Cynthia Chase, Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in the Romantic Tradition (1986)
Disfiguration names the impossibility, coincident with the status of language as rhetoric or figure, of fixing a figure's referential status. It is inherently misleading to discuss and define disfiguration in this way, making abstract, ostensibly literal assertions about effects of interference with assertion or representation. It must be encountered instead by way of readings that attend to the vicissitudes of particualr tropes—the erosion, for instance, of the figurality of vital rhetorical figures, with the indetermination of meaning that this entails; for the stripping away of figurality is in no sense an emergence or restoration of literal language. It is, rather, a disruption of the logic of figure or form—not only a departure from representation, but the decomposition of the figures forming the text. (5)

I am reading this, in part, because of the magnetism of its title, and its key concept, disfiguration. I haven often written of the “figure of the Child” and I am not sure what it is about this word which makes it so necessary or so contagious. What is a “figure,” first of all? In French, its primary definition is of face, visage; in English, it is something more diagrammatic: “the form of anything as determined by the outline” (OED). There is something elegant in its neturality and wide range of significations, its ability to step in for something clean and mathematical (a cipher, un chiffre) or something mortal, made of skin and flesh and bones, something possible to mutilate, or something which is impossible to grasp altogether. And the definition cited above should give a sense of that—that even the word itself, disfiguration, is “inherently misleading to discuss and define,” that it must be “encountered,” and that it must be understood in proximity to the words “impossibility,” “erosion,” “indetermination,” “stripping away,” “[non]restoration,” “disruption,” “departure, and “decomposition.”

But it’s important to begin with the beginning. Around what problems is this figure framed, whence does it come about? There’s hardly anything to be excised in this book’s ten-page introduction. I’m tempted to copy down at least one quotation from every page, and while I’ll attempt to extract from it a schematic list of points, I’ll just start with the opening:

Romanticism, more than any other literary historical concept, has been the target and the occasion of a compelling critique of the basic presuppositions of literary history. This book is an attempt to deal with that situation. Its difficulties arise first from the demonstrated invalidity of a familiar conception of history. That demonstration was partly anonymous and diffuse: the practice of close reading, simply, fostered by the New Criticism, hermeneutics, and structuralism alike, made it hard to characterize literary works in the unequivocal, uncontradictory terms that make them illustrate a period or movement. (1)

This is a bold start, if literary history means a lot to you, otherwise it may strike you as dispassionately academic. It is especially bold if you do not think much of Romanticism, and if you think of it primarily as a “movement” or “period” and not as a “concept.” Why should Romanticism, perhaps reducible to a list of key figures, become this roving abstraction, this gigantic spectre? Maybe, in part, because of the history of its reception. In framing her claim, she lists some “inimical” stars, inimical to the New Criticism, that is: “Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy (who called the primary concern of Romanticism l’absolu littéraire).” These are the critics “whose work seemed most inevitable, most impossible to ignore, and most difficult to come to terms with” (1). This also strikes me as an accurate way of describing the poets she discusses in the body chapters of the book. In any case, we know from the list of names that this is a book is of the tradition known as “deconstructionist” criticism. Many of the deconstructionists, especially de Man, were writing landmark essays on Wordsworth, who is arguably the key figure of Romanticism.

So what’s at stake at the very start of the book is the notion of teleology, the unity of history, acts of totalization. Such notions of history have been posited in relation to Romanticism, or by Romantic poets and philosophers themselves. The axiomatic idea is that one can “assume that events and persons described do constitute and participate in the ultimate unity of the movement of history that consists in their totalization” (2). There’s something shapely in this conception of history. Then, there’s the notion, more particular to the Romantics—especially Wordsworth and Hegel—that the “origin” is “tendency,” and that “the end is the same as the beginning, because the beginning is the end” (2). Consider the unforgettable line by Wordsworth: “the Child is the father of the Man.”

