Arthur Goldhammer, Man in the Mirror: Language, the Enlightenment, and the Postmod î Gordon Essay.doc

Man in the Mirror: Language, the Enlightenment, and the Postmod

Arthur Goldhammer

Distaste for the Enlightenment is the pathognomonic sign of the postmodern. Language, once the centerpiece of the mouthwatering eighteenth-century feast, has gone off, we are told, turned rotten. About language, they say, the old masters were always wrong: because their theories of language embody a dubious “metaphysics of presence,”1 or overtly or covertly adopt one or another misleading “intentionalist” or “phenomenalist” doctrine of reference,2 or peremptorily “impose a structure on the sign,”3 or reduce language to representation, emphasizing the mimetic to the detriment of the poetic.4 The “epistemology of conceptual language” is alleged to be “self-destructive” because it cannot “keep literal reference and figural connotation apart.”5

This last quotation, from Paul de Man, is emblematic and worth pursuing. De Man would no doubt have rejected the label “postmodernist,” but his interrogation of the Enlightenment conception of language is crucial for understanding the main point of contention. Indeed, Frederic Jameson, in a widely read work, remarks that “postmodernism may amount to not much more than theorizing its own condition of possibility.”6 Yet the chapter of that work entitled “Theory” itself amounts to “not much more” than a series of footnotes to de Man’s reading of Rousseau. For Jameson, the preeminent American theorist of the postmodern, de Man is the crucial transitional thinker, a bridge from the postromantic to the postmodern. Hence in order to explore what separates the postmodern from the Enlightenment on the central question of language, we would do well to recall de Man.

De Man’s argument, reduced to essentials, is this: that for Rousseau, and for the Enlightenment in general, man is distinguished from the animals by his perfectibility; that this perfectibility is thought to rest on a specifically linguistic capacity, namely, the ability to ascribe names to general concepts; that the process of naming general concepts has “built into” it a “substitution of sameness for difference”;7 that “man” himself is a general denomination whose genesis involves the repression of a primal passion, fear of the other; and, therefore, that the concept of man, like all other supposed concrete universals, is incoherent at its root. Upon this claim about universal nominatives de Man builds a radical skepticism about the referential capacities of language itself. If “man” is in question, if the general concepts that are essential to his distinctive perfectibility are so many chimeras or repressive self-delusions, then what, indeed, is Enlightenment?

The centerpiece of de Man’s case is his analysis of a brief passage in Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues.8 In this passage Rousseau describes the first encounter between a primitive man living in a state of nature and others of his species. His initial reaction, Rousseau asserts, is fear, and this fear makes “him see these men as larger and stronger than himself; he will give them the name giants.” But after many similar experiences, “he will discover that the supposed giants are neither larger nor stronger than himself” and “he will then invent another name common to them and him, such as, for example, man, and will retain the word giant for the false object that impressed him in his delusional state.” De Man states that this passage is not about denomination as such but about “the linguistic process of conceptualization.”9 Moreover, “conceptualization … is an intralinguistic process, the invention of a figural metalanguage that shapes and articulates the infinitely fragmented and amorphous language of pure denomination.” Up to this point he appears to be interpreting Rousseau. But now his argument takes one of those characteristic swerves that are at once the charm and the bane of his peculiar rhetoric: “To the extent that all language is conceptual, it always already speaks about language and not about things. … If all language is about language, then the paradigmatic linguistic model is that of an entity that confronts itself.” Suddenly, out of nothing, a new concept, language, is born, staring at itself in a mirror.

But what sort of concept is language, which, we are told, “always already speaks” about itself? Like man, it is an assertion of sameness in the place of difference: just as “man” replaces the opposition between “self” and “giant,” the general denomination “language” replaces the opposition between the “language of pure denomination” and the “figural metalanguage.” And just as Rousseau creates the fiction of a primitive man frightened by the sight of the other, de Man gives us the fiction of an uncorrupted “reader” of Rousseau plunged into civilized consternation by the incoherence and self-contradiction he discovers in the very texture of language: “as soon as a text knows what it states, it can only act deceptively.”10 Here is the alleged rot, the source of the postmodern distaste. But this conclusion is drawn from an analysis, de Man concedes, whose “intricacy … is obviously tied to the choice of the example.”11 For Rousseau’s commentator that choice is justified by the claim that language is “about language and not about things,” a claim qualified by the caveat that this is true only “to the extent that all language is conceptual.12

