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LITERARY THEORY AND THE MASS MEDIA

Maurice Fadel

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In the whole work of Paul de Man the expression "mass media" appears only once. We come across it in the first essay of the book "Allegories of reading ", entitled "Semiotics and Rhetoric". In that essay the utterance the popular hero of the "sub-literature of the mass media", as de Man calls comic-book, Archie Bunker, issues- and namely "What’s the difference?"- is presented in the form of an illustration of the problematic relationship between rhetoric and grammar.

There is something ironic (the word "irony" is to be understood in the whole complexity and profundity de Man intended to impart to it) in the contempt of the mass media he manifested. De Man hardly thought that only a decade after the publication of "Allegories of Reading", the mass media itself would play the role of the fundamental source of exposing his whole work to doubt, that the mass media itself would kindle an impulse to question the value of his texts, as well as the ethics of his personal behavior.

There is something symptomatic, breaking the boundaries of the concrete, not only in the little attention de Man pays to the various forms of mass media but also in the sudden turn the situation took [after the revealing publications in the mass media]; there is something worth our thought. Retracing the history of literary theory, detecting the multiplicity of contradictions and interruptions in the development of the various traditions and the complex interaction between these traditions, we could nevertheless distinguish a common characteristic, a unifying trend which could be definitive for the discourses of literary theory - this is namely the endeavor to create for literary theory a position allowing for an unprejudiced discussion on the variety of discourses, it would make possible talking about literature without the necessity for the literary theorist to be an author of fictional works himself, talking over politics without necessarily possessing a political status, discussing ethical problems without being engaged with any extreme ethical views, talking over philosophy without creating philosophy, talking about history without getting involved in needless historicising. It is not a chance fact that literary theory has been integrated in the very structure of academic culture and in the structure of university institution as well. The Academy and the University occupy such positions in the structure of society which make it possible for them to be mere spectators of the events taking place in the social reality, without actively participating in them, without experiencing the necessity to take sides in the host really existing contradictions, without openly stating their belonging to a definite position.

In the history of the literary theory of the second half of the present century, there could hardly be found another person who has, with similar complexity and delicacy of argument, proved that specific position of literary theory, as Paul de Man has done. Throughout his entire career as a literary theorist de Man aims at supplying literary theory with the set of critical devices, which would aid him in surveying the multiplicity of discursive events from the height of his personal position, stressing in his texts the many-sided and problematic relationship between fiction, literary theory and language. As the eminent literary theorist himself stated in connection with the problem of the methodology of research in the fields of politics and ideology, in an interview, given during the last year of his life: "I have always maintained that one could approach the problems of ideology, and by extension the problems of politics, only on the basis of critical-linguistic analysis, which had to be done in its own terms, in the medium of language...".

As a literary theorist, Paul de Man advocates an elitist view of literary theory as being at the same time a self-questioning and self-approving practice, so he must have hoped that the attacks against his statements would be come from the very field of his research. However, that didn’t happen. The attacks were not inspired by the circles of literary theory. They came from where they were not in the least expected; from an area he had so "naively" ignored, being engaged with other in his opinion more important and more fundamental problems - from the area of mass media.

Traditionally, literary theory regards the various forms of mass media as discursive practices which form the daily publicity of the contemporary person. Let us remember a book, fundamental for the methodology of every research in the sphere of the mass media and written far back in time, when this phenomenon (the mass media) had just started to gain force. This book is Roland Barthes’s "Mythologies". In it the various forms of the mass media are treated as forming a special area where the ideological foundation of social structures is rooted and have found a fertile soil for their development and dissemination. The whole multiplicity of mass media practices are involved in the task of making ordinary human beings feel comfortable in the surrounding (and often hostile) world, the task of showing them that the very situation of their existence is what inspires in them the feeling of peace and security and makes them unwilling to change.

In the above mentioned definition of the mass media we cannot but recognize an inbuilt arrogance, the arrogance the academic culture and its institutions demonstrate towards the other discursive and worldly practices, considering themselves the treasurers of a privileged, arbitrary type of knowledge. The question is whether such a position could be justified. Is it possible, in the contemporary world, for academic knowledge to keep existing under the pretense of being in a privileged position, which it has claimed since the times of the Enlightenment?

