The Disappearing Future of Theory? — Review by Daniel Nutters



Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin
Eds. Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller.
New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory opens as follows: “Why de Man today? What if any claim might a project so linked to ‘theory’ that seems so out of fashion … have in an era, say, moving beyond ‘cultural studies’ to a reworking of technology, of technicity, of concerted political imaginaries and revived notions of materiality?” (vii). In the book under review, Theory and the Disappearing Future, published eleven years later, we see that these questions remain unanswered: “We [the editors: Claire Colebrook, Tom Cohen, and J. Hillis Miller] pose the question of de Man today” (21). J. Hillis Miller clarifies the need to ask this question when he writes: “What good is studying literature or literary theory?” (55). It is sobering to hear such a preeminent critic write these lines, yet the animating impetus behind this new volume is the “context of crisis, urgency, destruction … of ecological, cultural and financial catastrophe” (Colebrook 21) inhabiting our world at large, and, in particular, at home in “our universities [which] are, like glaciers worldwide, also in meltdown mode, especially the humanities” (Miller 55). Miller’s climate change metaphor is apt since the Paul de Man renaissance that this book attempts to mount rests on the notion that de Man’s work can challenge contemporary criticism and theory by shedding light on, what Miller simply calls, “these bad times” (55).

Along with essays by each of the editors, Theory includes a facsimile and transcript of de Man’s notes to his lecture on Benjamin. This lecture is of central importance to this de Man renaissance because its claims about the inhumanness of language allow us to ponder the ways in which “de Man’s very inhuman and unpromising theory might have something to offer” (Colebrook 21). We must, Colebrook argues in her introduction, read de Man as de Man read, “as though he came from some inhuman future” (6). Rather than restoring him to the casual game of human history, meaning, and intent, or situating him in our introductions to theory somewhere between New Criticism or Structuralism and New Historicism and seeing him “akin to a celebrity narrative” (6), we must see our de Man as “something close to an alien or monster, someone we cannot read, or whose time and desires are necessarily always blocked from us … nothing more than marks or traces” (5), someone whose language clarifies “an emergent set of twenty-first century horizons in which the predicates of history and justice that mobilized twentieth-century energies have stalled” (21).

Colebrook’s essay, “The calculus of individual worth,” picks up where her introduction leaves off by situating de Man in the moment of our “post-theoretical malaise” (130), one governed by Agamben, Zizek, and the like, and one concerned with “affect and potentiality [which] testif[y] to a post-theoretical or post-linguistic attempt to think of politics not as the negotiation of speaking humans within their already actualized world, but as the thought of the emergence of the human” (135). By putting de Man into conversation with “post-theoretical” theory, Colebrook reminds us how his “quite specific reflections on the genesis of the body politic” (143) and the “insist[ence] on language’s status as inhuman” (142) can help us reckon with our contemporary financial and political troubles. It can, she argues, “open a genealogy of the future … [where] we are confined with the question not of sustaining, maintaining and protecting life, but of reading the unreadable figures of life that have done so much violence to what appears as ‘the living’” (143). We can assume that de Manian “reading’ will allow us to “question[ ] ‘our’ (surely self-evidence) moral foundation” (134) – the kind that justifies, for example, the  cold war state, liberal state or American exceptionalism.

Tom Cohen’s “Toxic Assets” also links de Man to a pressing issue: climate change. However, unlike Colebrook’s rigorous argument, Cohen stages a critical performance that reads the “backstage war between de Man and Derrida” (92) by magnifying Derrida’s “ecological and eco-catastrophic terminology” (91). While he laments that “deconstruction appears to some dead in the water today, unable to address eco-graphematic horizons” (97), one might wonder if Cohen’s, or the volume’s, goal of using de Man to better understand our “ecocatastrophic imaginary” is the proper way to “smuggl[e] de Man back into the marketplace” (93). Is using the rhetoric of “currency wars” (117) or “(academic) resource wars” (124), as Cohen employs, or the logic of financial disaster, as we see in Colebrook, really going to help us “reconceive a ‘Humanities’ entity that can explain its import in relation to finance, the sciences – preserving the traditions it takes with it in relation to the new court of corporate universities in survival mode” (126)?  Aside from the obvious question – why should humanistic disciplines have to justify themselves to finance and the sciences – what exactly does Cohen have in mind? De Man teaching Business Ethics?

