Paul de Man now, or, nihilism in the right company.
--Paul de Man (2)
Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin gathers essays by J. Hillis Miller, Tom Cohen, and Claire Colebrook. (3) The book also contains a set of notes by Paul de Man from which he delivered "Conclusions: Walter Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator,'" the last of the Messenger Lectures de Man gave at Cornell in 1983. Two sets of these notes exist, a shorter and a longer. Theory and the Disappearing Future reproduces the longer set. Colebrook contributes an introduction to the book and transcribed de Man's notes, which appear both as a facsimile of de Man's handwritten notebook pages and as the transcription. These notes give the reader entrance into de Man's workshop of thought, especially if the reader compares the notes with the lecture on Benjamin as it appears in de Man's posthumous The Resistance to Theory.
Three decades have passed since de Man delivered his Benjamin lecture. Catastrophes de Man did not survive to witness now press institutions toward their limits: religion-inflected wars of choice, teetering capitalism, and climate change. Theory and the Disappearing Future addresses these disasters. Cohen focuses on climate and economic collapse, Miller on religion via de Man's discussion of the "theotropic," and Colebrook on attempts to reboot "left" politics to address capitalism's endgame. The three literary scholars make no claim to be academic specialists in climate change, religion, or political economy, but each has expertise in reading literature for aesthetic appreciation and in distinguishing between the aesthetic as manifest in novels, poems, and plays and aesthetic ideology as manifest in (supposedly) critical discourses.
In "Toxic assets: de Man's remains and the ecocatastrophic imaginary (an American fable)," Cohen argues the implications of climate change expose the humanistic disciplines in U.S. academia as milling about in a precritical cul-de-sac signposted with exhortations toward "inclusion." In their claims to speak for "social justice," these disciplines show themselves unaware of or in confusion about the game-ending logics climate change brings. Cohen questions narratives of progress advocating an "empathic" reaching out to some "other" in a gesture of "inclusion." On the one hand, to gather more persons into the levels and types of consumption upper-middleclass Americans enjoy can only exacerbate the environmental impacts speeding up climate change. On the other hand, this notion of inclusion operates as the benign face of a planetary war to domesticate and dominate, an ongoing, transnational war insuring, for example, that 5 percent of the globe's populace (the U.S.) may consume 25 percent of global energy production (129).
The economic dynamics, political institutions, social structures, and ways of life that evolved under modernity's banner of humanity are inseparable from the consumption of fossil fuels. The resulting pollutions drive climate changes that are making untenable those ways of life, social structures, political institutions, and economic dynamics. Our modes of thought, habits of narration, and imaginings of horizons need to catch up to this situation. Jeopardizing the concomitants of the "human," climate change prompts a questioning of that category as an aspect of a now unsustainable modernity. Foucault thought an unforeseen "event" might lead the regimes of knowledge positing the human to "crumble," and, as a result, "man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." (4) The "event" precipitating a shift in knowledge regimes and so the erasure of the human, Cohen suggests, is climate change, with rising sea levels bringing, literally and figuratively, the waves Foucault predicted would dissolve the "face drawn in the sand." However, climate change may also result in the extinction of the species responsible for yet irreducible to that face.
Cohen dissects pieties common among humanities academics in their isolation from the sciences. He suggests the insensibility of cultural academia's benighted "politics" to the implications of climate science should surprise no one, given said academia's allergic reaction to the break with anthropic programs de Man's work enacts. As Cohen elaborates, this break happens in de Man's work via what de Man calls "materiality," a faceless, anorganic alterity irrecuperable by anthropomorphism and deconstructive of anthropocentric logics and mirages, as exemplified by the materiality of the letter displacing and disarticulating the human as language's originator, a topic in de Man's Benjamin lecture. (5) Such displacement and disarticulation of the human as an organic unity and as an origin enacts an irreversible crossing out and away from the anthropic. Cohen argues this crossing de Man enacts offers much for scholars attempting to think about climate change. This break with the anthropic suggests de Man's contemporary importance.
