De Man, Paul

Assigned: De Man, Paul. From Allegories of Reading, “Semiology and Rhetoric” (1314-26). Also read the editors’ introduction (1311-13).

From Allegories of Reading (1973/1979)

Semiology and Rhetoric

1. On 1314-15 (“To judge from various recent publications…”), how does Paul de Man size up the then-current state of affairs regarding critical practice in American English departments? How is this trend, according to de Man, recurrent and inevitable due to the interplay between formalist criticism and “extrinsic” modes whereby the critic looks elsewhere for meaning than to the formal properties of the literary text? What twist does he say applies to the most recent iteration of formalism, and why has that alteration essentially failed to change the dynamics of the argument between formalism and its opponents?

2. On 1315-16 (“Metaphors are much more tenacious…”), how does de Man assess the significance of French semiology? What does it aim to do, and in what specific ways has it shown its “demystifying power” (1316) in the context of history-based and thematic French criticism?

3. On 1316-18 (“One of the most striking characteristics…”), de Man approaches what he considers a key difficulty in current semiological practice in literary studies: “the use of grammatical (especially syntactical) structures conjointly with rhetorical structures, without apparent awareness of a possible discrepancy between them” (1316). How does de Man contextualize and begin to trouble the assumption of continuity between grammar and rhetoric? In particular, what insights does he draw from Kenneth Burke and Charles Sanders Peirce in this regard (1318)?

4. On 1319-20 (“These remarks should indicate…”), de Man offers a practical example of what appears, at least to begin with, to be the smooth conjoining between grammar and rhetoric: the rhetorical question. His example, drawn from the popular 1970s sitcom All in the Family, has the curmudgeonly family patriarch Archie Bunker getting flustered with his wife Edith’s offer to explain how one laces shoes “over” or “under” (1319). “What’s the difference?” he asks in exasperation. How, as de Man develops this comical situation, does Archie’s question turn out to indicate not the continuity but “the tension between grammar and rhetoric”? What is it about rhetoric that is so destabilizing if we look to it for certainty of meaning—why can’t it simply be reduced to the level of grammar?

5. On 1320-21 (“Let me pursue the matter…”), de Man offers yet another rhetorical question as an example, this time the final line of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Among School Children”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (1320) What is the usual reading of this line? How does de Man challenge this reading by taking the final line not as figurative but instead as literal, i.e., not as a rhetorical question to which there is no answer but as an earnest question, as in “is there a way to know the difference between the dancer and the dance?” How does this possibility change our understanding of the poem? Why, according to de Man, can’t we say that “the poem simply has two meanings that exist side by side” (1321)? Failing that, why can’t we determine which reading to prioritize?

6. On 1321-24 (“Yeats’s poem is not explicitly ‘about’…”), de Man analyzes a passage from Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu in which young Marcel is reading. How does this passage appear to emphasize (by means of both figural and metafigural language) the superiority of metaphor over metonymy, and yet, according to de Man, undo that emphasis by its reliance upon metonymy? In what sense are the self-unraveling operations at work in Proust’s text similar to the ones we can find in Friedrich Nietzsche’s proto-deconstructions of causality and other key philosophical concepts?

7. On 1324-26 (“There seems to be a difference…”), de Man turns to the question of how to characterize the achievement of his kind of reading. He writes, “It would seem that we are saying that criticism is the deconstruction of literature, the reduction to the rigors of grammar of rhetorical mystifications” (1325). How does he immediately put that interpretation into question? Why might de Man’s deconstructive criticism not be a heroic “demystification” crusade, but something more ambivalent in terms of its results? In what sense, according to de Man, might criticism and literature ultimately be indistinguishable in their operations?

8. General question: In “Semiology and Rhetoric” from Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man concludes by reflecting that, “Literature, as well as criticism—the difference between them being delusive—is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself” (1326). De Man’s claim (along with post-structuralist criticism generally) directly challenges the dominant understanding of the proper relationship between criticism and literature: he denies that criticism is subordinate to, and exists to serve, literature. How do you see this critical relationship? When you read a work of criticism, what do you expect from it in connection to the literary text that led you to the critical work in the first place?

9. General question: As the Norton editors point out, one of the accusations made against deconstructive critics like Paul de Man, author of our selection “Semiology and Rhetoric” from Allegories of Reading, is that their methodology amounts to a formalistic withdrawal from directly social and political concerns. To be sure, deconstructive critics don’t generally read texts in such directly political ways as, say, practitioners of cultural criticism or feminist analysis. But how might we make a case for defending deconstruction from such charges: what is it “up to,” perhaps, that is in its own way just as vital as any other type of critical endeavor? Explain how you see the value of deconstructive criticism and theory.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake