Miscellaneous Works:解説・評論・講義:On Disfiguration

CPA Special
Tribute to Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

On Disfiguration: 
Reading Derrida's "White Mythology" with de Man's "Epistemology of Metaphor"

The titles of Jacques Derrida's “White Mythology” and Paul de Man's “The Epistemology of Metaphor” seem to imply the growth of a pair of new branches of human science. The former tries to clarify how “Metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest,”1) while the latter undertakes to reconsider rhetoric as “not in itself a historical but an epistemological discipline.” 2) Different as they sound at first glance, a close reader will recognize that both of them deal with the topic of disfiguration, in which the possibility and impossibility of metaphor are focused upon in terms of “catachresis.” As Alan Bass, the translator of Derrida suggests in footnote 20 to “White Mythology,” it is the title of the section “Plus de metaphore” that signifies the indeterminacy between “more metaphor” and “no more metaphor” (219), whereas de Man emphasizes in “The Epistemology of Metaphor” the abuse of language itself as “the name of a trope,” that is, “catachresis” (21).

To begin with, we had better take a look at the presuppositions Derrida finds in Pierre Louis's thesis Plato's Metaphors, with which he starts the analysis of disfiguration. First, Louis chooses to investigate “the internal organization of metaphors” rather than “the external criterion of the domain of Provenance” (“White Mythology” 221). Louis's procedure presumes that one could know “the system and the internal articulation” of the author's (Plato's) thought. Its inference, Derrida says, is that “the internal articulation is not that of metaphors themselves, but that of the ‘philosophical' ideas, metaphor playing exclusively the role of a pedagogical ornament, no mattes how the author might have it” (Ibid.). Although Louis makes the most of the internal articulation, there exists the difference between the author's intention and metaphor's function. Metaphor does not necessarily follow, simply as an ornament, the orders of the author.

Louis paradoxically presents us with his second presupposition: “Whoever studies them(=Platonic images) quickly perceives that they are not simply ornaments but are all destined to express ideas more aptly than would a long elaboration” (Ibid.), While Derrida's reading of Louis has just carried us to the thesis that, despite the author's intention, metaphor is doomed to be “a pedagogical ornament,” here Louis asserts the opposite thing, regarding metaphor not simply as “ornament.” We have to face the undecidability of whether metaphor is ornamental or unornamental, an undecidability implied in the title of this section and Derrida's own explanation in the first paragraph: “If one wished to conceive and to class all the metaphorical possibilities of philosophy, one metaphor, at least, always would remain excluded, outside the system: the metaphor at the very least, without which the concept of metaphor could not be constructed, or, to syncopate an entire chain of reasoning, the metaphor of metaphor. This extra metaphor, remaining outside the field that it allows to be circumscribed, extracts or abstracts itself from this field, thus substracting itself as a metaphor less” (219-20). Derrida's strategy in this essay is explicit, in that now he specifies extra metaphor”(ornamental) which immediately transforms itself into what might be called “supplemental metaphor” (unornamental). It is this paradox that makes the study of metaphor invariably “unsaturated”(Ibid.).

If we turn to Louis's third presupposition, which he developed using “the economist theory of metaphor,” Derrida's strategy becomes more effective. Louis argues: “If we must have a criterion for distinguishing metaphor from comparison, I would say rather that comparison always appears as something external, easily detachable from the work, while metaphor is absolutely indispensable to the meaning of the sentence”(222). Louis locates metaphor's “unornamental” characteristics in its “economic procedure of abbreviation” in Derrida's words (Ibid.). However, this invites Derrida to discern a paradox: insofar as this “economic procedure of abbreviation” enables metaphor to have “an internal and essential link with the expression of the ‘idea',” it ceases to be ornamental, that is, “too much,” but, by the same token, metaphor must become “more ‘too much' than ever,” since it “could neither be distinguished from this idea, nor distinguish itself, except by falling back into the status of a superfluous sign, which immediately fades away” (222-23). What Derrida is talking about here is nothing but the fate of “supplement,” which simultaneously informs the fate of metaphor, because the supplement is “an inessential extra, added to something complete in itself,” whereas it is added” in order to complete, to compensate for a lack in what was supposed to he complete itself. 3)” The paradox of the supplement is equivalent to that of metaphor.

