ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 11

 - Deconstruction II


In this second lecture on deconstruction, Professor Paul Fry concludes his consideration of Derrida and begins to explore the work of Paul de Man. Derrida’s affinity for and departure from Levi-Strauss’s distinction between nature and culture are outlined. De Man’s relationship with Derrida, their similarities and differences–particularly de Man’s insistence on “self-deconstruction” and his reliance on Jakobson–are discussed. The difference between rhetoric and grammar, particularly the rhetoricization of grammar and the grammaticization of rhetoric, is elucidated through de Man’s own examples taken from “All in the Family,” Yeats’s “Among School Children,” and the novels of Proust.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 11 - Deconstruction II

Chapter 1. Derrida and Levi-Strauss [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: I’d like to start with a little more discussion of Derrida before we turn to de Man. I know already that I’m going to forego what for me is a kind of pleasure—perhaps it wouldn’t be for you–which is an explication of the last extraordinary sentence in Derrida’s essay on page 926 in the right-hand column. I’m going to read it to you just so you can reflect on it. What I’d like to do is suggest to you that if you still haven’t determined on a paper topic, you might very well consider this one. You may not find it congenial; but supposing that you are intrigued by Derrida to account for this last sentence, to show how it picks up motifs generated throughout the essay, how it returns the essay to its beginning, and to consider very carefully its metaphors–it reflects on its own metaphors–I think you might find intriguing. The passage is:

Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today, the conceptionthe formation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing–but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnamable, which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

Well, there is a sentence for you and, as I say, I don’t have time to explicate it but I commend it to you as a possible paper topic if you’re still in need of one.

Now I do want to go back to the relationship between Derrida and Levi-Strauss. I suggested last time that while in some ways the essay really seems to stage itself as a critique of Levi-Strauss, to a remarkable degree, confessed or unconfessed, it stands on the shoulders of Levi-Strauss; at the same time, however, having made use of Levi-Strauss finding a means of distancing himself from the source text. Take, for example, page 924 over onto 925 when he quotes from Levi-Strauss’ introduction to the work of Marcel Mauss on the subject of the birth, event, or emergence of language. What he quotes from Levi-Strauss would seem, on the face of it, to have exactly the same kinds of reservation and hesitation about the emergence or birth of language that Derrida himself has. Levi-Strauss writes:

Whatever may have been the moment and the circumstances of its appearance in the scale of animal life, language could only have been born in one fell swoop. Things could not have set about signifying progressively. Following a transformation the study of which is not the concern of the social sciences but rather of biology and psychology, a crossing over came about from a stage where nothing had a meaning to another where everything possessed it.

In other words, bam! All of a sudden you had language. You had a semiotic system, whereas before, yesterday, or a minute ago you had no language at all. In other words, there’s no notion that somehow or another suddenly I looked at something and said, “Oh, that has a meaning,” and then somehow or another I looked at something else and said, “Oh, that has a meaning,” and in the long run, lo and behold, I had language–because the bringing into existence of the very thought of meaning, Levi-Strauss wants to argue, instantly confers meaning on everything. In other words, you don’t have a gradual emergence of language. You have, like lava emerging from a volcano, a rupture. You have something which suddenly appears amid other things: something which is latent in those things, although they don’t in themselves have it until you confer it on them, namely that which confers meaning–language.

So this is Levi-Strauss’ argument, and Derrida is interested in it because he recognizes its affinity with his own hesitation in talking about events, births, emergence and so on. At the same time, he points out by way of criticism that to suppose that yesterday there was no language, there were just things as they are without meaning, and that today there is language–that things have meaning as a result of there now being in place that semiotic system we call language–he points out that this means that culture somehow or another must come after nature. There was nature; now there is culture, which is very much like an event or birth in the older sense. In fact, as soon as we have culture–Levi-Strauss expresses this feeling especially in a famous book called Tristes Tropiques–as soon as we have culture, we begin to feel overwhelming nostalgia for nature; but, says, Derrida, “What is this nostalgia other than the fact that the very thing we’re nostalgic for comes into existence as a result of the nostalgia?” In other words, there is no nature unless you have culture to think it. Nature is a meaningless concept just like the lack of meaning within nature, where there’s no culture until culture comes along and says, “Oh, not so much there is nature, but I’m terribly unhappy because before I came along, there was nature.” Right?