To undergo this break would allow scholars of literature, culture, and media to think their way toward an imaginary more adequate to the realm climate scientists study, the realm where logics of planetary climate change partially result from yet are blankly indifferent to the societies tangled up with fossil-fuel dependant capitalism. Climate scientists can help us to know this realm, but literary scholars, art historians, film critics, and so on need to help us to imagine it. The knowledge scientists provide and some literary works have leapt ahead of the imaginary academics in the humanities tend to acknowledge, foster, and criticize. (6)
Human beings will increasingly exist, insofar as they will continue to exist, only on terms largely set by nonhuman logics unprecedented in the histories of their societies and unarticulated by their predominant narratives. In 79 CE, Pompeii's citizens, in their last moments, at least could scan their memories for accounts of a previous if less drastic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 217 BCE. The segment of the global population located in the U.S. is undergoing a more slow-motion catastrophe, but the climate changes Americans are beginning to confront have scant precedent in their historical or cultural memories.
And, following the rubric of American exceptionalism, these memories have been adept at projecting visions of progress dissimulative of ongoing exploitation, oppression, and inequality. Cohen suggests this blinding continues into the era of climate change, but with exploitation, oppression, and inequality soon to become stunningly inadequate terms. Vulnerable residents of the areas of the planet where global heating will hit hardest U.S. leadership elites have consigned to "population culling," if the 2004 Department of Defense report on climate change is to be believed (154, note 2). The U.S. federal government's initial nonresponse to the Katrina disaster offered a local rehearsal of an oncoming planet-wide "strategy of split wealth respeciezation" (154, note 2). The programs of "social justice," "multiculturalism," and "diversity" have little purchase on the realm of climate change, and their anthropic frameworks reinforce blindness to the stakes of climate change for thought and action. Tied to narratives of progress, these programs rely on visions of a future that, on inspection, project versions of the present, only cleansed of the contradictions and impasses making the present unsustainable. According to Cohen, if the term "future" implies an extension into the next decades of some form of politically liberal and economically neoliberal modernity, climate change cancels the future. Climate change "absolutely interrupts any progressive modernity, whether conceived of as national or 'global.' And the first to be passively triaged will be those at the bottom" (101).
Cohen polemicizes unsparingly--or does he merely offer a dispassionate autopsy, and this proceeding with the sooner-or-later extinction of Homo sapiens always in mind, an extinction that narratives of progress tend to occlude? In the humanities, to cling now to the "future" as a gradual inclusion into the "American dream" is to busy oneself rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. To oversimplify, or, Cohen argues, perhaps not: in the university buildings housing biologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, and so on, scientists are studying how the iceberg set the ship to sinking, how the ship now sinking partially brought the iceberg about, and how the sinking will unevenly impact the various hominid and nonhominid populations aboard. In the university buildings housing literary critics, cultural intellectuals, media ethicists, and so on, scholars all too often still think, teach, and write as if the ship were steaming onward into its "future."
In her essay contribution "The calculus of individual worth," Colebrook deals with a related problem: the "future" is caught up in millennial or apocalyptic visions of humanity's deliverance from history and harmonious unification. To believe that the bodies of living beings are unities or wholes, and that poems can exhibit such organic form, has helped some poets to do their work and some readers to cultivate an aesthetic. However, the appropriation of the organic analogy to political dynamics fosters aesthetic ideologies. Colebrook argues that, in their efforts to think toward effective political intervention in the ongoing economic disaster, philosophers such as Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Zizek relapse into organicist models of personhood and community.
Colebrook notes Agamben's and Zizek's appeals to Saint Paul (135). Colebrook could usefully digress on Paul, who figures the community of believers as exhibiting what he claims to be the body's wholeness (1 Corinthians 12.12-27). (7) This community would attain organic unity through sublating the law, or the letter of the law, which Paul casts as undermining individual and community cohesion, inflaming antagonisms, and fostering the corruptions of sin and death. Though not in relation to organicist notions of community per se, to reconcile Paul and Derrida may be conceivable. (8) A thinker irreconcilable to Paul and even explosive of the Saint's contemporary "left" reconstructions is Paul de Man.
