Still, to talk about language is presumably even worse than to write about silence.
— Martin Heidegger
Imagine two men. Each reads the work of a major philosopher of their time, and, suddenly, philosophical literary criticism — in the philosopher’s image — is born in each of them. Such an account as this predominates in the traditional schemes of the “history of ideas,” which inform us that Burke formed the consciousnesses behind the literature of the English Romantic sublime and that Godwin and Hartley spawned the young Wordsworth, who somehow recapitulated the course of English philosophy by poetically overthrowing them. Philosophy and philosophers, in this kind of account, are themselves a priori; they always seem to have gotten to the “big ideas” first. And all of the deceptions which literary language would foist upon us are curiously redeemed because they are buttressed simply by intersecting with the philosophers’ avowed aim to speak the truth. We mark — and justify — literary and intellectual time by our philosophers, so that Locke becomes the rationale for the existence of the eighteenth century in England, so that it seems inevitable for scholars to search for the philosophers whom Shakespeare read. Milton’s description of Shakespeare as “Fancy’s child,” warbling “his native wood-notes wild,” becomes simply one poet “covering” for another, feigning ignorance of those true sources in philosophy which gave him a purchase on the language.
Neither Paul de Man nor Jacques Derrida is a poet — except in a rather loose sense of the word — but I have drawn this (admittedly simplified) sketch of one conception of the relationship between philosophy and literature to insist upon my distance from it. Philosophy is not — any more than literature — transmitted whole, with some kind of magical power to influence and create the character of all other varieties of language of its time. So I cannot speak of the influence of Heidegger upon de Man and Derrida, as if they somehow imitated him or borrowed from him. Instead, it seems appropriate to speak of their readings of Heidegger — in order to get at the notion of the mutual availability of language which constitutes the process of any text being read. In fact, I shall only touch peripherally upon Derrida’s direct analysis of Heidegger (in “Ousia et Grammé,” for example), because I am far less interested in expounding his position or de Man’s position towards Heidegger than in exploring the ways in which Heidegger’s texts are subsumed in a constellation of texts and concerns for both de Man and Derrida.
But the fact of the matter — or of my matter, at any rate — is that Heidegger, Derrida, and de Man are writers who involve us less in what can be said than in a consciousness of what cannot — or ought not to — be said. When Heidegger and Derrida formulate their critiques of the history of philosophy, when de Man and Derrida present their critiques of literary history, the project is one of subtraction, of clearing away the weight of false problems, false presuppositions, false answers which encumber the possibility of inquiry. “Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon for any understanding whatsoever of Being,” Heidegger announces in his introduction to the “Introduction” of Being and Time.1 And it is in the starkness of that Heideggerian project that we can locate the work of both de Man and Derrida: what does it mean to think the time of language and of the literary text?
With de Man figurative language and something called “literary language” provide access to time in literary terms. In the opening sentences of “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” one of his most important essays, de Man in fact immediately pits rhetorical language against a naively subjectivist account of literature in the following terms:
Since the advent, in the course of the nineteenth century, of a subjectivistic critical vocabulary, the traditional forms of rhetoric have fallen into disrepute. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this was only a temporary eclipse: recent developments in criticism reveal the possibility of a rhetoric that would no longer be normative or descriptive but that would more or less openly raise the question of the intentionality of rhetorical figures.2
With the use of “intentionality,” as opposed to “intention,” de Man moves his discourse outside of a literary tradition that imagines the subject to be the arbiter of truth — the presumably solipsistic tradition of the Romantics who resolved their supposed difficulties with a subject-object dialectic by asserting the subject as a last resort, or, at least, a final word. And de Man’s division of the essay into discussions of “Symbol and Allegory,” on the one hand, and “Irony,” on the other, involves a choice of rhetorical figures which have traditionally been discussed in terms of temporal movement. But the most interesting complication in de Man’s discussion of symbol and allegory occurs when he argues that not even the discussions of rhetorical figures — those constructs which mean what they say differently — can say what they mean.
