Wednesday

Random Readings 3

Paul de Man seems to be playing a lot of games in his 1973 essay “Semiology and Rhetoric.” In the opening paragraph, he begins a discussion of the movement to bring issues external to the text into consideration by comparing the state of literary theory with the state of the world at the time. He mentions the siren call of the ‘60s for “relevance,” and how it was being replaced by a desire for “reference.” He uses such terms as “politics” and a “foreign policy” of literature. He draws on the culture at large for his metaphors to argue a deconstructionist point. Is that self-contradictory in some sense? Again, with the later example built around Archie Bunker, he seems to be playing the game of being the iconoclast, but then turns around and rolls out phrases like “the vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration,” thus assuring himself of his membership in the intelligentsia. Also he lays down a tongue-twister with “the grammar 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?” Classic deconstructionese. The theorists all seem to be trying to be more “suggestively unfathomable” than the last guy. The passage where he suggests that under critical deconstruction, “the literary critic would become the philosopher’s ally in his struggle with the poets” flies right out of Plato’s Republic.

I also found the passage interesting in which de Man asserts that “by reading the text as we did we were only trying to come closer to being as rigorous a reader as the author had to be in order to write the sentence in the first place.” The idea being that deconstruction has to adapt itself to the particular piece under consideration, so that deconstructing a poem is inherently more difficult than deconstructing a treatise on the theory itself. Another parallel to physics arises in this text when de Man discusses the fond wishing in the field for the reconciliation of form and meaning, which echoes, to me, the search for the Grand Unified Theory of the universe, the one equation that explains all the nuclear forces.

Stanley Fish starts his piece “Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes Without Saying, and Other Special Cases” with a little story, which means he could get a job writing for Newsweek. Fish tries to bring some much-needed humor into the academic community, and his essay is heavy on examples and light on theoretical discourse. I see a connection between his assertion that meaning always depends on context and the passage in de Man’s work about Charles Sanders Pierce, where he says that “the interpretation of the sign is not, for Pierce, a meaning, but another sign; it is a reading, not a decodage.” For Fish, it’s always a decodage of the context that gives a sentence its appropriate meaning and drives away ambiguity, as he argues that no sentence ever has one true meaning.


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