Pieces of Resistance
A text such as the Profession de foi can literally be called “unreadable” in that it leads to a set of assertions that radically exclude each other. Nor are these assertions mere neutral constations; they are exhortative performatives that require the passage from sheer enunciation to action. They compel us to choose while destroying the foundations of any choice. They tell the allegory of a judicial decision that can be neither judicious nor just… . One sees from this that the impossibility of reading should not be taken too lightly.1
These sentences conclude chapter 10 of Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading, a chapter that is itself titled “Allegory of Reading.” The repetition of the title suggests that the Profession de foi is exemplary of the allegorization of reading as both a necessary and impossible task—necessary because it is impossible. It would be reassuring to think that “unreadability” affected only the rare occurrence of a “text such as the Profession de foi,” or that it could be isolated within the limits of particular authors’ works—Rousseau’s, for example. It would be reassuring but, like whistling in the dark, perhaps a benighted attempt to keep the shadows at bay. It would be better not to take the impossiblity of reading “too lightly,” warns de Man in the last sentence.
But just how lightly is too lightly? While the question may be unavoidable, the answer is bound to fall short, leaving readers with a puzzle not unlike the one that confronts them on the page displaying, in an epigraph to Allegories of Reading, this phrase from Pascal: “Quand on lit trop vite ou trop doucement on n’entend rien” (When one reads too quickly or too slowly, one understands nothing). The phrase suggests that whoever would understand what she reads must find the “juste mesure” of reading: neither too fast nor too slow but, in the self-satisfied words of Goldilocks, just right. Such a reading of the phrase, however, may itself have gone too fast, neglecting to notice that this rule does not set the speed for its own reading and thus carries over the possibilities for error or misunderstanding it is designed to warn against. Likewise, how lightly is one to take de Man’s warning that “the impossibility of reading should not be taken too lightly,” given that any reading—including the one just completed of the Profession de foi—will at some point have to cast off the burden of its own impossibility and leap out, no doubt too heavily, over the abyss of understanding? Is there not, as in Pascal’s rule, a double error that has here been abbreviated into the more commonly occurring of the two: reading too fast, taking the impossibility of reading too lightly?
The fact that reading, as de Man teaches it, always negotiates with a doubled possibility of error is confirmed by some lines we elided above from the concluding paragraph of “Allegory of Reading”:
If after reading the Profession de foi, we are tempted to convert ourselves to “theism,” we stand convicted of foolishness in the court of the intellect. But if we decide that belief, in the most extensive use of the term (which must include all possible forms of idolatry and ideology) can once and forever be overcome by the enlightened mind, then this twilight of the idols will be all the more foolish in not recognizing itself as the first victim of its occurrence.
The second error identified here is “all the more foolish,” which could be taken to mean that it is more foolish than the first error, more foolish than the blind conversion to belief in an ordered meaning of the world. It is not more or less in error but rather more foolish to believe that belief can be overcome. In either case, reading, it would seem, leads to foolish behavior. While serious readers might understandably be expected to dismiss such an intimation, their reaction cannot disguise how the study of literary language installs a critical relation to the institution of all serious values—that is, to their interiority to themselves, to their self-evidence. It is this critical relation that institutions, naturally enough perhaps, resist, and, to the extent that literary study has come to identify itself with the stability or even the growth of institutions (particularly the teaching institution), one should not be surprised to find so many literary scholars reproving with one hand the critical enterprise that, with the other hand—the hand guided by a text’s demand for reading—they endeavor to carry out.
The uneasy relationship between literary study and pedagogical institutions is one that interests de Man repeatedly, but nowhere, perhaps, so distinctly as in his essay “The Resistance to Theory.”
One of the starting points of the essay (for there are several) is an empirical knowledge enunciated by a certain “we”:
We know that there has been, over the last fifteen to twenty years, a strong interest in something called literary theory and that, in the United States, this interest has at times coincided with the importation and reception of foreign, mostly but not always continental influences. We also know that this wave of interest now seems to be receding as some satiation or disappointment sets in after the initial enthusiasm.2
This general address, this “we know that there has been,” is, we know, meant for scholars in modern languages and literatures in North American universities. We know this from the essay’s contextual introduction, which will be taken up later. For the moment, we need only remark an address that institutes a knowledge or a ground on which to let stand or fall a theoretical movement of thought beyond what it thinks it already knows. This ground, however, displays at its edges “an ebb and flow,” a differentiated movement of forces. The passage continues: "Such an ebb and flow is natural enough, but it remains interesting, in this case, because it makes the depth of the resistance to theory so manifest” (italics added). In this ebb-and-flow movement of overturning, there appears a figure that has title to theory’s interest and is here titled the resistance to theory. Having started out from the terra firma of what we know, we have come upon something that remains to be read and that interests whoever would speak of literary theory as a critical relation to institutions, the relation that has been made manifest in a figure. Resistance to theory thus engages an act of reading that oversteps whatever established formal limits usually or by convention contain that activity. This because the ebb and flow of the figure concerns precisely the movement of inscription and erasure that underlies (“the depth of the resistance to theory”) any formalization of limits: those of an institution or those of “something called literary theory.”
But reading the figure of resistance encounters at the outset an ambiguity of reference. What is interesting “in this case” is filed under the name—the resistance to theory—which is also the title of the essay. The deictic “this” of “in this case” points in two directions at once: to this essay and to the apparent phenomenon to which the essay refers. Thus, when the phrase “the resistance to theory” occurs in the body of the essay, one cannot be sure whether it appears there as a citation of the title or whether one should read the title as already itself a citation of the phrase from the essay.3 This undecidability keeps the figure from closing off too quickly in an illusion of reference since the gesture of pointing to some reference cannot exclude its own act of pointing with which it exceeds the whole to be pointed to. Such is, of course, the case of any text,4 but the traces of a supplementary resistance to which the essay or its title cannot be said simply to refer have been reinscribed in this case.