This is the nostalgia or regret of the ethnographer who says, “Now as a result of this terrible Eurocentrism, as a result of the terrible ethnocentrism of the Europeans studying these things, we no longer have a savage mind.” That is to say, we no longer have the kind of mind which flourishes in nature, in a natural environment. You can see ramifications of arguments of this sort for environmentalism as well as for ethnography. It’s a fascinating argument, but the bottom line is this. Even this critique, and it is a critique of Levi-Strauss because he’s saying, “Oh, Levi-Strauss, that’s very interesting what you say about language, but you’ve forgotten that this means that you yourself must think nature preceded culture even though culture brings nature into being.”

But this very critique leveled against Levi-Strauss, he could have found in Levi-Strauss and does find it on other occasions. Levi-Strauss’ famous book, The Raw and the Cooked, essentially stages this critique in and of itself. What do you mean, “raw”? “Well, somebody’s sitting in a field eating a carrot. That’s raw,” you say, but wait a minute: what is this notion of “raw”? You can’t have a notion of “raw” until you have the notion of “cooked.” I sit in my field. I’m eating my carrot. I hold it up and I say, “This is raw? It’s ridiculous. ‘Raw’ as opposed to what?” Right? So there can be no “raw” without, in a certain sense, the prior existence of “cooked.” “Cooked” brings “raw” into being in exactly the way culture brings nature into being.

Now to pause over this for a moment, we realize that sort of this basic move–a move that, when you start to think about it, we’ve been encountering ever since we started reading in this course of readings–is not so much the inversion of binaries as the calling into question of how they can exist apart from each other. In other words, the question of criticizing the origin of one state of things out of or after another state of things, the process of criticizing that is basically–and I’m sorry to be so reductive about it but I really can’t see the distortion in saying this–is basically saying, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Right? It is a declaration of absolute interdependency among the things that we understand in binary terms but that we take somehow one to be causative of the other when we think about them.

This is really the basic move of deconstruction, but it’s a move which anyone who studies philosophy as well as literary theory will encounter again and again and again, all the way from Hegel right on through the post-deconstructive thinkers we encounter for the rest of our syllabus–perhaps preeminently among them the gender theorist Judith Butler. Again and again and again you will encounter this idea in Butler. It’s a question of saying, “How on earth would you ever have the concept ‘heterosexual’ if you didn’t have the concept ‘homosexual’ in place?” Right? The absolute interdependency of these concepts is, again, central to her argument and to her understanding of things. Obviously, we’ll be returning to that in the long run.

Chapter 2. Writing and Speech [00:10:37]

Now I want to pause a little bit more, then, in this regard over Derrida’s distinction between writing and speech–writing,ecriture. This is a distinction which is not meant sort of counter-intuitively to suggest that somehow or another, as opposed to what we usually think, writing precedes speech–not at all. He’s not saying that we’ve got it backwards. He’s just insisting that we cannot understand writing to be derivative. We cannot say writing came into being belatedly with respect to speech in order to reproduce, imitate, or transcribe speech. Writing and speech are interdependent and interrelated phenomena which do different things.

Last time we spoke about différance. We said that the difference between deference with an e and différance with an acan’t be voiced. It’s a difference, or différance, that comes into being precisely in writing, and it’s only in writing that we suddenly grasp the twofold nature of différance as difference and deferral. I’d like to pause a little bit–this will be my segue to de Man–over an interesting example in French which we don’t have in English but is, I think, so instructive that it’s worth pausing over [writes on chalkboard “est/et”]. You remember last time–and there is a slight voicing difference here just as there is also a slight voicing difference: deferencedifférance, but it’s not a big voicing difference. It’s not something that’s easy to evoke and get across, whereas in writing it’s perfectly obvious. For one thing, the in est, which means “signification,” [laughs] is dropped out of this word when you say it, est [pron. ay], the word for is–which is also the pronunciation for et, the word for and. Now these two words precisely express in French what Derrida is trying to describe as the double meaning of supplementarity. Is in the sense of the metaphor–“This is that, A is B,” understood as a metaphor–is a supplement that completes a whole. It’s a means of completing a whole through the declaration that A is B.

