Grammatical Interruptions of the Epistemological in Paul de Man’s “Excuses (Confessions)”

Les mots, nous le savons, on le pouvoir de faire disparaître les choses, de les faire apparaître en tant que disparues.

Words, we know, have the power to make things disappear, to make them appear as things that have vanished.

—Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire (The Space of Literature)

As students and readers of literature, when we read fiction or theory, we are keenly aware of the author’s use of allusion, rhetorical devices, and a multitude of other stylistic or linguistic choices. But, how conscious are we of the implications of using a grammatical device or inter-vention as a rhetorical tool? Paul de Man’s “Excuses (Confessions),” even in its very title, alerts the reader to the importance of the parenthetical—to that which is set aside and assumed to be an afterthought, a byproduct, or an addendum. What is the function of the parenthetical in this in-stance, in this essay, and in general? Certainly, in de Man’s title, one could assume that the “confession” is inferior to the “excuse,” since one is titular and the other is conveniently subser-vient in its parenthetical bubble. Throughout the piece, de Man employs the parenthetical in various ways—for translations, clarifications, citations and to signify additional information. However, there is one particular instance of the parenthetical in “Excuses (Confessions)” in the penultimate paragraph of the piece that can be read a number of ways, creating ambiguity in de Man’s general argument about subjectivity, agency, and the processes surrounding cognition:

Since guilt, in this description [of Jean-Jacques and Marion], is a cognitive and excuse a performative function of language, we are restating the dis- junction of the performative from the cognitive: any speech act produces an excess of cognition, but it can never hope to know the process of its own production (the only thing worth knowing). Just as the text can never stop apologizing for the suppression of guilt that it performs, there is never enough knowledge available to account for the delusion of knowing. (299-300)

The grammatical intervention of the phrase “the only thing worth knowing” not only leads the reader to question the importance of the information contained in the parenthetical, but also the speaker of those lines, as well as the ghostly identity of the “thing” and the missing subject who does the “knowing.” This intervention also allows for multiple readings of this one line, either in de Man’s voice or the voice of Western philosophy, that shape and alter the implications of the function of language in cognition as well as the significance of the piece as a whole.

In order to situate de Man’s claims not only that speech acts, rather than subjects, pro-duce more conscious mental activities than are necessary, but also that speech acts are incapable of ever knowing this quintessential process of their own production, one must first examine de Man’s analysis of Rousseau’s particular speech acts of confession and excuse in Confessions and the Fourth Rêverie. De Man defines the action of confessing as “overcome[ing] guilt and shame in the name of truth: it is an epistemological use of language in which ethical values of good and evil are superseded by values of truth and falsehood” (279). Ultimately, a confession is a speech act that linguistically strives towards truthfulness, whatever that may be, in order to assuage guilt and shame. The confession reveals a state of being and is tied to a referent—that is, a thing and/or action. According to de Man, in Rousseau’s case, the confession is tied to his stealing (the act) the ribbon (the thing). Similarly, an excuse also happens “in the name of truth” but is tied to the speaker’s “inner sentiments” rather than things and actions (280). Rousseau’s particular con-fession is that he stole the ribbon and blamed it on Marion. His excuse is that he did it because he was in love with Marion. Clearly the contrast between outer processes and inner sentiments can be seen in both acts.

So far, de Man’s argument seems fairly straight-forward. However, de Man notes that Rousseau’s confession and excuse do not adequately alleviate his guilt in the first text of the Confessions. De Man here takes time to explain a complex chain of substitutions in which the ribbon is equivalent to Marion, Rousseau’s desire for her, as well as his desire for exposure. De Man observes that this substitution “reveals motives, causes, and desires” (284). It also frees the ribbon from its referent-ness. The ribbon is no longer just the external referent of a ribbon; it is a complex amalgamation of Rousseau’s inner processes as well. If we viewed Rousseau’s situation from a strictly Freudian perspective, it would seem that he would be relieved of his obsession with this scene once he had properly articulated what he did and why he did it. However, that is not the case, and Rousseau returns to the scene again in the the Fourth Reverie. He then asks, “Why then does the excuse fail and why does Rousseau and why does Rousseau have to return to an enigma that has been so well resolved?” (288). And naturally, for de Man, the answer is lin-guistic.