Its case, that is to say its falling or befalling like an accident, the occasion of its falling and the coincidence between the falling that befalls it and the falling it describes. All of these terms—case, accident, occasion, coincidence—draw on the same Latin root: cadere, to fall. As does the word “chance,”5 so we will not be surprised to find that the essay’s chances of success—its chances of being read and understood—are bound up with a certain failure or falling before its occasion.
The rising and falling of “The Resistance to Theory” is briefly recounted in some prefatory paragraphs. This account seems to fit easily enough into the genre of the preface or introduction and thus to require little more than the minimal attention of any reader who is only passing through on the way to the essay “itself.” Yet to read these paragraphs as preface—standing before and outside the essay they point to—is perhaps to miss a point. Not just because one could justifiably speak here of a postscript rather than a preface but, more important, because these paragraphs, set off by a blank from the main body of the essay, allow one to question what are usually thought of as the limits of a textual body. Where exactly the text of the essay begins and ends, where it starts or stops falling are questions that the initial paragraphs render unavoidable.
That is, one cannot avoid noticing how the essay is made to double back on itself in these initial lines as the result of a resistance to “The Resistance to Theory.” Here is the story, an allegory of reading the resistance to reading, as de Man tells it:
This essay was not originally intended to address the question of teaching directly,6 although it was supposed to have a didactic and an educational function—which it failed to achieve. It was written at the request of the Committee on the Research Activities of the Modern Language Association as a contribution to a collective volume entitled Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. I was asked to write the section on literary theory. Such essays are expected to follow a clearly determined program: they are supposed to provide the reader with a select but comprehensive list of the main trends and publications in the field, to synthesize and classify the main problematic areas and to lay out a critical and programmatic projection of the solutions which can be expected in the foreseeable future. All this with a keen awareness that, ten years later, someone will be asked to repeat the same exercise.7
I found it difficult to live up, in minimal good faith, to the requirements of this program and could only try to explain, as concisely as possible, why the main theoretical interest of literary theory consists in the impossibility of its definition. The Committee rightly judged that this was an inauspicious way to achieve the pedagogical objectives of the volume and commissioned another article.8 I thought their decision altogether justified, as well as interesting in its implications for the teaching of literature.
These paragraphs recount a pedagogical failure, but one that “remains interesting in its implications for the study of literature.” It is therefore not, strictly speaking or exclusively, a pedagogical failure because in falling short it keeps an interest for the theory of teaching literature or the teaching of literary theory. The interest may be seen to reside in a resistance that rejects an inauspicious reading of theory’s chances for producing a positive discipline of reading. This resistance is interesting because it implies that, according to a widely endorsed program, the teaching of literature would measure its success by the capacity to turn a student reader’s attention away from signs that cannot be made to submit to reassuring definition and that are therefore, by definition, programmatically, judged to be “inauspicious.” As de Man remarks toward the end of the essay, this interesting problem “quickly becomes the more baffling one of having to account for the shared reluctance to acknowledge the obvious” (18).9
The turning aside or turning away in an avoidance of reading the sign’s rhetorical component is itself a trope to which de Man gives form in the words “resistance to theory.” As we have seen, the figure points both to an obvious, albeit slippery, referent (what “we know there has been,” the ebb and flow of interest in literary theory, the depth of resistance to theory made manifest) and to itself in a turning aside of reference, citing its title as the name of a figure. The turning of the figure is not arrested when it turns back on itself. Rather, it names “itself” as the error inherent in all proper names (and a title is also a proper name), their improper or rhetorical relation to a particular referent. Neither does the text “The Resistance to Theory” close itself off as a proper name having a known, historical referent. The empirical, referential meaning of “resistance to theory” is perforce turned aside when the phrase is used as title of the essay and when, in referring, it also refers to itself.
The essay proceeds, then, as a deconstructive reading of its title, just one more reason one cannot bypass reading it by way of paraphrase. One cannot bypass reading, but of course neither can one overlook the fact that immense institutional programs function, precisely, to turn away from reading, to turn away what turns away itself, of itself, or in itself. Each of these two imperatives, which seem to exclude each other, is in fact leaving or inscribing its mark on the other in such a way that neither can emerge in its pure form or in a purely formal way. On the one hand, that the “main theoretical interest [of literary theory] consists in the impossibility of its definition” will continue to manifest itself in institutional resistance to this undefined object. And, on the other hand, because the institutionalization of literary theory in this country has tended to follow the way in which it can be made into a method at the service of a pedagogical program10 and because literary theory, when it pursues its main theoretical interest, has to question the defining limits of any such program applied to literary language, institutionalization can be made to appear in its effects—the marks it has left—on the movement of theoretical thought. “The Resistance to Theory” inauspiciously resists this program and thus bears the mark of a certain institutional closure.
Given the deconstructed exteriority implicit in its title, such questions as What is it that resists or threatens? or, in the passive voice, What is it that is being resisted or threatened? are bound to encounter the complication or the coimplication of the supplemental mark of resistance from which de Man’s essay proceeds. Because they are so bound, the essay comes to speak of “the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself” (12) and finally of the language of theory as “the language of self-resistance” (19). In the course of an analysis of this self-resisting movement, what will have become apparent is a limit on the validity of the subject/object, active/passive mode of positioning any truth about resistance.