Resisting to this rather thorny but, I think, important question, let us turn to a concrete case which will help us to find the right answer. The case is concerned with the literary theorist with whom the present paper was introduced - and that is namely Paul de Man. At the time of his death in 1983 de Man was in the position of a progressively increasing power, and throughout the whole period of the 1980ies he belonged to the "elite" of the most widely discussed and most often quoted literary theorists.

But that continued up to December 1st 1987 when "New York Times" published an article entitled "Yale Scholar’s Articles Found in Nazi Paper", which announced a fact, utterly unknown to the literary critics up to that moment. It was back in 1940ies , during the time of the German invasion of Belgium that Paul de Man was the editor of some review columns, dealing with new books, spectacles and exhibitions, of the authoritative at the time newspaper "Le Soir". Those short texts performed in journalese, written by the young (aged merely 22) de Man, mark a tendency towards a cultural nationalism and a Eurocentrism of a kind. They plead for the cause of Belgian national identity and for the defense of Europe and the European being considered values in their own right. They see Germany as a force able to guarantee for the security of the small country of Belgium and to secure that particular value signified by "the European". Certain anti-Semitic moods could be detected in some of de Man’s articles from the time. In this aspect, the most revealing is a text under the title of "Jews in Contemporary Literature". There, though objecting against the widely spread throughout the Nationalist press "vulgar Anti-semitism", he nevertheless insisted on "a solution to the Jewish problem" in the sense of "the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe". Similar views are very close to those expressed by Belgian political and intellectual circles, which wererather inclined to a collaboration with the invaders. The very newspaper "Le Soir" was, during the war period, under the control of the German Secret Services. De Man finished editing these columns in 1942, the remaining part of the war period he spent working as a translator. After the end of the war he emigrated from Belgium to the USA, where he wrote his Doctoral Thesis and started making a brilliant career as a literary theorist and researcher on Romanticism. His early publications in "Le Soir" were disclosed by some Belgian Ph.D. Student, preparing a doctoral thesis on de Man’s work.

The article in "New York Times" was followed by a text with a similar content published in "Newsweek". The structure of this second text could be considered as an emblematic for the structure of the media discourse in general. Something quite typical of this type of discourse is the insistence on a referential nature of the sign which, however, is not justified.Newspapers, television and radio are constantly issuing in justification of their existence statements of the sort that they are working with facts alone, that they are mere containers and presenters of information about a given event; they often claim that they simply reflect reality.

The article about the disclosure of the early publications of Paul de Man, was published in "Newsweek" under the rubric "Ideas". But it doesn’t even mention any ideas. Nothing of the sort, the article’s sole concern is the life of Paul de Man and if there is anything about his ideas, it is presented from the same interpretative perspective. The article, however is not so much engaged in giving information about the life of the literary critic, than in putting forward a particular view on it, though at first sight that could not be detected. The text is seemingly aiming at constructing the idea of referentiality, of a maximum objectivity of the proposition. In respect of the disclosure, the text suggests two opposing views - that of the defenders of de Man’s ideology and that of his opponents and the opponents to the deconstruction theory in general. But the text’s intention is quite different. It engages with a typical for all forms of mass media device - the creation of sensations. "Sensationalism" is a property inherent in all types of media discourse. The facts in the press, the television and the radio are presented to their respective audiences according to the degree of surprise they possess, the higher the degree is, the better. With the immeasurable stream of information which overwhelms our minds, the most unexpected, shocking and even startling news spread first. They aim at "awakening" us from our routine lives. Through the colossal flow of information, which is constantly overflowing us, the news aiming to "awaken" people, to drive them away from the stagnation of everyday life, and to shock them, usually are the first to reach our ears. That undermines the idea of the referentiality of the mass media discourse. Information is selected and represented in a pre-determined way. Isn’t that already, an interpretation of the facts, which displaces and destroys the claim that they are truthfully "reflected"?

The sensational has pierced through the above mentioned article. It was obviously intended for the fulfillment of the task of implying how very sensational and shocking de Man’s early publications were, and how it happened so, that precisely at the time of their disclosure an academic myth collapsed. In this sense, it is not a chance fact that the text is entitled "Deconstructing de Man’s life". On the one hand, the word "deconstructing" conjures up the idea about the literary movement de Man is famous for supporting during his lifetime. But on the other hand, the meaning of the word is deliberately isolated from its theoretical context, where it exists bearing a rather complex and rich semantic structure, and it is used with its wide spread dictionary meaning of "destroying", "de-structuring". The sensational tinge is further supported by the cynical sub-heading "An academic idol falls into disgrace", as well as by the overall visual design of the article. It consists of two photographs. One is a portrait of de Man from the 1970ies, his most fertile years (in terms of creative work), but it is accompanied by the commentary: "A shameful past exposed" which aims at sarcastically putting an end to the serenity and academic dignity, which the image in the photograph emanates. The other photo is definitely more revealing. It represents an impressive Nazi demonstration; just above the photo we read: "Anti-intellectuals: Nazis in the march", this appears a useful way of revealing the secret, unsuspected, up to that moment, element of anti-intellectualism in the behavior of de Man, the intellectual.

