hölderlin, Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, W. B. Yeats, Charles Baudelaire, and Heinrich von Kleist; complementary to them are rhetorical readings of texts of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, and G. W. F. Hegel gathered in Aesthetic Ideology, focused on the concept of the sublime and on the function and status of the category of the aesthetic.
The concept of materiality that emerges through these readings is connected by de Man with the concept of history as irreversible occurrence. Close consideration of the category of the aesthetic in Kant and Hegel and of a literary text staging the Schillerian notions of "aesthetic education" and the "aesthetic state" (Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater") leads de Man to diagnose and indict, as a fundamental strategy of the aesthetic ideology he links with the totalitarian state, "aesthetic formalization": the aesthetification, as a satisfying, recognizable form, of the formal, mechanical, arbitrary, and contradictory processes of language. His counterproposal to the conception of the work as a fully formal system is that of a reading process in which the formal and referential aspects of language are continually in conflict and at stake. Questions of history thus merge with questions of the structure and role of institutions and specifically of the institution of teaching.

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