Yet, when de Man speaks of “displaced symptoms” of resistance, this choice of words seems designed to remind one of the key use of the term in psychoanalysis. Such echoes (for there are many in this essay) might even be heard as early as the title, since “The Resistance to Theory” does not specify what theory is at issue.11 The title, in other words, can be read as citing some relation to psychoanalytic theory which the text of the essay hints at but never makes explicit. One may be sure, however, that the supplemental resistance complicating rhetorical theory’s relation to itself will also divide and render complex whatever relation could be installed with a theory that is itself constructed or that constructs itself around the concept of resistance. As we shall see when we try to discern at least an outline of this complexity, it is once again through the institutional effect that one may be able to read a supplemental line of resistance dividing theory from its own constructions.
But first, it may be useful to recall that the concept of resistance has traditionally taken shape along the line of contact between the conceptual faculty and some exteriority. The concept, in other words, shows a double face, turned inward and outward, along the line presumed to divide consciousness from its outside or its other. The Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, for example, defines resistance as a “primary quality of bodies”:
Resistance: the quality of sensible matter by which it is perceptible to touch and muscular activity. “The sensation of resistance, in particular, would have a real privilege over all others for proving that matter exists in itself; for, as the partisans of this doctrine argue, we observe directly the existence of that which resists us and whatever resists us is necessarily outside of us since it knocks up against us and stops us. This reasoning, as one may easily see, comes down to saying that resistance is a primary quality of bodies” (Dunan, Essais de philosophie générale, 532; italics added)12
The definition situates resistance in the “outside of us” (“that which resists us is necessarily outside of us”), that is, outside a consciousness that has a direct or unresisted knowledge of material existence in itself and not only in consciousness. But this direct awareness depends on an ambivalent intervention of a body through “touch and muscular activity,” ambivalent because it can be neither wholly assimilated nor rejected by consciousness. The notion of direct observation bypasses the necessity of this ambivalence (represented by the double sense—touching/touched—of the sense of touch) and thereby a body of resistance, the resistant body within the body of knowledge. What is on the line here, in other words, is the conditions of certainty for Descartes’s subject of knowledge, the subject presumed to be sure of at least one thing: the difference between the thing it touches and the thing it only dreams of touching. Without this construction of difference, the subject simply will not stand up to its own rigorous scrutiny. It is not, however, just that the subject risks falling if it sees its construction dismantled, but that the fall takes down with it the distinction between standing and falling on the basis of which one could speak of a fall in the first place. The fall into uncertainty cannot even be certain that it is a fall. Such a formulation will return us to the final lines of “Resistance to Theory,” where, as so often, de Man speaks of falling:13 “Yet literary theory is not in danger of going under; it cannot help but flourish, and the more it is resisted, the more it flourishes, since the language it speaks is the language of self-resistance. What remains impossible to decide is whether this flourishing is a triumph or a fall” (19–20).
Insisting on the undecidability of the theoretical enterprise, de Man seems to neglect altogether the anxiety induced by not knowing what, above all, one needs to know: whether one is falling or standing. If, as we have suggested, there is a subtext in this essay whose title would be something like “Resistance to Psychoanalysis,” then the bracketing of anxiety as a source of “displaced symptoms of resistance” would constitute one of its essential gestures. This subtext resembles most closely another brief text of de Man’s, his review of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.
There, the errors of an anxious selfhood or subjectivity are set over against the necessity of a “truly epistemological moment” that alone can make a literary theory possible. Resistance to theory, in other words, is seen here to occur in the form of self or subject and its intentions. Although to be sure The Anxiety of Influence does not propose a theory of poetry based on naive intentionality (for Bloom, as de Man notes, “influence can emanate from texts a poet has never read”), it nevertheless fails, according to its reviewer, “to free poetic language from the constraints of natural reference” and instead returns us to a scheme that “is still clearly a relapse into psychological naturalism.”14 De Man even traces a regression from Bloom’s earlier work to Anxiety, where Bloom “becomes more dependent than before on a pathos which is more literal than hyperbolic.” This regression displaces theoretical concerns from poetic language to self or subject, a displacement that puts at risk the “truly epistemological moment” of poetic theory:
From a relationship between words and things, or words and words, we return to a relationship between subjects. Hence the agonistic language of anxiety, power, rivalry, and bad faith.… [Bloom’s] argument is stated in oedipal terms and the story of influence told in the naturalistic language of desire.… His theoretical concerns are now displaced into a symbolic narrative recentered in a subject. But no theory of poetry is possible without a truly epistemological moment when the literary text is considered from the perspective of its truth or falsehood rather than from a love-hate point of view. The presence of such a moment offers no guarantee of truth but it serves to alert our understanding to distortions brought about by desire. It may reveal in their stead patterns of error that are perhaps more disturbing, but rooted in language rather than in the self. (271–72; italics added)
The “Truly epistemological moment” cannot occur, de Man suggests, between subjects who are, inevitably, subjects of desire. The identification of the poetic text as a subject constitutes, in Bloom’s case, a relapse or a regression. In another context, de Man has given a specifically historical sense to this regressive turn when, in the opening paragraph of “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” he implies a continuity between “the advent, in the course of the nineteenth century, of a subjectivistic critical vocabulary” and “the romantic eclipse of all other rhetorical distinctions behind the single, totalizing term ‘symbol’” (187–88). If, however, subjectivistic criticism like Bloom’s is to be understood in its continuity with romantic theories of poetic imagination (and this historical/rhetorical scheme will be more or less sustained through the latest essays collected in The Rhetoric of Romanticism), then in what sense can this continuity also be termed a relapse or a regression?
