Paul de Man
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Paul de Man

Martin McQuillian

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Paul de Man

Martin McQuillian

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Paul de Man's work is key to the American deconstruction movement and to the so-called political turn in critical theory. Seventeen years after his death, his works continue to arouse violent reactions among critics. This book explains why de Man is such an important voice, detailing his critical position, exploring his intellectual and historical contexts, tracing the influence of his work and enabling readers to undertake independent study of his criticism.

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Blindness and Insight

Almost everything Paul de Man wrote is related to the question of reading. The primary interest of literary theory and the purpose of critical thinking is that it will make us better readers. However, de Man’s understanding of the term ‘reading’ radically expands the meaning of that term, displacing it from its conventional use. Hillis Miller says of de Man’s use of the term, that reading is ‘the ground and foundation of the whole of human life’ (Miller 1987, 48) because ‘reading’ for de Man includes not just reading as such, certainly not just the act of reading works of literature, but ‘sensation, perception, and therefore every human act whatsoever’ (Miller 1987, 58).
Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971), de Man’s first collection of essays, shows the early development of de Man’s understanding of reading and explores related ideas on literary language. The volume also reveals de Man’s early engagements with deconstruction with which he is now so strongly associated. This chapter will begin by examining the essay ‘Literature and Language: A Commentary’ (a text added to the revised edition of Blindness and Insight in 1983) which encapsulates de Man’s key ideas on the question of reading. In outlining his own definition of reading, de Man identifies the misreading of literary language at the heart of many contemporary critical theories and develops the idea that critics (paradoxically) display the greatest blindness at their moments of greatest insight. The second half of the chapter turns towards de Man’s essay ‘The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s reading of Rousseau’. In this essay we see de Man’s early ambivalence towards Derrida’s deconstruction, but also the development of the ideas which underlie his own later form of deconstruction.


‘Literature and Language: A Commentary’ (1972) was originally published in the journal New Literary History as a review of other essays contained in an issue entitled ‘The Language of Literature’. The essay is a useful introduction to what de Man means by reading because it comments on the work of his contemporaries, the reader-response theorist Michael Riffaterre, the phenomenological critic Stanley Fish, the structuralist Seymour Chatman, and the humanist critic George Steiner, and so defines the difference between these theoretical positions and de Man’s own thought. In a sense this essay contains everything that de Man says about reading in this and later books. This is in spite of the fact that it appears as a second appendix to the main text, and might somehow be considered less important or ‘central’ to the argument of the book. However, as de Man repeatedly shows in his analysis of literature, the most decisive indication of the concerns of a text are to be found in its margins. If, as de Man argues in later works, there is no authoritative centre in a text, no core of fixed meaning, then there is no single point more important than any other and there can be no ‘proper’ starting point for reading.
In this essay, de Man’s first criticism of the popular understanding of literary language within literary criticism is that while it is easy enough to define a sub-set of literary language such as metaphor or rhyme, it is extremely complicated to define what it is that characterises literary language in general. De Man complains that each of the essays he reviews are too quick to assume that such a definition is possible.

In this appendix de Man’s criticism of the essays he reads makes a useful check-list of errors to avoid when thinking about literary language. These errors can be associated with particular modes of theory, as indicated below:

  1. Don’t say ‘texts are made up of words, not things or ideas’ (New Criticism) because what do words refer to if not ideas and things?
  2. Do not assume that we know what ‘great literature’ is (Humanism). This glorifies literature and makes it inaccessible.
  3. Do not say literary language has no relation to ordinary language (Humanism). Do not say literary language is merely ordinary language (Structuralism). Both statements too readily assume that we know what ‘ordinary language’ is.
  4. Do not suppose that a new understanding of language consigns all previous knowledge to the dustbin (Reader-Response). New knowledge is based on a reading of old knowledge.
  5. Do not separate a study of literary language from the experience of reading (Phenomenology). This would be to immobilise a text.
  6. Do not maintain that literary language is characterised by its fictional status (Linguistics). Not all literature is fictional: think of memoirs and letters.
  7. Do not imagine that literary language is produced on the surface of a text by deep structural operations within it (Structuralism). This only extends the metaphor of inside/outside to the body of a text.
  8. Do not ignore inconsistencies and aberrations within literary language that unsettle traditional models of rhetoric (Phenomenology, Structuralism, Reader-Response). These will be the points at which such models fall apart.
  9. Do not think that a pure study of literary language is possible outside of the misreading and misinterpretation of texts.
In reviewing the similarities and differences between the essays de Man suggests that despite the numerous different theoretical approaches brought into play, the general shape of each essay is the same: they all rely on an opposite theory against which they define their own understanding of literary language. All the essays involve a critical reading of previous, supposedly incorrect, theories of literary language and de Man complains that each of the essays is concerned with what they assume to be a knowable entity, literary language, rather than reflecting on their own status as examples of reading. That is, to the extent that the conflicting positions proposed by each of the essays cannot all be correct, the nature of literary language must be being misread in some, if not in all, of the essays. In this way each essay misreads literature by performing (copying or doubling) a misreading by someone else. For example, if Reader-Response theory gives its own definition of literary language as a development of New Criticism’s definition, and this earlier definition is a misreading, then Reader-Response theory will involve a reading of a misreading and so produce another misreading. Thus, a theory of literary language – as it is represented by these essays – cannot be separated from the problem of misreading. This leads de Man to ask how a study of literary language can ever begin if every proposed theory is the result of a misreading. Therefore, in order to address the nature of literary language de Man finds it necessary to reflect on the prior question of what he calls ‘misreading’.
In contrast to the essays under review de Man proposes that reading itself is an obstacle to literary understanding and not something merely secondary to the appreciation of literature. In other words, when we try to define literature in terms of the language it uses we are asking the wrong question. Literature is a problem of reading, or more accurately misreading:
The systematic avoidance of the problem of reading, of the interpretative or hermeneutic moment, is a general symptom shared by all methods of literary analysis, whether they be structural or thematic, formalist or referential, American or European, apolitical or socially committed.
(BI 282)
When de Man refers to reading he does not mean the traditional use of this word as a transparent interpretation of words on the page by a reader who controls meaning through the exercise of his/her will. He is critical of hermeneutics (the branch of literary theory concerned with interpretation) which is content ‘to reassure at all costs [more] pragmatically or more formalistically oriented colleagues about the self-evident possibility of achieving correct readings’ (BI 282–3). For de Man the task of reading is not all straight-forward. The hypothesis of Blindness and Insight is that not only does a reading say something the text does not say but it even says something the reader did not mean to say. It is not just that critics unknowingly misinterpret texts but that the very nature of language makes reading impossible.


De Man connects the question of literary language to that of misreading. All of the essays under consideration, using different vocabularies, assume that literary language can be categorised according to rhetorical schema.

Rhetoric is the classical art of eloquence, in which a speaker (or author) will use language to persuade others. For this reason ‘rhetoric’ has come to be associated with false, showy or artificial uses of language. The current meaning of rhetoric is the collective name for the tropes or figures of speech which are used as technical devices in poetry: metaphor, metonymy, conceit, simile and so on. Such uses of language are therefore thought of as either contrived (i.e. not used in so-called everyday speech) or non-serious (it is acceptable to find an example of metaphor in poetry but not a business report). A rhetorical question is one asked for rhetorical effect, not calling for an answer, i.e. not a serious question. De Man challenges this understanding of rhetoric as a specialised use of language and argues that all language use is rhetorical or tropological.
However, says de Man, the history of Rhetoric as a discipline shows how difficult it is to maintain fixed boundaries between different kinds of rhetorical tropes. For example, when does catachresis (the misuse of a word) become metaphor (the non-literal application of a word); when does metaphor (in which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles) turn into metonymy (in which the name of one thing is put for that of another related to it)? At best the transition from one rhetorical figure to another is fluid. Similarly, the distinction between literary language and ordinary language is difficult to maintain rigorously. When does journalism turn into literature and when do memoirs become literary? The question of what is specific about literary language comes down to the problematic status of rhetoric. De Man suggests that the determining characteristic of literary language is figurality (rhetorical uses of language). In this way rhetoric is to be understood in a wider sense than that implied by the strict codes of figures of speech in traditional literary analysis. For de Man, rhetoric is not a distinct object suitable for literary analysis but is the figurative dimension of language ‘which implies the persistent threat of misreading [i.e. the possibility of meanings other than those intended by a speaker]’ (BI 285) in both so-called ‘literary’ and so-called ‘ordinary’ language.
De Man does not accept that readers, or for that matter authors, are in control of meaning. Rather the ‘truth value’ of an interpretation can never be verified in relation to the text being read because the figural dimension of language – from which no reading can escape – always interferes with the desire to set a fixed meaning to a text. Rhetoric is a use of language that constantly refers to something other than itself. For example, in Sherlock Holmes’s metaphorical description of Moriarty as ‘the Napoleon of crime’, Moriarty is not literally Napoleon but has certain qualities which Napoleon had (leadership, ruthlessness, ambition etc.). Figural language does not suppose a single meaning (Moriarty is Napoleon) but makes reference to a chain of meanings, which has no one authoritative centre. Therefore, because rhetoric by definition does not refer to single and fixed meanings, the interpretation of rhetoric cannot lead to set readings with essential centres.
Just as we read figurative language in the text, our interpretation is also based on figurative language. Criticism is not ‘ordinary language’ to literature’s ‘rhetoric’. Rather, our readings are as open to unlimited meaning as the texts we read. Thus, just as there is no absolutely fixed meaning to the text we read, there is no authoritative centre to our reading. Our own readings are always open, fluid and provisional. It is the belief of readers and critics that this is not the case, and that definitive or absolutely true readings are possible, which de Man calls misreading. As soon as we recognise rhetoric at work within a piece of writing, says de Man, its ‘readability’ is put into question. Readability here refers to the possibility of producing an essential or definitive reading. The moment we acknowledge that such readings are impossible we cannot bring an end to the task of reading. Language as rhetoric makes it impossible to place a limit on meaning in a text and so prevents closure (the fixing of meaning) in that text. This is as true of the text of my reading as it is for the literary text I read. Any reading is therefore open to further interpretation. However, one could not possibly go on reading forever even if one wanted to, and wherever a reading has to stop it is bound to be inadequate. For this reason ‘reading’ as such (in its traditional sense) is strictly impossible. This might not be welcome news for literary critics and academics who have built their reputations on the strength of supposedly ‘definitive’ readings. However, for de Man it is a serious prospect and he later writes in Allegories of Reading that ‘the impossibility of reading should not taken too lightly’ (AR 245).


