Do I See a Hint of Author Intent in this Poststructural Essay?

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From Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric”:

“The point is as follows.  A perfectly clear syntactical paradigm (the question) engenders a sentence that has at least two meanings of which the one asserts and the other denies its own illocutionary mode.  It is not so that there are simply two meanings, one literal and the other figural and that we have to decide which one of these meanings is the right one in this particular situation.  The confusion can only be cleared up by the intervention of an extra-textual intention, such as Archie Bunker putting his wife straight; but the very anger he displays is indicative of more than impatience; it reveals his despair when confronted with a structure of linguistic meaning that he cannot control and that holds the discouraging prospect of an infinity of similar future confusions, all of them potentially catastrophic in their consequences” (368). 

Yes, yes, I know, that is a rather long quote.  But I picked it because there are several parts of it that I found interesting.  First, I really liked how de Man tried to make his article more relatable by explaining his point not just in “literary” terms.  He tried to make it more comprehensible and more important because these issues of rhetoric are not present simply in those old books that us nerdy English-folks read, but it also exists in popular culture (such as in the TV show All in the Family) and in real life (after all the ambiguity that de Man uses as an example with Archie Bunker is one that we could see happening to us in normal day-to-day conversation). 

I also really liked how in the second and third sentences of the quote I chose he makes it very clear that he is a poststructuralist.  He uses a host of words that we should take note of for our own future writings which use poststructuralism.  Words such as “at least two meanings” and “one asserts and the other denies” allow the reader to pick up on his argument that there are a plethora of meanings which are contradictory.  Another good one he uses later in the essay is “simultaneously” (373). 

One passage from my quote though that diverges a bit from what I expected to find in the essay was, “The confusion can only be cleared up by the intervention of an extra-textual intention.”  What of this “extra-textual intention”?  Doesn’t this take us all the way back to our first weeks of literary criticism and author intent?  What type of “extra-textual intention” is there besides author intent?  And if de Man is claiming that confusion can only be resolved by taking the author’s intention into consideration then isn’t he a bit of an intentionalist?  How can one be a poststructuralist and believe that there is no truly determinate meaning, yet at the same time comment that confusion can be resolved by the author’s intention? 

The last part of my quote I want to talk about regards the “despair” caused by the inability to “control” “linguistic meaning.”  While I can see why de Man would attribute Archie Bunker with feelings of despair, after all he does not exactly respond kindly to his wife, I nonetheless feel like de Man is taking Archie Bunker as a symbol representative of all people.  In other words, since Archie Bunker feels “despair” since he cannot “control” words completely that then means that we too feel that way.  While language can certainly be tricky and we must be extremely careful in how we word things to avoid confusion and sometimes unintended offenses, I think it is a bit extreme to call this “despair.”  More often than not, it is the very multi-faceted nature of language that makes it so fascinating.  So while I do agree that language can be frustrating I would not say that “despair” is the result of this.  But then again, by my nitpicking at de Man’s word choice I suppose in many ways I am proving his beliefs correct.  After all, what is the definition of despair? 

Click here to read more about de Man's article. 


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