To posit the human or the human community as existing logically or existentially prior to anonymous systems or economics, or as emerging from a presystematic or preeconomic realm and seeking some dialectical overcoming of those realms to attain disalienation and reharmonization, plays out a version of Saint Paul's model: as the telos of Paul's community of believers, and via Paul's anticipation of the Hegelian Aufhebung, organic unity would reconvene at a higher level the Edenic state lost by the fall into law, sin, and death. Colebrook shows contemporary attempts at political thought to be stuck in models that assume "the human" to have been an organic unity and, in striving to regain such unity, to exist contrary to law, system, and economics. Colebrook draws from de Man the counter proposition that political actors are inseparable from a socioeconomic system that itself partakes of the inhuman. The organicist notion of the human clouds analysis, but the notion of the human may be inevitably organicist. Since the human "individual" operates "as a figure of self-ownership, appropriation and survival, with the environment always being that which environs or surrounds a proper body," an environment abject and subject to the "rapacity" of the human, Colebrook concludes that "the destruction of humanity can be viewed as a positive and affirmative event" (Cohen et al. 2012, 152). Colebrook pursues her critique of organicist notions of personhood while thinking toward humanity's extinction. (9) In this thinking, a highest value undergoes devaluation, "life" as humanity's limitless extension forward in time; thought lets immortalist assumptions go and reorients toward the humility of a species experiencing a non-Pauline kenosis, a Nietzschean "going under." Bringing extinction to thought, climate change empties from thought any appearance of humanity as temporally omnipotent, as moving toward a future that enacts a beginning ripe with a future, ad infinitum. As any such future disappears, the catastrophic now comes forward, irreversible, unavoidable. Colebrook suggests much of contemporary political thought, attempting to envision a future for humanity, cannot see the shrinking forests for the trees. Perhaps for any "future" of "humanity" to disappear would be preferable. This eventuality de Man's "destructive deconstruction" can help actualize (145).
The essay Miller contributes, "Paul de Man at work: In these bad days, what good is an archive?," unfolds a reading of de Man impressive even by the high standards Miller consistently sets. A section of Miller's essay explores the implications of the UC Irvine Critical Theory Archive collecting various de Man manuscripts. Miller examines de Man's essay in Allegories of Reading on Rousseau's Profession de foi (Profession of faith) in relation to de Man's handwritten manuscript, completed in 1973, which the Archive recently posted online, along with a transcription. Miller also explores de Man's Benjamin lecture notes and the published version of the lecture, which was transcribed from audiotape.
Miller's limpid prose constitutes an impressive pedagogical act. The challenge to pedagogy de Man's work poses largely results from the unnerving implications of de Man's thoughts and from the reticence to understanding what those thoughts provoke. Against de Man's thought, a reader's ideological guard stands ready. Miller's sentences maintain an impression of easy readability while beguiling the reader into following Miller through a challenging maze of arguments, de Man's on Rousseau and on Benjamin and Miller's on all three. The calm, even tone of Miller's prose allows the thoughts Miller teases from de Man's essays to impact the reader fully, to set the reader's mind racing.
As Miller explains the manuscript of de Man's Profession de foi essay to show, after writing but then crossing through the titles "Allegories of politics and religion," "Allegories of religion and of politics," and "Religion and the politics of Allegory," de Man gave the manuscript the title "Theotropic Allegory" (58). Then de Man titled the published version "Allegory of Reading (Profession de foi)." The manuscript includes five pages de Man left out of the published essay. These pages include the phrase "theotropic allegory." This phrase guides Miller's exposition of the aporia between theism and atheism de Man finds in Rousseau's Profession de foi. Miller shows that aporia to inhabit de Man's essay, and Miller lets the aporia stand in his.
De Man argues Rousseau's Profession de foi upholds and undermines both theistic and atheistic claims. Miller articulates how de Man's phrase "theotropic allegory" repeats this aporia: "The word 'theotropic" has a double meaning. It can mean both turned toward God, and, since a trope is a substitution, turned away from God, apotheotropically, toward some specific semantic referent that is a cryptic cover for God, a hiding of God" (71). If a substitute that covers over or hides an Abrahamic god constitutes an idol, and if turning toward such a god (Yahweh, God the Father, Allah) would require the avoidance of idolatry, then the "theotropic" enacts, aporetically, both idolatry and nonidolatry. To read so as to underscore a text's theotropism would thus involve the reader in disentanglement from and reentanglement with idolatry. To think any simple, direct, or complete escape from idolatry exists only evidences a reader's relatively unthinking capture by idolatry. Miller quotes the following from the published version of de Man's Profession de foi essay: "But if we decide that belief, in the most extensive use of the term (which must include all possible forms of idolatry and ideology) can once and forever be overcome by the enlightened mind, then this twilight of the idols will be all the more foolish in not recognizing itself as the first victim of its occurrence." (10) A partial overcoming of idolatry may occur when readers remark their own ironic, inevitable reenactment of idolatry precisely in their most ardent efforts to read nonidolatrously. (11) Belief encompasses idolatry, yet another form of belief, or idolatry, is for readers to believe they have overcome belief, that is, overcome idolatry, so any twilight of the idols would, ironically, put first into the shade readers who rashly declare their own escape from belief. This complex implication of the would-be nonidolatrous reader both in idolatry and in the idols' twilight prompts de Man to state: "One sees from this that the impossibility of reading should not be taken too lightly" (de Man 1979, 245).