But is has another sense which is not a rhetorical sense, because metaphor is sort of the heart of rhetoric, the rhetorical sense A is B–when, by the way, we know perfectly well that A is not B. How can A be B? A is only A. In fact, it’s even a question whether A is A, but it’s certainly not B, right? This much we know. In the grammatical sense there is no sort of mystification about the metaphor. In the grammatical sense, this word is the means or principal of predication whereby we say one thing is another thing: the mare is the female of the horse, for example. Notice that the relationship between the rhetorical is and the grammatical is is basically the relationship between what Jakobson calls the “poetic function” and the “metalingual function.” As you’ll see in de Man, there is an irreducible tension between the rhetorical sense of this word, which claims metaphoricity, and the grammatical sense of this word, which makes no such claim but is simply the establishment of predication in a sentence.

Now the word est or et, which is almost like est, reinforces the idea of the supplement, not as the completion of something that needs it to be complete–the fulfillment of meaning in a metaphor–but rather “supplement” in the sense of adding on to something that’s already complete. The appositional, sort of grammatical, perpetual addition of meaning in the expression and or et is after all very much like what Jakobson calls “metonymic”: that is to say, the contiguous adding on of things, making no claim to be metaphorical just like grammatical predication. So the tension or the system of differences that can be established simply by looking at these two similarly voiced words, I think, gives us a kind of emblem or paradigm for what Derrida calls “supplementarity” and what de Man calls the irreducible tension between, difference between, and conflict between rhetoric and grammar. That is the main topic of what we have to say about de Man today.

Chapter 3. Paul de Man and Nazism [00:16:06]

Now last time I said a little bit about the presence of Derrida and de Man together, together with a scholar named J. Hillis Miller, and scholars who associated themselves with them–Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom–in a kind of period of flourishing in the seventies and early eighties at Yale called abroad “the Yale school,” subject to much admiration in the academy and much vilification both within and outside the academy. But this was a moment of particular and headlined notoriety in the history of academic thinking about literature, and a moment in which academic thinking about literature had a peculiar influence on topics much broader than literature. It began to infiltrate other disciplines and was in general a high-spirited horse for that certain period of time.

Then Miller eventually in the eighties went to Irvine, Derrida followed him there, and in 1983 Paul de Man died, and the main force of the movement began to give way to other interests and other tendencies and trends both here at Yale and elsewhere. Then shortly after de Man’s, death there was a revelation–which is mentioned by your editor in the italicized preface to “Semiology and Rhetoric”–about de Man which was horrible in itself and made it impossible ever to read de Man in quite the same way again, but which was also, I have to say, precisely what the enemies of deconstruction were [laughs] waiting for. That was the fact that in his youth, de Man, still living in Belgium, the nephew of a distinguished socialist politician in Belgium, wrote for a Nazi-sponsored Belgian newspaper a series of articles anti-Semitic in tendency, a couple of them openly anti-Semitic or at least sort of racially Eurocentric in ways, that argued for the exclusion of Jews from the intellectual life of Europe and so on. These papers were gathered and published as Paul de Man’s wartime journalism, and there was a tremendous furor about them similar to the revelations, which had never been completely repressed but grew in magnitude as more and more was known about them–the revelations about Heidegger’s association with the Nazi government. In the late eighties, there was a furious public argumentation back and forth among those who had read de Man, those who hadn’t who were opposed to his work, and those who scrambled in one way or another to attempt to defend it to preserve his legacy and also the legacy of deconstruction.

