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Clarke LITS3304 Notes 11C 1 PAUL DE MAN “SEMIOLOGY AND RHETORIC” (1973) Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979. 3-19. De Man begins by acknowledging that the “spirit of the times is not blowing in the direction of formalist and intrinsic criticism” (3). Instead, we keep hearing a “great deal about reference, about the nonverbal ‘outside’ to which language refers, by which it is conditioned and upon which it acts” (3). The stress nowadays falls on the “interplay” (3) between fiction and “categories that are said to partake of reality, such as the self, man, society, ‘the artist, his culture and the human community,’ as one critic puts it” (3). “We speak as if, . . . with the techniques of structural analysis refined to near-perfection, we could now move ‘beyond formalism’” (3). “With the internal law and order of literature well policed, we can now confidently devote ourselves to the foreign affairs, the external politics of literature” (2). The force behind all this is a “highly respectable moral imperative that strives to reconcile the internal, formal, private structures of literary language with their external, referential, and public effects” (3). From the formalist perspective, literature cannot merely be received as a definite unit of referential meaning that can be devoted 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 rigour of a method. The structural method of concentration on the code for its own sake cannot be avoided, and literature necessarily breeds its own formalism. (4) However, he argues, there has been little critical innovation since the “techniques of close reading established in the thirties and forties” (4) by the New Critics. Where hitherto, literary formalism was most often made to seem “reductive” (4), “superficial and expendable” (4) by being “considered to be the external trappings of literary meaning or content” (4), twentieth century formalism changed this model: form is now a solipsistic category of self-reflection, and the referential meaning is said to be extrinsic. The polarities of inside and outside have been reversed, but they are still the same polarities that are at play: internal meaning has become outside reference, and the outer form has become the intrinsic structure. (4) A “new version of reductiveness . . . follows this reversal: formalism nowadays is mostly described in an imagery of imprisonment and claustrophobia: the ‘prison house of language,’ ‘the impasse of formalist criticism,’ etc.” (4). Though the elements of the metaphor may have exchanged position, a particular “metaphorical model of literature” (5) has persisted: literature has long been viewed as a kind of box that separates an inside from an outside, and the reader or critic as the person who opens the lid in order to release in the open what was secreted but inaccessible inside. It matters little whether we call the inside of the box the content or the form, the outside the meaning or the appearance. The recurrent debate opposing intrinsic to extrinsic criticism stands under the aegis of an inside / outside metaphor that is never being seriously questioned. (5) De Man wants, however, to “speculate on a different set of terms, perhaps less simple in their differential relationships than the strictly polar, binary opposition between inside and outside” (5) that are “thus less likely to enter into the easy play of chiasmic reversals” (5). A this point, De Man turns his attention to “literary semiology” (6) as pioneered in Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 11C 2 France which derived its inspiration from Saussurean linguistics which focuses not on “what words mean but how they mean” (5). In so doing, the “entire question of meaning can be bracketted, thus freeing . . . critical discourse from the debilitating burden of paraphrase” (5). One of its great achievements, De Man contends, is that the “perception of the literary dimensions of language is largely obscured if one submits uncritically to the authority of reference” (5) which “tenaciously . . . continues to assert itself in a variety of disguises” (5). This “linguistic awareness” (6) of the French semiologists has exploded the “myth of semantic correspondence between sign and referent” (6). It is De Man’s hope to engage in some “preventative semiological hygiene” (6) in the English-speaking world. However, De Man argues, French literary semiology has tended to focus on the “use of grammatical (especially syntactical) structures conjointly with rhetorical structures, without apparent awareness of a possible discrepancy between them” (6). Barthes, Genette, Todorov, and Greimas are all guilty, De Man contends, of “letting grammar and rhetoric function in perfect continuity, and . . . passing from grammatical to rhetorical structures without difficulty or interruption” (6). In their hands, rhetoric qua the “study of tropes and figures” (6) (as opposed to “eloquence or persuasion” ) “becomes a mere
extension of grammatical models, a particular subset of syntactical relations” (6). Todorov even argues that “rhetoric has always been satisfied with a paradigmatic view over words (words substituting for each other), without questioning their syntagmatic relationship (the contiguity of words to each other)” (6). Todorov’s Grammar of the Decameron is one of the “first explorations in the elaboration of a systematic grammar of literary modes, genres, and also of literary figures” (7). Genette’s Figures I, II and III “can be shown to be assimilations of rhetorical transformations or combinations to syntactical, grammatical patterns” (7). In Figures III, a study of Proust, Genette “shows the combined presence . . . of paradigmatic, metaphorical figures with syntagmatic, metonymic structures” (7) which is “treated descriptively and nondialectically without considering the possibility of logical tensions” (7). Agreeing that the “existence of grammatical structures, within and beyond the unit of the sentence, in literary texts is undeniable” (7) and that “their description and classification is indispensable” (7), De Man questions whether the “reduction of figure to grammar is legitimate” (7). It is a “redoubtable task” (7), he agrees, to “distinguish the epistemology of grammar from the epistemology of rhetoric” (7). We tend to think of “grammatical systems as tending towards universality and as simply generative, i.e., as capable of deriving an infinity of versions from a single model” (7). We conceive, too, of the “relationship between grammar and logic, the passage from grammar to propositions, as being relatively unproblematic: no true propositions are conceivable in the absence of grammatical consistency. . . . Grammar and logic stand to each other in a dyadic relationship of unsubverted support” (7). Likewise, distinguishing between a statement (e.g. ‘the rose is red’) and a speech act (e.g. ‘I promise’), that is, between so-called ‘locutionary’ acts of speech (i.e. referential