De Man brings the term "belief" into alignment with the term "idolatry," and this via his allusion (which Miller notes ) to Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols, though de Man also defines belief (idolatry) as inescapable. Here things get dicey, yet in an interesting way suggesting readers of Miller's For Derrida (2009) should enter an interminable conversation with readers of John D. Caputo's The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (1997). These are sometimes the very same readers, Athena help them!
Or perhaps an impetus for such a conversation will come when some intrepid researcher discovers in a neglected Yale file cabinet an essay by de Man on Levinas. Such an essay would be of great interest, especially in relation to Levinas's concern that to confuse Levinas's preferred Abrahamic deity with being exemplifies the idolatrous, with Levinas implying ontology courts an idolatry of being. (12) Consider Miller's reading of how de Man himself gets caught up in theotropism. Miller quotes Rousseau's claim: "According to me the distinctive faculty of the active or intelligent being is the power to give a meaning to this word 'is'" (Cohen et al. 2012, 72, Miller's translation). In "Theotropic Allegory," de Man writes that "referentiality" is "constitutively theotropic, since the only conceivable name for transcendental signification that would no longer be itself a sign, the only word that would have a truly proper meaning, is 'god.' The only 'meaning that one can give the word to be' (Profession, p. 571) is that of 'god." (13) Miller argues de Man here repeats the aporia of Rousseau: is de Man's text asserting theism or atheism? If de Man is serious in asserting the only word we can use to give being a meaning is "god," then de Man, argues Miller, "is accepting the existence of a transcendent god who, as transcendent, is beyond wordplay" (Cohen et al. 2012, 72). In this case, de Man would be a theist. However, "If what de Man says is ironic, his assertion would mean that the word 'god' fallaciously hypothesizes or performatively creates the illusion of an independently existing transcendent deity
who would be above all wordplay" (72). In this case, de Man would be an atheist. In stating both cases, to refer to a "god," Miller writes "who." To think of a god as a "who" implies a name with a referent. To think of a god as a "what" implies a common noun with a meaning. The de Man quote on the theotropic aberrations of referentiality begins by suggesting the word "god" functions as a name ("the only conceivable name for transcendental signification"). Then de Man moves toward a meaning ("the only word that would have a truly proper meaning"), and finally de Man concludes: "The only 'meaning that one can give the word to be' ... that of 'god'" (de Man 1973, 134). "To be" means "god." The de Man of "Theotropic Allegory" (1973) moves between thinking of a god as a "who" and as a "what." A similar who/what quandary troubles de Man in his Benjamin notes. In translating Benjamin's "Theological-Political Fragment," to offer a pronoun to refer to "the messiah," de Man first wrote "it," then crossed out this pronoun and replaced "it" with "he" (Cohen et al. 2012, 33). However, in delivering the lecture, de Man went back to "it," or so the transcription indicates. De Man quoting his translation of Benjamin: "Only the messiah himself puts an end to history, in the sense that it frees, completely fulfills the relationship of history to the messianic" (de Man 1986, 93, my emphasis). In Benjamin's German, the pronoun in question is er. (14) In reference to a "who," er translates as "he"; in reference to a "what," er translates as "it." (15)
In "Theotropic Allegory," de Man writes that, for "to be," the word "god" offers the only "truly proper meaning." The god readers encounter in Genesis, especially in the J thread, restricts himself to neither propriety, nor truth, nor meaning. To assimilate this god to a Middle Platonist or logocentric notion of serene and static being requires a considerable washing out or taming of the deity in question. Such assimilation relieves the reader of the unnerving uncanniness of Yahweh by recuperating Yahweh in being as a what. Yet this assimilation also relieves the reader of the unnerving uncanniness of being by forgetting being in a specifiable entity addressable, say in prayer, as a who. The deconstruction of the who/what opposition precisely disambiguates the two in opening their aporia rather than confusing a who for a what or a what for a who. This aporia keeps Yahweh and being distinct and leaves the reader confronting a virtually unbearable finitude, even if (or especially because) Yahweh has always been a character written up by J and being's reassuring presence has always been an artifact of the erasure of the mark Derrida, following Levinas, calls the trace. Which is more unbearable: in confronting being, to realize no one is there, or in confronting Yahweh, to realize nothing is there? Try both realizations at once. To insist someone and something are there where no one and nothing are, and to worship sacrificially that no one and nothing as someone and something, Nietzsche would call reactive nihilism.