Now all of this is a matter of record and I suppose needs to be paused over a little bit. One of the texts of de Man–also in the book called Allegories of Reading where you’ll find also a version of the essay “Semiology and Rhetoric” that you read for today–one of the essays that those who had actually read de Man actually argued about in a persistent fashion is called “The Purloined Ribbon.” It has to do with the passage in Rousseau’s Confessions where Rousseau has stolen a ribbon in order to give it to a serving maid to whom he felt attraction, and then when he was asked who had done it, or did he know anything about who had done it, he blurted out her name, Marion. De Man says this really wasn’t an accusation–in fact, this was just a meaningless word blurted out–that there is no possibility really of confession, that there is no real subjectivity that can affirm or deny guilt or responsibility: in other words, a lot of things that, needless to say, attracted the attention of a public that wasn’t perhaps so much concerned that he had written these articles but that he had never for the rest of his career admitted having done so; in other words, that he had suppressed a past. Nobody really believed he still had these sympathies, but the whole question was, why didn’t he fess up? Why didn’t he come clean? Of course, they took “The Purloined Ribbon” to be his sort of allegorical way of suggesting that he couldn’t possibly confess because nobody can confess, there’s no human subjectivity, etc., etc., etc.

So, as I say, there was a considerable controversy swirling around this article, and just as is the case with Heidegger, it has been very difficult to read de Man in the same way again as a result of what we now know. Let me just say though also that–and I think this was largely confessed by the people engaged in the controversy although some people did go farther–there is no cryptically encoded rightism either in de Man or in deconstruction. There are two possible ways of reacting to what deconstruction calls “undecidability,” that is to say the impossibility of our really being able to form a grounded opinion about anything. There are two possible ways of reacting to this, one positive and one negative. The negative way is to say that undecidability opens a void in the intellect and in consciousness into which fanaticism and tyranny can rush. In other words, if there is a sort of considered and skillfully argued resistance to opinion–call that “deconstruction”–then in the absence of decently grounded, decently argued opinion, you get this void into which fanaticism and tyranny can rush. That’s the negative response to undecidability, and it’s of course, a view that many of us may entertain.

The positive reaction, however, to undecidability is this: undecidability is a perpetually vigilant scrutiny of all opinion as such, precisely in order to withstand and to resist those most egregious and incorrigible opinions of all: the opinions of fanaticism and tyranny. In other words, you can take two views in effect of skepticism: [laughs] the one that it is, in its insistence on a lack of foundation for opinion, a kind of passive acquiescence in whatever rises up in its face; and on the other hand, you can argue that without skepticism, everybody is vulnerable to excessive commitment to opinion, which is precisely the thing that skepticism is supposed to resist. Now this isn’t the first time in this course that I’ve paused over a moment at a crossroads where you can’t possibly take both paths [laughs] but where it is obviously very, very difficult to make up one’s mind. More than one can say or care to admit, it may ultimately be a matter of temperament which path one chooses to take.

Chapter 4. Similarities Between De Man and Derrida [00:24:37]

All right. Now in any case, while we’re on the subject of deconstruction in general and before we get into de Man, let me just say that there is one other way, if I may, not to criticize deconstruction. It’s always supposed popularly that deconstruction denies the existence of any reality outside a text. Derrida famously, notoriously, said “there is nothing outside the text,” right? What he meant by that, of course, is that there’s nothing but text. That is to say, the entire tissue, structure, and nature of our lives–including history, which we know textually is all there is–our lives are textual lives. That’s what he meant. He didn’t mean to say the text is here, the text contains everything that matters, and nothing else exists anyway. What he meant to say is that there is “nothing but text” in the sense that absolutely everything we ordinarily take to be just our kind of spontaneously lived existence is, in fact, mediated in the ways we’ve already discussed at length in this course, and we’ll discuss more by our knowledge and that our knowledge is textual, right?

