Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Copyright © 1988 by Michael Macrone. All rights reserved.

Do Texts Have Selves?

Paul de Man and the Consciousness of Language

In his early essay, “Intentional Structure of the Romantic Nature Image” (1960),[1] Paul de Man sketches out the problem of priority and belatedness, of self-identity and self-negation, in a way that anticipates his later work but which also remains, in light of that work, strangely therapeutic. De Man spies in Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Brot und Wein” a symptom of the romantic disease that has become very nearly terminal in its current manifestations. De Man attacks nostalgia for the natural object, the submission of poetic language to the symbol, which pretends to identify consciousness with a necessarily prior nature through the medium of language.

This attempt is doomed, he claims, because symbolic language itself is the mark of absence or difference from the pure Being in which all natural objects participate, because language and therefore symbol suffer a division of existence from essence. While natural objects, whose “origin is determined by nothing but their own being” (67), are therefore stable, permanent and “in themselves,” all language is marked by a differential and essentially metaphorical structure so that any attempt to coincide with natural objects is predicated both on the absence of the object to perception and the inessential quality of a language which must borrow its foundation and stability from the natural world. Because poetic language is “unable to give a foundation to what it posits except as the intent of a consciousness” (69), poetic language and, a fortiori, symbolic language are free and volitional but also for that reason a negation of the permanence, stability, and pure presence of the natural object which they name.

In making these claims, de Man is still, at this point, assuming the availability of natural Presence to consciousness, through the medium of perception. He is thereby positioned within a phenomenological framework. One notes at times a direct link to Sartre’s The Psychology of Imagination, wherein imagination and perception are opposed only because imagination negates what is present to consciousness through perception, rendering what is present absent and what is absent present. Sartre’s imagination is, like de Man’s, a mark of man’s free will, which is realized in its essential form as the absolute negation of what is given to consciousness by perception. De Man concludes his essay with a redemption of poetic possibility, such as was hinted at in strains of Romantic literature subsequently abandoned, by celebrating imagination as a mark of the “possibility for consciousness to exist entirely by and for itself, independently of all relationship with the outside world, without being moved by an intent aimed at a part of this world” (77).

Yet even here, in an apparent, unabashedly solipsistic, rejection of any dialectic between “material” and “poetic” consciousness—or perception and imagination—de Man relies on a certain stability and innate “givenness” of the material consciousness. While even “common language” is stricken with an interior emptiness or division from Being—because everyday words are signs established for the purpose of “re-cognition,” which excludes “pure origination” (67)—in the mute realm of perception, all sorts of essences and Being are available—for example, in “epiphany” (70). The lure of the symbol arises only because there is an active “forgetting” of the “transcendental presence” to which the epiphanic particularity of the materially present natural object refers for its essence. Such a transcendental presence must therefore have been “known” to be “forgotten” (71), even though it cannot have been experienced by the self. Furthermore, there is an inextricable confusion in this essay between the perceptual and the cognitive, a confusion centered on de Man’s use of the notion of “contact” between words and things. In discussing Mallarmé, de Man relies on the original pertinence of the symbol to the natural world, symbols never entirely losing “contact with the concrete reality from which they spring” (71).

Even when he exposes this contact as a kind of mystification, de Man never questions the referential or perceptual quality of signs. That is, de Man maintains unchallenged a necessarily “mimetic” language; the problem with “symbolic” poetry is not that it is deluded in striving for mimetic representation, but that it attempts to establish for language the ontological qualities of the natural object. This ontological confusion does not challenge mimesis; mimesis is, in fact, a substantial and present danger to “pure” consciousness. And in referring all accounts to a prior mimetic language, de Man establishes perception as a form of nature; attempting to fuse language with natural objects is entirely the same as attempting to fuse imagination with perception. The goal for de Man is to redeem the nature of language as a negation of essence, but he does not deny that essence may be not simply recognized, but known. In all events, perception is a form of primary consciousness, a natural “given” from which it is our freedom to detach a non-essential, or imaginary, consciousness.

There are several problems raised by such an account of consciousness, none of which is explicitly addressed in “Intentional Structure.” And, given the therapeutic intent of the essay, it’s easy to understand why. However, these problems return in each of the subsequent essays which I examine here, and they return in a more positive—even productive—form. Whereas in “Intentional Structure” de Man had left aside the question of the origin and structure of what is implicitly imagined as a divided or doubled consciousness, he brings these issues to the fore in his reading of Georges Poulet in “The Literary Self as Origin,” and in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” (both originally published in 1969).[2]

It should be helpful here to present a few of Poulet’s positions in their most elementary form; and for this purpose I shall refer to a paper Poulet delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1966, “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority.”[3] In this paper, Poulet discusses the special nature of the literary object, as opposed to the natural object and also to other cultural objects (e.g., statuary). It is the quality of these other objects to remain what they are, apart from the individual consciousness which is external to them. While certain cultural objects might provoke our desire to experience in them a certain interiority, they never take hold of us in such a way that they may share interiority with us.