The idolatrous confusion of Yahweh and being, of who and what, involves a reactive nihilism. In his notes on Benjamin, and then in the lecture based on those notes, de Man articulates an active nihilism resistant to such idolatrous or ideological confusions. In the lecture, de Man discusses Benjamin's distinction between "what is meant" and the "way in which language means," the disjunction, de Man states, "between logos and lexis" (de Man 1986, 86). While "the meaning-function is certainly intentional, it is not a priori certain at all that the mode of meaning ... is intentional in any way" (87). I may certainly intend to mean, but my effort to mean depends on "linguistic properties" that are not "made by me" or "perhaps not even made by humans at all" (87). These "linguistic properties" themselves exist without meaning. For example, argues de Man, consider "the relationship between letter and word":
the letter is without meaning in relation to the word, it is a-semos, it is without meaning. When you spell a word you say a certain number of meaningless letters, which then come together in the word, but in each of the letters the word is not present. The two are absolutely independent of each other. What is being named here as the disjunction between grammar and meaning ... is the materiality of the letter.... the way in which the letter can disrupt the ostensibly stable meaning of a sentence and introduce in it a slippage by means of which that meaning disappears, evanesces, and by means of which all control over that meaning is lost. (89)
What de Man calls "the disjunction between grammar and meaning," Saint Paul calls the opposition between the "letter" (gramma) and the "spirit" (pneuma) (Romans 2.29). Paul looks for a final sublation of the disruptive, disarticulating "letter," a spiriting away that would correlate with a complete integration or totalization on the model of a supposed organic unity. Sin, death, the letter, and idolatry line up for Paul with the letter operating as a force of mortifying disarticulation. The nonidolatrous for Paul corresponds to an organic oneness of the community of believers in which each is a part embodying the whole, a synecdochic relation. In contrast, for de Man, the most ideological or idolatrous moment occurs as "the illusion of totality," such as when Benjamin offers "a figure of perfect synecdoche in which the partial trope expresses the totality of a meaning" (de Man 1986, 89). But, argues de Man, Benjamin undercuts the totalizing synecdoches he poses. In Benjamin's figure of a fragmented vessel to describe the relation of an original text to translations, with the given translation showing the original to have always already been fragmentary, "We have a metonymic, a successive pattern, in which things follow, rather than a metaphorical unifying pattern in which things become one by resemblance" (90).
In commenting on the disjunction between the intent to mean and the "mode of meaning," de Man invokes "the law": "If language is not necessarily human--if we obey the law, if we function within language, and purely in terms of language--there can be no intent" toward an unproblematic, totalized meaning (87). Whichever law de Man may be invoking, the Decalogue's idolatry prohibition comes to mind, or de Man's implicit version of that prohibition, which precisely counters Saint Paul's logocentric revaluation of the second commandment. De Man's insistence on "the materiality of the letter" implies a high-stakes Paul-versus-Paul agon. Paul's epistles strive to uphold the "spirit" and vanquish the disarticulating force of the letter. Imagine the consternation Paul would have undergone in fielding a namesake's argument that the materiality of the letter always already inhabits and disarticulates any "original," including any originating word, logos, or "spirit." The Gospel According to John would kick off logocentrism with: "In the beginning was the Word [logos]" (1.1). Benjamin, de Man argues, suggests how the translation process "reveals the instability of the original," "de-canonize[s] the original," and supplies the original with "a movement of disintegration, of fragmentation," "a wandering, an errance" (de Man 1986, 92). In "The Task of the Translator," Benjamin quotes John 1.1 in the "original" Greek: "En archei en llo logos." (16) In his shorter set of notes for his Benjamin lecture, de Man jotted down Luther's German translation: "Im Anfang war das Wort ... " (de Man 1986, 105, note 8). To translate: in the beginning, the letter undid the W=o=R=d.