Referring to Bloom’s subjectivism or romanticism, de Man writes that the “regression can be traced in various ways.” The example he chooses concerns the use of Freud:
It is apparent, for example, in the way Freud is used in the earlier as compared to the later essay. Bloom, who at that time seems to have held a rather conventional view of Freud as a rationalistic humanist, respectfully dismisses him in The Ringers in the Tower as the prisoner of a reality principle the romantics had left behind. In The Anxiety of Influence Bloom’s reading of Freud has gained in complexity, yet he is still, in principle, discarded as “not severe enough,” his wisdom outranked by “the wisdom of the strong poets.” Still, his argument is stated in oedipal terms. (272)
The regression traced here in relation to Freud shows a contradictory logic since, in the later work, Freud is dismissed, but as a weak son who cannot stand up to his stronger poet/fathers—he is dismissed, that is, in the oedipal terms of Freudian theory. This move is regressive (and not merely contradictory) because the dismissal of Freud ends up repeating the weak or later poet’s oedipal impasse. And thus, notes de Man, “Bloom has become the subject of his own desire for clarification.”
But it would seem that de Man is also pointing to a regressive reading of Freud, one that remains governed by the anxious desire for clarification in the face of precisely that impossibility as concerns unconscious desire. That is, the regressive or anxious resistance to reading may be understood to include a resistance to the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious and thus as a defense of the ideological fiction of an unobstructed, unresisted self.15 Clearly, however, this resistance can itself be overcome only in a regressive direction whenever literary theory leaps over its object and heads for the cover of the oedipal narratives with which Freud enriched the supply of psychological naturalism. By the same token, no literary theory that would be “progressive” can avoid the evidence that “progress” also remains almost wholly to be read as a fictional narrative with a large network of roots feeding the same ideological functions as are fed by psychological naturalism. If it thus remains “impossible to decide whether this flourishing [of literary theory] is a triumph or a fall,” then the question of whether one is progressing or regressing, falling or triumphing in the sight, on the site of theory will have to become, instead, the question of how to keep one’s anxiety about an answer to the first question from precipitating a decisive fall into interpretive readings based on defensive ego identifications.
“The Resistance to Theory” manages to remind one of the important use psychoanalysis has made of the term resistance, without all the same taking up an explicit discussion of it. One effect of this gesture is to propose a reading en blanc or between the lines of Freud’s essay with the echoing title “The Resistances to Psychoanalysis” (“Die Widerstände die Psychoanalyse”). Without presuming to fill in this blank, I turn now to several details from the end of Freud’s essay where one may recognize in Freud’s rhetoric a scene of confrontation that de Man has analyzed elsewhere quite explicity and, indeed, more than once.
These details, which are rhetorical figures, are also what allow that text to narrate an end to the self-resistance installed by the confrontation with the truth of resistance to some truth. When, toward the end of the essay, Freud recapitulates his account of the resistance encountered by psychoanalysis, he shifts to the past tense, which, in the context, can only be read as a hopeful anticipation of the future defeat of that resistance.
The strongest resistances to psycho-analysis were not of an intellectual kind but arose from emotional sources. This explained their passionate character as well as their poverty in logic. The situation obeyed a simple formula: men in the mass behaved to psycho-analysis in precisely the same way as individual neurotics under treatment for their disorders. It is possible, however, by patient work to convince these latter individuals that everything happened as we maintained it did: we had not invented it but had arrived at it from a study of other neurotics covering a period of twenty or thirty years.16
We will come back to the two complementary terms that supply the “simple formula” of the central analogy here—a totalizing figure (“men in the mass”) and a figure of sheer repetition (“in precisely the same way”)—when they recur in another arrangement in the text. As for the emotional source that overpowers logic, Freud has earlier identified it as fear (Angst), in a passage that again sounds a hopeful, but perhaps not a fearless, note: “Psychoanalysis is regarded as ‘inimical to culture’ and put under a ban as a ‘social danger.’ This resistance cannot last forever. No human institution can in the long run escape the influence of fair criticism; but men’s attitude to psycho-analysis is still dominated by this fear, which gives rein to their passions and diminishes their power of logical argument” (220). Freud’s conviction that “resistance cannot last forever” may be read as a submission to that greater truth according to which nothing lasts forever. But, in that case, what of psychoanalysis itself as an institution? This question is not posed explicitly by Freud; however, because the essay concludes by pointing to the recent founding of the Berlin and Vienna psychoanalytic institutes, the question may be heard all the same as adding an anxious note to this account of the defeat of resistances to psychoanalysis.
This defeat follows a certain narrative order—“everything happened as we maintained it did”—the order that psychoanalysis has uncovered through years of patient observation. Overwhelming evidence, however, may also show a tendency to overwhelm in an alarming way. Thus, having set out the simple, analogical formula (“men in the mass behaved to psycho-analysis in precisely the same way as individual neurotics”), Freud then comments: “The position was at once alarming and consoling [etwas Schreckhaftes und etwas Tröst-liches]: alarming because it was no small thing to have the whole human race as one’s patient [das ganze Menschengesch-lecht zum Patienten zu haben], and consoling because after all everything was taking place as the hypotheses of psycho-analysis declared it was bound to” (221). This note of alarm is sounded in the presence of a figure—“the whole human race as one’s patient”—a synecdoche that, more dramatically than the preceding figure of “men in the mass,” identifies a collective entity of staggering proportions. This same figure, however, is given another face that consoles rather than alarms. It consoles by confirming and consolidating a certain narrative and a certain narration: “everything was taking place as the hypotheses of psycho-analysis declared that it was bound to.” The figure has the effect of consolidating psychoanalysis with itself, joining it as a narrative whose end is already present in its beginning. Thus “the whole human race” lends consistency to that other whole called psychoanalysis, the latter realizing itself or completing itself in the fulfillment of a narrative. The analogical formula that leads to the alarming/consoling figure also tends to reduce the plural resistance of Freud’s title to a same resistance, but one that has been distributed between the inside and outside of the practice of psychoanalysis. “The whole human race as one’s patient” would serve, then, to erase even this topological distinction by uniting all resistance behind the representative guise of a single patient whose treatment can be made wholly internal to the analytic process, where it can be overcome. No doubt, the idea is not meant to be taken seriously or literally; nevertheless, the text as it continues seems to struggle to make good on its spontaneous figure, to comprehend the sum total of resistances to psychoanalysis, and thus to take in the totality of its outside. Or, to put this another way, the sentence that both alarms and consoles from the position of psychoanalysis can be likened to a moment of gagging on the enormity of the thing. How does Freud swallow this huge morsel in order to bring his essay to some conclusion?
