All in the family: Hendrik de Man and his nephew, Paul

Texts by Paul de Man

  1. Aesthetic Ideology
  2. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
  3. Critical Writings, 1953-1978
  4. Notebooks
  5. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism
  6. The Post-Romantic Predicament
  7. The Resistance to Theory

Texts on Paul de Man

  1. The Political Archive of Paul de Man: Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic
  2. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory

Texts by Hendrik de Man

  1. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism
  2. Beyond Marxism: Faith and Works

Texts on Hendrik de Man

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Idealist Revision of Marxism: The Ethical Socialism of Henri De Man
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, A Defense of Marxism

Texts on Paul and Hendrik de Man

  1. Dick Pels, The Intellectual as Stranger: Studies in Spokesmanship


Hendrik and Paul de Man

In a 1973 article on “Semiology and Rhetoric,” the literary theorist Paul de Man raised a question posed by Archie Bunker: “What’s the difference?” Bunker was of course the lovably racist protagonist of the popular sitcom All in the Family. Playing on the character’s last name, de Man therefore continued: “Suppose it is a de-bunker rather than a ‘Bunker,’ and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie Debunker such as Nietzsche or Derrida for instance, who asks the question ‘What is the difference?’ — and we cannot even tell from his grammar whether he ‘really’ wants to know ‘what’ difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn’t even try to find out.”

Deconstruction takes, or took, such punning deadly serious. One hesitates over the tense because, well, it’s unclear whether deconstruction is taken too seriously anymore. After all, the term is usually taken to derive from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, as Derrida made clear in a 1986 interview: “It was a kind of active translation that displaces somewhat the word Heidegger uses: Destruktion, the destruction of ontology, which also does not mean the annulment, the annihilation of ontology, but an analysis of the structure of traditional ontology.” (Later Derrida would trace the concept further back to the thought of another German named Martin: namely Luther, whose word destructio prefigured its contemporary use by several centuries. This is somewhat beside the point, however).

Paul de Man accusations leveled against him

Skeletons in the closet

Ever since the publication of Victor Farías’ incendiary, if imperfect, 1985 exposé Heidegger and Nazism, the great German thinker has fallen into disrepute. Numerous titles were released in the wake of this bombshell, by scholars like Hans Sluga, Tom Rockmore, and Domenico Losurdo. Recently the discovery of the so-called Black Notebooks, which contain Heidegger’s lecture notes for 1933 up through 1935, has added to the mountain of evidence proving he was a committed fascist and virulent antisemite both in private and in public. Translation into English is slated to come out this year from Indiana University Press, but a lengthy commentary and introduction by Emmanuel Faye has been out since 2009.

Many of the criticisms made since Farías reignited the controversy have simply confirmed the judgment already passed on fundamental ontology by figures like Günther Anders and Theodor Adorno. As early as 1948, Anders accused Heidegger of nihilism: “He had no principle whatsoever, no social idea: nothing. When the trumpet of National Socialism started blaring into his moral vacuum, he became a Nazi.” In 1963, Adorno polemicized against The Jargon of Authenticity (by which he meant Heidegger’s philosophy). “Jargon even picks up banal [words], holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements.”

Jean-Pierre Faye, father of Emmanuel, further implicated Heidegger’s French admirers in the camp of deconstruction already in the 1970s. Unlike Anders or Adorno, who primarily addressed a German and American readership, Faye extended his critique of Heideggerianism to the Francophone world. Loren Goldner, a left communist and outspoken opponent of poststructuralism, explained the substance of his critique in a review entitled “Jean-Pierre Faye’s Demolition of Derrida”:

[He] shows that the famous word Dekonstruktion was first used in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by the cousin of Hermann Göring, and that the word Logozentrismus was coined (for denunciatory purposes) in the 1920s by the protofascist thinker Ludwig Klages. In short, sections of French and, more recently, American academic discourse in the “human sciences” have been dominated for decades by a terminology originating not in Heidegger but first of all in the writings of Nazi scribblers, recycled through Latin Quarter Heideggerians. Faye zeroes in with surgical skill on the evasions of those, particularly on the left, for whom the “greatest philosopher” of the century of Auschwitz happened to be — as a mere detail — a Nazi.

After 1933, under pressure from Nazi polemics, Heidegger began to characterize the prior Western metaphysical tradition as “nihilist” and worked out the whole analysis for which he became famous after 1945: the “fall” in the Western conception of Being after Parmenides and above all Aristotle, the essence of this fall in its modern development as the metaphysics of the “subject” theorized by Descartes, and the evolution of this subject up to its apotheosis in Nietzsche and the early Heidegger of Being and Time. Between 1933 and 1945, this diagnosis was applied to the decadent Western democracies overcome by the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist Movement; after 1945, Heidegger effortlessly transposed this framework to show nihilism culminating not in democracy but…in Nazism. In the 1945 “Letter on Humanism” in particular, Western humanism as a whole is assimilated to the metaphysics of this subject The new project, on the ruins of the Third Reich, was to overthrow the “Western humanism” that was responsible for Nazism! Thus the initial accommodation to Krieck and other party hacks, which produced the analysis in the first place, passed over to a “left” version in Paris, barely missing a step. The process, for a more American context, goes from Krieck to Heidegger to Derrida to the postmodern minions of the Modern Language Association. The “oscillation” that Faye demonstrated for the 1890-1933 period in Langages totalitaires has its extension in the contemporary deconstructionists of the “human sciences,” perhaps summarized most succinctly in Lyotard’s 1988 call to donner droit de cite a l’inhumain.

Faye is tracking the oscillation whereby, in 1987-1988, it became possible for Derrida, Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and others, to say, in effect: Heidegger, the Nazi “as a detail,” by his unmasking of the nihilistic “metaphysics of the subject” responsible for Nazism, was in effect the real anti-Nazi, whereas all those who, in 1933-1945 (or, by extension, today) opposed and continue to oppose fascism, racism, and antisemitism from some humanistic conviction, whether liberal or socialist, referring ultimately to the “metaphysics of the subject”-such people were and are in effect “complicit” with fascism. Thus the calls for an “inhuman” thought.

Paul de Man’s reputation in the meanwhile has suffered a fate similar to that of Heidegger. Shortly after his death in 1983, it was revealed that he enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Between 1940 and 1942, de Man contributed a number of articles to Le Soir while the newspaper was under the management of fascist ideologues. One of the articles, on “The Jews and Contemporary European Literature,” was extremely antisemitic. Coming fresh on the heels of the Heidegger controversy, defenders of deconstruction were now faced with another scandal. De Man’s friends and co-thinkers rallied to defend his memory, organizing conferences in the vain hope that his legacy might yet be salvaged. Though several essay collections resulted from this engagement, featuring heavyweights from across the theoretical spectrum, de Man’s writings are no longer fashionable. Not the way they once were.


Last year, though, Evelyn Barish released a biography detailing The Double-Life of Paul de Man. Suzanne Gordon, one of his former students, wrote a piece for Jacobin in which she denounced de Man as “a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium.” Here is not the place to wag fingers at de Man’s extramarital affairs, lackluster parenting skills, or casual misappropriations. While public interest in these aspects of his life is perhaps to be expected, as is its craving for salacious details, a lot of the information in Barish’s book is pure tabloid. Rumors and gossip do not merit serious consideration in the evaluation of a person’s work. Biography is not destiny.

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