Louis's fourth presupposition does not avoid the close combination of metaphor and idea; rather than the traditional classification, he selects the method of F. Dornseiff, which consists in grouping metaphors according to the ideas they express” (223). To Derrida this strategy only seems to be a reduction of figures into “modes of ‘expression' of the ‘idea',” even if it is done “in order not to treat metaphor as an imaginative or rhetorical ornament” (Ibid.). Moreover, this fourth presupposition naturally introduces the fifth: “the criteria for a classification of philosophical metaphors are borrowed from a derivative philosophical discourse,” because Louis's ‘Headings of the Appendix” reads: “Inventory of Metaphors and Comparisons Classified According to the Domains from Which Plato Borrows Them: I. Nature; II. Mass; III. Society; IV. Mythological Historical and Literary Reminiscences” (224). The reason why such titles are vulnerable in the Derridean context is that this sort of classification always discloses traditional and unquestioned oppositions (Physis/nomos, Physis/techne), according to which, in this case, Louis arranged this methodical inventory” (224). In the third paragraph of the chapter Derrida already made a distinction between “the lending discourses” and “the borrowing discourses”: “The first kind provides metaphors that are physical, animal, and biological, and the second those that are technical, artificial, economic, cultural, social, etc. This derivative opposition, (of Physis to techne, or of Physis to nomos), is at work everywhere” (220). To the extent that the “lending” discourse and the “borrowing” discourse are lending and borrowing from the origin, the above opposition can be said to be based upon the opposition between the original or the proper and all their others, which derives from the opposition between “the concept of metaphor and its system” (Ibid.).

Subsequently, Louis reveals that his own presuppositions were made on the basis of the philosophical tradition that makes possible the above oppositions. Unless the concept of metaphor still alive in this tradition is problematized “the methodological reform would remain without impact” (221): we would be only confronted with the impossibility of accounting for metaphors within the philosophical context that has been generated by none other than those “metaphors.” Nonetheless, Derrida says, Louis never examines “the entire implicit philosophy” that supports his methodological justification: for him “metaphor is charged with expressing an idea, with placing outside or representing the content of a thought that naturally would be called ‘idea'” (223). That is to say, insofar as Louis thinks of metaphor in terms of the traditionally philosophical opposition, his project must be impossible, or, at least, “without impact.”

In order to get out of this kind of “impasse” Derrida proposes that it is the Platonic hierarchical separation between philosophy or dialectics and (sophistic) rhetoric that should be questioned here4). On this level, Derrida seems to meet de Man.

The difference between Derrida and de Man might he said to lie in the difference between the former's “Semiology sad Grammatology” included in Positions as a dialogue with Julia Kristeva and the latter's “Semiology and Rhetoric” contained in Allegories of Reading 5). While Derrida invented grammatology as a new (human) science in order to deconstruct all of Western metaphysics, de Man tries to reveal the deconstructive possibility already within rhetoric as a traditional (literary) method. Therefore, although “White Mythology” is written seven years before “The Epistemology of Metaphor,” Derrida's standpoint is here very de Manian, in that this essay does not replace metaphysics with grammatology but only questions the “hierarchical separation between philosophy and rhetoric.” Instead of originating a new system, Derrida tries to question the concept of “origin” itself within the original system of “philosophy,” as of rhetoric. For example, ‘They are metaphorical, resisting every meta-metaphorics, the values of concept, foundation, and theory” (224). Why are the values of concept, foundation, and theory metaphorical at all?

To understand this de Man's reference to some of the Lockean “simple ideas” might be helpful: “What is motion? ‘Now have the modern philosophers...much better succeeded in defining simple ideas, whether by explaining their causes or any otherwise. ...What do they (=atomists) more than put one synonymous word for another? ...For is it not at least as proper and significant to say passage is a motion from one place to another as to say motion is a passage, etc. The discourse of simple ideas is figural discourse or translation and, as such, creates the fallacious illusion of definition” (17). We are likely to consider any act of definition to be “proper.” But, de Man radically reconsiders any definition as a sort of illusion. It is true of the word “idea” itself. Etymologically speaking, ‘idea” (eide) means light, “and to say that to understand light is to perceive the idea of light is to say that understanding is to see the light of light and is therefore itself light. Just as the word ‘passage' translates but fails to define motion, ‘idea' translates but does not define “understanding” (18).

Just as de Man explains the impossibility of philosophically defining “simple ideas” like “light” as well as “idea” itself, so Derrida uncovers the limit to literal understanding of the “founding concepts” like theory, foundation, and concept itself. Derrida states:
Let us not insist upon the optic metaphor which opens up every theoretical point of view under the sun. What is fundamental corresponds to the desire for a firm and ultimate ground, a terrain to build on, the earth as the support of an artificial structure. This value has a history, is a history, of which Heidegger has proposed an interpretation. Finally, even if not reducible to this framework, the concept of the concept cannot not retain the gesture of mastery, taking-and-maintaining in the present, comprehending and grasping the thing as an object. (224)

That is to say, insofar as what has long been thought to be abstractly the most proper— “concept,” “foundation,” or “theory”—also proves to be concretely based on the use and abuse of graphic images, we are forced to problematize the sense of propriety. What has been spoken of as the most proper becomes no longer proper, simultaneously revealing the impossibility of propriety. The same thing also takes place in de Man, when he refers to Locke's comparison of language as a “conduit” whose destructive power “corrupts the fountains of knowledge which are in things themselves,” breaking or stopping “the pipes whereby it is distributed to public use.”: this language, not of poetic ‘pipes and timbrels' but of a plumber's handyman, raises, by its all too graphic concreteness, questions of propriety” (16, Italics mine). In Locke's use and abuse of language the metaphor of conduit ceases to serve the poet or the musician. Here the, figurative use of language ironically guides us to the literal (graphical) task of the “plumber's handyman.”

