Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Apology to Frederic Jameson: On de Man, Politics, and Ethics

I'd like to  apologize for my criticisms of Jameson's "rhetoric" and his interpretation of Paul De Man. After finishing in its entirety Allegories of Reading, I re-read Jameson's comments on De Man and the "writing" seemed to open up to me such that it makes sense. The reason for my naive and angry reading of Jameson had several motivations, but is at least twofold:

1.) I had not read Allegories of Reading, so that some of the links Jameson made seemed a bit random and arbitrary rather than necessary for the argument. This opinion has since been remedied.

2.) I was trying to read Jameson inebriated. A silly thing to do, even though I've heard that he has an affinity for the bottle as well. 

Anyway, I'd like to give Jameson's evaluation the care it deserves. Perhaps the key point to Jameson's reading of De Man is given in the following passage:

We must therefore read DeMan's aesthetic against a larger historical context in which it offers the spectacle of an incompletely liquidated modernism: the positions and the arguments are 'postmodern,' then, even if the conclusions are not (Jameson 255).

Essentially, Jameson sees De Man as saving the aesthetic and literary aspects of language while at the same time eliminating the 'usual' meaning of these categories. Jameson writes, " Aesthetic experience is thus valorized, but without those tempting aesthetic pleasures that always used to seem its very essence" (255). There's an "acetism" in De Man that rejects the kind of sensuousness and sentimentalism associated with aesthetics.  

But for Jameson, the primary achievement of postmodernism is its non-privileging of the literary--culture (art, film, architecture, music, etc.) becomes a text just like anything else. Thus, Jameson criticizes what he calls De Man's "metaphysics," which are trapped in distinctions between 'referent' and 'fiction', even as De Man's discourse seeks to solict (in the sense Derrida uses, 'to shake' or 'rattle') this binary. 

Jameson argues that De Man's aesthetics basically implies a politics of liberalism, characteristic of the high-modernist aesthete, and the "apolitical aesthete at that" (257). Jameson also rightly acknowledges De Man's modernist interest in Irony, as this is the value/term that ends his text, Allegories of Reading. 

But Jameson too has his own assumptions (can we call it metaphysics?) concerning representation: “every ‘system’ of thought (no matter how scientific) is susceptible to representation (De Man would have called it ‘thematization’)” (Jameson 245). But does this not shut off the possibility of “reading” in the sense that De Man has opened for us? Can we represent everything in a system of thought or in a “position” (see previous posts on Derrida, Muckelbauer)? Is there not an impossibility of  what Jamesonc calls “transcoding”?

How does De Man get around discussion of politics? For Jameson, any aesthetics implies a politics (as it does for Kenneth Burke). However, we may question this primacy given to political commitment--can we not? 

But before we get into that, let me discuss a passage in De Man that may give us some guidance with respect to De Man's views on politics (his liberalism). De Man writes, with regard to Rousseau)

We know from empirical experience that the individual is subjected to a more stringent legal control than the executive power which has much more leeway in its actions and initiatives, in international politics, for example, where it is expected to resort to war and to violence ina  manner that could not be tolerated in relationships between individuals. Rousseau accounts for this  by stressing that the private interests of the individual have nothing in common with his political, public interests and obligations (De Man 265).

To me, this passage sounds like a distinction Richard Rorty would make between the private and the public sphere—a classically liberal position. Does Rousseau really think this? If so, it just confirms what we already know about Rousseau—he was a ‘liberal’ thinker.

To excuse his disengagement with “politics,” De Man then will shift from pathos that he finds in some writing to ethics, which is intimately connected with what he calls "rhetoric." De Man's "ethics" is a different from what we generally conceive of as ethics (or my own discussions of ethical responsibility in Levinas). De Man’s emphasis lies in the rhetorical etymology of ethics. He writes,

But in the allegory of unreadability, the imperatives of truth and falsehood oppose the narrative syntax and manifest themselves at its expense. The cancatenation of the categories of truth and falsehood with the values of right and wrong is disrupted affecting the economy of the narration in decisive ways. We can call this shift in economy ethical, since it indeed involves a displacement from pathos to ethos. Allegories are always ethical, the term ethical designating the structural interference of two distinct value systems [. . .] The passage to an ethical tonality does not result from a transcendental imperative [Kant?] but is the referential (and therefore unreliable) version of a linguistic confusion. Ethics (or, one should say, ethnicity) is a discursive mode among others. (De Man 206, italics mine)

Ethos is also related, in Aristotelian rhetoric, to “credibility.” This squares with De Man’s discussion of Rousseau’s text Julie as playing with the authority of author. What does this “ethnicity” imply for reading? Do we sense that there is a moral dimension (rather than an overtly political position) in De Man that we should look for? Perhaps this still makes his readings useful, interesting, and potentially fruitful? 

I am not sure this is the case, but it seems to me that De Man maybe be flirting with what Kenneth Burke calls the ethicizing of language. I hope to investigate this relationship further at another time.

For now, it may be worthwhile to end with Jameson’s attempt at “representing” De Man’s methodology or ‘theory’ in Allegories of Reading:

 If such a theory exists (if it is not, in other words, simply a question of a useful and portable opposition), then it consists in positing two distinct moments of the deconstructive narrative, the second succeeding the first and incorporating it at some higher dialectical level of complexity. First, the initial metaphor is undone—undermined as soon as it has been posited by some deep suspicion of this particular linguistic act. Yet in a second moment, that very suspicion washes back over the first and becomes generalized: what was at first only acute doubt as to the viability of this particular resemblance and this particular concept—a doubt about speaking and thinking—now becomes a deeper skepticism about language in general, about the linguistic process, or about what De Man calls reading, a term which usefully excludes general ideas about Language itself. (242)

On the one hand, it seems that Jameson has succeeded in “representing” Paul de Man’s methodology. But on the other hand, we may ask if this thing we call “reading” is just as enigmatic and complex as De Man thinks it is. Perhaps reading is something a bit more than transcoding? Perhaps there is something to say for “literary” language? And perhaps it is impossible to decide between these two options. . .

No comments:

Post a Comment