For de Man, then, reading means the interpretation of figurative language. Since there is no clear distinction between figurative language and ordinary language, de Man’s definition of reading calls for us to read the world around us. Figurality appears in literature but also in film, art, philosophy, histories, advertising, television, biography, journalism, conversation, and so on. In so far as figurality is characteristic of all language it also determines the way we talk and the way we think. In fact perception itself cannot escape figurality. By ‘reading’, therefore, de Man means a critical challenge to perception, which refuses to accept a desire for stable or single meanings. Because we are always participants within language and we are continually interpreting and perceiving the world, there can be no end to the task of reading. Certainly, one will never have read enough, or, ever be able to read enough. This, for de Man, is the tragic linguistic predicament of the human condition. It is tragic because, as we have seen, it is not altogether certain that reading itself is possible.
‘Literature and Language: A Commentary’ presents a radical challenge to the way reading is understood and so challenges the whole discipline of critical interpretation. For this reason some of de Man’s critics have accused him of attempting to undermine the traditional values of scholarship in the humanities. Such a rebuke is not necessarily untrue. De Man’s work is not merely a matter of stressing the importance of reading to literature, rather it is a complete displacement of all the traditional categories (author, reader, text, literary language, ordinary speech etc.) of literary analysis. Geoffrey Bennington points out that de Man’s understanding of the impossibility of reading should not be mistaken for a variety of reader-response theory:
When Paul de Man claims that ‘the systematic avoidance of the problem of reading, of the interpretative or hermeneutic moment, is a general symptom shared by all methods of literary analysis …’, he is inviting anything but the return of the subject and the so-called act of reading.
(Waters and Godzich 1989, 213)
We should not confuse de Man’s deconstruction of ‘reading’ with any simple notion of the reader as a producer of meaning in a text. De Man does not merely privilege the reader over the author as the source of meaning in a text. This would be just an inversion of a binary opposition, which did nothing to displace the self-assured model of reading – characteristic of conventional literary criticism – that produced the binary in the first place. Neither does de Man want to abolish the idea of reading or of literary criticism altogether. On the contrary, what makes de Man’s text a deconstruction is its positive affirmation of reading and literary language. It takes these concepts and works them through, rescuing them from the way they are understood by conventional (logocentric) thinking, and proposes an understanding of the terms that displaces that traditional order of thought. It is not that literary criticism is wrong in its thinking about reading but that literary criticism has not thought about reading enough. De Man proposes, to use a familiar turn of phrase in deconstruction, reading without Reading. That is, an understanding of reading which does not rely on the logocentric definition of reading as the discovery of essential meanings. Similarly, the essay also calls for rhetoric without Rhetoric. An understanding of the figurative, free from the fixed idea of rhetoric as a use of language confined to literature.
De Man’s short essay, ‘Literature and Language’, gives us an opening into two of his most important concerns: reading and rhetoric. It also explains the main argument of Blindness and Insight, namely, that all critical readings are misreadings. That is to say, all critical texts have, what de Man calls, a ‘critical blindness’ to their subject matter. For example, he argues that while New Criticism insists that the study of literature should be based on a close attention to language – ‘the words on the page’ – it is blind to the obvious consequences of this. New Criticism resists anything like a linguistic vocabulary to describe literary language and has no interest in understanding the phenomenon of language beyond its appearance in literary rhetoric despite demonstrating the importance to understand precisely this. In particular, it identifies literary language as innately ambiguous and paradoxical. If New Criticism where to follow its own insight to its logical conclusion, de Man says, it would see that the question of language as an innately ambiguous and paradoxical phenomenon would have implications beyond literature. Similarly, each of the essays discussed in ‘Literature and Language’ are blind to the fact that – while trying to define literature through the type of language it uses – they are all engaged in the process of reading. It is reading, says de Man, which in fact comes closer to defining literature rather than its use of language.


In the essay ‘The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau’ de Man gives an example of his notion of critical insight and blindness in relation to Derrida’s book Of Grammatology (1967).

Most of the work that constitutes Derrida’s De la Grammatologie was published in the years before 1967. However, the publication of its English translation in 1976 caused an earthquake in the American academy. It remains one of the most important philosophical texts of the late twentieth century. Grammatology is the study of writing. Derrida argues that throughout the western philosophical tradition the concept of ‘writing’ has been subjugated to the more immediate and supposedly prior concern of ‘speech’. Western philosophy thinks of writing as derived from, or secondary to, speech. However, this is merely an effect of the desire for presence which seeks to assert the seemingly knowable authenticity of the spoken voice in preference to the problematic absence of (author)ity in a piece of writing. In fact, says Derrida, speech cannot be prior to writing because any kind of speech already presupposes the existence of a linguistic system in which it participates. This linguistic system is based on structural relationships and conventions (grammar) that produce meaningful language. Derrida equates grammar with Writing as a system of inscription, i.e. a general system of signification, which precedes and gives meaning to any individual act of linguistic production, written or spoken. There can be no speech without an understanding of grammar, and so writing, in fact, precedes speech. Here Derrida overturns a classic binary opposition of western philosophy. However, speech is not just another form of writing. Rather, writing invol...

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Citation styles for Paul de Man
APA 6 Citation
McQuillian, M. (2001). Paul de Man (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2001)
Chicago Citation
McQuillian, Martin. (2001) 2001. Paul de Man. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
McQuillian, M. (2001) Paul de Man. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
McQuillian, Martin. Paul de Man. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2001. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.