Some thoughts on Rhetoric of Temporality

The biggest realization I’ve had in recent days has been this understanding of universal failure — this is not really as grim as it sounds — one of those situations where, in this developmental blog, we sometimes aim for mnemonic resonance, or maybe we don’t want to spend too much time developing technically accurate names. It’s basically the idea that we always tend to forget the initial shock, we tend to pursue solutions. The advantage of this is that we can speak of a development over time, via repetition I mean, rather than limit ourselves to the mechanism of a single moment.

(1st example) Paul De Man’s Rhetoric of Temporality is infamous “most photocopied essay in all of comparative literature”. It has certainly always been in the back of my mind. But only recently did I realize that it is more of an act than a discovery, the bulk of the essay is spent declaring that rhetoric doesn’t really matter.

Here’s what I mean. We must speak, as we have been speaking, about a moment of “shock” a moment of negativity. This is the shock that accompanies literature, and that literature seems to veil, and which the essay is about. A shock always brings about a pragmatic moment — but one that is always a departure from that shock, a forgetting about it, yet even still, nonetheless, about it, and remembering it — this is what we mean by “universal failure”. What Paul De Man does is give a kind of metaphysical characterization of the way in which the shock of literature is understood, the shock of the surprsing lowness of literature or poetry, the shock that, as we said, at once validates and negates us — validates us in giving us a new sense of direction, in preserving or reigniting our purpose, and negates us in that it tells us we are not “low enough”, we were not as wild as free as we think.

I had this motivation poster about 30 or so entries ago:

OK, fine, but this forgets to mention this moment of shock is also a validation, that I’m not a free spirit only in relation to someone or something that is.

Everything is dark… so dark. This recurring theme of Heart of Darkness is quite literally that — not the  darkness of the human psyche but rather a kind of visual blindness. This darkness is related to the perpetual failure principle, where our need to carry on, to find a solution that matches the shock we experience is also an attempt to avoid, or simply a failure to aknowledge, the incredible darkness of what is actually being done. If we are not wild and free, and yet the wild and free exists, if ther is some more material, lower way of life — whose gaze falls upon us (“as trenchant as an axe”) — then this being is also veiled in incredible darkness — a paradoxical lowliness without materiality, lowliness without ground.

And so Rhetoric of Temporality, though it goes to great lenghts to give a metaphysical, temporal description of the aftermath of the moment of shock, is fundamentally, of course, a description of an error. It doesn’t matter — that was, as I said, my big realization. The argument is not that rhetorical structures are linked to our experience of time, but rather, that humanity constructs various erroneous understandings of their experience in order make up for this blindness. The essay is fundamentally about this blindness, or rather, about the way in which history and literature, in a moment of error and clarity, comes to be about this darkness, veers towards it.

… I guess I’m also saying that Paul de Man is kind of asshole. Maybe in a sense he was so far ahead of his time that he had to be… I mean, I’m pretty sure he wrote those essays in order to be incomprehensible — though not technically I guess. I mean, there were always these paragraphs of rapid theoretical development that he could refer to, in courtt, in his defense, as reaching the same kind of conclusions that we are here (I’m guessing). But I don’t think he ever made this explicit, but this is something I can understand — since to outline clearly the performance would simply lead to people dismissing what he’s doing as a kind of elaborate intellectual act, so that the alternative, of coming across as a declaration of psychological face, is perhaps inevitable. I mean, if he wrote for someone like me (and my current understanding is correct), then I would have to say, you know, “well played, man, well played” — since there is really no other way that essay would have remained with me.



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