That’s what he meant but, as I say, it’s widely misunderstood, and de Man in the fourth passage on your sheet returns to the attack against this popular supposition and says:

In genuine semiology as well as in other linguistically oriented theories, the referential [and notice the citation of Jakobson here] function of language is not being denied. Far from it. [In other words, it’s not a question of the idealist who was refuted by Dr. Johnson who kicked a stone and leaped away in terrible pain saying, “I refute it thus.” Nobody denies the existence of the stone, right? That is not at all the case. Reality is there, reality is what it is, and the referential function is perpetually in play in language, trying to hook on to that reality.] What is in question is its authority for natural or phenomenal cognition. [That is to say, can we know what things are–not that things are but what things are using the instrument of language? De Man goes on to say very challengingly:] What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism. [In other words, ideology is nothing other than the belief that language, my language–what I say and what I think in language–speaks true.]

That’s the position taken up, not at all the same thing as saying what’s out there doesn’t exist–nothing to do with that.

All right. Now de Man’s early career was influenced–I’m not speaking of the very early career in which he wrote these articles, but the early career involving the essays which were collected in his first book, Blindness and Insight. His early career is mainly influenced by French intellectualism, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and the argument of Blindness and Insight is largely to be understood not so much in terms of de Man’s later preoccupations with linguistics as with the negotiation of Sartre and existentialism into a kind of literary theory. The texts, in particular the text called “Criticism and Crisis”–the first one that I quote on your sheet–can best be read in those terms; but soon enough, de Man did accept and embrace the influence of Saussure in linguistics and structuralism, and his vocabulary henceforth took these forms. The vocabulary that we have to wrestle with for today’s essay is taken in part from Jakobson’s understanding of the relationship between metaphor and metonymy, and we will have more to say about that.

But in the meantime it’s probably on this occasion, once we accept them both as having come under the influence of the same form of linguistic thinking, to say a little bit about the similarities and differences that exist between Derrida and de Man. Now similarly, they both take for granted that it is very difficult to think about beginnings, but at the same time, one has to have some way, some proto-structuralist way, of understanding that before a certain moment–that is to say, before a certain synchronic cross-section–things were different from the way they were in some successive moment. So in the second passage on your sheet to which I’ll return in the end, we find de Man saying, “Literary theory can be said to come into being when”–that is de Man’s version of the event, and he agrees with Derrida in saying, “Well, sure God came into being; man came into being; consciousness came into being. That’s all very well, but they’re just head signifiers in metaphysics. There’s something different about language.” Right?

What both Derrida and de Man say about the difference when one thinks of language coming into being, from thinking about all those other things coming into being, is that language does not purport to stand outside of itself. It cannot stand outside of itself. It cannot constitute itself. It is perpetually caught up in its own systematic nature so that it’s a center. We have to resist excessive commitment to this idea of it being a center, but it is at least not a center which somehow stands outside of itself and is a center only in the sense that it is some remote, hidden, impersonal, distant cause. Language is caught up in itself in a way that all of these other moments were not. Then also, I think that you can see the similarity to Derrida and de Man’s way of insisting on these binary relations as interdependent and mutual, comparable to the sort of thing that I’ve been talking about in Derrida.

Take page 891 and 892 for example, the very bottom of 891 over to 892. De Man says:

It is easy enough to see that this apparent glorification of the critic-philosopher in the name of truth is in fact a glorification of the poet as the primary source of this truth…

Now he does not mean, as Freud, for example, meant in saying, “The poets came before me and the poets knew everything I knew before I knew it.” He does not mean that at all. What he means is what he says in the following clauses.

[I]f truth is the recognition of the systematic character of a certain kind of error, then it would be fully dependent on the prior existence of this error.

In other words, truth arises out of error. Error is not a deviance from truth. Right? Error is not a poetic elaboration on things which somehow, as it does in Plato’s view, undermines the integrity of that truth identified by philosophers. On the contrary, philosophy properly understood is what comes into being when one has achieved full recognition of a preexisting error. That is the way in which de Man wants to think about the relationship precisely between literature and other forms of speech.