To what extent is that?13 To what extent can it be said that the Enlightenment took all language to be conceptual language? In order to begin to answer this question, let us set against the passage from Rousseau that de Man so brilliantly analyzes a passage from another roughly contemporary Enlightenment text, Diderot’s celebrated discussion of the blind man of Le Puiseaux in the Lettre sur les aveugles. What, Diderot asks, does this man, blind from birth, understand by the word mirror? And his answer is that “a mirror is a machine which sets things in relief at a distance from themselves if they happen to be suitably placed in relation to it.”

Diderot’s choice of a case to study is as noteworthy as Rousseau’s choice of an example. In a sense, Diderot’s blind man is the antithesis of Rousseau’s savage. The idea of putting sensualist metaphysics to the test by studying the perception of the blind was of course a commonplace of the time. Concerning this point, William Molyneux had posed a crucial question to John Locke,14 and Pierre Coste’s translation of Locke’s Essay had made Molyneux’s question famous across the Continent.15 Any number of philosophes had pondered the matter. But Diderot, as his editor notes, parted company with the others in at least one important respect: where they saw “an abstract problem of justifying a philosophy, Diderot saw a human problem: the blind man lives in a distinctive world, and if we are to make contact with him we must bring to the task great patience, clever questions, and—something no one else had thought of—an elite subject … a blind philosopher.”16 Not an inarticulate savage, then, lacking even the most basic concepts of comparison, but a blind philosopher.

Diderot questions this philosopher in a way that suggests that he, like de Man, believes that the moment singled out by Rousseau, of self-confrontation mediated by confrontation with the other, is one worth exploring in some detail. How does he go about this? He asks the blind man what he understands by the word “mirror.” Now, this is indeed a “clever question,” for what is a mirror? To the sighted, it is an instrument with the uncanny ability to make visible that which ordinarily one cannot see: one’s own face. To the other my face is my distinguishing feature, the mark of my identity. In my face he reads who I am. In a world without mirrors a crucial aspect of my identity would thus remain forever beyond my ken, a part of the world that is but not of the world I know. The mirror fills in what would otherwise remain a gaping blank in my identity papers. It brings me face-to-face with myself as other. But only if I can see.

Now, when Diderot asks the blind philosopher what he understands by “mirror,” the man responds that it is “a machine which sets things in relief at a distance from themselves.” Diderot’s interpretation of this response is an interesting foray into linguistic analysis. He wants to explain how the blind man can employ a term like “mirror” to which he can attach no perceptual image, or idea (as the eighteenth century used that word): “If he attaches no ideas to the terms he uses, he at least has the advantage over most people that he never misuses those terms.”17 According to Diderot, three things combine to make such pitch-perfect usage possible. First, the blind man brings his own distinctive experience to bear: he “knows objects only through the sense of touch.” Furthermore, he knows from the reports of others that the sighted can identify objects at a distance, on sight. Yet they cannot, he has also been told, see their own faces except in a mirror. Combining these notions, part empirical, part hearsay, he deduces that the sighted use the word “mirror” to describe an instrument that allows them to employ the sense of sight, which for them is the primary means of apprehending the world, in order to apprehend what ordinarily they cannot, namely, the viewer’s own face. But since the blind man understands “apprehending” only in tactile terms, this instrument must somehow “set objects in relief at a distance from themselves.” Hence his answer to Diderot’s question.18