“We find in Coleridge what appears to be, at first sight, an unqualified assertion of the superiority of the symbol over allegory.” And for de Man the superiority — and even the distinction — which separates symbol from allegory begins to vanish as soon as one examines the terms of Coleridge’s description:
In truth, the spiritualization of the symbol has been carried so far that the moment of material existence by which it was originally defined has now become altogether unimportant: symbol and allegory alike now have a common origin beyond the world of matter. The reference, in both cases, to a transcendental source, is now more important than the kind of relationship that exists between the reflection and its source. It becomes of secondary importance whether this relationship is based, as in the case of the symbol, on the organic coherence of the synecdoche, or whether, as in the case of allegory, it is a pure decision of the mind. (p. 177)
Even by this rather early point in the argument, de Man’s implication is that Coleridge cannot mean what generations of commentators have understood him to say; the dream of totalization — even in the guise of synecdoche which is associated with the symbol — plays havoc with the alleged value of the symbol. And de Man might perhaps say that the symbol cannot maintain any privilege or priority over allegory precisely because the synecdochal relationship of part to whole also implies a negative, that remainder which is always by definition left out in the synecdoche. Yet there is more. For de Man proceeds to speak of the primary repository of Romantic imagery, Nature, and that very movement into apparent concreteness becomes the means through which the dissolution of even a unified subject for “Romantic” subjectivism occurs. Romantic nature imagery continually generates “ambivalences derived from an illusionary priority of a subject that had, in fact, to borrow from the outside world a temporal stability which it lacked within itself” (p. 184). Coleridge’s gestures towards unification, towards merging subject and object, become a misguided reduction of the object to another self, so that nature appears available to the accommodation of a “purely intersubjective pattern.”
Allegory finally emerges as the victor in its dialogue with the symbol, after several examples designed by de Man to demonstrate the allegorical nature of Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise and of Wordsworth’s poetry.
Whether it occurs in the form of an ethical conflict, as in La Nouvelle Héloise, or as an allegorization of the geographical site, as in Wordsworth, the prevalence of allegory always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny. This unveiling takes place in a subject that has sought refuge against the impact of time in a natural world to which, in truth, it bears no resemblance, (p. 190)
And whereas allegory has been seen as a system of connections which derived their force from the edicts of dogma, it becomes for de Man (with the aid of the early Romantics) precisely the obverse of dogma. Rather, allegory hovers as an abyss which would register the virtual impossibility of all and any belief.
Whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference. In so doing, it prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self. (p. 191)
As de Man concludes the “Symbol and Allegory” section, he offers “an historical scheme that differs entirely from the customary picture.”
The dialectical relationship between subject and object is no longer the central statement of romantic thought, but this dialectic is now located entirely in the temporal relationships that exist within a system of allegorical signs. It becomes a conflict between a conception of the self seen in its authentically temporal predicament and a defensive strategy that tries to hide from this negative self-knowledge, (p. 191)
Rousseau and Wordsworth (among others) participate in a recovery of allegory which involves a recognition of the temporal dismantling of the self. Yet the “lucidity” of these early Romantics becomes obscured, lost in the self-mystifications of an aesthetic rhetoric which keeps symbolizing itself to death — or into an avoidance of death and the multiple deaths which time obtrudes upon the subject that keeps willing itself whole. But how did the critical obfuscation take place? And what difference does it make that critical idées réçues repeatedly attempted to restrict allegorical writers like Wordsworth and Rousseau to a symbolic scheme which substitutes a vocabulary of simultaneity and spatiality for “an authentically temporal destiny”? The critical obfuscation derives, perhaps, from a desire to see aesthetic pronouncements purely as statements of position — statements which are direct and non-literary enough to be taken quite literally as the theory from which literary practice stems. But while de Man is quite persuasive on this point, the impact of “distorted readings” must ultimately be beside the point. And the division between writers like Coleridge and the critics who have valorized the symbol, on the one hand, and allegorical writers like Wordsworth and Rousseau, on the other, provides a clarity to de Man’s argument by establishing in its turn the illusion of a choice between rhetorical and non-rhetorical texts. Rhetoric, saying better and meaning differently, has become allegory in the process of de Man’s argument. But both rhetoric and allegory are credited with being such fundamental insights and operations that no writer can really avoid them (whether by choice or unconsciousness). In that sense, not even Coleridge, the English founder of the “Romantic” comparison between symbol and allegory, can really maintain the priority of the symbol. And the only possibility of distinguishing between Coleridge and the allegorical Romantics involves denying Coleridge the possibility of rhetoric (or, perhaps, of any consciousness of his own rhetoric) — a tack which the opening gesture towards an analysis of the intentional structures of rhetorical figures would seem to disqualify.