The literary object, on the other hand, exists in a privileged relation to consciousness, in that the experience of reading necessarily involves a surrender of the self as an “I,” a consciousness to which the text is external, to the “I” of the text. In effect, we are colonized by the literary object, so that we experience consciousness as the consciousness of the text: “You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” (57). For this to occur, we realize in retrospect, we must have attributed to the literary object a consciousness, and furthermore a subjectivity, of its own: “I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter” (57).

At this moment, the object itself disappears; for what it has brought about—a “new existence” in one’s “innermost self”—renders the material object inessential. This object presents itself to us as a “subjectified object” (58), but only so that, in its opening up to us and our opening up to it, it may become the conduit to another, pure subjectivity, that is, to the consciousness of the author. This consciousness is distinct from the historical author, whose interiority survives his or her own death. And, in fact, for Poulet, it is possible to perform a further phenomenological reduction, moving beyond the reduction of subjectified object to subject; this next step is the reduction of a total Work, or oeuvre, to a “common essence, … an essence which I was not able to perceive, except when emptying my mind of all the particular images created by the artist” (72). Here we reach the final, transcendental moment Poulet would claim for the critic: the moment at which, beyond “concrete consciousness,” we attain contact with a consciousness both for itself and in itself—“a subject which reveals itself to itself (and to me) in its transcendence relative to all which is reflected in it.” Such a transcendence necessarily involves the annihilation of “the objective elements of the work,” in order to reach “a subjectivity without objectivity” (72).[4]

The question now remains as to how de Man represents this project (roughly coincident with the latest works of Poulet touched on in “The Literary Self as Origin”), and how he negotiates the questions of consciousness and transcendence, similar in Poulet to his own earlier conceptions of transcendental reduction.[5]

In his reading, de Man charts the evolution of Poulet’s concepts of “origin” and “center”—from the prewar commitment to literature as the possibility of a temporalizing enactment of originary movement, to the midcentury conception of an author’s “point of departure.” For de Man/Poulet, this “point of departure” is a reawakened feeling of fundamental fragility in face of an intent to coincide with the origin of things. Such a feeling of fragility is coincident, then, with the recognition that time can never authentically be experienced as a stable continuum, as it might seem to the stupefied “everyday consciousness” (88), but only as an experience of fundamental breaks, or “instants de passage.” The triumph latent in this fragility is that one ultimately recognizes in the failure of memory to act as a sort of naturalistic, stabilizing force the freedom of language (specifically literary language) to “gather scattered fragments of time into a single moment and endow it with generative power” (90).

Poulet, as critic, is then endowed with the task of specifying the “center” of a literary oeuvre, a center according to which the instants de passage are gathered within a work. As de Man points out, the “plot” of Poulet’s critical narrative defines “literary consciousness as distinct from other forms of consciousness” (91). Such a distinction reaches its logical conclusion by 1968, with reference to a discussion of Proust; at the end of a series of breaks or reversals with relation to the status of memory, Proust recognizes, in a last instant de passage, that temporality is established in the movement of consciousness from a formless retrospective state to a prospective state, in which fragmented materials are rendered “formed and lasting” (93).

In de Man’s terms, the concept of “moment of passage” serves as a “center” in Poulet’s own criticism, a means of organizing his own interactions with texts in a temporal relation. Poulet’s special greatness, however, does not lie just in his insight into the unstable nature of retrospective consciousness, but ultimately in his “genuine subjectivity” as a critic—his embodiment of a phenomenological contact of subject with subject across the subjectified objects of his study—because “he is willing to undermine the stability of the subject and because he refuses to borrow stability for the subject from outside sources” (97).