He first weighs what he calls “purely external difficulties” that “have also contributed to strengthen the resistance to psychoanalysis.” Freud enumerates them beginning with the difficulty of an independent judgment regarding psychoanalysis: “It is not easy to arrive at an independent [selbständiges] judgment upon matters to do with analysis without having experienced it oneself or practiced it on someone else” (222). The difficulty these sentences would point to referentially, in some pure exterior, remains caught within a syntax that illustrates rather than situates the problem of resistance, because it is not at all self-evident how the lack of an independent or external place from which to judge can also be termed a “purely external difficulty.” In the succeeding sentences of the paragraph, however, the socalled external difficulty is drawn into the more purely internal question of analytic technique: “Nor can one do the latter [that is, practice psychoanalysis on someone else] without having acquired a specific and decidedly delicate technique.”
If one reads this movement inward as an attempt to make good on a totalizing figure, then unmistakably technique becomes the key to translating rhetorical overstatement into something closer to referential accuracy. In effect, the resistant figure’s alarming proportions are scaled down by the institution of technique, and with that institution comes a marked improvement in the position of psychoanalysis: “Until recently there was no easily accessible means of learning psychoanalysis and its technique. This position has now been improved by the foundation (in 1920) of the Berlin Psycho-analytic Clinic and Training Institute, and soon afterwards (in 1922) of an exactly similar institute in Vienna” (222; italics added). The exact similarity of these institutes, guaranteeing the repetition or reproduction of a technique, seems to advance the position of psychoanalysis beyond the stalemated encounter with a figure of overwhelming resistance. But there has been in fact no improvement in the rhetorical position, which remains as tenuous as ever in its promise to deliver one from the alarming figure of the opposition of the “whole human race.” Only another trope, the powerful trope of mimesis, can allow one to say that institutes of whatever sort are exactly similar. The mimetic institution, that is, the institution of mimesis as technique, appears to solve a difficulty, but in fact it swallows that difficulty whole.
A Lesson in Resistance
The narrative elements we have been considering in Freud’s essay are assembled in similar sequence by Rousseau’s account of the necessary primacy of figurative over denominative language. Both Jacques Derrida17 and de Man have made this episode from the Essay on the Origin of Languages justly famous, the latter even returning to the text a second time. First, let us briefly recall the passage in question from Rousseau’s essay:
Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened. Because of his fear he sees the others as bigger and stronger than himself. He calls them giants. After many experiences, he recognizes that these so-called giants are neither bigger nor stronger than he. Their stature does not correspond to the idea he had initially attached to the word giant. So he invents another name common to him and to them, such as the name man, for example, and leaves the name giant to the fictitious object that impressed him during his illusion. This is how the figurative word is born before the literal word, when our gaze is held in passionate fascination.18
From de Man’s reading of this passage and the consequences that must follow from it through the Discourse on Inequality, we lift the sequence that shows certain parallels with Freud’s essay: (1) the fearful face-off with an overwhelming figure; (2) the reduction of the figure through a technical operation; (3) the substitution of a literal metaphor for the first, wild metaphor; (4) the institution or repetition of the mimetic figure as a proper denomination that can found a science: anthropology, sociology, political science, psychoanalysis.
De Man’s rhetorical analysis of this sequence is laid out in two essays: “The Rhetoric of Blindness” in Blindness and Insight (1971) and chapter 7 of Allegories of Reading. The second of these is said to have been written to “cope” with the “inadequacies” of the first.19 In both essays, the “giant” narrative is read in the sense of a demonstration of “the priority of metaphor over denomination.” What shifts from one essay to the next, however, is the understanding of Rousseau’s choice of fear as the passion with which to illustrate this priority. In the earlier essay, this reaction is aligned on the side of need rather than passion, a situation that places Rousseau in contradiction with his assertion that it is the passions that produce the first metaphors.20 Thus Rousseau would have made a mistake. In the second essay, de Man realigns his own earlier reading when he addresses the choice of fear to illustrate the figurative source of denomination:
[Fear] can only result from a fundamental feeling of distrust, the suspicion that, although the creature does not look like a lion or a bear, it nevertheless might act like one, outward appearances to the contrary. The reassuringly familiar and similar outside might be a trap. Fear is the result of a possible discrepancy between the outer and inner properties of entities. It can be shown that, for Rousseau, all passions—whether they be love, pity, anger, or even a borderline case between passion and need such as fear—are characterized by such a discrepancy; they are based not on the knowledge that such a difference exists, but on the hypothesis that it might exist, a possibility that can never be proven or disproven by empirical or by analytical means. A statement of distrust is neither true nor false: it is rather in the nature of a permanent hypothesis. (150; Italics added)
In this passage, a shift moves the reaction of fear from the side of need, to which it was consigned in the earlier essay. But this shift does not cross all the way over to the side of passion: it stays its movement at the borderline between the two. De Man, in other words, does not correct the “mistake” by reversing the distinction and calling fear a passion, although that might seem to offer the most obvious solution to the problem. By stopping between the terms of Rousseau’s distinction (of need from passion), de Man’s reading, in effect, suspends the textual metaphors in several senses at once. First, what is called fear is suspended in the hypothesis of “a possible discrepancy between the outer and inner properties of entities.” That is, when the metaphor “giant” accuses the possible discrepancy between the other’s familiar exterior and bearlike or lionlike interior, it does so as well from a suspended position between the “exterior” and “interior” motives for the subject’s acts, otherwise called need and passion. This is not all, however: the discrepancy is itself two-faced since it applies to both entities as they confront each other, the “creature” to be named no less than the naming subject. Thus the series of conceptual distinctions structuring this encounter—need/passion, outside/inside, other/self—are all suspended in a “strange unity.”21
