Sunday, January 07, 2007

"Meaning is Fascist."
(pg. 58)

Today I finished reading my first book of 2007: David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (first published in 1991).

The majority of the book is devoted primarily to deconstruction itself, not specifically de Man, and more often than not it relies on juvenile jabs at the theory, sucker-punches thrown at Derrida, and failed attempt after failed attempt to debunk or dethrone deconstruction. In his limited way, Lehman uses every opportunity to mock, and he even goes so far as to condescend to poststructuralism in total, which I found hilarious in its simplicity. Here Lehman's reductive explanations of complex philosophical ideas seem even funnier to me in light of his apparent disdain for deconstruction: as with anything, ignorance breeds hate, and Lehman has plenty of ignorance to fuel his prejudice.

A chunk of the second half of the book is primarily fixated on de Man's involvement with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir from 1940-42, and by extension his participation in or endorsement of Nazism. This is the same tired old argument that always gets trotted out for show: de Man was a Nazi sympathizer therefore his theories and ideas are void of value. (Heidegger, too, while we're at it.) This argument has always seemed so amateurish to me. Attempting to link a writer's work with his/her personal life is ridiculous: as any good deconstructionist can tell you, the two have nothing in common.

Lehman actually begins to make an excellent point towards the end of the book when he offers the following example:

"If a brilliant mathematician is revealed to have behaved disgracefully in a moment of historical crisis, we may alter our opinion of the man's character but we will readily agree that the new knowledge has no bearing on his mathematical formulas." (pg. 218)

Interesting. But then he ruins it in the very next sentence by making a distinction between this hypothetical mathematician and a theoretician concerned with language and literature, i.e. de Man, as if the latter somehow reclassifies the ethical obligations of the thinker or else somehow inextricably links that thinker with responsibilities not required of the other.

To put it differently, this reminds me of the argument over Woody Allen: does the fact that he married his daughter impact the quality of his films? Or Roman Polanski: does the fact that he slept with a 14 year old mean that his films are inherently atrocious?

I find this especially interesting when discussing a deconstructionist, as deconstructionists tend to emphatically disavow pathos at every turn.

Overall, I suppose I enjoyed reading this book, if for nothing else the last chapter, which involved a lecture Derrida gave on "The Politics of Friendship."

If you don't know anything about deconstruction, this book might be interesting as an introduction (especially Chapter 4), just so long as you keep in mind that Lehman is anti and therefore his position contaminates the prose. Don't be fooled by his attacks. The poststructuralist road is not necessarily a road to oblivion.