What is notable in de Man’s formulation here is that it both reaffirms and negates his concept of consciousness in the phenomenological “Intentional Structure” essay. The free act of poetic negation of the natural world is replaced here with a necessary failure, essential to consciousness, of retrospective temporality. The concept of language as pure difference, a lever for the liberating evacuation of everyday consciousness, is supplanted by the concept of language as a means of redemption from the necessary and un-free non-coincidence of present with past. Yet in both formulations de Man insists on the absolute priority of consciousness to the objective or natural world, whether the recognition of this priority is “happy” (as in “Intentional Structure”) or somewhat “sadder” (as here). In both cases, everyday consciousness is blocked from the “originary movement” of poetic consciousness, yet in both cases, the epistemological status of perception is left unquestioned. This is to say nothing of the possibility of identifying with the subjectivity of the subjective object—the subjectivity of the author as an author—which assumes an unproblematical or transparent relationship to the language of literature.

However, de Man begins moving in another direction precisely at the moment he uncovers Poulet’s particular blindness. And in moving in this new direction, whereby language is itself lent a certain irreducible materiality, de Man’s assumptions about consciousness become expressed within a doubling structure which parallels Poulet’s. At this moment, de Man describes Poulet’s brand of “identification” with the authorial subjectivity as “the outward symptom of a division that takes place within the self” (97-8)—the supplanting of an “actual,” inferior self by a “deeper,” superior self. At this moment, then, my own central question arises, to wit: how something like a self, even conceived as consciousness, especially as object-less consciousness, could ever really be doubled from within. In other words, from what standpoint could one possibly distinguish between two competing consciousnesses? If one is within one or the other of these consciousnesses, then one is simply conscious; consciousness is not the kind of phenomenon from which one can partially withdraw and still retain in full. This is not to say that it is impossible for one, in a certain state of consciousness, to mark off memories and sensations as naive or inferior—something one has overcome now and can feel superior to. It is merely to say that such marking off is itself a conscious phenomenon which cannot take place in some other, meta-conscious realm from which one might seriously adjudicate “bad” from “good” consciousness.

But just as de Man seems poised to press this very point, he takes a quite different turn. De Man accepts the notion of a superior consciousness, with its threat to annihilate the inferior consciousness, but fills in the blank that Poulet could not recognize: “what is here being described as a relationship between two subjects designates in fact the relationship between a subject and the literary language it produces,” Q.E.D. (98). While in fact this sounds like an absolutely straightforward rejection of the notion of a doubled consciousness, of which the superior party would succeed in temporalizing the subject’s fragile instability, it nevertheless requires that language retain certain features which look very much like consciousness and subjectivity.

This is not only so because language, like the self, which is to say, like consciousness, is, in de Man’s earlier terms, at odds with a natural world which seems prior and stable (but which nonetheless is available to consciousness through an untroubled perception, capable of leading consciousness directly back, through “epiphany,” to transcendental essence). Nor is this so only because language necessarily appears, both to Poulet and to de Man, as objectified consciousness, although this fact would suffice. But, finally, language retains the properties of a consciousness because it does not coincide with any “originary movement” of the “inferior” self’s consciousness (in which case it would disappear because it would cease to function; that is, language arises only when there is a certain failure to coincide with origin or presence); yet at the same time is capable of entering into a dialectic with the so-called “inferior” self, reduced finally to the “actual” self who interacts with language.

To put it slightly more simply, language, as it fulfills the function of a “center,” comes to the rescue of a stupefied or fragmented self who would lack, in himself, the capacity to temporalize any “instants.” The self must borrow from language the temporality that it lacks. Yet it is impossible to conceive of a temporality which is not a property of consciousness. This fact leads de Man to speak of language as something one might ultimately accept as a “mode of existence” (100), which is only possible if language has at least all the qualities of conscious existence, if not of transcendental essence, built in. It is in fact because natural objects represent the coincidence of existence and essence that they are incapable of consciousness. To imagine being a natural object is to imagine not having consciousness. The dialectic between self and language is, for de Man, produced within an almost mutual recognition that neither is a true origin, that is, that neither is prior and neither can be marked off as self-sufficient, because if so, the necessity and the very existence of the other would vanish.

This concept of language as supplementary consciousness bestowing temporality and meaning on the imagistic consciousness de Man chooses to call the “self” raises certain problems which are addressed in more explicit form in “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” but they are not solved there. In what is clearly a return, with a difference, to the themes of “The Intentional Structure of the Romantic Nature Image,” de Man also reiterates the Sartrean distinction of “bad” faith from “good” in a manner which attenuates the problems inherent in the notion of a doubled consciousness. To demonstrate how this is so, I must limit myself to only a few of the moves de Man makes in this essay, an essay I have found extremely useful in many respects. Unfortunately, I must pass over without examination de Man’s literary historiography and, in particular, his reading of Wimsatt’s “The Structure of the Romantic Nature Image”—a portion of the essay which is interesting and useful in its own right.