The shift onto the borderline between these suspended oppositions also brings into focus the other encounter in progress here, not between two men but between an act of reading and a text. Fear or anxiety provides a pivot on which the text can turn from the action represented to the action of representing, from, that is, one act of naming to another. The identification of the fearful reaction supplies something like a hook on which the reader can hang an identificatory interpretation of the text. At the same time, however, it is just such a precipitous identification or equalization of the two parties to the encounter (man/ giant but also reader/text) which is denounced by the allegory as a wishful but unreliable mode of reading. Reading by identification precipitates the same leap into the reassuring generality of “man” and the same forgetfulness of the metaphoric substitutions that allowed one to arrive there in the first place. Most important, such a reader forgets that he22 has substituted the model of an intersubjective, face-to-face encounter for this other encounter with metaphor which, precisely, has no model. The reader’s substitution reverses the order of substitution recounted by the allegory—the category of number or measure (a knowable, exteriorized quantity) for the category of intention (an unknowable, interiorized quality)—which allows for the crucial passage from metaphor to concept. Reading reverses this pattern when it reassures itself of its own understanding by interiorizing, turning the text’s exterior into an intentional design of a subject: the text’s author. The allegory, on the other hand, positions the necessary priority of an encounter with metaphor over any concept of subjectivity or intersubjectivity, showing, indeed, that metaphor gives the model to understanding based on intersubjective identifications. Nevertheless, a profound reading habit inverts this insight and misses the point of the allegory.
We can consider, through one brief example, how de Man’s commentary effectively recovers the point that has been blunted by nonreading, or rather how it sticks the point to that nonreader par excellence which is the overarching subject of identification.
The passage we are concerned with sets a trap for this subject by means of its assumption that, in encounters with “giants,” it is “we” men who have everything to fear. This assumption is vulnerable precisely in a reader’s precipitous identification with the word “man” in the allegory, a move that erases the metaphorical interchangeability with the other word “giant.” It begins thus: “The word ‘man’ is the result of a quantitative process of comparison based on measurement, and making deliberate use of the category of number in order to reach a reassuring conclusion.” This reassuring process is then illustrated with recourse to the first person: “if the other man’s height is numerically equal to my own, then he is no longer dangerous” (italics added). It is the words “my own” that form the hook for the reader’s identification. Once hooked, this reader is caught in the trap to be sprung in the final sentence, which returns to the mode of commentary: “The conclusion is wishful and, of course, potentially in error—as Goliath and Polyphemos, among others, were soon enough to discover” (154). The reader, in effect, has been tricked into identifying with the overconfident calculations of the doomed giants. Like a rat in an experimenter’s maze, he receives a shock that sends him back to find a safer exit. These sentences, in other words, perform an object lesson in the perils of hasty reading, which would be any reading that supplies an extratextual reference for the textual first person. That operation conceals a potential for error demonstrated in the very sentence one reads to its stinging conclusion. There, the names Goliath and Polyphemos, rather than the categories of giant and man, suddenly assume the force of proper names the reader has been led to substitute for “my own” name.23 The point of the allegory will thus have been brought home: names are properly metaphorical, which is to say monstrous in their potential unreliability.
This reminder of the differences subsumed through a conceptual, categorical operation depends for its effect on a certain reversal of the substitutive process of generalization, a falling back into proper names. De Man recommends reading the allegory in the sense of the fate of proper names in a note that precedes the demonstration: “The actual word ‘giant,’ as we know from everyday usage, presupposes the word ‘man’ and is not the metaphorical figure that Rousseau, for lack of an existing word, has to call ‘giant.’ Rousseau’s ‘giant’ would be more like some mythological monster; one could think of Goliath or Polyphemos” (153; italics added). To accept this suggestion entails certain consequences for Rousseau’s tale of man’s name. When these myths are superimposed on the allegory, another moral can emerge beside the one that appears to lift the word “man” out of a gigantic error: it is not just that one man’s triumph is another man’s fall, but that the same name has to be made to stand for one and the other sense. The measure of this predicament is taken by Rousseau’s allegory when, “for lack of an existing word” to represent properly the impropriety of names, it falls victim to the categorical error it also denounces.
Pièce de résistance
Rousseau’s choice of fear should perhaps be read as the fear of never owning “my own” name. Such is also the anxiety that fuels resistance to a theory whose “main theoretical interest lies in the impossibility of its definition.” Faced with an insistent reminder of the name’s unreliability, one may, like Rousseau’s man when faced with the “giant” or like Rousseau himself when faced with the deviations of his signature, alternately magnify and minimize the risk posed by the unnamable other. "It is,” writes de Man in “Resistance to Theory,” “a recurrent strategy of any anxiety to defuse what it considers threatening by magnification and minimization, by attributing to it claims to power of which it is bound to fall short” (5). De Man then proceeds to illustrate this assertion in a manner that I cannot help wondering how to read:
If a cat is called a tiger it can easily be dismissed as a paper tiger; the question remains however why one was so scared of the cat in the first place. The same tactic works in reverse: calling the cat a mouse and then deriding it for its pretense to be mighty. Rather than being drawn into this polemical whirlpool, it might be better to try to call the cat a cat and to document, however, briefly, the contemporary version of the resistance to theory in this country.
