The Politics of Style

There is a kind of contradiction in the last essay. It claims that there is a retrospective moment, an originating moment, that is able to look back on an earlier moment and reconceptualize that moment as an encounter with the darkness. The key idea there is ‘overlap’, where this reconceptualizing occurs not merely as a 3rd person perceiving of the past, a transcending of one’s previous condition towards a broader perspective, but rather ‘overlaps’ with the past, so that what one sees is a kind of reexperiencing of that moment, albeit with a sense of loss. But the advantage that this loss carries is that it is able to isolate this moment out of the progressive flow of history, and to see this as a moment of insight.

It is indeed true that we are speaking in very definite terms about experiences that never actually happen. But this is something that characterizes our entire project. We have always been talking about the construction of experience, whereas actual living and decisionmaking is mostly automatic. The error here, however, I believe, is that we focused too much on ‘the darkness’. We acted on the assumption that the darkness would not be visible to ourselves in the past, and only to a retrospective vision, but the retrospective vision itself seems then to have an encounter with the darkness anyways, thus begging the question. I think had a suspicion of this when I pondered on the ‘amazing *experience*’ of this retrospective vision.

The problem here is that the darkness has always been kind of a placeholder. We can sense the darkness there but there is no way, even via the method above, to actually *see* the darkness. Perhaps we should have known this since we’re have long known that experience itself is … ‘out there’, constructed, yet to come, no matter how definitely we seem to speak of things — our past always open to reinterpretation — and thus, we can never really have the definite experience that we seek. Darkness is merely a placeholder for that towards which our ‘experience’ turns, it is kind of a tautological element.

In response to this difficulty I want to propose ‘The Politics of Style’. The idea is that we are *always* caught up in politics, we can never refer to the darkness directly, no matter how aware we are of it. In short, we are talking about a kind of existential condition. But we do have recourse to a kind of interpretive historiography where we suddenly realize that the stakes are not as moral as we once thought they were, and that the concern, in fact, a particular mode of accessing the darkness.

Let me talk a bit more about ‘Rhetoric of Temporality’ — I actually took the time to skim through maybe a third of it last night. That essay is incredibly *scholarly* — in the bad sense — and all but incomprehensible, at least in the introductory passages, to anyone not familiar with the discourse of romanticism at the time — which includes me. But we can nonetheless understand the effort there: the romantic time was a heavily *moral* time, it was a time of hope, disillusion, etc., and all these grand things — but this characterizes all eras of history. De Man’s effort was to recast these politics which dealt with all these grand affairs of the human condition as a politics of style.

This is actually not that far off from my own experience. There was a time when we were, you know, moral, liberal, concerned with the grand things. I positively believe the old cliche that liberalism subsists solely on the deceiving the naive. Eventually I decided that people to exaggerate and whine too much, and that the world is a sum of personality (and not systemic) problems. I became more intolerant and spiteful — attitudes weren’t simply ‘harmless’ — people shouldn’t be allowed to have their own vacuous little ‘opinions’. Although I still extrapolated from personality problems outwards, towards the more general problems of the world, the problems that I dealt with could definitely be said to be ‘stylistic’.

For De Man, rhetoric wasn’t at all a ‘method’ for expressing things, but rather, an almost invisible element around which a self-assertive politics condensed. It was not a guarantee but a possibility or chance. In a sense, yes, we still progress too fast. There is indeed the chance that all we want is for the world to slow down and be a bit more critical, to simply ask more questions. But the very possibility of asking questions, which we extrapolate to all good things, to confront the darkness, hinges on these elements — rhetoric, in this case — around which experiences can condense.


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