According to de Man, Rousseau’s utterance of Marion’s name as the culprit of the theft is neither based in love, desire, or shame. “Marion just happened to be the first thing that came to mind; any other name, any other word, any other sound or noise could have done just was well and Marion’s entry into the discourse is a mere effect of chance” (288). Therefore, language is acting independently of Rousseau himself; he has no agency as a subject, and his speech acts are a mere byproduct of the machine of language itself. He continues, “Rousseau was making what-ever noise happened to come into his head; he was saying nothing [no thing] at all, least of all someone’s name” (292, my emphasis, my addition). So, was Rousseau saying something or was he saying nothing? Was it even Rousseau saying anything at all? De Man strips Marion of her subject-hood by referring to her as a “thing.” “Thing,” in the grammatical chain of nouns that follows becomes synonymous or interchangeable with “name,” “word,” “sound,” or “noise” but never “person.” Conversely, de Man strips Rousseau of his subject-hood by denying him the agency to “say.” Yet he cannot avoid starting sentences with phrases like “Rousseau was mak-ing” or “He was saying.” These grammatical constructions themselves imply an acting subject, even in de Man’s insistence that no such subject exists. While de Man fundamentally believes that the “machine-like quality” (294) of language is the bearer of all agency in this exchange, he cannot bring himself to say “Language was making” when speaking about Rousseau, even though that is exactly what he is arguing is occurring. De Man writes, “Far from seeing language as an instrument in the service of a psychic energy, the possibility now arises that the entire con-struction of drives, substitutions, repressions, and representations is the aberrant, metaphorical correlative of the absolute randomness of language, prior to any figuration or meaning” (299). Any possible Freudian (and therefore subject-centered) reading is negated through the linguistic reading. The confession and the excuse are ineffective because not only are the acts themselves independent of intention, morality, emotion, drive, and subjectivity, but the supposed referents to which they refer are fictionalized as well. We can never know the things-in-themselves—-in this case, what Rousseau “really” did. Language necessarily turns all processes into fictional retel-lings, filtered through the psyche. Of course there are several problematic ramifications of this claim—namely that no person can ever be held responsible for their speech since according to de Man, all language is operating automatically and machine-like through the medium of the sub-jective “thing,” necessarily turning the subject into an object. But the problem of responsibility is only one issue that deManian linguistic skepticism raises in “Excuses (Confessions).” The far more pressing problem, again, is the ontological negative knowledge hidden in de Man’s paren-thetical. This knowledge of what we can never know is another “thing” which much be examined carefully in order to grasp the magnitude of the grammatical device of the parenthetic.

While de Man’s notions on responsibility certainly raise a host of ethical, moral, and po-litical questions, I am far more concerned with why de Man situates the process of the produc-tion of speech acts, “the only thing worth knowing,” in a parenthetical clause following his asser-tion that “any speech act produces an excess of cognition, but it can never hope to know the process of its own production” (299-300). The first lens through which we can examine this question assumes that de Man is the speaker of this parenthetical, and that he is proclaiming the validity of the statement. Presumably, this process is of great importance; as de Man’s language implies, it is literally the piece of knowledge with the most cognitive “worth.” Moreover, the word “only” negates any sort of hierarchical system in which other “things” would have their own worth. Why then should de Man hide this cognitive gem in a parenthetical statement? If this process of knowing one’s own cognition is truly the most important thing one can know, it would follow that de Man would signify its magnitude, rather than tuck it away. However, herein lies the deManian trick in which the statement of utmost importance oftentimes is hidden, delu-sory, or included at the very end of the piece as if it were an afterthought. Just a few sentences later, de Man insists “The main point of the reading has been to show that the resulting predica-ment is linguistic rather than ontological or hermeneutic” (300). In this case, the deeply ontologi-cal phenomenon of attempting (unsuccessfully) to know the ground of knowing is shrouded not only in the parenthetical, but in the linguistic argument in which de Man resists admitting that “the only thing worth knowing” is a process that exists outside of the linguistic phenomenon he describes through his analysis of Rousseau’s Confessions and Fourth Rêverie. Furthermore, if the only thing worth knowing is something fundamentally unknowable, one could read the piece as if de Man has negated the validity of reading, writing, scholarship, and learning in general. However, this is certainly not his project.

