Thursday, December 6, 2007

de Man/Foucault

De Man dramatizes each text as a conflict between rhetorical and philosophical closure—a drive toward a relatively seamless account he called “ideology”—and unregulatable excess, often figured as anxiety. A text’s allegorical operations—its attempts to retell its own foundering tale as a story about a foundering tale—never succeed in sealing off the inconvenient knowledge of its participation in a greater discourse it cannot control. Like Foucault on power, de Man on language suggests that a text-system can't help knowing and revealing more than it wants to. Foucault’s claim that power is multiplicitous and de Man’s claim that texts inherently make available more than they can manage owe to Freud’s assurance that human beings “babble at our fingertips” when we don’t declare ourselves in denotation. While Foucault stresses the institutional forms that bring an episteme into being at a certain moment and support its persistence, de Man examines the linguistic strategies that try, and fail, to limit its interpretation; their relationship resembles that between history and historiography (Foucault’s realm is a superset of de Man’s). They share the assumption that descriptions of particular struggles for consolidation, whether within a period frame, a reception history, or a “single” text, bear consequence for future scenes. This assumption descends from Freud's insistence that empirical instances of self-deception are pertinent to future understandings, to the revision of the understanding of the system. A Lacanian structural analysis views interpretation mostly as a delaying tactic initiated by the malingering patient. It does not find the description of what language is up to interesting, or finds it actively counterproductive. So, Lacanian analyses figure change as a radical break, a sudden giving way—e.g., “going through the fantasy”—whose explanation is beside the point. They offer little to someone who wants to learn how and why doxa take hold, persist, and erode. De Man did not possess Foucault’s curiosity nor his identification with excluded members of populations. Still, he is a valuable complement: his model emphasizes, over the accumulation of a knowledge, the extent to which an alternative discourse is failing to be captured. De Man’s deconstructive anxiety, from this perspective, isn’t something to get over, an obstacle to development: unlike the deranging Real, it is always present in subtle ways, like a draft in a room, to indicate where discourse is pressing against or filtering through its resistance. In de Man’s narrative the investigator is difficult to surprise because work is done little by little, through observation and tenacity. But if both de Man and Foucault keep peering at the places where something registers, and wondering why it registers just there, neither, maybe, came up with a model that quite answers the question . . . .

Image: still from Stan Brakhage, The Text of Light, 1974

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