Paul de Man’s Misreadings: A Critique of Aesthetic Ideology

(x-posted to The Valve)

The following is an outline for a critique of Paul de Man’s influential essay on Blaise Pascal’s writings, and of de Man’s essay “The Concept of Irony,” in which he considers discussions of irony in Friedrich Schlegel’s writings and other philosophical and literary works.

It is not complete; it does not cover every essay in de Man’s boook Aesthetic Ideology, nor does it even respond to every part of the two very rich essays cited above. It certainly does not equate to a response to the whole of de Man’s thought.

Part One is the densest. (It is an unfortunate fact that reasoning from within other texts often leads one down narrow and apparently irrelevant corridors.) It deals with the role of intentionality in the construction of space, and with the related question of the “ground” of beings. Part Two deals with Pascal’s pensée on justice, the determination of linguistic meaning, and the apparent problems of power and seduction as they manifest themselves in language. Part Three concerns irony and The Karate Kid.

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One of the commonest things one hears about Paul de Man is that he was an exceptionally good close reader. I remember having a dinner with some other academics where his name came up; I expressed some disagreement with his ideas, and the man next to me said: “It doesn’t matter whether you agree with him or not. His readings are beyond question.”

Let us turn, then, to de Man’s Aesthetic Ideology, and see whether these readings, on which his whole theory of language and allegory are based, are in fact adequate to the texts they employ. I will be looking first at “Pascal’s Allegory of Persuasion,” which de Man’s editor Andrzej Warminski calls “something of a ‘key’ to the project and the other texts in the volume” (23).

1. Pascal’s Zero

De Man focuses on a section from Pascal’s obscure text Réflexions sur la géométrie en général, and more specifically on the moment when Pascal introduces the concept of “zero” in order to maintain his system, based on the twin hypotheses of infinite largeness and infinite smallness, against the objections of another philosopher named Méré, who argued that space could be imagined as consisting of indivisible “blocks” in which matter was suspended.

De Man is not approaching this problem from a mathematical standpoint; if he were, he would have to reconcile his argument with the fact that the zero “works,” i.e. that it allows engineers to do their jobs in the real world. Instead, he is approaching Pascal’s zero structurally: he wants to understand what function in performs in the system, and whether it creates logical contradictions by performing this function.

De Man writes,

Méré uses the principle of homogeneity between space and number, which is also the ground of Pascal’s cosmology […] At the end of [Pascal’s exposition of the zero], the homogeneity of the universe is recovered, and the principle of infinitesimal symmetry is well established. But this has happened at a price: the coherence of the system is now seen to be entirely dependent on the introduction of an element — the zero and its equivalencies in time and motion — that is itself entirely heterogeneous with regard to the system and is nowhere a part of it. The continuous universe held together by the double wings of the two infinites is interrupted, disrupted at all points by a principle of radical heterogeneity without which it cannot come into being. Moreover, this rupture of the infinitesimal and the homogeneous does nt occur on the transcendental level, but on the level of language, in the ability of a theory of langauge as sign or as name (nominal definition) to ground this homogeneity without having recourse to the signifying function, the real definition, that makes the zero of signification the necessary condition for grounded knowledge. (59)

I draw the following conclusions from this:

a. For de Man, the zero is the ironic element in Pascal’s geometric system. I will discuss de Man’s theory of irony more fully later; for now, it is enough to explain that by irony I mean a change in the register of the communication. Instead of describing the position, number, or movement of beings, the zero, which is not a number, indicates the fact that beings are being signified. The “really indivisible space” signified by the zero is signification itself.

b. The zero is the foundation of the whole geometric system; number is “dependent” on it, has “recourse” to it, and is “grounded” by it. Since the zero is incommensurate with number, it is an illegitimate foundation. The geometry becomes incoherent and topples over.

Let’s start with (b). This is an evasion of dialectical logic, despite de Man’s supposed attention to “the dialectical model, capable of recovering totalities threatened by the most radical contradictions” (60-61). The zero does not constitute the “ground” of numbered beings in the unidirectional manner de Man suggests, because it is equally the case that the beings themselves give rise our notion of the “space” they inhabit.

For example, if I take a blank sheet of paper, and draw a geometrical problem on it, I have done two things simultaneously. First, I have created a set of figures that constitute the problem. Second, by creating those figures, I have indicated that the sheet of paper is now a signifying field, and that its white space should be interpreted as a Euclidean allegory for absence, distance, and so on. In other words, the “zero” of motionlessness, of absence, and of timelessness, is brought into being by the exposition of presence and the teleologic end for which those beings were posited (in this case, the working out of the geometry problem).

Another example will help explain this new reference to teleology, the “end” to which the representation refers. If I have a collection of used, leather baseballs, I have a collection of extremely heterogeneous things. Every one of them will have different nicks, stains, and tears in the stitching. However, for the purposes of batting practice, the baseballs are homogeneous: all of them suffice. In other words, the differences between them are “zeroed” out when they are allegorized as materials for batting practice. However, this creates a tension that de Man correctly identifies as irony, because the homogeneity is imposed, or posited as Hegel would say. The zero is thus always a reference to, and, in a sense, an apology for the allegorization of being towards a particular end. One is apologizing for having thus reduced being, and thus the irony of (a). Were I to paint the baseballs, in imitation of Van Gogh and his peasant shoes, all the differences between them would immediately re-appear as essential.

De Man is therefore right to refuse Pascal’s desired distinction between “axiomatic” propositions, which make a claim and impose obligations, and “nominal” propositions, which supposedly are mere definitions and therefore inarguable. Every statement is axiomatic, even if its “end” is occluded. However, the radical heterogeneity that makes language into allegory is not language functioning as “rudderless signification,” in which case language would be completely incoherent and useless, but rather the heterogeneity of potential versus actual purpose that compels language to designate that part of its subject which must be treated as unmeaning “noise.” The role of heterogeneity of purpose is easily discernible in the fact that Pascal’s zero only arises in response to another person’s different way of imagining space.

Another way of putting this is that the zero is incapable, by itself, of attracting all the determinative negativity in the system, despite de Man’s conclusion that the zero is the exclusive heterogeneous element. He needs to make this claim in order to prove that the foundation of the system is non-functional, but actually notes earlier that Euclid “decreed the one not to be a number” (58). The negations required to posit an object as self-subsistent are no less severe than those required to designate absence or lack; therefore, it is not that the axiomatic nature of the system reveals itself in the zero, but rather than it reveals itself as the continually necessary ground for number as well as lack of number. (For more on self-subsistence as a posited quality, see my paper Another Sphere and Science: Aesthetics and Difference in the Science of Logic.)

Thus de Man’s reading of the zero, which is supposed to reveal the stuttering, rudderless nature of signification, actually reveals the linguistic assumption of intention, the a priori judgement that convokes both beings and the ground (here “space”) of being.

2. Pascal on Power and Justice

De Man moves from this technical discussion of the zero to an analysis of the Pensées, where he considers the theological and epistemological consequences of his argument about heterogeneity. The stakes are higher, and of course one is obliged to follow along and see whether the alternative hypothesis — that language assumes intention — produces a sounder reading of Pascal.

De Man presents us with the following passage from the Pensées (no. 103/298):

It is just that what is just should be followed; it is necessary that what has the most power should be followed.

Justice without power is impotent, power without justice is tyrannical.

Justice without power is open to contradiction, because there always are wrongdoers. Power without justice stands accused. Justice and power must therefore be brought together, by making the just strong and the strong just.

Justice is subject to dispute. Power is easily recognizable and without dispute. Thus it has been impossible to give power to justice, because power has contradicted justice and said that it is unjust, and said that it is itself just.

And thus, not being able to make the just strong, one has made the strong to be just.

De Man begins his analysis by claiming, “A new complication has been introduced and is observable in an opposition that gives each of the key words a double register that is no longer, as in the previous passages, an opposition between two modes of cognition” (67-68).

This is half right. De Man’s curious insistence that this pensée is an exception to the rest of the text is the moment where he fails to live up to one of Pascal’s greatest challenges to the reader. The previous passages are a guide to this one, and the two modes of cognition are secular reason and the progress of faith. It is actually through this pensée that Pascal reconciles these two modes and introduces a new justification for the “roundabout” method of allegory.

Read secularly, this is an objective, even “historicist” account of how power establishes its own values and arrogates the right to decide justice. It is similar to a condensed version of Nietzsche’s project in The Genealogy of Morals, and it ends somewhat wistfully on a note of surrender.

However, read religiously, this is a narrative about the recognition of human vanity and the necessity of faith. As de Man observes, the French word justesse is to be read as “the precision of rational argument” and “in the sense of the judicial praxis of a court of law” (68). De Man reads these two meanings as highly different, but in the religious reading they merge together as representative of the insufficiency of human reason, which is one of Pascal’s great and continuing themes throughout. It is the divine that has contradicted human justice by imposing suffering, and has calleed human justice insufficient even though divine justice is incomprehensible to human beings. Reading the Pensées, one is brought up against both Pascal’s hatred of suffering, and his recognition of its place in the salvation of mankind (because it makes men realize their abjection). This accounts for his deep ambivalence towards the despotic God of the passage.

Why, then, should Pascal write such a deliberately ironic passage that seems to invite misreading? Well, first of all, in the seventeenth century the notion of multiple registers was not at all unsettling — in fact, the Christian church had codified this method of reading in its method of exegesis. But more to the point, Pascal is only imitating the Gospels themselves, and Jesus’s discussion of coded speech (Matt. 13:10-11): “And the disciples came and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” Pascal, who writes (as De Man notes) that “in order to understand an author’s meaning, one must reconcile all the contradictory passages” (257/684), challenges his reader to understand him in a fashion that will illustrate both the process of faith, and the limits of reason without faith.