An examination of Coleridge is probably useful at this point — not as an exercise in apologetics, but rather as an attempt to describe the difficulties in submitting Coleridge’s text to a static position even for polemical purposes. The distinction which Coleridge makes between symbol and allegory occurs in the context of a discussion of reading under the aspect of religious belief, but we must suspend the temptation to condemn it as onto-theological (for that would be to lend too much authority to the theological by our attack). In fact, this distinction in the Statesman’s Manual is perhaps more accessible in connection with an even more famous passage from the Biographia Literaria — the discussion of imagination and fancy.
The IMAGINATION, then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its material ready made from the law of association. . . .
Like most passages in Coleridge, this presents a basic problem of reading — as if an imagined web of misreadings had already made it impossible for the discussion even to appear to say what it means. But we may hazard a few observations. The primary imagination, as the “agent of all human perception” seems intelligible enough in its comprehensiveness. As a recapitulation of the infinite “I AM,” the specific perceptions which are the finite repetition of that “I AM” are symptoms of the infinite creative word rather than independently meaningful creations. But although imagination in this sense — as perception — is inevitable, it does, however, lack specific form. A pure language of the primary imagination would be a language composed entirely of “I AM.”
Perhaps the most striking feature of Coleridge’s discussion of the primary imagination, however, is that temporal terms define the human word. Human perception exists in a synecdochal relationship to the divine creative word, and the link between finite and infinite occurs explicitly in the temporal terms of “repetition.” But whereas Coleridge does not stress the temporal disparity between the finite word of human perception and the infinite word of divine creation, an exaggerated version of that disparity becomes the specific feature of the secondary imagination. If the primary imagination seems, in Coleridge’s account, to represent an hypostatized unity between the infinite “I AM” and its finite repetition, the secondary imagination would seem to have crossed over some imaginary temporal boundary beyond which division is inevitable.
It is at the point at which Coleridge proceeds to a discussion of the fancy that his polemical prescriptivism becomes troublesome. Although Coleridge identifies numerous instances of the fancy throughout his prose writings, his exposition here, in the thirteenth chapter of the Biographia, renders fancy more chimerical than real. He has granted so much to the primary and secondary imaginations that it is difficult to see how the fancy can exist at all, except as a debased or parodie form of the secondary imagination. If the creative perception of the primary imagination is as inevitable as it earlier seemed to be, the fancy can only have received its materials — those “counters” of “fixities and definites” to play with — originally from perception. On the other hand, fancy seems to involve only a slavish adherence to the denominative aspect of the secondary imagination without the redeeming balance of conceptualization. As such, it seems to be as much beyond the realm of human language as the primary imagination itself; although the primary imagination appears as pre-linguistic because of its total integration into the conceptualizing-idealizing aspect of language, the fancy appears as curiously alinguistic because of its total dependence upon the exclusively denominative aspect of language. The fancy is, as Coleridge presents it, post-linguistic. Both disjunct and disjunctive, the fancy would seem to consist in infinite relationships based on pure contiguity; it is, as Coleridge says, associationism.
Thus far our account presents very few obstacles to a critique of Coleridge’s definition of imagination and fancy which might parallel de Man’s critique of the discussion of symbol and allegory. Fancy, in fact, represents a metonymie process which is curiously aligned with allegory, for the fancy is precisely a recognition of the impossibility of coincidence with a transcendental source which allegory repeatedly asserts. Yet, even while Coleridge apparently condemns the fancy as a degraded and empty form of thought, he also provides the means for an ironic reversal of the entire schema. As is well known, the discussion of imagination and fancy occurs after a lengthy buildup which is interrupted by a letter which Coleridge received from a friend “whose practical judgement [he had] had ample reason to estimate and revere.” Just as in the case of “Kubla Khan,” that poem which might have been completed had Coleridge not been interrupted by a person from Porlock, the letter serves as an emblem of the fancy itself — a Shandean spoof of the mind “getting off the track” through an associationism which invades it. Thus, for Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, the inevitability of a detour into fancy is established before the distinction is even underway, and Coleridge’s disparagement of the fancy occurs merely as a self-ironizing gesture which casts suspicion upon the insistence on the connectedness of the imagination.