Worse, I can only mention in passing my view on the appearance of the new category of “rhetoric”—which seems, to be brief, intended to address the crucial problem, in both the earlier essays, that a self’s grappling with language is more than a purely existential encounter. Language is, furthermore, an entry into a signifying chain, which is inevitably marked by the interpretive activity of readers and auditors. But I leave this issue aside for now.

De Man begins by making a slightly disingenuous claim to be getting beyond the evaluative or “normative” rhetoric which is compelled to privilege either symbol or allegory; his scorn for the ideology of the symbol could not be more manifest, nor could his privileging the “good faith” of allegory. Once again, the attempt to make the linguistic sign a synecdochic part of a stabilized whole, with which it would thus attain ontological parity, is shown to be a “bad faith” attempt to borrow from nature the stability, temporal or ontological, which the self, and the self’s language along with it, necessarily lacks. The virtue of allegory, whether naive or sophisticated, is that it lays no claim to any sort of ontological presencing, or to participation in some totality in which language would heal the inherent division of consciousness from the natural world.

De Man speaks approvingly of Rousseau’s allegorical incorporation of the Roman de la rose and Robinson Crusoe because such incorporation highlights the essentially differential, repetitive, distancing, and erotic nature of literary language in general. At these moments, “Rousseau does not even pretend to be observing. The language is purely figural, not based on perception, less still on an experienced dialectic between nature and consciousness” (203). What might appear, therefore, to be a symbolic reduction of the subject-object split to a dialectic of totalization turns out to bear within it the marks of its non-referential, temporalized, allegorical actuality. Once the allegorical qualities of Rousseau’s work and all later Romantic literature are recognized for what they are, then it will be seen that “the dialectic between subject and object does not designate the main romantic experience, but only one passing moment in a dialectic, and a negative dialectic at that, since it represents a temptation that has to be overcome” (204–5).

As de Man develops this position, the pseudo-neutralizing language of the earlier part of the essay, in which symbol and allegory are represented as equally necessary and available resources, gives way to the gradual stigmatization of the symbol as a “seductive” temptation which must be overcome if literature is to recognize its authentic self. For de Man, the prevalence of allegory in a work “always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny” (206). The loaded diction of “unveiling” and authenticity is imposed in order to characterize the spatializing “world of the symbol” as false and the constitutively temporal world of allegory as true. But the question here is not whether this evaluation is correct, but rather how something like “symbol” could be “seductive”—as if there were some agency inherent in the sign which supersedes the self that uses language in rhetorical ways.

The sort of agency embedded in a trope—or in the sign in general—is never directly described. But certain features of this agency become clearer as de Man develops his notion of allegory, and then of the related phenomenon of irony. Allegory, per se, is not in this account the bearer of meaning; that is, its agency is not conceived as cognitive, as the enactment of meaning, or the indication of a referent. Rather, the allegory enacts temporality: “it remains necessary, if there is to be allegory, that the allegorical sign refer to another sign which precedes it … [and] it is the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority” (207). By this point, allegory becomes a detached agent, capable of “renouncing … nostalgia” and “the desire to coincide”—but whose nostalgia, and whose desire? The answer, “the self’s,” is obvious but unsatisfactory, not only because de Man’s statements lack any reference to the self, but also because when de Man does turn to the self, allegory is still represented as a detached agency. Allegory is able, in renouncing the mystification of the desire to coincide, to “prevent the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self” (207). Allegory rushes in to rescue the stupefied self from its own totalizing desires, from its “bad conscience.”

This brings us squarely upon de Man’s account of irony, which shares with allegory a disjunctive relation of sign and meaning, requiring “an extraneous principle that determines the point and the manner at and in which the relationship is articulated” (209). But it is unclear as to where this “extraneous principle” may be located, since it is the function of both allegory and irony to produce the very demystified consciousness which seems the only available candidate to enact such a determination. The implicit tautology in this, admittedly provisional, formulation is continued in de Man’s account and adaptation of Baudelaire’s “De l’essence du rire.”[6] De Man leans heavily here on Baudelaire’s concept of dédoublement—self-division or, more literally, self-doubling. This self-doubling is available only to those, such as philosophers, who have developed the capacity “d’assister comme spectateur désintéressé aux phénomènes de son moi” (212). In dédoublement de Man finds a correlative within the self for the function which language performs in the essay on Poulet—that is, the production of a deeper, demystified self which rescues the everyday, stupefied self from the traps of nostalgia and phantasmatic totalization. Yet, in adopting Baudelaire’s notion of “la puissance d’être à la fois soi et un autre” (212), de Man would seem to reintroduce the inherent problems of a doubled consciousness which he introduced the category of language to solve in the earlier essay.