But the text not only aims at creating the well known effect of sensationalism in the news but it is also trying to subject to that effect even the later, already purged of the cultural nationalism and anti-Semitic moods, works of the literary theorist. At some points in the article the author openly accuses the late de Man of deliberately keeping his past in silence during the war period, at other points he simply drops (gentle) hints. The article sets out in quest of the guilt silently present in de Man’s texts and theoretical doctrines. The author of the article quotes a statement taken from de Man’s book "Allegories of Reading", namely that it is quite possible 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", isolating it from its original context in order to create the (inaccurate) impression that the above words were intended as an excuse for the shameful, skillfully covert past of the literary theorist.

The revelations which appeared in the press during the end of the 1980ies and the beginning of the 1990ies of the present century underlie one of the most sensational scandals in the humanitarian sphere. The articles in "New York Times" and "Newsweek" were followed by a review of de Man’s ideas in the light of the new facts given by the historian John Wiener in "The Nation" magazine. In Wiener’s text we can detect a further development of the theses of "Newsweek" almost reaching the hasty conclusion that the whole work of the literary critic is pierced by the silently present guilt for his "pro-Nazi Past", that his works are actually a mere expression of his guilty conscience, that the lack of morality inherent in his works is a typical characteristic of Deconstruction in general. Moreover, the very sub-heading of the article - "Deconstructing de Man" provides more proof. While the text in "Newsweek" had "deconstructed" only the life of the literary theorist, this time his research and the whole theoretical legacy that he had left (after his death) were also subject to "deconstruction".

Further on, the scandal burst on the pages of "The New Republic" magazine. The prestigious edition for literary criticism "Critical Inquiry" dedicated a whole issue to it. The early texts of de Man were collected in a separate volume. All publications concerning the scandal were also published in a separate volume. A conference was organized in the USA on the occasion. Many scientists from the field of the humanities took part in the scandal, some as defenders of the thesis of the amorality of de Man’s legacy, others as critics of this attitude. Among these, it is worth mentioning the names of Jaques Derrida, Frank Lentricchia, Jonathan Culler, Christopher Norris, Geoffrey Hartman and Hillis Miller.

After the case with the revelatory publications, almost everyone writing a text concerning de Man, felt as his duty at least mentioning the scandal. From that point onwards, the legacy de Man left us has remained forever divided in two - the journalistic publications during the war, and the later theoretical acquisitions of the eminent literary critic. The relation between the two parts remains unclear and unstable, as though fastened by the separating silence of the late literary critic.

The revelations produced far-reaching effect on the authority of the theory of deconstruction. Its opponents still don’t miss any occasion to call to mind the collaborationist past of one of its founders and thus give more obvious or more delicate hints for its amoral and politically problematic roots.

* * *

We have neither space, nor time for further and more detailed exploration of the situation, neither for getting under the surface and interrogating the multiplicity of arguments of the separate sides, nor for judging which thesis is better supported and consequently more valid. What is more, the time of the scandal coincided with a period when a dispute concerning a similar set of problems - the relation between Heidegger’s work and Nazism - was stirred up. There is a similarity in the paradigms of the two cases.

What we notice, however, in the above mentioned event and what deserves our attention are the specific relations between the discourses of mass media and those of literary theory and respectively between the institutions of the mass media and academic culture. The result was quite unexpected. The Academy suddenly abandoned its traditional suspicion of the various forms of mass media and at the same time ceased to consider them as basic sources of the dissemination of the ideologies and mythologies of society which are further regarded as factors bringing comfort to people’s lives. It parted with the practices of the careful and methodologically rationalized analysis, in which it had long been educated since the time of the Enlightenment and of Kant with his insistent appeal for a critical approach to the philosophical problems, and dived in the depths of a scandal inspired by a sensational piece of news.