It would be foolish, no doubt, to take such a light moment too seriously. But how seriously is too seriously? We are still trying to read in the absence of a measure of too fast or too slow, too big or too small. Since the passage in question qualifies such alternative errors as the recurrent strategy of anxiety, a mimicking effect is set off between the cat as metaphor in the text (which someone with an irrational fear of cats calls a tiger) and the cat as metaphor of the text one is trying to read. One’s anxious question about how to read the cat in the text or the text in the cat already figures there precisely as the motive of rhetorical distortion. Whatever check the question seemed to offer on excesses of interpretation is overturned, mocked by a doubling reversal.
Like all acts of denomination, calling the cat a cat substitutes for the concept of difference (the singularity of the thing named) the concept of similarity (resemblance within a class or species). It would thus be sheerest delusion to believe that, having called the cat a cat, one has corrected the fundamental error of denomination. What is more, although the illustration moves to correct aberrant metaphors that try to pass themselves off as referential, it can make this adjustment only by leaving untouched the initial aberration that consists in giving that “something called literary theory” the other name of “cat.” The thorough arbitrariness of this substitution (it is the substitution of allegory, more precisely of category) is not hidden behind any appeal to some natural resemblance between cats and theories (which is why it is hard to take the example seriously).
Finally, however, the evident arbitrariness of the latter substitution (cat for theory) undoes the apparent tautological self-evidence of the former one (the name cat for the thing cat). It does so when it suspends at the limit of the example the question of why one was so scared of the cat in the first place. Not only, then, does the example illustrate the decision of the suspended state of anxiety through aberrant acts of naming; it remarks as well that an essentially linguistic predicament—the impossibility of proper names—has been displaced onto the psychology of a subject. Since replacing the aberrant metaphors of tiger and mouse with the referential figure that calls the cat a cat can hardly be of any comfort to anyone who is scared of cats, the suspended question can be answered only by an identifica-tory leap of some sort. But precisely this unnamed, unnamable cat poses the limit of reading by identification. Like a signature—a griffe—its mark retracts from conceptual measure.
In tracing the pattern of reading by identification, we spoke of “the reader … he.” Is there a reason for this deliberate sexism? The two ways of answering that question are seemingly incompatible and yet equally necessary.
1. “He” remarks the mark of gender on the general concept “man.” If we choose to read Rousseau’s (or de Man’s) allegory of man’s name as an allegory of reading by identification, with all of the potential for error that it entails, then we also take it as pointing to a crucial condition of that reading habit: the exclusion of sexual difference. The exclusive condition is confirmed by the patterns that have determined literary study in the age of its institutionalization, where the two parties to the encounter—reader and text—largely continued to play out the allegory of primitive man meeting other men and measuring himself through identification.24 On the one hand, even after women were finally admitted to these institutions as coequal students of reading, the grid of a presumed transparency between subjects identified as men remained in place as the unacknowledged prescriptive filter of measured understanding. On the other hand, the same prescriptive grid continued to shape and select the canon of texts to be studied according to the privilege granted men’s signatures. This exclusive pattern of identification can be made to appear as so much playing with mirrors when a critical stance steps to one side of the mirrored field, into the beveled edge where the identificatory path is distorted or deflected. To read as a woman is to remark this unreflecting frame of reflection, to uncover its limits, and to overturn its exclusions.25
2. “He” effaces the mark of gender on the reader by identification. It insists, in other words, that whenever reading projects a model of identification, the model is masculine—not, obviously, in an empirical sense but in a structural one. To retain this structural sense means to recall that the effacement of difference is a conceptual violence whose effects can be all the more insidious when they are too quickly denied any political pertinence. If it leaves intact the identificatory structure, then the program of “reading as a woman” in itself will not end conceptual violence, but only redistribute its effects more equitably. The preserved structure presents little resistance to the institutionalized model of reading. Resistance, in other words, that takes the form of identifying (with) some feminine subject or essence puts nothing essential at risk and even provides the reassuring comfort of an essential likeness with already institutionalized methods of reading.
Far riskier, it seems, would be reading in the absence of a model subject engendered by the classification (or categorization) of differences. This is not, however, to suggest a program to be institutionally adopted—for the obvious reason that reading in the absence of a model cannot, by definition, supply a model. But also for the equally undeniable reason that no reading is possible in the absence pure and simple of identificatory impulses. It is still a problem of reading too slowly or too quickly, either resisting those patterns of metaphorical sameness that allow reading to take some shortcuts or overlooking the marks of sheer difference that slow reading down and can bring it to a standstill altogether. The pedagogical enterprise will remain a critical one only so long as it is practiced within the space of a double stricture where both the conceptual generality of the text and the singular difference of the reader can encounter their limits.
1De Man, Allegories of Reading, 245; further references are included in the text.
2De Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” in Resistance to Theory, further references are included in the text.
3This is but one of the possible complications in the relation between title and text. Derrida complicates it still further in “Title (to be specified),” trans. Tom Conley, Sub-stance 3 (1981).
4“The surplus mark re-marks the whole series of the double marks of the text by illustrating what always exceeds a possible closure of the text folded, reflected upon itself. In excess to the text as a whole is the text ‘itself.’” Rodolphe Gasché, “Joining the Text,” in The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America, ed. Jonathan Arac, Wlad Godzich, and Wallace Martin (Minneapolis, 1983), 69.
5On these words, see as well Jacques Derrida, “My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies,” in Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (Baltimore, 1984), 5.