The power in de Man’s parenthetical cannot be ignored, and yet, his purposeful conceal-ment of it seems to negate that power as it draws attention to it. Earlier in the essay, de Man ex-plains, “Being, in the later Heidegger, reveals itself by hiding” (286), and although in this refer-ence, de Man is referring to the relationship between excuse and exposure, the theory can be ap-plied to his chosen parenthetical usage as well. As a reader, the eye is tempted to pass over it as a grammatical construct. The Oxford English Dictionary lists several definitions for “parenthesis,” all of which should be considered when examining de Man’s usage of the device. It can be “a word, clause, or sentence inserted as an explanation, aside, or afterthought into a passage with which it has not necessarily any grammatical connection” or even “an irrelevant digression.” Viewed from these perspectives, the decision to separate this statement through the use of paren-thesis would seem to lessen or negate its importance in the overall structure of the sentence, as well as its gravity in the piece as a whole. But OED also defines “parenthesis” as “an interval, an interlude, [or] a hiatus.” Applying this particular definition to the parenthetical would require a different examination of de Man’s usage of the grammatical device. This definition does not cre-ate a hierarchy of importance, as does the dismissive language of “aside,” “afterthought,” or “ir-relevant;” rather, this definition of parenthesis points to a brief pause or caesura in de Man’s rea-soning. Viewed this way, the phrase does not stop conversation, despite its rather monumental claim; rather, as Gayatri Spivak explains in “Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching,” “the eruption of the ethical interrupts and postpones the epistemological—the undertaking to construct the other as object of knowledge [is] an undertaking never to be given up” (Spivak 17). De Man’s parenthetical creates a pause for an ethical consideration of what could and should be known. The other is elementally unverifiable, yet the project of trying to know the other is the very project that reading, writing, and literary studies attempts to under-take. While Spivak’s characterization the “other” as one who exists outside of the Western phi-losophical tradition, de Man’s “other” (although he does not use this word) is something quite different; what would be “other” for de Man would be akin to the “thing” in the parenthetical, as well as the thingness of Rousseau and Marion. It is not a subject, but rather an object. It is the objective knowledge of the linguistic dissolution of the subject. We can explore this notion of the subject-turned-object further through the language de Man employs in his parenthetical.

While the specific purpose of the grammatical construct may be ambiguous regarding signifying the importance of the claim, the language of the claim necessarily draws the reader back in to the discourse. “Only” signifies that something is alone in deserving consideration, whereas “worth” signifies goodness, import, and value. The concealing nature of the parentheti-cal juxtaposed with de Man’s word choice creates a jarring response in an alert theoretical reader. Either “the only thing worth knowing” is a very important aside or it is a very important interruption. It could be read both ways, but given the implications of de Man’s diction, the sig-nificance of the statement is undeniable. The reader then must ponder the “thing” that de Man imbues with so much merit. In “Excuses (Confessions)” de Man uses the word “thing” (or some permutation of it) a total of 26 times. In a 23-page essay, that means the word appears on average at least one time per page, further supporting its linguistic weight, not just in the parenthetical, but in the article as a whole. Each time de Man uses the word “thing,” he employs it for a slightly different effect, yet his usage always seems to point back to objectivity or objective truth. What is the “thing” in “the only thing worth knowing?” If we look back to what proceeds the paren-thetical, “any speech act produces an excess of cognition, but it can never hope to know the process of its own production” (300), it would seem that this “thing” is the process by which speech acts are produced. However, it could also be the process by which cognition is produced, and this uncertainty creates multiple facets to de Man’s meaning of “thing.” Yet another reading of “thing” would take us further back into the essay to de Man’s reading of Rousseau’s justifica-tion for the utterance of Marion’s name: “Je m’excusai sur le premier objet qui s’offrit” which de Man has translated as “I excused myself upon the first thing that offered itself” (288). “Thing” is translated from “objet,” which could also be read as “object.” Rousseau could have used “chose” instead of “objet,” since both French words are synonymous, but the reading of “objet” as “thing” creates a necessary link between thingness and objectivity (as opposed to subjectivity) in de Man’s argument, particularly in the parenthetical.

Marion first becomes synonymous with a “thing” when de Man equates the ribbon with Rousseau’s desire for her (283). Immediately, he deprives her of her own subjectivity when he explains, “Things are not merely what they seem to be” (284). Even as Rousseau’s object of de-sire, de Man first explains that Rousseau’s “desire [for Marion is] conceived as possession” (284). For him, a subject is not necessarily a human subject with thoughts, intentions, and feel-ings—a subject is just another thing. Later in the essay, she is “the first thing that offered itself” and “the first thing that came to mind” (288). She is the prime example of the subject-turned-object in the text—an “other” who is so radically and fundamentally unknowable that she can only be described through a chain of substitutions. And yet even as a thing, Marion is still un-knowable. This is a deeply Kantian problem, as “the things which we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them as being…what objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this recep-tivity of our sensibility, remains completely unknown to us. We know nothing but our mode of perceiving them” (Kant 82). Marion is a figural representation of “the only thing worth know-ing.” She is an example of the aporia of the knowledge of all things–the deeply secretive nature of questions regarding how we know what we know or whether we can know anything at all. Ei-ther the “thing” can be the referent, as in the confession, or the speech act can be the referent, as in the excuse, but we cannot know either object in an empirical sense.