Part of the problem is relieved by expanding on Baudelaire’s designation of a “comique absolu,” which transcends intersubjective violence in order to, at a deeper level, set man apart from the non-human world; but this remains dédoublement and an “activity of consciousness” (213) only insofar as what is transcended is again the naive empirical self which seeks to identify itself with the natural world. Furthermore, de Man stresses the fact that it is language that transfers the self “out of the empirical world into a world constituted out of, and in, language—a language … unique in being the only entity by means of which it can differentiate itself from the world” (213). This final “it”—the “it” that uses language to the end of differentiation—is ambiguous, and could equally signify the self and language itself. Here again, language takes on a superior sort of agency, because language must present itself, not only as a kind of “tool” with which to work on the world, but must also present itself as a materiality which the subject would not, in its naive empirical form, be able to discover for itself.

In the process, certain features of Baudelaire’s narrative of dédoublement have been forgotten. You will recall that Baudelaire presents the capacity to self-divide or self-double as the capacity to transcend a physical fall or failing—that is, the capacity to transcend empirical error and thus transcend the position of inferior, subject to the laughter and scorn of other subjects. In this narrative, dédoublement is very specifically the capacity to internalize or appropriate the perspective of other subjects on “les phénomènes de son moi.” In other words, Baudelaire’s “ironic” self itself had to be borrowed from without—one sees oneself as ridiculous only because one sees others seeing oneself as ridiculous. This borrowing from without is figured in Baudelaire’s “allegorizing” the “absolute comic” in the pantomime of Pierrot.

Thus doubling is the capacity to fill the position of both erring subject and laughing subject, whether in an extrapolation of one’s past experiences as spectator of others’ errors, or in a moment of mimetic internalization. It is unclear how one can turn to language and still understand how such a dédoublement could function, or even come about. It would seem to require that both language and the natural world take on the characteristics of a self, complete with a “moi”—and here de Man gratifies us. “Nature” is capable of treating us like things, and language may actively “split” the subject “into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity” (214).

In this formulation, de Man posits an inherent consciousness within language, or at least a kind of structural intention which bears within itself the marks of a superior consciousness, complete with epistemological claims on petty little empirical selves. While this resembles de Man’s earlier claims for language, it differs here in that such a language in itself can in no way offer transcendence. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the empirical self is necessary both to sanity and sustenance; and the person who crosses entirely into the realm of language passes into insanity and in fact out of irony, which is necessarily fragile and instantaneous, incapable of establishing for itself or its empirical counterpart a continuum or stable totality. “The dialectic of the self-destruction and self-invention which for [Schlegel], as for Baudelaire, characterizes the ironic mind is an endless process that leads to no synthesis” (220).

But once again, we reach an impasse. In describing both allegory and irony, de Man must necessarily posit a prior “source” to which the doubled, temporalizing consciousness relates “only in terms of distance and difference” (222), but which nevertheless emerges completely secure in its priority, as the term from which demystifying consciousness (or language) must measure itself. If this source were not in some sense legitimately “present,” if there were from the start no speech which did “mean what it says,” then there would in fact be no way to mark off or differentiate “ironic” consciousness as different and differing. In other terms, there would be no way for irony to dissolve “in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning” (222) if there were no originary sign which did in fact offer “a” meaning.

There is more to say on the rhetoric of “The Rhetoric of Temporality”—especially in terms of de Man’s reading of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”—where the problem of a cognitive lapse, as opposed to a physical fall, returns to the fore. But for now I will content myself to make just a brief concluding remark which returns us to de Man’s essay on Poulet and points toward his essay on Derrida.

If you recall, Poulet’s model of criticism, as evidenced in “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority,” is one in which subject merges with subject across the subjectified object—in other words, in which the critic’s consciousness merges with the author’s in a reduction of the subjectified objects which constitute the authors oeuvre. What we see in de Man is a move away from Poulet’s notion of consciousness—or primary subjectivity—toward a secondary and superior consciousness which the naive self must borrow from the structure of language.