Because while in the view of the mass media it looks perfectly natural for a writer to be closely connected with his works and, further on, for his works to be a reflection of his experience or of his own beliefs; or, while according to the various discourses of mass media there is a straight relation between de Man’s personality and his texts, this is hardly so from the point of view of academic literary theory, where the relationship between the author and his creative work has long ago been questioned.

While different mass media practices understand personality as an unchanging entity, while in their view de Man could not undergo any change throughout his life, in contemporary humanitarianism such a view is subject to dispute and the opinion which is most likely to be formed would not be inclined to express an understanding of personality as a once and for all set entity, because every human character has a complex structure which comprises a multiplicity of different identities. Our personal names are merely the signifier, the surface structure of a sign, under which different aspects of our personality are brought into play.

While for the various types of mass media moralizing or openly stating different morally justified viewpoints is a usual practice, literary theory has not been dominated by similar attitudes for a century at least. Not to speak of the fact that such movements as stucturalism aim at purging literary analysis of any trace of moral content. In view of the relationship author - text things look still more problematic. We could add countless examples of authors whose behavior is not in accordance with the principles of morality but who create valuable texts.

How did it came that, despite all differences between the discourses of mass media and those of contemporary literary theory, mass media practices exert so great an influence on the institution of contemporary literary criticism that they even make it "speak their own language"? Because it is true that all the texts forming the scandal with the early publications of de Man discuss the mass media view of personality as an unchanging entity, and many even support the close link between the writer and the textual result, and often draw not well meditated conclusions. The doctrines of mass media penetrated the discourses of literary theory and succeeded in subverting de Man’s work and casting suspicion on all existing ideas about him and his texts, in other words - the "crisis", a rather typical of literary criticism phenomenon, was provoked.

In the discourses of literary theory understanding and crisis always walk hand in hand. Literary theory itself could be defined as a practice in which the act of understanding is ironically followed by a resulting crisis. The literary theorist is approaching a literary text by the imperative "understand it". This imperative is exactly what justifies the whole practice of literary theory.. Literary theory exists in order to understand those texts which could be qualified as "fictional". The concept of "understanding" offered here, is not to be perceived only in its hermeneutic dimensions - as a recognition of the intentionality of the fictional work. A certain act of understanding is also immanent in the questioning of the text, including its deconstructive subversion , because even for the sake of questioning something we have to possess an understanding of its nature. But as it is well known no understanding of literary theory exists isolated. It is formed in the context of other already existing conceptions. The new understanding causes a certain displacement in this context. Some of the old notions are subject to questioning, others are reestablished. An opportunity for discussion appears, together with the usual pros and cons, or so to speak a situation of uncertainty is already present, which in Husserl’s words is identified as "crisis". It is not a chance fact, that, in his well known essay "Criticism and Crisis", de Man defines this phenomenon as a symptomatic for the literary theory one. Literary theory is not a scientific discipline which presupposes a gradual evolutionary development comprising different stages, in which each new acquisition includes and at the same time elaborates the previous ones. It exists in the crisis and thrives on it. In the view of literary theory each new statement more or less questions the already existing one, but that new statement is in its turn similarly threatened by the one which would come after it. As if following this paradigm, around the turn of the present century, Jacobson quite daringly questioned the ideas in the poetics of his time but he was in turn viciously attacked by the supporters of the theory of deconstruction.

But while in the views of Jacobson and the other literary critics the usual unstable nature of leading paradigms of understanding, the crisis takes place within the very field of literary theory and has been provoked by some purely scientific considerations, in the case of de Man that is hardly so. In his situation, the crisis had been inspired from the outside, by another institution. As a result, de Man’s reputation as a theoretician and researcher, as well as the reputation of deconstruction, were ruined, but not as a result of a scientific investigation but by other, different means, otherwise not highly appreciated by contemporary literary theory, as moralizing arguments, biographical data, all coming from the sphere of mass media.

Obviously something happened during the time of de Man and all the other literary scientists, who so carefully and so insistently strove to differentiate literary theory as a well protected domain of the independent critical thought, beyond the reach of any other scientific fields and values, nor by any other institutional paradigms and paradigms of power. Something happened which deprived of the literary theory of its academic nature. The scandal is a proof for the fact that the realization of such a project is simply a fantasy. An actor appeared on the stage, quite unexpectedly and his powerful voice turned all the other participants in the play into voiceless puppets. Academic literary theory proved overwhelmed by a discursive stream, many times stronger than its own emancipatory tendencies and which could impose its own arguments on literary theory and displace the old literary cannon, this was the mass media stream.