The disappearance or evanescence or disarticulation of meaning: this zero-degree moment, via the letter's materiality, occasions a separation between pure language (reine Sprache) and poetic language. What Benjamin calls the
[r]eine Sprache, the sacred language, has nothing in common with poetic language; poetic language does not resemble it, poetic language does not depend on it, poetic language has nothing to do with it. It is within this negative knowledge of its relation to the language of the sacred that poetic language initiates. It is, if you want, a necessarily nihilistic moment that is necessary in any understanding of history. (de Man 1986, 92)
The "totalizing power of tropological substitutions" results in a totalization of meaning, an ideology or idolatry (89). The golden-calf episode in Exodus plays this dynamic out quite precisely, with the substitute or trope for Yahweh, the calf, positing a totalization, an idol, of Yahweh (32.1-14). However, despite the "illusion" of totalization, the "trope as such" remains tied to the materiality of the letter that disarticulates, disrupts, or evanesces such totalization and thus resists the concomitant ideology or idolatry (de Man 1986, 89). Through this disarticulation, this withdrawal or dissolution of totalized meaning, the poetic separates from the sacred, poetic language from sacred language. De Man follows Benjamin in thinking of this moment of separation as "a necessarily nihilistic moment." This would be an iconoclastic nihilism actively in resistance to ideology or idolatry. In his notes, de Man underlines the word "active": "necessarily nihilistic moment / active moment" (Cohen et al. 2012, 51).
Miller, Colebrook, and Cohen argue de Man's writings harbor strategies useful for thought now more than ever. In this now, de Man's texts may help their readers to become newly acquainted with their finitude and their institutions" transience by becoming more adroit at passing through nihilism. De Man's praise of Benjamin's evocation of nihilism in the "Theological-Political Fragment" came about in the discussion following de Man's Benjamin lecture at Cornell. This lecture had been preceded in the series by "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," a lecture published in the posthumous Aesthetic Ideology. (17) The Kantian sublime fissures ideology in a way that clarifies de Man's praise of Benjamin's "nihilistic" approach to history and moves us closer to the future's disappearance that Colebrook, Cohen, and Miller ask us to embrace.
Kant argues that the sublime occurs when a phenomenon such as a high mountain range "determines the mind to think of nature's inability to attain to an exhibition of ideas," such as the idea of infinity. (18) The sublime of nature is "negative," a disjunction between a sensible presentation, however vast, and the "supersensible" idea (infinity) the sensible presentation attempts but fails to exhibit (Kant 1987, 128-29). The disjunction in the sublime between the sensible and the supersensible militates toward thought's release from ideology. Ideology confuses the sensible for a presentation, a making phenomenal, of the supersensible or nonphenomenal. This confusion loses the sensible and the supersensible. In itself, the sensible remains utterly senseless-without meaning. In itself, the supersensible remains utterly senseless-without sensation. Aesthetic ideology numbs thought to both the sensible and the supersensible in confusing sensation for meaning or meaning for sensation. In the sublime, meaning's withdrawal from sensation and sensation's withdrawal from meaning yields an exalting intensification of the sensible and the supersensible. By enacting the disjunction between the sensible and the supersensible, the sublime short-circuits the ideological.
To discuss the Kantian sublime's crowbar-effect on ideologies, de Man distinguishes between "transcendental and metaphysical principles" (de Man 1996, 70). While metaphysical principles describe the characteristics of an existent, transcendental principles articulate the conditions of possibility of said existent. De Man: "Metaphysical principles lead to the identification and definition, to the knowledge, of a natural principle that is not itself a concept; transcendental principles lead to the definition of a conceptual principle of possible existence" (71). Transcendental principles are demystifying. They reveal the conditions of existence of an object, but: "Metaphysical principles ... take the existence of their object for granted as empirical fact" (71). De Man's rumination on the distinction between the transcendental and the metaphysical leads de Man to a statement about ideology: "Ideologies, to the extent that they necessarily contain empirical moments and are directed toward what lies outside the realm of pure concepts, are on the side of metaphysics rather than [transcendental principles or] critical philosophy" (72).