This move culminates, in “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” in a model of the passage from text to text across the consciousness of the critic[7]—that is, a passage from a literary text which has a sort of “foreknowledge” of its own unreadability, to another literary text which repeats in structure the rhetorical intent of the original text. In such a scheme, it is the text, not an author, which accounts for itself: “Accounting for the ‘rhetoricity’ of its own mode, the text also postulates the necessity of its own misreading.”[8] This sort of account inevitably leads to tautology; the fact that texts have a cognitive function is a precondition for a text’s account of its own rhetoricity; but “it follows from the rhetorical nature of literary language that the cognitive function resides in the language and not in the subject” (137).

In the end what emerges in de Man’s account is the notion that the self-differing and structurally rhetorical nature of language enables language to bear all the features of, and to stand in for, consciousness. This is Poulet’s account of the “subjectified object” without a subjectivity beyond the object, borrowed from an authorial consciousness; the object is subjective in itself. Yet de Man still needs the notion of “declarative” or “literal” language, language as a tool rather than as a subject, because without such a notion, the concept of a text’s “knowing that it will be misread” is empty, as is the whole category of “rhetoric,” which would account in all cases for all uses of language, and therefore be void as a separate category. Yet the category of literal language, and the correlative category of “grammar,” which would presumably function to make semantic distinctions, does in fact come in for further abuse in de Man’s later work.

But for now, “The Rhetoric of Blindness” leaves us with an image of criticism which would seem to have strange practical consequences. Somewhere in the history of a text’s interpretation, a certain blindness is produced; in the case of “strong” texts, which suffer no blindness, the first criticism will necessarily be blinded; otherwise, the blindness extends outward from the text through the criticism. In any case, whatever the source, the blindness is productive, both in terms of a particular blinded reading, which is productive only insofar as it is blinded, and in terms of producing subsequent blinded readings which endeavor to correct the blindness. But in a strange inversion of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” subsequent readings, far from “falling” further off from the prior readings, begin to line up asymptotically with relation to the original text. In time, as readings multiply, the readers, or rather their texts, approach their original more and more closely, in that their “correction” of precursors necessarily requires more faithful duplication of the original text. The strongest possible literary-critical text, at the end of a long, circular chain, would ultimately be a reproduction of the original. Granting the text, rather than the author, ultimate cognitive status, we are left with a text which knows, finally, that it has taken on the status of a machine rather than a subject, a duplicating machine doomed to produce near-perfect copies cyclically and endlessly.

Footnotes

[1] “Structure intentionelle de l’image romantique,” Revue internationale de philosophie 51 (1960); trans. and rev. in Harold Bloom, ed., Romanticism and Consciousness (New York, 1970). Page references are to the translation.

[2] “Verité et méthode dans l’oeuvre de Georges Poulet,” Critique 266 (1969); “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Charles Singleton, ed., Interpretaion: Theory and Practice (Baltimore, 1969). References to both texts are to the versions published in Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. rev. (Minneapolis, 1983).

[3] “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority,” in Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, eds., The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (Baltimore, 1970; rpt. 1972 as The Structuralist Controversy). All references are to the 1972 edition.

[4] For Poulet, the movement of criticism is to achieve a contact of subject with subject across the subjectified object; while in the initial act of reading the self is colonized by an external consciousness, so that the self oscillates between native and foreign subjectivity without being able to entertain both at once, the critical act, in reducing the subjectified object to subjectivity, is able to re-objectify, in a sense externalize, the consciousness of the other. It is only in this final, reductive moment that the blurred distinction of subject and subject can assume a somewhat re-objectified, differential form.

[5] It is perhaps difficult, in proceeding through de Man’s essay, to separate his own position from Poulet’s—one is often unsure whether declarative statements are consequences of Poulet’s position or de Man’s own. De Man’s ventriloquial capacity is enormous, and in this sense bears out his commitment to actualizing something like a Pouletesque blurring of subject with subject. But there is also a rhetorical payoff to such confusions—insofar as we are implicated in the blindness of a given critic; and, furthermore, such a tactic lends to a disappropriation of statements as a kind of property. There is also one final consequence of the sort of reading which resists a consistently agonistic sundering of consciousness from consciousness, self from self—I will touch on this consequence at the end of my paper.

[6] My references to this text, when not to the citations in de Man’s essay, will be to “On the Essence of Laughter,” in Jonathan Mayne, trans. and ed., The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies by Baudelaire (Garden City, NY, 1956), pp. 131-53.

[7] This formulation is indebted to Stanley Corngold’s in “Error in Paul de Man,” in The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America (Minneapolis, 1983); see esp. p. 97.

[8] “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” in Blindness and Insight, p. 136. Further references are to this text.

Originally written in March, 1988


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