In this light, Coleridge’s argument shifts from its role of willful self-blindedness to an approximation of what de Man describes as “irony.” Using Baudelaire’s De l’essence du rire, de Man suggests that “the notion of self-duplication or self-multiplication” emerges as “the key concept” of Baudelaire’s article, and the nature of the ironic duplication involves “a relationship, within consciousness, between two selves, yet it is not an intersubjective relationship” (p. 195). If we view Coleridge’s esteemed friend in the Biographia and the person from Porlock in “Kubla Khan” not as persons but as flimsy personifications of Coleridge’s own fancy, that ironic self-multiplication which can only register “the distance in reflection” becomes a central feature of the text. But now it appears that we are suggesting that Coleridge is redeemed by fitting into de Man’s conception of irony — even if he may not be conspicuously allegorical. And that brings us to another problem: can allegory and irony really be distinguished in de Man’s treatment of them? Irony “relates to its source only in terms of distance and difference and allows for no end, for no totality”; allegory and irony are linked “in their common discovery of a truly temporal predicament”; and “the temporal void that [irony] reveals is the same void we encountered when we found allegory always implying an unreachable anteriority” (p. 203). Despite the resemblances between the two, however, de Man maintains a distinction between them and proceeds to search for “meta-ironical texts” which have “transcended irony without falling into the myth of an organic totality or bypassing the temporality of all language” (p. 204). But the very text on which de Man anchors his discussion of irony, Baudelaire’s De l’essence du rire, complicates de Man’s separation between the narrative expansiveness of allegory and the “unsettling speed” of irony. De Man focusses on the fall as instrumental in creating the possibility of the division of the subject into a multiple consciousness — the man who falls, who is an object, and the man who laughs in recognition of his previous self-mystification in seeing himself as superior to nature. “Nature can at all times treat him as if he were a thing and remind him of his factitiousness, whereas he is quite powerless to convert even the smallest particle of nature into something human” (p. 196). But although de Man embarks upon his own narrative account of Baudelaire’s fall on the sidewalk, and even though he introduces the notion of the Fall of Man as an incipiently allegorical connection with the ironist’s fall, he still maintains that irony is distinct from allegory in occurring within an instant, like a conversion to negativity. Yet Baudelaire’s “little” fall contains within it the seeds of its own extension, for the fall occurs specifically through the power of gravity. And the ironist cannot confine himself merely to the recognition that his being objectified into a falling object once implies the possibility of his falling in the future, because such a view would restrict the character of the threat from nature in the form of gravity, would reinstate the self-delusion of a superiority to nature by implying that a fall would teach you all you needed to know and fear about nature. Rather, the force of the ironist’s fall proceeds from the allegorical and unacknowledged aspect of the situation — that this fall, and any others which occur in an instant, are merely blatant illustrations of a temporal process: gravity is not just continually but continuously pulling one down. One can warn himself or someone else against falling, but who would warn anyone against aging? Thus, when de Man describes irony as “essentially the mode of the present, knowing neither memory nor prefigurative duration,” whereas allegory “appears as a successive mode capable of engendering duration as the illusion of a continuity that it knows to be illusionary” (p. 207), the examples of Coleridge and Baudelaire argue that irony and allegory are not exactly mirror images of the same process but rather operations which inevitably involve one another.
Toward the end of the article, de Man suggests that “the dialectical play between the two modes [allegory and irony], as well as their common interplay with mystified forms of language (such as symbolic or mimetic representation), which it is not in their power to eradicate, make up what is called literary history” (p. 207). Chronological literary history, like symbolic or mimetic representation, is a delusion, an attempt to objectify a literary language which is so thoroughly rhetorical that it can only ironize its objectifiers. Literary language for de Man becomes language which in
accounting for the “rhetoricity” of its own mode . . . also postulates the necessity of its own misreading. . . . In accordance with its own language, [the text] can only tell its story as a fiction, knowing full well that the fiction will be taken for fact and the fact for fiction; such is the necessarily ambivalent nature of literary language.3
Now, several things are at stake here: a version of Heideggerian temporality, in which incompleteness empties time of specific content, banishes literary history as a falsely chronological, objective version of an underlying myth of progress; the possibility of a unified authorial self is undermined by the discontinuity of literary, or rhetorical, language; and the notion of mimesis as a recapturing of an essential unity vanishes as the subject to be imitated loses all semblance of presence and as language is revealed to be so devious in its windings that it could not recapture any presence if it did exist. In such a context, however, the role of the literary critic becomes suspect. For the infinite extension of the literary, in theory, collides with the exclusions of certain texts in practice. De Man calls “ ‘literary,’ in the full sense of the term, any text that implicitly or explicitly signifies its own rhetorical mode and prefigures its own misunderstanding as the correlative of its rhetorical nature. ... It can do so by declarative statement or by poetic inference.”4 A discursive, critical, or philosophical text which operates by means of statements is just as “literary” as any poetic text. But if all language is rhetorical in nature, how is it that any and all rhetoric, all language, is not the “intentional structure” of “rhetoricity”? Once one has subverted the possibility that an extended “literary language” could make a mistake which would count as a mistake, how is it any longer possible to suggest that any text could really be self-blinded or mystified, as symbolic or mimetic representation is said to be? The choice between keeps vitiating the choice of. As de Man says, “The rhetorical character of literary language opens up the possibility of archetypal error: the recurrent confusion of sign and substance.”5 But the avoidance of that confusion, the eschewing of literalism, in practice involves attributing that literalism to another. The process of opposition thus covertly reinstates an objectivity to error which the appeal to literary language attempted to avoid.