We wouldn’t have paid so much attention to the scandal "De Man", this episode in which literary theory did not react in accordance with the already mentioned by itself principles and mechanisms of reflection and analysis, or, in other words, lost its autonomy, if that scandal had not been a sign of a more extensive event. The scandal initiated in the end of the 1980ies and the beginning of the 1990ies, that is, at a moment when the power of mass media was growing greater on a global scale and threatened to destroy the autonomy of the other types of discourse, (at a moment) when the viewpoint of mass media became a central one and imposed itself on the audience at the cost of all the rest. But this could hardly be defined as an innocent and reflecting viewpoint. We are under a delusion, if we think that the different embodiments of mass media are simply mediators of events, that they just give unbiased information about these events. The situation is rather different. The unbiased statements and the reflection of events happen only on the surface. What the various discourses of mass media actually do is the formation of points of view and the dissemination of ideologies. As happened in the case with the disclosure of the early texts of de Man, where it was exactly due to the participation of mass media, that the interpretation of this author took a certain direction thus provoking a crisis in the understanding of his texts and his work.

Undoubtedly today we live in a situation of a more and more overgrowing power of the mass media. It is not by chance that soon after the scandal "De Man", in the so called Gulf War, mass media proved more powerful, but this time it was neither more powerful than the emancipatory trends in an academic discipline as theory of literature, nor than the weapons used in that war; and it was exactly due to its influence that the events in the gulf were defined by various researchers as "The War of Mass Media". It is also not a chance fact that mass media are took so great a part in the construction of various interpretations of the crisis in Kosovo.

The question of the perspectives of counteraction to that ever growing power, as well as of the possibilities for existence of certain sign practices, which would give way to the individual, and to the different, to those phenomena that could not take part in a similar situation is becoming increasingly crucial. Obviously, the discourses of academic knowledge, which have for so long been established themselves as the playing ground of the free intellectual activity, could not accept that role, since they, as the scandal "De Man" has shown, are threatened by an easy loss of autonomy. The various artistic practices, which have, since ancient times, strived to accentuate the different, since it has always been strongly connected to the sensation and advertisement tricks of the mass media, have also proved unable to oppose that power.

For the realization of that counteraction, the system, which is capable of initiating it, should have at its disposal the same discursive power and ability for distribution of messages as that of the mass media. Today there is only one phenomenon which could claim the right to occupy that position, and this is namely the Internet. Undoubtedly, the Internet and the mass media will be the two leading powers who will challenge each other’s supremacy during the colossal globalization game of the coming age.

In what way do their characteristics differ? Despite the whole multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives and means for representation of the messages, the media have not destroyed the long established link between information and power, between information and control. The messages of the newspapers, the radio and the television are distributed as a result of a complicated interplay between a variety of interests - ideological, political, institutional, financial, etc. Not any kind of information could reach the grounds of the mass media, not any viewpoint could find its way there. The variety of the world that the field of the media has established has proved a false and illusory reality. It is a representation of the variety of interests and ambitions which stand behind that field. With the Internet things look different. For a message to be "admitted" to the Net, it is not a necessary condition for it to be pre-reconciled with the projects and ideas of the mass media. Literally anybody could "publish" on the Internet any type of information. Anybody could make whatever statements they see fit, without interfering in the general flow of information, without overshadowing the other participants in the process.

It is precisely in this sense, that the Internet has established itself as a field not hierarchically organized, free of any control, and without any limitations. Here, on the Net pages, we could see fulfilled the anarchists’ dream of absolute freedom. But a question could be raised: is that really true? Isn’t it possible that on the Internet, new, unknown types of control are sneaking from behind the screen of a superficial freedom. Could it be the case that the link between information and power is secretly being re-established. What is the role of the companies and technologies participating in the construction of that informational environment? Are they really those innocent "suppliers" of opportunities for freedom that they look at first sight? The answers to those questions lie in the future. They would demand from us to abandon most of the traditional notions in the humanitarian studies. Probably they would demand at the first place the abandonment of the long established ideas concerning power structures, so that we could be able to study the above described situation more thoroughly.

 

 

© Maurice Fadel
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 16.02.2000, № 2 (3)