Key Theories of Paul de Man

One of the most important members of the Yale School of deconstruction, de Man developed a rigorous critical practice of reading texts, which may be termed “rhetorical reading.”

(1) For de Man language is always figurative and not referential and there is no unrhetorical language. Figures of speech (tropes) allow the writer to say something and mean something else. Tropes destabilise logic, deny the possibility of a straightforwardly literal or referential use of language. De Man’s famous example illustrates this. To the question “tea or coffee,” one replies, “What is the difference?” Here the actual and understood meaning is that it makes no difference if either tea or coffee is served. But this contradicts the logic of the literal meaning. which is: what is the difference between tea and coffee? Thus the linguistic sign is merely the site of an ambivalent and tension-filled relationship between the referential and , figurative meaning.

(2) Reading for de Man is always a misreading because tropes constantly interfere between critical and literary texts. Literary texts are self-deconstructmg because every text calls attention to the literal meaning, which is contradicted by the implied or surface meaning.

(3) Even criticism is returned to the common textuality of literature. All language—economics, political theory, law and philosophy—work through metaphors just as any literary text. In order to convince us of its logic and rational arguments, all language/ discourse relies upon metaphor. That is, just when a text seeks to be at the most persuasive and logical, it reveals its own fictive character through its language. However, literature is the area where this irony and ambiguity between the literal and figurative, logical and irresponsible (because fictive, self-reflexive) is most visible. Critical writing can never be simple paraphrase or description. Between the literary and the critical text a trope mediates. Thus critical writing is always suspended within the linguistic games of truth and falsehood. Any language in any text is rhetorical and figural, i.e., literary. All reading is thus misreading. A text is literary to the extent that it allows misreading.

(4) De Man’s method has been to analyse rhetorical figures in a text and to demonstrate how the text is aware of itself as a rhetorical construct. De Man teases out the hierarchical oppositions within a text to reveal their linguistic and philosophical bases. He reveals how a text’s literal/narrative level actually repeats the figurative/rhetorical substructure. Thus de Man’s deconstruction is closest to Derrida’s when he tries to show that a text’s own rhetoric undermines what the rhetoric tries to say. These are the moments of unreadability for de Man because the ways of knowing and interpretation are dependent upon ways of saying; i.e. all questions of epistemology and certainty are exercises in language. This is the aporia or the pathless path of deconstruction. An aporia is an impasse, where there is the assertion and simultaneous negation of opposing systems of logic or rhetoric. Here nothing can be harmonized or rejected. What is unsaid or repressed in a text (the unconscious) returns in the act of reading, thereby calling the apparent/visible meaning into question by contradicting it. We cannot resolve the issue by privileging either the said/conscious or the unsaid/repressed unconscious; it is impossible to do so. It is never the binary opposition of “either/or,” but rather the impasse of undecidability, the simultaneity of the incompatible “eitheror.” Indeed deconstruction is the recognition of this impasse, for as Derrida puts it “deconstruction is a testing of the impossible.”


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