Chapter 5. De Man and Derrida: Differences [00:33:35]

In saying that, I want to move immediately to the differences with Derrida. Derrida, as I said, believes in a kind of seamless web of discourse or discursivity. We are awash in discourse. Yes, we can provisionally or heuristically speak of one form of discourse as opposed to another–literature, law, theology, science and so on–but it is all easily undermined and demystified as something that has real independent integrity. De Man does not believe this. De Man thinks, on the contrary, that there is such a thing as literariness. He follows Jakobson much more consistently in this regard than Derrida does. Again and again he says that the important thing is to insist on the difference between literature and other forms of discourse.

There are all kinds of passages I could elicit in support of this. Let me just quickly read a few, page 883, about two thirds of the way down the left-hand column, where he’s sounds very much like a Russian formalist talking about the what literature, in particular, has exclusively that other forms of discourse don’t have. He says:

… [L]iterature cannot merely be received as a definite unit of referential meaning that can be decoded without leaving a residue. The code is unusually conspicuous, complex, and enigmatic; it attracts an inordinate amount of attention to itself, and this attention has to acquire the rigor of a method. The structural moment of concentration on the code for its own sake cannot be avoided, and literature necessarily breeds its own formalism.

In the interest of time, I’m going to skip over a few other passages that I was going to read to you in reinforcement of this insistence, on de Man’s part, that literature differs from other forms of discourse, the remaining question being: literature differs from other forms of discourse how? Well, it is the disclosure of error that other forms of discourse supposing themselves to refer to things remain unaware of. Literature knows itself to be fictive. Ultimately, we reach the conclusion that if we’re to think of literature, we’re to think of something that is made up: not something that is based on something but something that is made up.

In the first passage, the statement about language by criticism, that sign and meaning can never coincide, is what is precisely taken for granted in the kind of language we call “literary.” Literature, unlike everyday language, begins on the far side of this knowledge. It is the only form of knowledge free from the fallacy of unmediated expression–in other words, free from the fallacy that when I say “It is raining,” I mean I’m a meteorologist and I mean it is raining. Literature, when it says “It is raining,” is not looking out of the window, right? This is after all perfectly true. The author may have been looking out of the window, [laughs] but literature, as we encounter it and as a text, is not looking out of the window. How can a text look out of the window? When literature says “It is raining,” it’s got something else, as one might say, in view:

All of us [de Man continues] know this although we know it in the misleading way of a wishful assertion of the opposite, yet the truth emerges in the foreknowledge we possess of the true nature of literature when we refer to it as fiction.

This is why in the last passage on your sheet from the interview with Stefano Rosso, de Man is willing to venture on a categorical distinction between his own work and that of his very close friend, Jacques Derrida. He says:

I have a tendency to put upon texts [and he means literary texts] an inherent authority which is stronger, I think, than Derrida is willing to put on them. In a complicated way, I would hold to the statement that the text deconstructs itself [In other words, literature is the perpetual denial of its referentiality], is self-deconstructive rather than being deconstructed by a philosophical intervention [that which Jacques Derrida does–that is to say, Jacques Derrida bringing his sort of delicate sledgehammer down on every conceivable form of utterance from the outside–right–rather than being deconstructed by a philosophical intervention from outside the text].

So those are some remarks then on the differences and the similarities between de Man and Derrida.

Chapter 6. Examples: “All in the Family,” Yeats, and Proust [00:39:24]

Now “Semiology and Rhetoric” historically comes near the end of the period that “Structure, Sign, and Play” inaugurates. That is to say, it is published in Allegories of Reading and is a text which we can date from the early 1980s. Well, it was published originally as an article in 1979, but this is also near the end of a period of flourishing that Derrida’s essay inaugurates, and other things have begun to become crucial. Even before the death of de Man and the revelations about his past, there were a lot of people sort of shaking their fists and saying, “What about history? What about reality?” I’ve already suggested that in a variety of ways this is a response that can be naïve but it is still very much in the air. De Man says in this atmosphere of response–at the top of page 883, the left-hand column, he says:

We speak as if, with the problems of literary form resolved once and forever and with techniques of structural analysis refined to near-perfection, we could now move “beyond formalism” toward the questions that really interest us and reap, at last, the fruits of the aesthetic concentration on techniques that prepared us for this decisive step.

