Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man
Signs of the Times is a study of the critical practice known as deconstruction, and of the career of deconstruction’s leading proponent in America, Paul de Man, who died in 1983 but who achieved posthumous notoriety when, in 1987, articles he had written as a young man for two Belgian newspapers controlled by the Nazis were discovered. The book’s author, David Lehman, is a literary journalist and poet who has a doctorate in English from Columbia.
Although the verb “to deconstruct” has entered the vocabulary as a fashionable synonym for “to take apart” or “to unmask,” deconstruction is still a method of criticism whose provenance and purpose are likely to be somewhat obscure to the general reader. And although the discovery of de Man’s wartime writings, 180 articles altogether, mostly on literature, but clearly collaborationist in tendency, set off a small avalanche of commentary, opinion about the connection between those early articles and de Man’s mature criticism remains unsettled. Was an attraction to deconstruction natural in someone who, like de Man, had once expressed an attraction to fascism? Or did de Man’s embrace of deconstruction represent a kind of tacit repudiation of his youthful beliefs?
An account of deconstruction and the de Man affair by someone who has had academic training but who writes for a general audience is therefore extremely welcome; and it is disappointing to have to report that much of Lehman’s discussion of deconstruction is uninformed and unreliable, and that his analysis of de Man’s career, though well-reported, is made tendentious by an unsuppressed animus against de Man and de Man’s defenders.
That Lehman has a strong distaste for deconstruction and a low opinion of de Man is clear almost from the first page of his book. He thinks both are pernicious frauds—he refers to deconstruction as a “con game” and calls de Man “a scoundrel”—and he does not pretend to a more detached view of the matter. This is honest, and it reflects a genuine distress: Signs of the Times is not an indiscriminate attack on academic thought from political motives, as I believe other recent books on the university, such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’Souza’s llliberal Education, essentially are. Whether Lehman, who received his Ph.D. in 1978, had once intended to have a career as a professor of literature or not, he represents many people in his generation who, either because the vicious job market of the 1970s and early 1980s cut their academic careers short, or because they dislike what they see as the narrow professionalism of contemporary academic criticism, feel increasingly estranged from the university.
But useful analysis requires the care that comes from a little detachment. Lehman does not achieve detachment, and his book is damaged by failings that it shares with many assaults on the university by people who are outside it: it does not distinguish among different tendencies in contemporary academic thought; it …