In a recent essay, Joseph Riddel replies to Hillis Miller’s review of his latest book by seeing Miller as an emanation of de Man. And Riddel views de Man as engaged in an “effort to contain the Derridean question, to restore the ‘subject’ (if only as a function) and with it the privilege of ‘literature’ and ‘literary language,’ and thus to save, just at the moment it seemed most heinously vented, the valorized ‘text.’ ”
De Man’s is a heroic task, and nearly irresistible for those of us concerned with “literature” as (the ground of) an institution. Miller’s adoption of it, however, presumes that the deed has already been done — that Derrida’s deconstructions have already redefined the nature of the “text” which can never be present to itself, and that de Man has already contained the problem by demonstrating that “literary language” was ever thus, and was never self-deceived in claiming for itself a unitary, idealistic, referential truth-value. For de Man, then, as for Miller, that literature which but a short time ago could be thought of as the phenomenological “sign” of a unified origin, the constitutive and constituted cogito, becomes the already doubled Word, never self-deceived, prior to all other forms of discourse.6
Riddel’s account is forceful and cogent, and yet it raises anew the question of how to deal with de Man. For de Man’s notion of “literary language” seems (to me at least) less an assertion of the value of the literary text and the “subject (if only as a function)” than a demolition of those concepts. “Literary language” appears as an extension and an undelineated consolidation of those figures of allegory and irony which he discussed in “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” For the ironic use to which de Man puts literary history — the history of reading — implies that not even de Man’s uncovering of previous misreadings can be a final stance. The text of any sign which can be read or assimilated in more than one way (i.e., most things with the possible exception of things like a stop sign by the side of the road, which bears a certain relation to the force of gravity) must be literary, since only misreadings or contradictory readings are potential indices to the very rhetoricity or literariness of which de Man speaks. But to speak of misreadings as testimony to literariness is not to valorize the literary text, but rather to insist that the bottom drop out of it. The apparent hypostatization of the text is itself rhetorical; it serves a polemical purpose by countering both the notion of the author as a unified subject who says what he thinks and the notion of an historical development or progression in which ideas become clearer (or conversely, a decline, in which they are less clear). But further, this apparent elevation of the literary text casts an ironic light upon a recurrent delusion which readers pass upon themselves. The problems of reading any literary text are not to be resolved easily, or else the anecdote about the white Southerner leaping to the stage to defend Desdemona against Othello would not be so clearly a joke. Reading becomes a complicated process as soon as one recognizes that distinguishing between truth and fiction, or presence and absence, (ad infinitum) is never enough. For the difficulty is always in trying to imagine that the text means something different from what I think it means. And whereas de Man continually submits himself to the delusion which we all open ourselves to in reading and writing about reading as if we had, finally, “got it right,” his version of the text — as an empty meaning which lends itself to a variety of “full meanings” — exercises an ironic function. Like gravity in Baudelaire’s De l’essence du rire, the language of a text continually and continuously exerts a force that leads to a fall; precisely at the moment at which any reader or any critic imagines that he has distinguished the figurative from the literal, the “real” meaning of the text, he asserts its presence as his subjectivity. And precisely at that moment, he is mocked by the text, which does not, and cannot, yield up any immutable classification of its figurativeness or its literalness.
De Man’s essay “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” on Derrida’s De la grammatologie, signals several differences between these two writers — whether through de Man’s containment of the Derridean question, as Riddel suggests, or whether through a different way of framing the questions of language and literary language. Whereas de Man asserts that “it is a historical fact that irony becomes increasingly conscious of itself in the course of demonstrating the impossibility of our being historical” (p. 194), Derrida opens De la grammatologie with a deconstruction of the history of the Word in the Western tradition. Thus, while de Man sees history as an ironic text, so that history is already emptied of content, Derrida feels the gravity (the weight and the pull) of history enough to imagine both that a deconstruction (like Heidegger’s) of the metaphysical tradition and a utilization of the “errors” of that tradition are possible and necessary. Derrida’s project involves, then, an attempt both to examine language as a kind of supplemental consciousness and to question the ways in which this language seems to have been ever thus to those who live in its domain.