Obviously, I think by this time you can realize what he’s saying is if we make this move, if we move beyond formalism, we have forgotten the cardinal rule of the Russian formalists: namely, that there’s no distinction between form and content–in other words, that we in effect can’t move beyond formalism and that it is simply a procedurally mistaken notion that we can. That’s the position, of course, pursued in this essay. The task of the essay is to deny the complementarity–the mutual reinforcement even in rigorous rhetorical analysis like that of Gerard Genette, Todorov, Barthes and others, all of whom he says have regressed from the rigor of Jakobson–to deny that in rhetorical analysis rhetorical and grammatical aspects of discourse can be considered collusive, continuous, or cooperative with each other.

Now I’ve already suggested the problems that arise when you consider this term even in and of itself. I’m actually ripping off, by the way, an essay of Jacques Derrida’s called, hm [laughs] [laughter]– anyway, it’s that essay and [laughter] now you’ll never know my source. [laughter] In any case, Derrida, too, in this essay which [laughs] [laughter] is at pains to argue that you can’t reduce grammar to rhetoric or rhetoric to grammar. So as we think about these things as I suggest, we’ve already introduced what de Man drives home to us. He says, “Boy, this is complicated theory. I’m in over my head, so I better just get practical and give you some examples of what I mean.” So he takes up “All in the Family” and talks about the moment in which Archie becomes exasperated when Edith begins to tell him that the difference between bowling shoes laced over and bowling shoes laced under–this in response to Archie’s question, “What’s the difference?” In other words, Archie has asked a rhetorical question. “I don’t care what the difference is” is the meaning of the rhetorical question. Edith, a reader of sublime simplicity, as de Man says, misinterprets the rhetorical question as a grammatical question: “What is the difference? I’m curious to know.” Then she proceeds to explain that there’s lacing over, on the one hand, and lacing under, on the other hand. Archie, of course, can’t stand this because for him it’s perfectly clear that a rhetorical question is a rhetorical question.

De Man’s point is a question is both rhetorical and grammatical, and the one cannot be reduced to the other. Both readings are available. He complicates, without changing the argument, by then referring to Yeats’ poem “Among Schoolchildren,” which culminates you remember–it has a whole series of metaphors of attempting, seeming at least to attempt, the synthesis of opposites concluding: “how can we can tell the dancer from the dance?” Another question, right? Now the rhetorical question completes the usual reading of the poem. The answer to the rhetorical question is that we can’t tell the difference between the dancer and the dance. They are unified in a synthetic, symbolizing, symbolic moment that constitutes the work of art, and all the preceding metaphors lead up to this triumphant sense of unity, of symbolic unity, as the essence of the work of art–a unity which, by the way, entails among other things the unity of author and text: the unity of agent and production, the unity of all of those things which, as we’ve seen, much literary theory is interested in collapsing. How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

Well, de Man says, “Wait a minute though. This is also a grammatical question.” If you stop and think of it as a grammatical question, you say to yourself, “Gee, that’s a very [laughs] good question, isn’t it, because, of course, the easiest thing in the world is to tell the dancer from the dance. [laughs] I am the dancer and this is the dance I am doing and [laughter] obviously they’re not the same thing,” right? What nonsense poetry speaks. It’s perfectly ridiculous. There is also a grammatical sense which won’t go away just because your rigorous, sort of symbolic interpretation insists that it should go away, right? Then de Man, who happens to be a Yeats scholar–he published a dissertation on Yeats and really knows his Yeats–starts adducing examples from all over the canon of Yeats to the effect that Yeats is perfectly knowing and self-conscious about these grammatical differences, and that there is a measure of irony in the poem that saves it from this sort of symbolizing mystification. He makes a perfectly plausible argument to the effect that the question is grammatical rather than rhetorical. He’s not claiming–and he points this out to us–that his explication is the true one. That’s not his point at all. He’s claiming only that it is available and can be adduced from what we call “evidence” in the same way that the symbolic interpretation, based on the rhetorical question, is available and can be adduced from evidence–and that these two viewpoints are irreducible. They cannot be reconciled as traditional students of the relationship between rhetoric and grammar in studying the rhetorical and grammatical effects of literature take for granted.