The Kantian negative sublime, especially as de Man reads it, comes to the fore in Benjamin's essay "Trauerspiel and Tragedy":
Historical time is infinite in every direction and unfulfilled at every moment. This means we cannot conceive of a particular empirical event that would have a necessary relation to the specific time in which it occurs. Time is for the empirical event only a form, but, what is more important, as a form it is unfulfilled. The event does not fulfill the formal nature of the time in which it lies. (19)
Glossing this passage, Michael W. Jennings notes that "Benjamin's philosophy denies to history the existence of any objective totality within which events occur and are integrated.... in Benjamin's theory the context, conceived of as a totality, dissolves, exposing the historical event as a radically unique fragment of time." (20) Again the disjunction between the empirical event and the transcendental principle that is its condition of possibility carries a critical potential. While philosophy, argues Benjamin, attempts the "annihilation of ... metaphysical elements in an epistemology," Benjamin's historical sublime proceeds by opening the gap between the empirical historical occurrence and its transcendent condition of possibility, time as an empty form. (21) Benjamin's sublime dismantles metaphysics in relation to history. Any assertion implying the metaphysical actuality of an empirical historical event (such as to declare the U.S. endless or time's fulfillment) becomes untenable because any "event that is complete in historical terms is altogether indeterminate empirically; it is, in fact, an idea. This idea of fulfilled time appears in the Bible as its dominant historical idea: as messianic time" (Benjamin 2011, 242). To believe a particular event presents (and so exhausts) the Kantian "idea" or the empty form "time" courts ideology or, in Benjamin's deployment of biblical thought, such belief entails the idolatry of confusing the profane for the messianic. Imagine confusing a particular historical socioeconomic configuration for time's messianic fulfillment ("American exceptionalism"): to assimilate an empirical instance to a transcendent Kantian idea is the gesture Benjamin denounces as "metaphysics or mythology." De Man aligns this assimilation with ideology.
Such assimilation Benjamin criticizes in his "Theological-Political Fragment." There, the Kantian connotation of the messianic as idea drops out as an explicit reference, but Benjamin underlines the messianic's relationship of transcendence vis-a-vis the historical. The distinction between the empirical historical event and time as an infinite, unfulfillable form that Benjamin outlines in "Trauerspiel and Tragedy" becomes in the "Theological-Political Fragment" the disjunction between the historical and the messianic. This disjunction Benjamin finds useful to enact a political program. While "the order of the profane cannot be built up on the idea of the Divine Kingdom," the profane, through its transience, "is a decisive category of [the Messianic Kingdom's] quietest approach":
To the spiritual restitutio in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing ... is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism. (22)
The title Theory and the Disappearing Future implies such an actively nihilistic task. The conjunction relating de Manian theory to the future's disappearance is "and," not "or." Consider futurity what Kant would call an idea, an instance of the supersensible, and so by definition unavailable to sensibility except in the confusions of ideology. To confuse the future with an appearance loses the future in the now and loses the now as well, the now as Benjamin's now-time or Jetztzeit, the punctual moment bringing specific histories to a standstill while flushing away any appearance of futurity. The moment Benjamin calls now-time condenses entire histories for cognition as altogether transient and startles the ideologically entranced from the homogeneous, empty time of the future's appearances, these appearances being necessarily ideological. Partisans of the now, Miller, Cohen, and Colebrook think toward the future's disappearance.
The phenomena of climate change exist, yet ideological confusions and befuddlements allow policy formation to be held hostage. If thought could suspend the persuasiveness of the appearances of the future dissembling the now of climate change, then chances might emerge to invigorate debates and to redirect policy formation toward more tenable responses, should there be any. Without any distracting optimism or pessimism, but rather with admirable patience and invigorating ruthlessness, Theory and the Disappearing Future attempts to dismantle ideologies. Seeking to dispel the future's appearances, the critiques Theory and the Disappearing Future enacts proceed like electromagnetic pulses that interrupt the screening of the future's appearances and leave the (former) image-consumer with no place to exist and no time to be except here in the catastrophic now. Miller, Cohen, and Colebrook would wrench their readers from the trance of the future's appearances and into the shock of the now-time. Their effort to occupy the now goes against their readers' wishes: who would wish to end his or her days in the situation we confront? No one, yet here we all are.
