De Man Versus Big Data

Jonathan Freedman arrives late, in more ways than one, to an appreciation of Paul de Man.

I would suggest that the return to de Mania is significant because it marks the end of something important that transcended de Man, indeed that transcended theory: something I would grandiosely call the end of critical reading. One of the things that is missed in the stories that we tell about de Man, both positive and negative, is the way that he served, along many of his émigré peers and his friends and companions a generation younger than they, as the conduit for a whole wave of European thought into the United States at the moment when the American academy had not yet discovered it.


De Man and Deconstruction are out of date. Nevertheless, Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul De Man struck a nerve because Deconstruction asked interesting questions. Unlike the people at the Stanford Literary Lab.

A skeptical, de Manian observer might note that limitations of the post-interpretive “big data” dispensation can be glimpsed in the insipidity of the projects it proposes. To say that Austen and Scott were crucial to their successors is to say very little that other critics, speaking on the basis of reading maybe a couple dozen long books, didn’t otherwise say; to say that constructing a database of Whitman is a powerful critical act ignores the way that Whitman’s work itself offered, in its catalogs and its interrogation of them, a celebration and a critique of databases avant la lettre; and don’t get me started on loudness in the novel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s