If ethnocentrism plays an inevitable part in Derrida’s account of the history of the logos and écriture, he never allows the ethnocentrism of language to be merely a puzzle, an arbitrary end to questioning, or merely an anecdote, like Jakobson’s story of the German woman who, on learning of the French word fromage, replied (auf Deutsch) that “cheese is more natural.”7 Nor does he suggest that “logocentrism” (the metaphysic of phonetic writing) is a mere accident which can be reversed by a simple decision to banish it. These elementary points demand some rehearsal largely because they are continually being minimized. Jonathan Culler, in his provocative book Structuralist Poetics, asserts that Derrida,
having maintained that writing cannot be treated on the model of speech, [wants to] show that the features which he has first isolated in writing are already present in speech, which must, therefore, be conceived according to the new model of writing. But this further move is a purely logical point, which someone concerned with the social facts can afford to neglect: even if Derrida shows that we ought to think of speech as a kind of writing, we may arrest the play of his concepts by saying, simply, that within Western culture there are crucial differences between the conventions of oral communication and those of literature which deserve study whatever their ideological basis. To replace a metaphysic of presence by a metaphysic of absence, to invert the relation between speech and writing so that writing engulfs speech, is to lose the distinction which translates a fact of our culture. Communication does take place. Many instances of language are firmly situated in the circuit of communication.8
Culler is, of course, making a shrewd appeal to all of those who responded to Fredric Jameson’s complaint that Derrida would involve us in a process of infinite regress; and he raises a viable suspicion toward the Derridean project: how is it possible to be sure that the “free-play” which Derrida counsels is any less a blind alley than the metaphysics of presence which it was designed to counter? Derrida would reply that the “facts of our culture” constitute a less solid ground than Culler suggests they do. But this quite obvious disparity between the two writers raises a question of belief which may account for some of the melodrama which surrounds the opening sections of De la grammatologie, in which Derrida beckons his readers toward the “future” by describing its possible horrors in the form of a challenge.
L’avenir ne peut s’anticiper que dans la forme du danger absolu. Il est ce qui rompt absolument avec la normalité constituée et ne peut donc s’announcer, se présenter, que sous l’espèce de la monstruosité. Pour ce monde à venir et pour ce qui en lui aura fait trembler les valeurs de signe, de parole et d’écriture, pour ce qui conduit ici notre futur antérieur, il n’est pas encore d’exergue.9
(The future cannot anticipate itself except in the form of absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with what is constituted as normality and it thus cannot announce itself, present itself, except under the aspect of monstrosity. For the world to come and for that in it which will have made the values of the sign, the word, and writing tremble, for that which draws here our anterior future, there is no more evidence.)
Thought, or the attempt to write about language, becomes science fiction which provides a frisson of horrified delight that is reminiscent of Frankenstein, in which knowledge seems to become wholly other as it shifts from the figure of Victor Frankenstein to the figure of his monster (the future?).
This conflation of science (knowledge) and science fiction determines the mutually contradictory elements of De la grammatologie, in which Derrida is continually announcing an apocalyptic shift in Western thought which can occasionally seem to be merely a substitution of old myths for new. For the idea of a new age remains contaminated by carrying with it the implicit promise of presence which all of those old “new ages” once proffered — “Bliss will it be in that dawn to be alive.” But what does the old age of Western civilization look like? The concept of writing has been governed by a phonetic derivation for it which obscures writing’s history of its own production. The history of metaphysics has always suggested that the word (logos) is the origin of truth, and has disparaged writing in the search for a “full” speech. And the concept of science (or of the “scientificity” of science) has been determined as logic, in all of its obvious derivation from logos. But the historico-metaphysical epoch of these notions is drawing to a close. A Word which imagined itself to be creative is about to self-destruct, out of sheer exhaustion at having to maintain a tremendous web of fictions as truth.