Now, we may, since the hologram had not been invented at the time, assume that this relief-generating copy machine is a name without a referent. In this respect the blind philosopher’s machine resembles Rousseau’s “giant,” for there were no literal giants in the primitive forest, only other hominids magnified into giants by fear. Both “giant” in the mouth of the fearful savage and “mirror” in the mouth of the blind philosophe are, to use de Man’s term, “wild” metaphors, “to some degree aberrant.”19 What separates de Man’s Rousseau from Diderot’s philosopher is what happens next, or, rather, what has already happened that makes what happens next plausible, not to say inevitable. For according to de Man, “conceptualization is a double process.”20 Earlier he indicated that in the “encounter with other men, the first reaction of the primitive is said to be fear.”21 This fearful reaction “is certainly not obvious,” the critic tells us. But half a page later we read that Rousseau’s choice of fear of the other as his primary example in the genesis of conceptual terms “enriches the pattern to a considerable degree.”22 With this benediction paranoia is enshrined at the very heart of language. Conceptual thought is presented as a defense mechanism, a secondary elaboration erected upon a primal instinct, fear, in order to fix, or in de Man’s word, “tame,” energy that would otherwise remain “wild” and “aberrant.”23

The blind philosopher’s aberration is quite different in nature. For him, too, “conceptualization is a double process.” For de Man, however, the conceptual term is the end product of this process, whereas for Diderot it is the beginning. For the blind philosopher, the word “mirror” precedes the explanatory discourse which produces, in response to a question, a justification of its use. Furthermore, that explanatory discourse is constructed out of reports elicited from sighted speakers about their usage of the term, together with inferences drawn from the blind speaker’s own experience. Language, far from being “always already” about language, is “always already” embedded in social forms. Without sociability it would have no reason to exist. Meaning is use, and because he is a social being, capable of adjusting his behavior in light of the responses and expectations of others, the blind philosopher can use the word mirror appropriately without ever having seen a mirror. By combining experience with attentiveness to the reports of others, he has learned the rules, as Wittgenstein would say, of the language-game of the sighted community. Privately, however, he has contrived—in lieu, one might say, of a perceptual correlate, of an “idea” of the mirror—an explanation of those rules based upon his own quite different experience; this explanation, which takes palpation to be the pre-eminent mode of perception, is, we would say, aberrant. But it is also secondary. It survives because it is not incompatible with correct usage of the associated general term. It is not intrinsic to language but a mere epiphenomenon. Its associated aberrations are amenable to correction through sociable conversation. Diderot might have elicited further understanding of the blind man’s linguistic universe by attempting to disabuse him of the notion that a mirror functions by setting objects in relief at a distance from themselves. Although he does not do this, he does explore the man’s understanding of other optical instruments (telescopes, microscopes, etc.), and from this we see even more clearly how meaning is bound up with “forms of life.”24 We see this, for instance, in the blind philosophe’s questions to Diderot about optical instruments whose function he understands but whose physical form cannot be deduced from that function. Is the microscope, which makes small things large, smaller than the telescope, which makes large things small? In the blind man’s life world, the sense of touch is primary, hence the heft of material things is a matter of keen interest to him. He therefore puts first questions that would not occur to a person who had learned the use of the word telescope by seeing a telescope in use.25 For him, it is plausible to think that the attribute “enlarges” might bear a causal relation to the thing possessing that attribute: the microscope’s power to enlarge might in some way be related to its size. Language thus has a generative power: questions grow out of the nature of words by parthenogenesis, as it were, without the impregnation of perception.

Thus the blind man can use the noun ”mirror” as a “name” for a “concept,” but the act of naming does not exhaust the meaning of the term, does not, as Foucault would have it, “name its being.”26 His engagement in society, his use of language not as a simple mirror of reality but as a compass with which to orient himself and find his way among his fellow men, exemplifies a power of poiesis that postmodernism wrongly asserts the Enlightenment suppressed in favor of more disciplined and circumspect mimesis.

Here, then, we have two models of the operation of language and, more specifically, of conceptual terms within language. For de Man, language functions as a repressive institution: it is a means by which an individual subject imposes sameness (“man” as universal) in order to repress the memory of an aberrant passion (fear of the other as putatively different). For Diderot, on the other hand, language is a social institution: it is a means by which two or more individuals whose experience differs (the blind and the sighted, say) can communicate about matters of mutual interest, correct misperceptions and misinterpretations, and develop an intuitive grasp of the implicit rules that permit them to coexist in harmony.