The reconciliation of these two readings comes through the invention of the reader (by Pascal) as a subject capable of reconciling them, and returning in that fashion to the meaning of the author, who is understood thereby. (Not all readers can do this, nor can any reader do it every time; this is the appearance of sin in the realm of hermeneutics, and explains why de Man is almost right to claim that for Pascal language is incapable of justice by itself, i.e. without a reader.) The text here performs what it seeks to describe: it confirms our belief in the limitations of secular reasoning by taking us through and beyond a secular reading of “might” that excludes God. The final necessary reading of the line “one has made the strong to be just” is as an allegory of persuasion, wherein Pascal proposes converting the powerful to Christianity through persuasion, rather than arming the just. For this persuasion to be effective, it is imperative that the falsely reasoning person not be able to foresee it: this is the final reason for Pascal to write in code.

In Part One, I argued that “being” stands in dialectical opposition to absence and lack (the “zero”), which allows the imposition of homogeneity through allegory. Here, the recovery of that purpose, which is identical with understanding the author, requires the reader to use a method of decoding that is itself the most powerful means of persuasion. Taken together, that is how one answers de Man’s question: “Why is it that the furthest-reaching truths about ourselves and the world have to be stated in such a lopsided, referentially indirect mode?” (52).

3. Irony

According to de Man, in his essay “The Concept of Irony,” there are three ways of dealing with irony: as a literary device, as a “dialectic of the self,” and as a “dialectics of history” (170). My response to de Man’s theory of irony is really a response to the second “way of dealing” with irony that he enumerates. I agree with him that irony is a literary device (would disagreement even be possible?). The stakes of its uses in literature depend on whether one interprets its dialectic of self as a dialectic of self and other, or as a retreat into absolute negativity.

My claim is as follows: while de Man may be giving an adequate reading of Fichte, he is doing a poor job explaining irony itself. I will show that a resistance to irony is expressed as a theory of “infinite” irony, and has really to do with de Man’s belief that finitude is shameful, a belief that also implies an erasure of the Other.

De Man wastes no time in trying to make us ashamed of finite irony: “There would be in irony something very threatening, against which interpreters of literature, who have a stake in the understandability of literature, would want to put themselves on their guard — very legitimate to want, as [Wayne] Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope” (167).

It is easy to discern the battle here between the interpreters of literature, a self-interested police force who love conformity and easy answers, and the Dionysian energies of irony, which may be too much for the faint of heart, which refuse every limit — which, in fact, bear a remarkable resemblance to bliss or the French jouissance, and which thrive on the very impossibility of ever being understood.

It is a pleasure to return the favor of shaming by tentatively terming Paul de Man’s infinite irony the irony of the adolescent. The adolescent, at least as a socially important figure, thrives on the feeling of being misunderstood, because he has stumbled onto the existential doctrine that human beings are never merely the sum of their prior actions and present circumstances. They surpass all of these towards freedom.

That is all very well, but it is negativity in the abstract, and as such does not represent a real possibility towards which the individual can direct her energies. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus’s prickly insistence on his own freedom only serves to paralyze his muse. He is ironic towards his family, country, and religious upbringing, but not towards his own habits and mistakes. The same shallowness haunts purely ironic interpretations of texts. It is certainly possible to claim that Catch-22 is actually an ironic satire of ironic protests against war, since “there is no inherent reason for discontinuing the process of doubt at any point short of infinity” (166). That reading, however, is doomed to remain pure declaration, unable to realize itself through actual close readings and original syntheses. One of the misleading effects of calling abstract negativity “infinite irony” is that it tends to obscure just how dully predictable such supposed ironies become, on the level of both thought and grammar. Thus there is a formal criterion for irony’s stopping-place in criticism, even if there is no consistent marker of irony in the content of a work.

These are not merely the truisms of certain works of literature and criticism; they are a key to the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, who created his own version of the ironic adolescent in Either/Or. Kierkegaard expands on the Socrates of The Concept of Irony (from which de Man borrows his title) by creating a Socratic youth, Johannes Climacus, and then contrasting him with a middle-aged, married judge.

The structure of Either/Or matters for two reasons. First, it shows that, in practical terms, the end of an infinitely negative sensibility, that never discovers a new real possibility for itself, is the collapse into utter conventionality. After all, if Johannes recovers from his despair, the bright future ahead of him leads down the judge’s path. Second, the “marriage plot” in Either/Or is one of Kierkegaard’s many remorseful attempts to deal with the consequences of jilting Regina Olsen, which he fictionalizes in the “Seducer’s Diary” section of Either/Or.