Thus, language as a “conduit” displaces the figurative with the literal, obfuscates its “proper” meaning, and makes us wonder if “the cognition is not perhaps shaped by the metaphors” (Ibid.). As for the “graphic concreteness” that even the seemingly most proper concepts cannot avoid, Derrida's footnote 26 explicates “hypotyposis” by citing Kant: “Thus the words ground (support), to depend (to be held up from above), to flow from (instead of to follow), substance (as Locke puts it: the support of accidents), and numberless others, are not schematic, but rather symbolic hypotyposes...” (224). However proper those philosophical terms sound, they cannot be completely “nonmetaphorical,” in that even they have to presume “the sense of analogy,” which is based on “graphic concreteness” in terms of de Man or on “symbolic hypotyposes” in terms of Kant/Derrida. The terms of philosophy, then, turn out to be less philosophical than rhetorical. Thus, Derrida and de Man deconstruct the distinction between philosophy and rhetoric.

Now we need examine how the above discussion develops into the study of catachresis. Derrida, in the first place, introduces the traditional idea of metaphor's “usure” delineated by Hegel: “gradually the metaphorical element in the use of such a word (“to grasp” or “to apprehend”) disappears and by custom the word changes from a metaphorical to a literal expression... In living languages the difference between actual metaphors and words already reduced by usage to literal expressions is easily established; whereas in dead languages this is difficult...” (225). By following the process of metaphorization (“origin and then erasure of the metaphor, transition from the proper sensory meaning to the proper spiritual meaning by means of the detour of figures” 226), Hegel investigates the possibility of philosophy in terms of dialectics. He finds the concept of propriety in both the sensuous and the spiritual territory. And, insofar as the concept of propriety remains, the concept of “authority” is also left intact, with the result that we do not have to be interested in “inactive metaphors” since “the author did not think of them, and since the metaphorical effect is to be studied in the field of consciousness” (225). The traditional hierarchal opposition is preserved in the discrimination between living and dead metaphors.

However, Derrida would insist that “dead metaphor,” the abuse of language for de Man, is itself the name of a figure, “catachresis.” De Man's explanation might be useful: “Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachresis: when one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters”(21). What we can see here is the powerful appreciation of dead metaphor. While Hegel considered the position of extinct metaphor in view of anthropomorphic (author-ity centered) hierarchy, de Man emphasizes its validity in light of the coexistence of inhuman beings (ghosts and monsters). Catachresis might be depreciated, on one hand, in the sense of diachronic and dialectic “usure,” but, on the other hand, it might be appreciated in the sense of synchronic and deconstructive “reading.” What is more, de Man's proposition that catachresis contains something monstrous reminds us of Derrida's thesis that “metaphor always carries its death within itself, which is also the death of philosophy” (271). Catachresis is monstrous, not only because it arises as the dead metaphor from within the text simultaneously with the living metaphor, but also because it sentences to death both metaphor and philosophy. And, in that process, catachresis helps Derrida and de Man succeed in deconstructing the difference between rhetoric and metaphysics, or, between literature and philosophy. De Man concludes his essay: “All philosophy is condemned, to the extent that it is dependent upon figuration, to be literary and, as the depository of this very problem, all literature is to some extent philosophical” (30).

It is interesting that here de Man sets up the distinction between “literature” and philosophy, while Derrida presupposed the separation between “rhetoric” and philosophy in the more de Manian fashion. De Man seems to have simply translated Derrida's term “rhetoric” as “literature,” but, by the same token, he can be said to have acted out the possibility and impossibility of metaphor, in that, as he himself notes, “it is no mere play of words that ‘translate' is translated in German as ‘übersetzen' which itself translates the Greek ‘metaphorein' or metaphor” (17).

Whether de Man as the author was conscious or unconscious of it, his “act of translation” itself contains the catachrestic horizon, since the word “translation” is nothing but the dead metaphor of the word “metaphor.” Derrida demonstrated the death of metaphor as well as of philosophy, whereas de Man translated the dead metaphor of metaphor as well as of rhetoric. This is how “White Mythology” and “The Epistemology of Metaphor” are connected and disconnected either literally or metaphorically.

  1. Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 213.
  2. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn 1978), 30.
  3. Cf. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 103.
  4. Cf. “White Mythology,” 224.
  5. Positions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981); Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). Cf. Takao Tomiyama, Hoho to shiteno Danpen (Tokyo: Nan' undo Publishers, 1985), 151.

September 21, 1987

*Written in response to the questions set by Professor Cynthia Chase, the original version of this article enabled the author to pass A-exam (the Admission to Ph.D. candidacy Examination) at Cornell University in the spring of 1986. The present version was published in the liberal education journal Kyoyo-Ronso #78 (March 10, 1988) edited by the Faculty of Law of Keio University.

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