Speech acts themselves are fundamentally secretive because their production is so un-verifiable; therefore, they are necessarily always fictionalized. If we think about it from a Derrid-ean perspective in which tout autre est tout autre (Derrida 22), one must consider the fact that the internal processes of other human beings are entirely unknowable to any other person. From a practical perspective, unless I was physically there when Rousseau stole the ribbon and made his confession, I cannot verify the existence of that event. From a Kantian perspective, neither the excuse nor the confession are verifiable because the empirical referent to which the confes-sion applies is itself unknowable fundamentally; it is only able to be processed through our lim-ited sense perception. Even if I were there in the room when Rousseau stole the ribbon and then consequently confessed, my experience of that empirical event is radically different from Rous-seau’s, since I can never experience the empirical world in the same way that anybody else can. Lastly, the speech act itself, “I confess” or “My excuse is” posits an “I” that is necessarily fic-tional. De Man addresses this in “Shelley Disfigured” when he defines prosopopoeia as the proc-ess by which:

the dead are made to have a face and a voice which tells the allegory of their demise and allows us to apostrophize them in our turn. No degree of knowledge can ever stop this madness, for it is the madness of words. What would be naive is to believe that this strategy, which is not our strategy as subjects, since we are its product rather than its agent, can be a source of value and has to be celebrated or denounced accordingly. (56)

Readers will necessarily attempt to posit a subject onto any text they read, and there is nothing that we could possibly learn about our own thinking mechanisms that could bring an end to these types of misreadings. De Man even grants that this erroneous misreading of positing a subject into a text “does not have to be naive, since it does not have to be the repression of a self-threatening knowledge” (56). A reader’s awareness of their own subject-making in a text is as close as they can get to understanding. Nor are these misreadings limited to texts in the strict sense of books, poems, letters, etc. In “Of Grammatology,” Derrida formulates, “il n’y a rien en dehors du texte (there is no outside-text, or there is nothing outside of text)” (158-159), and this includes speech acts. Therefore, if the acts themselves are so taciturn, the production of those acts is doubly unrevealing. Yet, it is still our ethical project as critical readers of texts to attempt to inch ever closer to the objectivity—the thingness—they conceal.

However, the parenthetical can be examined through an alternative lens as well in which de Man is not the speaker of the phrase “the only thing worth knowing.” In this second potential reading, the reader would have to interpret this statement as if de Man, in the parenthetical, ven-triloquized the Western tradition of science, philosophy, history, and literary criticism in which the quest for Truth and objectivity is the ultimate goal—the unknowable as “the only thing worth knowing.” Religion, philosophical idealism, scientific empiricism, historical neutrality, and liter-ary critical objectivity all strive towards verifiable, truthful knowledge as something that can be attained at some future time. However, how could a reader possibly jump to the conclusion that de Man speaks for an entire culture of knowledge and learning? Arguably, we can read the par-enthetical in a voice that is not de Man’s, but a collective voice of all Western learning; the phrase “the only thing worth knowing” is the tradition’s words, not de Man’s. Just as de Man acknowledges in “Shelley Disfigured,” that “questions of origin, of direction and of identity punctuate [texts] without ever receiving a clear answer” (36), so too does the critical practice of deconstruction recognize that the answers of ontological and origin-seeking questions are pri-marily secretive. We cannot locate the answers to imperatives such as “Shew whence I came, and where I am, and why” (Shelley l. 398), although that does not mean we should not continue to try. Hence, the ventriloquized voice of the parenthetical functions, much like Rousseau’s “je m’excusai sur la premier objet qui s’offrit,” as an anacoluthon that lacks grammatical sequence or as parabasis that digresses and interrupts the text to speak directly to the audience.

De Man alerts the reader to this second possible reading after the fact when, in the last lines of “Excuses (Confessions),” he explicitly introduces irony into the discourse. He claims that attempting to read Fourth Reverie “becomes the permanent parabasis of an allegory (of fig-ure), that is to say, irony” (300-301). The Oxford English Dictionary defines irony as “the ex-pression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect” or as “the use of approbatory language to imply condemnation or contempt.” Both of these definitions apply to de Man’s use of irony in the parenthetical if we read “the only thing worth knowing” with a plenty of emphasis and heavy dose of sarcasm. If this is the case, then the argument could be made that, for de Man, the ground of cognition is not “the only thing worth knowing” but “the only thing worth not knowing.” Again, de Man reminds the reader of the importance of negative knowledge—to the importance of, as de Man describes it in “Shelley Disfugured,” asking “question[s] whose meaning[s], as question[s, are] effaced from the moment [they are] asked. The answer to the question is another question, asking what and why one asked, and thus receding ever further from the original query” (36). Read in this man-ner, the parenthetical no longer functions as a statement rife with the power of its implications. Rather, it is to be read and taken with a metaphorical grain of salt in which de Man gestures to-wards the impossibility of its suggestion: “there is never enough knowledge available to account for the delusion of knowing” (300). However, de Man offers his own definition of irony as well:

Irony is no longer a trope but the undoing of the deconstructive allegory of all tropological conditions, the systematic undoing, in other words, of un-derstanding. As such, far from closing off the tropological system, irony enforces the repe-tition of its aberration. (301)

For de Man, irony is not solely a rhetorical device employed for sarcasm or humor, although as I have explained above, you could certainly read the parenthetical in that tone. More importantly, de Man’s definition of irony is more akin to dramatic irony, in which de Man makes the reader acutely aware of something of which the rest of the audience (read: the Western philosophical tradition) is oblivious. If irony is “the systematic undoing… of understanding,” then the use of it in the parenthetical “the only thing worth knowing” creates a cognitive dissonance of knowledge. Somebody knows something that someone else does not—who occupies these spaces? In this instance, de Man and deconstruction as a practice are acutely aware (and want to make the keen theoretical reader aware) of something that Western philosophy has not yet reconciled; that is, we do not have to know whence and where and why cognition exists and how the language that structures our cognition produces speech acts. For de Man, “Performative rhetoric, and cognitive rhetoric, the rhetoric of tropes, fail to converge” (300) and the randomness of language spins madly on. The resistance between the performative and the cognitive is irreconcilable. Irony al-lows us to recognize and deconstruct the discomfort in this “aberration” (301) in which we must take flight from the status quo of Western philosophy’s unending quest for verifiable Truth. However, declarations of Truth can be dangerous and violent. Certainly when nestled safely within abstract and theoretical philosophies, absolute Truth cannot produce too much harm. However, de Man’s use of irony in “the only thing worth knowing” is an ethical imperative, alerting the reader to question and recognize just how problematic and potentially dangerous the desire for origins, certitudes, and the unquestionably True can be. When the truth finds it way out of philosophy and into religion and politics, the result can be bloody. People kill and die all the time for the sake of a perceived or believed Truth, so if we read “the only thing worth knowing” without the irony ingrained, we risk applying the transcendental onto something to which we have to right to apply it. Such irresponsibility has led to numerous dangerous ends: colonization, genocide, war, and systematized racism and classicism are just a few broad examples of hailing one factions’s Truth as more truthful than another’s. De Man’s purposeful ambiguity in the par-enthetical not only causes the reader to question what “the only thing worth knowing” is, but also to question whether it is something that must or can be known at all.

To conclude, Paul de Man’s “Excuses (Confessions)” is an essay permeated with linguis-tic and ontological turns that allow a critical reader to question their conception of epistemology. Through his close reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and Fourth Reverie, he illus-trates the “the machinelike quality of the text” (294), but more importantly, he demonstrates the automatic agency of language itself. By reducing subjects to things, such as Marion in the chain of substitutions or Rousseau as a funnel for language, de Man is able to show they are as funda-mentally unknowable as the speech acts they perform—things, words, names, and acts exist ob-jectively, but to pretend that we can know them or their ground is ultimately to tell ourselves a lie. Through the grammatical device of the parenthetical that brackets the phrase “the only thing worth knowing,” de Man creates a particular response in the reader that first questions why he would hide such a monumental claim in a parenthetical. Upon closer inspection, the reader must acknowledge what possible functions the parenthetical has in de Man’s essay, as well as the lan-guage of the claim situated within. While the punctuation suggests triviality, the language pur-ports something significant, creating a purposeful disjunct of interpretation. The “thing,” syn-onymous with object in previous sections of the essay, becomes the ever-elusive yet sought-after stand-in for absolute truth. Lastly, de Man’s carefully placed explanation of irony in the follow-ing paragraph requires the reader to retrace their steps, questioning the speaker of the lines be-tween those two brackets. Since the subject of the sentence is conveniently missing, de Man’s argumentative structure allows the reader to explicate upon possible speakers as well as audi-ences for the ambiguous aside. Ultimately, the parenthetical construction becomes a moment of opportunity in which de Man is able to interrupt the epistemological for the reader so that they may ponder the ethical ramifications of attempting to understand or identify the ground of objec-tivity, knowledge, speech acts, cognition, and truth itself. In a deceptively small passage, de Man yokes and relates multiple facets of the essay to the the parenthetical, as well as to the overall project of deconstruction, in which the implications of language, both structurally and tropologi-cally, extend infinitely into the texts of our lives.

Works Cited and Consulted

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