propositions in the form of truth claims) and ‘illocutionary’ acts (e.g. “ordering, questioning, denying, assuming, etc.” ), De Man contends that the “performance” (8) of speech-acts is “congruent with the grammatical structures of syntax in the corresponding imperative, interrogative, negative, optative sentences” (8). (De Man is alluding in all this to J. L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, the so-called Oxford school of linguistic philosophy that predominated in Analytic philosophical circles in the UK in the 1950s.) De Man quotes Richard Ohman in this regard: The rules for illocutionary acts determine whether performance of a given act is well-executed, in just the same way as grammatical rules determine whether the product of a locutionary act – a sentence – is well formed. But Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 11C 3 whereas the rules of grammar concern the relationships among sound, syntax, and meaning, the rules of illocutionary acts concerns relationships among people. (qtd. in De Man, 8) When rhetoric is defined as persuasion, that is, “as actual action upon others” (8), De Man stresses, the “continuity between the illocutionary realm of grammar and the perlocutionary realm of rhetoric is self-evident” (8). Referring to “recent and American examples” (8), De Man’s point is that the “continuity here assumed between grammar and rhetoric is not borne out by theoretical and philosophical speculation” (8). He mentions the work of Kenneth Burke and Charles Sanders Peirce in this regard, neither of whom believed that rhetoric could be reduced to grammar, the former in fact undermining the latter. However, rather than continue to give examples of theoretical arguments on this score, De Man turns his attention tp practical illustrations to buttress his claim that rhetoric cannot be reduced to grammar. He considers the case, not insignificantly, of the rhetorical question (i.e one in which the answer is thought to be implied by the very question). Drawing upon a popular American sit-com (All in the Family), his example is ‘What’s the difference?’ Archie Bunker’s wife asks him whether he wants his bowling shoes laced over or under to which he replies ‘what’s the difference?’ She interprets his response literally and replies, somewhat naively, by taking the time to explain the difference between lacing a shoe ‘over’ and lacing it ‘under’, a response which provokes his ire. As De Man put it, “What’s the difference?’ did not ask for difference but meant instead ‘I don’t give damn what the difference is.’ The same grammatical pattern engenders two different meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept difference whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning. . . . [G]rammar allows us to ask the question, but the sentence by means of which we ask it may deny the very possibility of asking. For what is the use of asking, I ask, when we cannot even authoritatively decide whether a question asks or doesn’t ask? . . . The point is as follows. A perfectly clear syntactical paradigm (the question) engenders a sentence that has at least two meanings, one which asserts and the other which denies its own illocutionary mode. It is not so that there are simply two
meanings, one literal and the other figural, and that we have to decide which one of these meanings is the right one in this particular situation. The confusion can only be cleared up by the intervention of an extra-textual intervention, such as Archie Bunker putting his wife straight; but the very anger he displays is indicative of more than impatience; it reveals his despair when confronted with a structure of linguistic meaning that he cannot control and that holds the discouraging prospect of an infinity of similar future confusions. . . . (9) Calling “this semiological enigma ‘rhetorical’” (10), De Man’s point is that if the speaker or writer is not there to clarify in person what s/he meant by such a question, the result is radical indeterminacy or what J. Hillis Miller, another prominent Deconstructionist, terms ‘unreadability’ and what Barthes in his discussion of Poe terms ‘undecidability’: the grammatical model of the question becomes rhetorical not when we have, on the one hand, a literal meaning and on the other hand a figural meaning, but when it is impossible to decide by grammatical or other linguistic devices which of the two meanings (that can be entirely contradictory) prevails. Rhetoric radically suspends [the] logic [of grammar] and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration. (10) De Man terms what is going on here the “rhetorization of grammar” (16) and, Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 11C 4 simultaneously, the “grammatization of rhetoric” (16). In each case, the “figures generated by syntactical patterns” (15) undermine the syntactical patterns, and inversely, as well as, thus, the generation of a stable meaning. To put this another way, the meaning generated by the “syntagmatic structure based on contingent association such as metonymy” (15) is in an unresolvable conflict with meaning derived from the “paradigmatic structure based on substitution, such as metaphor” (15). De Man puts the foregoing this way in a subsequent discussion of another rhetorical question – the last line of Yeats’ “Among School Children” – “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”: two entirely coherent but entirely incompatible readings can be made to hinge on one line, whose grammatical structure is devoid of ambiguity, but whose rhetorical mode turns the mood as well as the mode of the entire poem upside down. Neither can we say . . . that the poem simply has two meanings that exist side by side. The two readings have to engage each other in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it. Nor can we in any way make a valid decision as to which of the readings can be given priority over the other. . . . (12) The “couple grammar / rhetoric” (12), is “not a binary opposition since they in no way exclude each other, disrupts and confuses the neat antithesis of the inside / outside pattern” (12). Another way of thinking about what De Man is saying is to consider what Derrida has to say about ‘signifying play’ or the ‘play of difference’ (two synonyms for différance). The problem with Mrs. Bunker’s question is that this particular sequence of signs is a particularly good example of the way in which the principle of différance which informs the paradigmatic axis operates to generate more than one meaning. There is, consequently, a surplus of signification which makes for indeterminacy and impedes understanding. As a result, a certain tension is set up between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes, between the rhetoric and the grammar of the utterance, the consequence of which is that the former undermines the latter. The différance intrinsic to the metaphoric pole (rhetoric) suspends the logic of the metonymic pole (syntax, grammar).