Benjamin, Walter. "On the Program of the Coming Philosophy." Trans. Mark Ritter. Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926. Eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jermings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996a. 100-10.
--. "The Task of the Translator." Trans. Harry Zohn. Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926. Eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996b. 253-63.
--. "Theological-Political Fragment." Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken, 1978. 312-13.
--. "Theologisch-politisches Fragment." Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 2.1. Eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991. 203-04.
--. "Trauerspiel and Tragedy." Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Early Writings 19101917. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011. 241-45.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Caputo, John D. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.
Colebrook, Claire. Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Vol. I. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities P, forthcoming.
--. "Sexual Indifference." Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1. Ed. Tom Cohen. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities P, 2012. 167-82.
Cohen, Tom. "The Geomorphic Fold: Anapocalyptics, Changing Climes and 'Late' Deconstruction." The Oxford Literary Review 32.1 (2010): 71-78.
--, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski, eds. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.
Cohen, Tom. "Murmurations-'Climate Change' and the Defacement of Theory." Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1. Ed. Tom Cohen. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities P, 2012. 13-42.
de Man, Paul. "Allegory of Reading (Profession defoi)." Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. 221-45.
--. "Conclusions: Walter Benjamin's 'The Task of the Translator.'" The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. 73-105.
--. "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant." Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 70-90.
--. "Theotropic Allegory [Transcription]." Textual Allegories. UCI Space @ the Libraries. 1973. 22July2012. http://ucispace.lib.uci.edu/handle/10575/1092. "er," Harrap's Concise German Dictionary. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990. 152.
Florian, Sandy. Boxing the Compass. Las Cruces, NM: Noemi, 2013.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Herzog, Annabel. "Levinas and the Unnamed Balaam: On Idolatry and Ontology." The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 19.2 (2011): 131-45.
Jennings, Michael W. Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.
Jennings, Theodore W., Jr. Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005.
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Miller, J. Hillis. For Derrida. New York: Fordham UP, 2009. Oventile, Robert S. Impossible Reading: Idolatry and Diversity in Literature. Aurora, CO: Davies, 2008.
"Paul de Man, Now More Than Ever?" Postmodern Culture 11.3 (2001): 22 pars. Project Muse. Web. Accessed 22 April 2013.
PASADENA CITY COLLEGE
(1) A review of Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller, Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin. With a manuscript by Paul de Man. London and New York: Routledge (2012).
(2) de Man (1986, 103).
(3) The occasion precipitating Miller's and Cohen's essays was the 2009 symposium at UC Irvine organized by Martin McQuillan and Erin Obodiac. Titled "Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic: Paul de Man's Political Archive," the symposium focused on unpublished de Man texts transcribed by Obodiac from de Man's handwritten manuscripts.
(4) Foucault (1994, 387).
(5) Cohen has long been pursuing the implications of de Man's "materiality," as evidenced by his contributions to Material Events, his essays on climate change, and his work as coeditor with Colebrook of the series Critical Climate Change published by Open Humanities Press. See Cohen, et al. (2001, vii-xxv and 114-52), Cohen (2010, 71-78), and Cohen (2012, 13-42). For a review of Material Events discussing de Man's term "materiality," see Oventile (2001).
(6) For a novella deeply sounding climate change, see Florian (2013).
(7) The Bible (1997). All biblical citations are from this edition.
(8) See Jennings, Jr. (2005).
(9) For further work by Colebrook on these topics, see Colebrook (2012,167-82) and Colebrook (forthcoming).
(10) de Man (1979, 245). The quote appears in Miller's essay at page 66.
(11) For an elaboration, see Oventile (2008).
(12) See Herzog (2011, 131-45).
(13) de Man (1973, 134).
(14) Benjamin (1991, 203).
(15) "er," Harrap's Concise German Dictionary (1990, 152).
(16) Benjamin (1996b, 260).
(17) de Man (1996).
(18) Kant (1987, 127).
(19) Benjamin (2011, 241).
(20) Jennings (1987, 46-47).
(21) Benjamin (1996a, 102).
(22) Benjamin (1978, 312-13).
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|Author:||Oventile, Robert Savino|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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