That’s his argument. It’s a kind of infighting because he’s talking about two people who are actually very close allies. He’s saying they’re doing great work but they forget this one little thing: you cannot reconcile rhetoric and grammar. Every sentence is a predication, and if every sentence is a predication, it also has the structure of a metaphor; and the metaphor in a sentence and the predication in a sentence are always going to be at odds. A metaphor is what we call a poetic lie. Everybody knows A is not B. A predication, on the other hand, usually goes forward in the service of referentiality. It’s a truth claim of some kind–right?–but if rhetoricity and grammaticality coexist in any sentence, the sentence’s truth claim and its lie are perpetually at odds with each other. Just taking the sentence as a sentence, irrespective of any kind of inference we might make about intentions–we know perfectly well what Edith intends and what Archie Bunker intends. It’s not as if we’re confused about the meaning of what they’re saying. It’s just that other meanings are available, and since they’re not on the same page, those two other meanings coexist painfully and irreducibly at odds, right?

But there are cases–suppose Archie Bunker were Arkay Debunker. Suppose Archie Bunker were Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Derrida came along and said, “What is the différance?” Right? [laughter] That would be an entirely different matter, wouldn’t it, because you would have absolutely no idea whether the question was rhetorical or grammatical, right? There it wouldn’t be possible to invoke an intention because the whole complication of Derrida is precisely to raise the question about not knowing, not being able to voice the différance between difference and différance and not knowing whether Archie is right or whether Edith is right.

Proust I don’t have time for, but it’s a marvelous reading of that wonderful passage in which–remember that he’s set it up at the beginning of the essay with a kind of wonderful, cunning sort of sense of structure by talking about the grandmother in Proust who’s always driving Marcel out into the garden because she can’t stand the interiority of his reading. Well, later on in the essay de Man quotes this wonderful passage in which Marcel talks about the way in which he brought the outside inside as he was perpetually conscious of everything that was going on out there during the process of his reading, so that ultimately in the charmed moment of his reading, there was no difference between inside and outside. In other words, a metaphor, a rhetorical understanding of the relationship between inside and outside has been accomplished, but then grammatical analysis shows that the whole structure of the passage is additive–that is, adding things on–and is complicating and reinforcing an argument without insisting on identity, on the underlying identity on which metaphor depends; so he calls this metonymic.

By the way, I’m going to leave also to your sections the strange confusion that ensues in taking a rhetorical device, metonymy, and making it synonymous with grammar on the axis of combination. I leave that to your sections. In the meantime he says, “No, no, no then. I guess this passage isn’t rhetorical after all. It must be metonymic–but wait! It is spoken by a voice. There is this wonderful overarching voice that unifies everything after all. This is what I call,” says de Man, “the rhetoricization of grammar, right–but wait! That voice is not the author. That voice is a speaker. That voice is Marcel performing his wonderful sort of metaphoric magic, but we know that the author is painstakingly putting this together in the most laborious kind of composed way, making something up in an additive way that’s not rhetorical at all; it’s grammatical. This is a supreme writer putting together long sentences and so wait a minute. It must be, after all, a grammaticization of rhetoric,” the whole point of which is that the worm of interpretation keeps turning. All right? It doesn’t arbitrarily stop anywhere because rhetoric and grammar remain irreducible. We have to keep thinking of them as being uncooperative with each other. Okay, have to stop there–might add a word or two–but on Thursday we turn, I’m afraid with a certain awkwardness; I wish there were an intervening weekend, to Freud and Peter Brooks. In the meantime, we’ll see you then.

[end of transcript]

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