Although Miller’s contribution opens and closes by connecting de Man to the “frightening realities” (55) Colebrook and Cohen identify and attempt to confront, his primary concern is to fathom the use and importance of reading de Man’s manuscripts now housed in the critical theory archive at UC Irvine. Miller’s careful questioning and patient readings provide an array on insight into de Man, both anecdotal and scholarly, and open up a Pandora’s box of questions concerning meaning and authority. Yet, if language is truly “an inhuman machine” (87) as all the editors agree, to what do we attribute the crossed out titles that appear on the written page? Language might function like such a machine, but what agent engendered the editorial changes that comprise Miller’s close readings?

The three essays in this volume show no skepticism toward de Man’s claims about the inhuman nature of language, instead choosing to repeatedly plea for the continued relevance of their patron saint.  This desire to make de Man relevant represents, it seems to me, the volume’s irony. That is to say, by taking de Man at face value and arguing that he has much to teach us, we fail to see him as our own interlocutor. This idolatry of preaching from the gospel of Paul de Man comes across, glaringly, in each of the essays inability to move beyond the de Man affair.

Like the millennial’s views on gay marriage, scholars coming of age in our “post-theory” theoretical climate might read the repeated discussions of the de Man affair and ask, what’s the fuss? The need to make de Man relevant is not the need to demonstrate his centrality to scholar’s interrogating the “literary,” but, instead, the need to justify de Man in the face of his puerile piece of anti-Semitic journalism and plead with the reigning critical orthodoxy to let him back into the club. By continually invoking this “scandal,” Theory and the Disappearing Future seems to find itself stuck in the very dilemma de Man identified in “Literary History and Literary Modernity.” Simply put: it repeats the past in the attempt to break with it. Though these essays claim to “refuse[] the very figure of crisis” (24), they ultimately resort to it by explaining de Man’s relevance to “these bad times” (55). Instead of portraying him as an ally needed to defend literature and the humanities, we see capitulation to the more exigent concerns of climate change and financial disaster. Miller, for example, describes a misleading advertisement by an oil company to suggest that “one possible use studying literature and literary theory … might have, or ought to have, in these bad days is … unmasking of ideological aberrations” (73). In other words, literature is merely fodder for critical thinking and attaining what Andrew Delbanco has recently called “a well-functioning bullshit meter” (29). But don’t all components of a liberal arts education lead to this? More than that, do we not think that the college-educated creators of the “bullshit” are aware of their product?  If de Man is only useful for “unmasking ideological aberrations,” do we really need de Man?

Claire Colebrook begins her essay with an epigraph citing characteristically humorous lines from Frank Lentricchia: “Assuming there is a Yale mafia, then surely there must be a resident Godfather. One is forced to finger Paul de Man, who exhibits qualities that may earn him the role of Don Paolo, capo di tutti capi” (qtd. in Colebrook 130). By conjuring up the ghost of de Man we find ourselves, like de Man on Shelley (an essay that is oddly not discussed throughout the volume), engaged in “the endless prosopopoeia by which the dead are made to have a face and a voice which tells the allegory of their demise and allows us to apostrophize them in our turn” (de Man 122). In Theory and the Disappearing Future de Man surely returns to us, but this time, sadly, he appears as Don Fredo. If we need de Man, and of course we do, our discussion of him must be more than a critical exhumation project, it should give face to a de Man that can help prevent the actual disappearance of the humanities.

Daniel Nutters


Work Cited
Cohen, Tom, Claire Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller. Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Cohen, Tom, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Cohen. “A ‘Materiality without Matter?’” Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. Eds. Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminkski. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. vii-xxv. Print.
De Man, Paul. “Shelley Disfigured.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 93-124. Print.
Delbanco, Andrew. College: What it was, is, and should be. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. Print.