6This is a reference to the Yale French Studies issue, no. 63, ed. Barbara Johnson, titled “The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre,” in which the essay was first published.
7This predictable obsolescence is confirmed by Joseph Gibaldi, editor of the collection in question, whose preface recalls the success of the two previous volumes in the series (published in 1952 and 1970) and then comments: “By the end of [the 1970s], however, the time was right once again for a new collection of essays by a new group of authors.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures (New York, 1979).
8This article, “Literary Theory” by Paul Hernadi, in Gibaldi, Introduction to Scholarship, follows the “determined program” in the first two of the three requirements de Man discerns, wisely stopping short of the third, the “programmatic projection of the solutions which can be expected in the foreseeable future.” Despite its recognition that “quite a few critics even doubt the feasibility of defining literature on any grounds whatsoever” (100), the essay does not attempt to account for the resistance to theory, which may be a sign that its planned obsolescence is accelerating.
9To be sure, the MLA Committee on Research Activities is but one locus of this shared reluctance; yet, by virtue of its representative function and structure, this locus also serves to represent what should be the interest of literary theory to modern language and literature scholars in the United States.
10This point is made in de Man’s review of Michael Riffaterre’s poetic theory, “Hypogram and Inscription: Michael Riffaterre’s Poetics of Reading,” in Resistance to Theory, 28ff., and again in “Aesthetic Formalization in Kleist’s Über das Marionettentheater,” in Rhetoric of Romanticism, 272–73.
11In this regard, it is interesting that the bibliography of de Man’s work in The Yale Critics lists this article under the erroneous title “The Resistance to Literary Theory.”
12André Lalande, ed., Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, 9th ed. (Paris, 1962), 925.
13Earlier in the essay, a brief reading of Keats’s two titles Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion elicits the question: “Are we telling the story of why all texts, as texts, can always be said to be falling?” (16); see as well De Man, “Rhetoric of Temporality,” where Baudelaire’s example of a fall in “L’Essence du rire” provides the key text for the discussion of irony (Blindness and Insight, 213–14).
14De Man, Blindness and Insight, 271; further references will be included in the text.
15This is not to ignore de Man’s more or less systematic replacement of psychological terms with rhetorical ones but to recognize that the necessity of this replacement can be traced in part to the break within traditional epistemology effected by Freudian models of the unconscious. Nothing in de Man’s work prohibits the making of such a connection, while a number of moments, such as the one examined here, encourage it. Geoffrey Hartman has remarked that “despite the anti-psychologistic bent of de Man’s practice,” one may observe certain “alliances” between that practice and psychoanalysis ("Paul de Man’s Proverbs of Hell,” London Review of Books, 15 March-4 April, 1984, 4). For another assessment of de Manian deconstruction in its relation to psychoanalysis, see Richard Klein, “The Blindness of Hyperboles: The Ellipses of Insight,” Diacritics, Summer 1973.
16Freud, “Resistances to Psychoanalysis,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey et al., ed. James Stratchey (London, 1961), 19:221; further references are included in the text.
17See Derrida, Of Grammatology, 275ff.
18Rousseau, Essay, 13.
19De Man, “Foreword to Revised, Second Edition,” in Blindness and Insight, xi. De Man is referring to his first reading of the allegory in “Rhetoric of Blindness,” 133ff.
20“In Rousseau’s vocabulary, language is a product of passion and not the expression of a need; fear, the reverse side of violence and aggression, is distinctively utilitarian and belongs to the world of ‘besoms’ rather than ‘passions’” (De Man, “Rhetoric of Blindness,” 134). De Man’s revision of this distinction recalls Derrida’s effacement of the limit between need and passion; see below, n. 21.
21The term is Derrida’s to describe the effaced limit between need and passion: “This incoherence would apply to the fact that the unity of need and passion (with the entire system of associated significations) constantly effaces the limit that Rousseau obstinately sketches and recalls. Rousseau declares this backbone, without which the entire conceptual organism would break up, and wishes to think it as a distinction; he describes it as a supplementary differance. This constrains in its graphics the strange unity of passion and need” [Of Grammatology, 238).
22Or she? The question of the gender of the reader is discussed below.
23The substitution of a proper name for the common noun giant as the instance of metaphoric or improper denomination is consistent with Derrida’s description of this moment in the “Essai": “What we interpret as literal expression in the perception and designation of giants, remains a metaphor that is preceded by nothing either in experience or in language. Since speech does not pass through reference to an object, the fact that ‘giant’ is literal as sign of fear not only does not prevent, but on the contrary implies that it should be nonliteral or metaphoric as sign of the object. It cannot be the idea-sign of the passion without presenting itself as the idea-sign of the presumed cause of that passion, opening an exchange with the outside. This opening allows the passage to a savage metaphor. No literal meaning precedes it” (Of Grammatology, 276). “Goliath” or “Polyphemos” would be something like the improper name of the self as outside itself.
24It is finally this version of the institution of literary studies that is upheld by theories of mimetic desire such as that of René Girard in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, 1965) and elsewhere. For a critique of Girard, see Sarah Kofman, The Enigma of Woman: Woman in the Text of Freud, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), 59–65; also see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “Typographie,” in Mimesis: Des articulations, ed. Sylviane Agacinski et al. (Paris, 1975), 231–51.
25In a chapter titled “Reading as a Woman,” in his On Deconstruction (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982), Jonathan Culler chronicles three moments in the development of American feminist literary criticism, each of which is formed around the experience of woman reading. Culler’s synthesis is especially valuable in that it isolates the ambiguous place of this appeal to experience: “it has always, already occurred and yet is still to be produced—an indispensable point of reference, yet never simply there.… The noncoincidence reveals an interval, a division within woman or within any reading subject and the ‘experience’ of that subject” (62).