For some of the writers around Tel Quel, Derrida’s postulation of the closure of metaphysics has become a scheme which appears to have empirical validity. And with a strikingly uncomplicated comprehension of Derrida’s “toujours déjà” (“always already”), they see that closure as having occurred with Mallarmé, which, of course, leaves them with a body of literature upon which to work the millenarian program of affirming absence. For Derrida, however, the historical schema in which “presence” is continually being ferreted out tells a rather different story. For although the notion of “presence” occasionally seems to function as a kind of villain, a newly discovered version of a Cartesian evil genius, Derrida carves the territory of his account from the recognition of a confrontation between the words for presence and the seeming presence of words. The very act of describing Heidegger’s deconstruction of metaphysics enmeshes him in a welter of words which cannot be confined to a simple disclosing of a history of easily expunged bad faith. On the one hand “c’est la question de l’être que Heidegger pose à la métaphysique. Et avec elle la question de la vérité, du sens, du logos. La méditation incessante de cette question ne restaure pas des assurances.”10 (. . . it is the question of being which Heidegger poses to metaphysics. And with it the question of truth, of meaning, of the word. The incessant meditation upon that question does not restore the assurances.) But on the other hand, Heidegger wants to exempt “being” from the movement of the sign. Instead he evokes the “voice of being”:
La voix des sources se n’entend pas. Rupture entre le sens originaire de l’être et le mot, entre le sens et la voix, entre la “voix de l’être” et la “phonè,” entre “l’appel de l’être” et le son articulé; une telle rupture, qui confirm à la fois une métaphore fondamentale et la suspecte en accusant le décalage métaphorique, traduit bien l’ambiguité de la situation heideggerienne au regard de la métaphysique de la présence et du logocentrisme.11
(The voice of sources does not hear [or, comprehend] itself. A break between the originary sense of being and the word, between meaning and voice, between the “voice of being” and the “spoken’,” between the “call of being” and the articulated sound; such a rupture, which at the same time confirms a fundamental metaphor and suspects it in attacking the metaphorical displacement, translates well the ambiguity of the Heideggerian situation with regard to the metaphysics of presence and of logocentrism.)
Yet if the tradition of thinking about writing generally involves a repression or a refusal to face the full consequences of the differences within self-divided selves and self-divided words, it is also impossible to imagine a progress or a decline within the tradition. For the passion upon which Rousseau bases his claim that the first language was figurative (as Derrida underscores) cannot be evaded: it is both the non-coincidence of the subject with itself and the non-coincidence of signifiant and signifié. Derrida’s merger of “science” (thought) and science fiction attempts to imply the inevitability of passion within the most apparently dispassionate thought. For the extension of a narrative or grammatical string of words must necessarily disclose its own internal disjunctions through that very extension in time, so that the repression of the word into a false consistency or a false insistence upon presence is self-defeating (which is perhaps the reason why de Man utilizes Jakobson’s categories of metaphor and metonymy, to dissolve metaphor into metonymy, as a linguistic version of empty allegory).12 Neither ordinary language nor literary language can, then, become in itself the statement of repression, because both are continually implicated in a temporal predicament of being caught in the very passion which they would contain. And being implicated, they imply that passion. In that sense, no text can affirm presence or deny it; the question becomes one not of position but of implicitness or explicitness, as those categories (like the ones of “literality” and “figurality”) constantly shift in their relationships. “Différance” cannot divide time into historical periods or epochs; rather, it suspends and thus transforms the notion of history.
Derrida repeatedly speaks of “force” and “energy,” and his attempt to see language in terms of “free play” involves an effort to disclose and liberate the passion within writing. But the project is illimitable, as illimitable as Derrida would wish. For the passion which is non-coincidence keeps constituting difference in terms of objects; Rousseau’s savage who calls a man a “giant” reveals a disjunction within himself in that moment of passion, but the passion not only constitutes the other man as an object but overconstitutes him as an object. He may learn “in time,” as Rousseau says, that the “giant” is a “man,” but that does not exempt him from an infinitude of analogous errors.13 The passion which repeatedly institutes difference also acts to reify difference, so that the problem of trying to face the emptiness of thought continually reasserts itself as a problem. A few years ago Time Magazine circulated a series of witticisms printed on little cardboard plaques, one of which said, “If you haven’t got anything to say, why don’t you just shut up?” The dilemma which Derrida presents us with is that he urges us to think of the emptying of thought — not having any thing to say — while also reminding us of the passion which keeps leading to an unending constitution of things.
Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie, speaks of rhetoric as ornament which can be lent — through enargia (from “argos, because it geveth a glorious lustre and light”) and through energia (from “ergon,” because it works “with a strong and vertuous operation”).14 But if he talks as though rhetoric is an addition to language, he also performs the curious gesture of naming his tropes so that they become personifications — like “Micterismus, or the Fleering Frumpe,” “Hiperbaton, or the Trespasser,” “Prozeugma, or the Ringleader,” and “Hiperbole, or the Over reacher, otherwise called the loud Iyer.” And through that personification, rhetoric comes to seem like passion within the subject — a division into a proliferation of characters with doubled names. The deconstruction of specific forms of passion always remains a necessary exercise, but a major question about literary language is why any reader ever commits himself to the delusion which he or the text will separatedly, or together, deconstruct. In Shelley’s brief essay “On Love,” he simulates a demand from the reader: “Thou demandest what is love?” And he responds to this imaginary, objectified, and idealized reader:
It is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void, and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves. If we reason, we would be understood; if we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another’s; if we feel, we would that another’s nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own, that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart’s best blood.15
It would take a lengthy analysis of the text of the essay and of various poems to demonstrate that Shelley — or his texts — does not merely fall into willful blindness about the possibility of the correspondences of which he speaks. But let us take it, temporarily, on faith that love (like any variety of passion) is seen as a conspicuous delusion, the self’s attempt not just to mirror itself but to magnify itself. The lover is to be the reader who supplements the writing. Yet that delusion is continually readmitted in an imaginary constellation in which the language of the text, the reader, and the writer do not create an intersubjective relationship but an objectification in which the objectified other is supplementary and greater (like Rousseau’s “giant”). To speak of the subjectivity of the author, to valorize the text, to read with temporary unconcern for the false presence of the text — these are the submissions to the delusion of any passion which recur so often that they become, in conjunction with their deconstruction, another version of the fall of the ironist. Language cannot extend itself in time without offering the pretext for deconstruction, and writing is never read without the delusion which creates the imagination of mistakenly enlarged objects. It is, perhaps, in this sense that Wordsworth speaks of poetry as the “history or science of feelings” and of tautology or repetition in poetic language in terms of “our passion for words as things, active and efficient.”16
Wordsworth, in his “Poems Founded on the Affections” and most clearly in the “Blest Babe” passage of The Prelude, creates a mythic progress for perception and language in which the infant, in his passionate attachment to the mother, sees the world and himself as inside her eyes. He is her best pupil as he sees his own reflection in the pupil of her eye. And that passionate delusion leads to an unwitting education to perception and language — an acceptance of the importance of the forms because they are the mother. When the mother dies (whether literally or through a recognition of the child’s separateness from her), the child is
Seeking the visible world, nor knowing why.
The props of my affections were removed,
And yet the building stood (Prelude, II, II. 277-80)
The world of perception and of language has lost its motivating principle, that one central love object, and Nature becomes a substitute mother both as an inadequate and empty substitute and as a desperately embraced surrogate. For the delusion of passion keeps generating an unwilled belief — that the world of visible form may be an implicit legacy, a text through which to reimagine that fall which seemed to be a paradise. Only for the purest (i.e. inhuman) thought can an intersubjective relationship be imaginable, because the passion within divided language and the divided self recapitulates precisely the kind of unwieldy movement into passion’s constitution of objects which de Man describes as Coleridge’s reduction of a theocentric to an interpersonal relationship: “To make the object one with us, we must become one with the object — ergo, an object. Ergo, the object must be itself a subject — partially a favorite dog, principally a friend, wholly God, the Friend” The subject here is not a subject — not even subjects — but rather a proliferation of objects.
The Johns Hopkins University
1 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), p. 19.
2 Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Interpretation: Theory and Practice, ed. Charles Singleton (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), p. 173. Additional references cited in text.
3 Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 136.
4 Blindness and Insight, p. 136.
5 Blindness and Insight, p. 136.
6 Joseph N. Riddel, “A Miller’s Tale,” Diacritics, 5 (Fall 1975), 56-65, esp. 56.
7 Roman Jakobson, “Quest for the Essence of Language,” Diogenes, 51 (1965), 24.
8 Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 133.
9 Jacques Derrida, De la Grammatologie (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1967), p. 14. Translations are my own.
10 Grammatologie, p. 35.
11 Grammatologie, p. 36.
12 Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” Diacritics, 3 (Fall 1973), 27-33.
13 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sur l’origine des langues, (1817; rpt. Paris: Bibliothèque du graphe, 1970), p. 506.
14 George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, (rpt. 1906; rpt. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1970), p. 155.
15 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “On Love,” in Shelley’s Prose, or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 170.
16 William Wordsworth, “Note to ‘The Thorn,’” in Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (London: Methuen and Co., 1963), p. 283.