Each of these models leaves something out, however. What is left out of de Man’s account of Rousseau’s thinking is an explanation of how a conceptual term generated by an intrasubjective psychological process becomes intelligible to other individuals: how, in other words, does the universal term “man” become part of a public and not simply a private language? And what is left out of Diderot’s account is how a general term like “mirror,” which the sighted community shares with the blind, comes into being in the first place. De Man’s account of language is thus genetic but lacks a social component, whereas Diderot’s is descriptive and functional but lacks a genetic component.

It might be objected that de Man implicitly offers a psychoanalytic in lieu of a social component. It is as if language for de Man, like civilization for Freud, were an edifice built out of a multitude of repressions, with concomitant discontents. We can converse because the speaking self in each of us stands where the inarticulate id used to be. Whatever plausibility such an argument for bridging the gap between individual and collective experience may have in psychoanalysis, however, it seems less applicable to language, whose primary processes are more varied than those of psychic development. Unless, as de Man seems at times to suggest, fear is the universal experience. Why else single out an episode of fear as the essence of Rousseau’s philosophy of language, when that philosophy is, as we shall see, considerably more eclectic than de Man’s version would have us believe (that is why I refer to de Man’s version as de Man’s, rather than Rousseau’s). Perhaps fear seemed to de Man, who lived in an age distinguished by darkness rather than Enlightenment, the universal experience.

If the Enlightenment can be said to have had a universal experience, surely it was one of astonishment at the breaking down of barriers. Indeed, a central metaphor seized upon by Daniel Roche to describe France in the Enlightenment is that of désenclavement. 27 Social barriers fell as men and women of different estates and conditions mingled in salons and academies. Geographic barriers were overcome by improvements in roads, waterways, and means of conveyance. And linguistic barriers were reduced if not eliminated by translators such as Pierre Coste28 and Denis Diderot, to whom I shall return in a moment. But first consider the psychic consequences of such désenclavement. When barriers fell, man confronted his other, just as he had in the primal forest of Rousseau’s imagination. Was his first reaction one of fear, as Rousseau would have it in the Essai, or one of triumph, curiosity, wonder, admiration, interest, and sometimes envy?

On Rousseau’s own account it could be both. In the Turin dinner scene described in Book 3 of Les Confessions and admirably analyzed by Jean Starobinski,29 Jean-Jacques goes from “a state of separation and anxiety” caused by “the pain of distance (whether social or amorous)” to a “jubilant moment of triumph” after he successfully explains the meaning of an obscure word in the motto of an aristocratic family. But “he is then plunged back into separation and aridity,” though “not without the bittersweet pleasures of memory and hope.”30 Here, Rousseau has transposed the encounter with the savage into an eighteenth-century salon. At the first sight of the Other, magnified to gigantic proportions by social superiority, Jean-Jacques suffers “anxiety” and the “pain of distance.” Then, however, his linguistic mastery smashes the social barrier, winning a brief but jubilant triumph. Only then does the quintessential Other, Mademoiselle de Breil, the object of Rousseau’s desire, become sufficiently his Like to make plausible the transmogrification of desire into love. Language becomes an instrument of conquest, and preeminently of sexual conquest. Indeed, the obscure word that Jean-Jacques explains to his amazed betters is fiert, which they, to whom French is a foreign tongue, mistake for a corrupt spelling of fier, proud, but which he contends is a corruption of the old French ferit, “he strikes, he wounds,” so that the family motto, on his reading, becomes “some strike and do not kill.” For Rousseau, this scene is a paradigm of linguistic conquest: language is par excellence the instrument by which the man of hidden genius strikes the world, leaves his mark upon it, and thereby stakes his claim to the otherwise inaccessible Woman. Language, which for Rousseau is a private treasure, a psychic hoard, is momentarily exchanged for the social currency that establishes the speaker’s rightful place in the world.

Diderot is at once more worldly and less miserly. For him, the linguistic gift is what common sense was for Descartes, the thing most widely shared in the world. He displays an unrivaled capacity for amazement at the genius of others. Thus he says of the blind man of Le Puiseaux that his explanation of the phenomena of sight is no less clear and therefore all the more wonderful than that of Descartes’ Dioptrique. And just as he is keen to explore the meaning of sight by engaging a blind man in conversation, he is eager to explore the meaning of society by conversing with an outsider, Rameau’s bohemian nephew. Not as eager as some, who make of bohemians like the nephew “their familiar acquaintances, even their friends,” but still eager enough because the outsider is the “grain of leavening … that restores a portion of each person’s natural individuality … brings the truth, reveals the good people, unmasks the scoundrels. And so the man of good sense listens, and unravels his world.” Conversation with the outsider has this power because Rameau’s nephew is the socialized man’s other, who has thrown off “the tedious uniformity that our education, our social conventions, and our customary proprieties have introduced.”31

“Tedious uniformity”: if Rousseau’s savage evolved the concept “man” to fix and stabilize the gnawing anxieties stemming from his fear of the other, Diderot’s moi enages in conversation with Rameau’s bohemian nephew because he fears the same. Désenclavement introduced a disorienting uniformity into the world: “It is almost impossible to distinguish people by their exterior. The shopkeeper dresses like a gentleman. … Adieu la différence.”32 Equality has its discontents. While it may procure relief from terror of the other’s greater power or strength or wealth or talent, the social rapprochement that equality permits frustrates the expression of the individual’s enabling sense of difference: “One is vain, scornful, and consequently unjust whenever one can be so with impunity,” writes Helvétius. “Who does not believe himself to be the best person of his society, and who does not catch himself now and then pretending that he is the foremost person in the world? … Who does not desire public confirmation of the high opinion he has of himself?”33 Baffled in this quest for difference, the self may feel trapped, caught in a fatal web of determinations: “Can I not be me?” asks Jacques le Fataliste. “And, being me, can I do other than I do?” Nothing less than liberty is at stake. The language that can speak only equality, the language that lacks the style to accommodate, express, or conjure with difference, is, for Rousseau, the language of animals, the grunt of natural need: “The animals that speak [these “natural” languages] have them from birth … and everywhere [they are] the same; they do not change, they make no progress whatsoever.”34 Human language, the language of change, hence of liberty and progress, must therefore not only express difference, it must create it; it must be not just conceptual language “constative” of difference but a “performative” instrument, a carillon of the self.35 “Style,” Buffon said contemporaneously, “is the very man.” And that creature of style, Rameau’s nephew, offers an apt metaphor for the relation between self and language when he speaks of the relation between melody and words in opera: “The words must be thought of as one line and the melody as another which snakes around it.”36

What is distinctively human about language, then, is not just the capacity to ascribe universal denominations to concepts but the ability to project the movement, the passions, the velleities of the self that each speaker’s unique utterances enfold. Language is not always conceptual language, which substitutes sameness for difference. Language—parole as opposed to langue—is also voice, style, the art of variegating sameness.

How is such an art learned? Again we have divergent answers, depending on whether one would shun society or seek it. For Helvétius, the art of language is not so much learned as imbibed in “silence and solitude. If the muses, as the poets tell us, are fond of woods, meadows, and fountains, it is because one savors there a tranquillity that shuns the city, and when a person, detached from the petty interests of society, there reflects upon himself, he will reflect upon man in general, and his thoughts will belong to, and please, all mankind.” Sociability, in other words, is the enemy of universality. For sociability depends on reciprocal esteem, and the thinker who seeks the esteem of any société particulière is obscurely aware that such esteem would prove only “the similarity of his ideas” to those of others. Universality is the reward of the thinker prepared to subject himself to the rigors of isolation, just as “the pride of giving orders to kings compensated the Romans for the harshness of their military discipline.”37

Diderot, however, offers another answer: imitate—not nature but others who possess qualities of style that one envies and would like to emulate. Culture is not, or at any rate not only, the work of isolated culture heroes; it is (also) a commerce in which comparative advantages are sometimes to be found in one place or another. Rameau’s nephew recommends that the French pay heed to the Italians so as to experience “with what facility, suppleness, and suavity the harmony, prosody, and ellipses of the Italian tongue lend themselves to the art, movement, expression, and turns of melody and the measured value of sound.”38 Of course they would even then “continue to ignore how stiff, dull, clumsy, cumbersome, pedantic, and monotonous” their own language is, for such is human nature, but eventually “my trinity … the true, the good, and the beautiful” will prevail, for art, the play of difference, offers relief from the “tedious uniformity” of philosophy. Now, this rhetorical gesture of the nephew’s is in one sense merely a nationalization of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns: for just as it had been possible in the sixteenth century to wonder whether the French or the Italian language lacked the resources for great poetry so manifestly abundant in Latin and Greek, so, too, was it possible, mutatis mutandis, to extol the one modern tongue over the other by adducing the same alleged qualities of vigor, vivacity, and sinew.39 This was the natural rhetoric, the intrinsic symptomatology, of the anxiety of influence.

