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Acts of Undermining

by Ian Tuttle

Discussing Rousseau’s Confessions in his work Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man wrote: “It is always possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one.” This was a pregnant comment, though no one knew it at the time.

By 1979, when Allegories was published, de Man had become the toast of American academia, and his “deconstructionism” a staple of humanities departments. The above was the sort of erudite-sounding twaddle to which his acolytes thrilled: the both/and, the neither/nor, the ultimate “unreadability” of a text. The prospect of the indeterminacy of meaning was exciting. “The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear,” one of de Man’s students would write. “We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom.”

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