Building on the ideas from Saussure and Nietzsche, Paul de Man argues that language and nature are disconnected. Although language is presumed to be expressive in its nature, language does not actually express nature. This is because the signified (concept) has no innate relation to the signifier (word). To make this concept easier, think of words that have meanings change over time, an example being “ice cube.” Typically, this term is used to refer to the solid state of water, however, in Snoop de Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Snoop questions us if we “See these ice cubes?” If the signified and the signifier bared a relationship to one another (other than the one created by language), Snoop would be asking us to look at an array of ice cubes. However, because there is no set relationship among the signified and the signifier, ice cubes, for Mr. Snoop, evoke diamond jewelry. This is what infuriates de Man about language, its figurative and rhetorical nature makes it impossible to convey truth. As literature relies on language in its composition, literature cannot be viewed as a reliable source of truth either: “Literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge ‘reality,’ but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world. It is therefore not a priori certain that literature is a reliable source of information about anything but its own language” (“Resistance to Theory” 11).
In “Semiology and Rhetoric,” Paul de Man makes his stance on interpreting literature in hopes of finding truth very clear: we are shit outta luck. de Man notes that “One of the most striking characteristics of literary semiology as it is practiced today, in France and elsewhere, is the use of the grammatical (especially syntactical) structures conjointly with rhetorical structures, without apparent awareness of a possible discrepancy between them” (NATC 1368). For de Man, the problem with literary semiology is that it incorporates both grammatical and rhetorical structures. If a reader chooses to value the grammatical, they will inadvertedly ignore the rhetorical (and vice versa), therefore you may think that the simple solution would be to view literature through both the grammatical and the rhetorical at once. Just as in an unwanted Tinder pairing, the grammatical and rhetorical simultaneously swipe right when they encounter one another. This is best observed as de Man refers to Charles Sanders Pierce, “Pierce calls this process by means of which ‘one sign gives birth to another’ pure rhetoric, as distinguished from pure grammar, which postulates the possibility of unproblematic, dyadic meaning, and pure logic, which postulates the possibility of the universal truth of meanings” (1370). If one values the grammatical structure, they fall under the false belief of a universal meaning: “On an entirely naïve level, we tend to conceive of grammatical systems as tending towards universality and as simply generative” (1369). Yet, if one values the rhetorical structure, the reader will find multiple indeterminable meanings. de Man then turns his attention to rhetoric (the study of metaphor and metonymy) and semiology(the study of the whole linguistic system). Due to this, truth cannot be derived from a reading. If that was not enough, de Man then asserts that “a literary text simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode,” as the author of a text cannot control language because it operates against the author’s intention. An author may have an intention behind their work, but a text (due to its rhetoric language) will reveal a different meaning. This is certainly obvious as people are constantly debating the meaning behind various texts (When the author says __________, he could mean a or b). Since a text is always composed of the rhetorical and grammatical, and they can never be matched, there is no way around the indeterminable meaning of literature.
So what should we do?
Well for starters, do not paraphrase a text, de Man is not a fan of that.
Perhaps we can look at literature, but we have to keep in mind that we will not gain truth from our searching, or as Snoop so adequately put, “So don’t try to run up on my ear talking all that raspy [literary meaning] shit/ Trying to ask me [the truth of literature] shit.” We should focus our attention instead on the information that literature reveals about itself through deconstructing it.
de Man, Paul. “The Resistance to Theory.” Theory and History of Literature Vol. 38. University of Minnesota Press, 1986. 3-20. Print.
de Man, Paul. “Semiology and Rhetoric.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Lietch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1365-1378. Print.
Dogg, Snoop. “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece. The Neptunes, 2004. CD.