If nations felt that anxiety, so, too, and no less acutely, did individuals. It was the inevitable counterpart of désenclavement. The fallen barriers had been landmarks as well as walls. One response was withdrawal to the “woods, meadows, and fountains” of which Helvétius speaks: “se cacher pour mieux se montrer,” as Rousseau put it. Another was to venture forth in borrowed robes. Diderot, still a youth unsure of his voice, chose this course when he translated Shaftesbury’s Essay …. Of course “translation” is not a strictly accurate description of Diderot’s appropriation of Shaftesbury’s text. He interpolated passages of his own. Daniel Gordon has pointed to one of these in particular, which interests the historian of sociability because of the analogy it draws between social feeling and worshipful reverence: “Avoir les affections sociales entières … c’est imiter, c’est représenter l’Etre suprême sous une forme humaine.”40 There is an admirable force to the paratactic structure of this passage (a parataxis not present, incidentally, in Shaftesbury): c’est …, c’est …. (one is reminded of Montaigne’s parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi, the classic expression of the ineffability of “social affections”). To feel unalloyed affection for one’s not unalloyed fellow man, for man, that is, not in the abstract but in the concrete otherness of his social existence, may well require nothing less than imitatio dei, or emulation of divine forbearance. Or, taking the other clause of the parataxis, to feel unalloyed social affection is “to represent the Supreme Being in human form,” that is, to exhibit in a mode accessible to human understanding an invisible, inaccessible form of affection, divine love (Diderot was, at the time he made this translation, still a theist). So much for the metaphoric reading of the passage; but there is also a metonymic reading: Diderot as translator is both imitating Shaftesbury (his voice, his aristocratic ease, which Diderot the bourgeois writer eagerly coveted) and representing him (as an emissary carrying his ideas about social affection across the chasm separating Protestant, commercial, constitutional Britain from Catholic, mercantilist, absolutist France). If civilization was a source of anxiety, perhaps it was because it had to be smuggled across borders as contraband. Translators were smugglers of the new. If language in one of its modes was for the Enlightenment an instrument for variegating sameness, so was translation at its highest pitch. The eighteenth century anticipated Walter Benjamin’s advice that the translator must allow “his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign language.”41

It would be a mistake, however, to think that all variety came from abroad. The eighteenth century was a time of exuberant technical progress, and Diderot was among the first to recognize what an impoverishment of language would result if working men were banished from the beaux quartiers: “What diversity is introduced into language every day by the arts, machines, and manual skills (manoeuvres).”42 The Encyclopédie was conceived in part as a compendium of these specialized tongues, a compendium that would be not just a passive record of the jargons of the trades but an artful selection designed with a political goal in mind, namely, to further progress by initiating a conversation—for it is “through the inveterate habit of conversing among themselves that working men understand one another, and far more by repeatedly facing the same situations (par le retour des conjonctures) than by relying on any fixed terminology”43—and thus making the trades mutually intelligible, thereby “eliminating the traditional barriers between guilds.”44

Traditionally in France the institutions of the monarchy had made language a matter of distinction. The best French was that spoken by the sanior pars of French society, the court. Eloquence was a matter of police, meaning at once polish and discipline. The Académie served, its historian reminds us, both to civilize and to enforce.45 It was a sort of hothouse of the tongue, and as with all hothouse plants there was a danger of etiolation in unnatural and isolated profusion: “Words have multiplied endlessly, and knowledge of things has fallen behind.”46 The language had been drained of its substance, in other words, and Diderot aimed to reinvigorate it by embracing rather than shunning those who remained in contact with things, whose knowledge of the world, like the blind man’s, was tactile and direct. Yet even an ecumenical undertaking like the Encyclopedia—ecumenical in the root sense, meaning about the “world which we inhabit”—could not be so utopian as to dispense altogether with police: there are too many words in the world, too many specialized words intelligible only within particular milieus—so that an editor must be careful not so much “to introduce new terms as to banish [superfluous] synonyms.”47 Again, a balance is to be struck between fearful exclusion of the other and the “tedious sameness” of indiscriminate reduction to equality.

