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April 11, 2007

EL312: de Man knows you don't mean what you said

I've had a great time reading what you've all written about my man Mr. Paul de Man. Everyone seems to agree that de Man's argument only forces us to ask more questions of ourselves, literature, and of signs. I'd like to give him a nickname, if I may: Mr. Paul de(construction) Man since 1) he was a deconstructionist and 2) it's only by looking at the construction (structuralism) that we can deconstruct things in the way he suggests.

In deconstructing a text, de Man focuses on elements of grammar and rhetoric. He refers to William Butler Yeats's poem "Vacillation" on 369 which provides the perfect word to describe the tension and irresolution between the two forces de Man discusses in "Semiology and Rhetoric."

Now I don't want to drop a gigantic quote in here, but this passage is (to me) the heart of the reading (and I haven't seen it quoted on anyone's blog, so I want to make sure it's brought up). I'm going to break it down instead so I can reference the points de Man makes:

[T]wo entirely coherent but entirely incompatible readings can be made to hinge on one line, whose grammatical structure is devoid of ambiguity, but whose rhetorical mode turns the mood as well as the mode of the entire poem upside down. (369)
--Okay, so de Man gives us two separate meanings. They 1) grind against each other in meaning and 2) both focus on the same line. This particular line is well-written and has strong grammar, but the rhetoric in the line makes the meaning of the whole work hazy.
Neither can we say, as was already the case in the first example, that the poem simply has two meanings that exist side by side. The two readings have to engage each other in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it. (369)
--Begin fighting at the sound of the bell: ding! The two meanings can't live in utopia. If two meanings exist, the two meanings must perpetually "duke it out." As the two meanings confront each other they vacillate. I like to imagine the two meanings circling each other in a boxing ring, occasionally throwing a punch, but basically just circling--oscillating--in the ring.
Nor can be in any way make a valid decision as to which of the readings can be given priority over the other; none can exist in the other's absence. There can be no dance without a dancer; no sign without a referent. (369)
--The two meanings are doomed to confrontation forever since we cannot put one meaning over another (a postmodern concept). The structure and use of the sign, signifier, and signified comes into play here...

Semiology is the "science of signs" (Siegel). Body language is semiology just as much as literature--all of the signs (anything with significance) constitute semiology. Dr. Kristi Siegel describes the relationship between sign, signifier, and signified using quotes from Ferdinand de Saussure:

Sign vs. Symbol - According to Saussure, "words are not symbols which correspond to referents, but rather are 'signs' which are made up of two parts (like two sides of a sheet of paper): a mark, either written or spoken, called a 'signifier,' and a concept (what is 'thought' when the mark is made), called a 'signified'" (Selden and Widdowson 104). The distinction is important because Saussure contended that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the only way we can distinguish meaning is by difference (one sign or word differs from another).
--via Introduction to Modern Literary Theory, Dr. Kristi Siegel

de Man says that signs function through representation--signs, however, cannot be based on some kind of central origin (which Derrida already denied in "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"). Without a central reference, though, signs--even though de Man says signs are "meaning[s] derived from the thing [idea trying to be conveyed]"--the "interpretation of the sign is not... a meaning but another sign... this reading has, in its turn, to be interpreted into another sign, and so on ad infinitum" (367).

So do signs bring us meaning? No--they imply it, and they might even recognize the existence of meaning (nebulously), but by nature of signs as de Man describes them, no meaning can be proved. Deconstructionists like de Man tend to see "an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning" (Eagleton qtd. in Siegel). There's an accusation that deconstructionists are nihilists, but really it's not (necessarily) a denial of meaning altogether--it's a denial of what is referred to as the "transcendental signifier" (i.e. in a nutshell: the meaning of everything). This concept is what deconstructionists basically say we will never find at the inside of what Erin described as the Russian dolls--keep removing those layers, the inside will never be revealed. Denamarie said that one sign "gives birth to another." It's this concept of signs linking to one another that reinforces the idea that Jay brought up about how a text means instead of what it means.

Dr. Siegel (qtd. above) says, "the only way we can distinguish meaning is by difference (one sign or word differs from another)." Okay, but what about that big "difference" that's plaguing the whole grammar and rhetoric meaning thing that de Man brings up? Well, de Man tore apart the rhetorical question posed by Archie Bunker to show that the grammar implies an imperative (or question) but the rhetoric implies an assertion (or denial, in some cases). So we have the two meanings--which is right? Does there have to be a right answer? (Vanessa seems to think so, and is okay with dipping into her least favorite criticism to find answers... quite a feat!)

To answer this question, think about trying to explain a rhetorical question to someone whose first language is not English--it'd be pretty tough, huh? Why? Well, because the concept of a rhetorical question (and the reason it works) relies on the two meanings that are implied when the question is first asked. One meaning grammatical, one meaning rhetorical--but what's the difference? (Oh, haha, couldn't resist using that question...)

Are these meanings, though--the analysis of the operation of the grammar and the rhetoric in a rhetorical question? Aren't they just more signs? You bet. But since a sign is composed of the signifier and the signified, the grammar and rhetoric are the signifiers and however we determine the rhetorical question is the "signified."

It's kind of like one of those "you had to be there" moments. You've got to know the connotations of the question to know if it's rhetorical. But you can't mean what you said since what you say doesn't have meaning--it just signs toward a meaning. But de Man knows this--he knows you don't mean what you said.

de Man, ''Semilogy and Rhetoric'' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Posted by KarissaKilgore at April 11, 2007 10:13 PM


I have been reading over your statement in one of your last paragraphs about the sign being "composed of the signifier and the signified" and how "the grammar and rhetoric are the signifiers and however we determine the rhetorical question is the 'signified'" and I am wondering if the grammar can even be considered a "signifier" in the case of a rhetorical question simply because it is a signifier for something other than what is actually signified. It signifies a question, but it's meaning is not actually in want of an answer, which a question usually signifies - the desire for an answer. The grammar is like a false signifier, only able to signify what it is not actually signifying. It is a disguise, the meaning is dressed up as a question, but underneath that meaning is in the form of a quite powerful statement (at least in the Archie Bunker example de Man gives us).

Posted by: Lorin at April 12, 2007 12:38 AM

Excellent, thorough introduction of a difficult topic, Karissa.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at April 12, 2007 2:50 PM

So my question is, can you still have a direct meaning? Or is it just related to the literature/poetry/drama? If I were to say, your introduction was really good, then should that have no meaning, and if it does, what is that comment signifying? I think that when we get into literature we find ourselves being too ambiguous and not nearly direct enough, which is not a problem. At the same time, we need to consider that meaning can be found, if the intention is more direct. I really liked your introduction, and I am looking forward to hearing your presentation on this specific topic.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at April 12, 2007 4:25 PM

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