The association is not only between finitude and dependence on the other, as one spouse is dependent on another, or as reader and writer depend on each other in the act of communication. The rejection of finitude is also a rejection of the body, as has been explored through numerous famous characters: Hamlet’s pathological treatment of his mother and Ophelia, Stephen’s mortification at the flesh, and the cold, shamming eroticism of the “Seducer’s Diary.”

There is identical evidence of shame in de Man’s essay. De Man gives, as proof of Schlegel’s annihilating and “infinite” irony, the following anecdote:

There is in the middle of [Schlegel’s short novel] Lucinde a short chapter called “Eine Reflexion” (A reflection), which reads like a philosophical treatise or argument (using philosophical language which can be identified as that of Fichte), but it doesn’t take a very perverse mind, only a slightly perverse one, to see that what is actually being described is not a philosophical argument at all but is — well, how shall I put it? — a reflection on the very physical questions involved in sexual intercourse. Discourse which seems to be purely philosophical can be read in a double code, and what it really is describing is something which we do not generally consider worthy of philosophical discourse. (168-169)

This problem of the “double code” then becomes the basis for de Man’s explication of “parabasis,” meaning the continual interruption of the meaning of the text by another meaning. De Man continues, “You are writing a splendid and coherent philosophical argument but, lo and behold, you are describing sexual intercourse” (181). What of it? Is it really so surprising that the problems “involved in sexual intercourse” bear some relation to other problems of communication? It is not ironic that practicing one’s writing is beneficial, and so is practicing one’s free throw — the two things are simply homologous. It is merely that we are supposed to find Schlegel’s homology between sex and philosophy so embarrassing that philosophical discourse immediately and entirely breaks down. Well, maybe Schlegel is right about the perverse core of philosophy, and maybe he isn’t, but in any case homologies do not mean the end of literary readings.

I will close by offering two alternatives to the embarrassed, solipsistic discourse of infinite negativity, which exhausts itself quickly as doubt without content, and freedom without substance.

The first is compassionate irony. As de Man reminds us, the “chaos” that Schlegel valorized “is error, madness, and stupidity, in all its forms” (184). In the best satires, we are laughing at our own entanglement in stupidity, madness, and error, which is inevitable given our limitations — our finitude. At the same time, the satire forces us to admit the existence of obligations greater than ourselves. Almost every single moment in television shows like The Simpsons or Arrested Development involve an “unsympathetic” character struggling, against the odds, to persist in some perverse denial or other, to our great amusement.

The second is social irony. Shakespeare is not primarily notable for his “negative capability,” as de Man (referencing Keats) suggests — that is, his being

the man who can take on all selves and stand above all of them without being anything specific himself, a self that is infinitely elastic, infinitely mobile, an infinitely active and agile subject that stands above any of its experiences. (175)

Such a man would speak like Edmund, or Iago: “Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus” (Othello I.iii). Rather, Shakespeare was able to portray a kind of consciousness that accepts its own limits at the moment of integration into a social whole, as when Prospero abandons sorcery and abdicates power, or Lear in the tempest realizes the circumstances of the poor. It is an irony bound up with an awareness of the needs of others. I remember my grandfather telling me that, as an employee for the phone company, he stopped supporting the labor union as soon as he was promoted to foreman. He considered it his responsibility to change his mind. That is the mentality from which Shakespeare tries to free himself.

In The Karate Kid, a film of Shakespearean resonance and depth, Mr. Miyagi forces “Daniel-san” to paint his fence, wax his vintage cars, and perform other chores for him, supposedly in exchange for teaching him karate. When Daniel can take it no longer, he goes on strike and tells Mr. Miyagi that he hasn’t learned a thing. At that moment, Miyagi has him repeat the motions of each chore, and reveals that Daniel has learned a series of karate moves.

This is parabasis par excellence. We are thrown into the very uncertainty that made Schlegel’s little novel so subversive. What is the meaning of Daniel’s work? Has he been doing chores for Mr. Miyagi, or has he been learning karate? It should be obvious that we do not need to resolve this question, and that the over-determination of his training is the very thing that separates Daniel from his opponents, who are merely learning brutality. It teaches him patience, and prevents him from thinking of Miyagi instrumentally, as his servant.

There is probably no such thing as infinite irony; there is only irony that presents us our finitude in different ways. For De Man, irony represents finitude in the form of a refusal to be finite, descended from a notion of the body as the irony of spirit, and which finds one expression in the refusal to ever reach the end of a reading. In that case there is nowhere to go but to God, which may explain de Man’s fascination with Pascal and Kierkegaard, both of whom wrote narratives in which one ends up compelled by religion. On the other hand, supposing man transcended himself towards others — there one would find the zero of the social, by which I mean heterogeneous subjectivities, as well as the material fact of suffering. In Paul de Man’s account of heterogeneity, these remain an 0 without a figure.