Diderot leaves no doubt about where disruption of the necessary balance between sameness and difference, equality and distinction, may lead. “People will spit on a petty thief,” he has the nephew say, “but they cannot withhold a kind of respect from a great criminal.”48 He has, moreover, a precise notion of the kind of crime to which the avidity of distinction bred by tedious sameness will give rise: the “renegade of Avignon” is a man capable of befriending a Jew and then denouncing him to authorities committed to the extirpation of difference in the name of purity of the faith. The Jew, rendered different from his fellow man by a slanderous speech act, dies in the holocaust of the Inquisition, and the renegade seizes his fortune. The criminal’s depravity of character has already revealed itself in the mirror of language, however: “Can a vicious person speak in an even tone?” the nephew asks. Language keeps no secrets.


It will be clear by now that to describe the language of Enlightenment as “a substitution of sameness for difference” is to create a self-describing artifact, a text which, as de Man alleged, “acts deceptively” because it “knows what it states.” Yet it cannot be denied that this deception has enjoyed a considerable measure of success. That success requires explanation. It is a fact verified daily in college literature courses that rhetorical modes lose their effectiveness. Words that once stirred the soul or brought tears to the eyes elicit only snickers: Rousseau’s Julie is a case in point. Rousseau would have been surprised, for he believed that the qualities of language were essential rather than historical and contingent: “There are languages favorable to freedom,” he wrote in the Essai. “They are sonorous, rhythmic, harmonious … Ours are made for the buzz of the couch.”49 In order to change the quality of the language one spoke, it was necessary to change the person one was, to accept that harsh Roman discipline to which Helvétius alluded. This Rousseau saw himself as having accomplished, and it would have astonished him to discover that the virile language of liberty he believed he had forged had become fit only for the buzz not of the couch but of the seminar room.

What might have helped him to explain the fate of his style was what he of course could not know, his place, as it were, in history. His savage among giants was like Hobbes’ man among wolves, the taming of whose aberrant energies required an absolute monarch whose fate it was to be beheaded by Rousseau’s “man.” Rousseau could not have known this because his understanding of the sovereignty of the general will was like the blind philosopher’s understanding of the mirror, synthetic a priori, perfect for articulating a political discourse in conformity with the rules governing the language-game of an age that had never yet seen a republic of free and equal citizens.

This particular mirror we can now perceive with the clarity of hindsight, and the image it reflects fills us with the usual ambivalence of self-recognition. The blind philosopher’s description disturbs us because it reminds us of how beautiful we thought we might be before belated sobriety dimmed our bright fancies. Yet if we can now see the mirror, we still see ourselves only as we were, never as we are. To the present we remain blind. Perhaps the point of Diderot’s parable is that we should not expect, ever, to see ourselves as we are: those who think they can see should listen to the blind and converse with those who work with their hands in order to find out what they are missing. Clairvoyance is not ours. What we do have, all we have, is the ability to discuss what a mirror would have to be like in order to reflect an image of such creatures as we take ourselves to be. Man in the mirror of language is thus what Jameson calls a simulacrum, “a copy for which no original has ever existed.”50 If a fascination with simulacra is the hallmark of the postmodern, then the postmodern begins with Diderot.


1 Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1967), p. 444.

2 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 288ff.

3 Jean Baudrillard, Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe Paris: Gallimard, 1972), pp. 173ff.

4 Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les Choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), p. 136: “The fundamental task of classical ‘discourse’ was to attribute a name to things, and in that name to name their being. … When it named the being of all representation in general, it was philosophy: theory of knowledge and analysis of ideas.”

5 Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 158.

6 Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) , p. ix.

7 De Man, Allegories, p. 148.

8 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essai sur l’origine des langues (Paris: Gallimard/Folio, 1990), pp. 67-8.

9 De Man, Allegories, p. 152.

10 Ibid., p. 270.

11 Ibid., p. 152.

12 Ibid.

13 The rhetorical structure of de Man’s sentence, with the all-important qualification placed in apposition to the bald central assertion that “language is always already about language,” has the effect of suppressing the qualification, and indeed de Man argues in the remainder of his text as though language in general were indeed “always already” about language. By a trick of the pen the world is erased.

14 Molyneux’s question concerned a man blind from birth and taught by touch to distinguish a cube from a sphere. If he regained his sight, could he, when presented with a cube and a sphere, identify them by sight alone? For Locke’s discussion, see John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chap. IX, Section 8.

15 Condillac, for instance, takes up Molyneux’s question in the Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines; see Diderot, Oeuvres philosophiques (Paris: Garnier, 1964), p. 76.

16 Paul Vernière, introduction to “Lettre sur les aveugles,” in Diderot, Oeuvres philosophiques, p. 76.

17 Diderot, “Lettre sur les aveugles,” in Oeuvres philosophiques, p. 84.

18 Ibid., pp. 84-5.

19 De Man, Allegories, p. 153

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., p. 149.

22 Ibid., p. 150.

23 Once again, the effect of de Man’s rhetorical strategy is to ensure that an argument predicated on analysis of a special case (a case in which a primal passion, fear, is repressed by the introduction of an objective general denomination, “man”) is read as a universal explanation of the operation of language in general.

24 Curiously for a literary theorist as keen to engage with philosophy as de Man, he has nothing to say about Wittgenstein, whose terminology I mimic here.

25 Diderot, “Lettre sur les aveugles,” p. 85.

26 Cf. n. 4.

27 Daniel Roche, La France des Lumières (Paris: Fayard, 1993).

28 On Coste, see Margaret Rumbold, Traducteur huguenot: Pierre Coste (New York: Peter, Lang, 1991).

29 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, book 3; Jean Starobinski, The Living Eye, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 181 ff.

30 Starobinski, The Living Eye, p. 186.

31 Diderot, “Le Neveu de Rameau,” in Oeuvres Romanesques (Paris: Garnier, 1959), p. 397.

32 Antoine de Montchrétien, quoted in Daniel Gordon, Citizens Without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670-1789 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 37-38.

33 Helvétius, De l’Esprit (Paris: Marabout, 1973), pp. 98, 103.

34 Rousseau, Essai, p. 65.

35 One sees this Austinian distinction applied to the nominative “man” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when Macduff, adjured to “dispute like a man” the murder of his wife and children, replies “I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man.” In so enunciating the difference between action and pathos, his pain becomes as real for others as it already is for himself. Here the distinguishing passion, though subsumed as in Rousseau’s example within the universal substantive, is not effaced: Macduff is both a man who avenges a wrong (and he who does not avenge a wrong is not a man), but he is also a man capable of making the pain of that wrong visible to others: both justice and eloquence speak in his behalf.

36 Diderot, “Neveu,” p. 464.

37 Helvétius, De l’Esprit, p. 102.

38 Diderot, “Neveu,” p. 466

39 Marc Fumaroli, “Le Génie de la langue française,” in Pierre Nora, ed., Lieux de mémoire, vol. 3: Les Frances, part 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), pp. 921-976.

40 Gordon, Citizens, p. 83.

41 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator.” Benjamin is quoting Rudolf Pannwitz.

42 Quoted in Jacques Proust, Diderot et L’Encyclopédie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1962), p. 212.

43 Diderot, quoted in ibid., p. 213.

44 As Jacques Proust remarks, ibid., p. 220.

45 Marc Fumaroli, “La Coupole,” in Pierre Nora, ed., Lieux de mémoire, vol. 2: La Nation, part 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), pp. 321-389.

46 Diderot, Pensées, p. 59.

47 Diderot, quoted in Proust, Diderot, p. 214.

48 Diderot, Le Neveu, p. 458.

49 Rousseau, Essai, p. 144.

50 Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 20.

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