But she’s writing against this, defending the position that Romanticism “poses a basic threat to this assumption,” that Romantic texts “exceed and undercut the genetic models they appear to follow” (2). Certain “rhetorical” readings of such texts—namely, Paul de Man’s, “generate an inconclusive or unhistorical scheme: a recurrence of works characterized by genetic patterns they simultaneously retrace and decompose” (2). And so we have the following statements on a similar premise:

  • “Those readings locate the contradiction not at the level of statement, in these texts, but in the interplay netween a work’s statement and its function, including its function or position in the discourse of literary history.” (2)
  • “If there is a Romantic tradition, it would consist, these studies suggest, in the recurrence of an attention to problems of reading that undercut the possibility of tradition in the sense of a handing on intact of values, knowledge, functions, and forms.” (3)

There’s also a sentence imbricated in all this on how “De Man’s work made writing about literature difficult, if irresistible, by inciting a tense awareness of the implicit claims or assumptions entailed in every interpretive move or rhetorical gesture. In his writing, this pressure generates a continual displacement and reinvention of terms and concepts as well as shifts of rhetorical strategy” (2). I’m drawing attention to what may seem like a mere aside because I think it’s important to see the author admit that there’s something pleasurable and erotic in all this: “irresistible,” “move,” “gesture.” And it isn’t even an aside, if it helps move us into a discussion of this book’s own philosophical method, or its method of “reading”:

Literary texts, as much as philosophical texts, become exemplary of the conflictual character of language, or of an "impossibility of reading" that "should not be taken too lightly." It arises from the conflict between what a text "says" and what it "does," or between the constative and the performative dimension of language or rhetoric. The rhetorical character of language, the primacy of rhetorical "force" and figure (that is, of language) in any art, constrains us to think "art" from the standpoint of language rather than the inverse. The conflict in rhetoric precludes our understanding literature essentially as art, that is, as the harmonious interpenetration of content and form. Rhetoric thus makes a problem out of art or the aesthetic, insofar as the notion of the aesthetic is predicated upon the possibility of fusion or continuity of form and substance, being and doing. Their discontinuity—the forcing, in both senses, of their connection—especially troubles interpretation where it appears as an incompatibility between what a text implicitly says about language and figuration and its own figural structures and effects. (4)

Rhetoric is like clothing—feminine, embarrassing, flirtatious—and the lack of “harmonious interpenetration” signalled by the breakdown of rhetorical figures is important, I think, on some deeply “political” or “ethical” level—it helps us appreciate or valorize what is feminine or minor or difference-making in Romanticism and in the act of criticism too—we are not here to dominate or harmonize or fuse or totalize or classify, or even, though it is not mentioned in this text, racialize, or whiten

These readings pursue a project different from the classification and description of particular rhetorical figures in a given literary work. Such analysis is in some degree indispensable, but it is circumscribed here by another inquiry. These readings focus on the figures constitutive of the basic literary modes crucial to Romantic writing: lyric, autobiography, and narrative. Lyric, it is argued here, depends upon the figure of voice, the conception of a text speaking, as autobiography depends upon the figure of face, the conception of a name or text that makes itself intelligible. Voice and face, the basic tropes of lyric poetry and of autobiography, are the focus of the first part of the book; causality, the basic trope of narrative, is the focus of the second. These figures are argued here to be constitutive not simply of literary forms but of any act of understanding. (5)

Is it inherently disfiguring for lyric to be associated with “the figure of voice”? I like to think of lyric as infecting the visual field with its hazy aurality; it somehow makes the face of autobiography as difficult to contain or describe as the sounds that come out of one’s vocal tract. The delineation of the figure, which one would otherwise parse into discrete elements—face, nose, eyes, then becomes airy, even possible to asphyxiate, to scream or to whisper with. Voice defaces face, in a fairly literal sense. And now we’re back to where we began, with the key concept, disfigurement:

What emerges is disfiguration: a theme, or motif, of several texts read here, as well as a rhetorical effect or process. Disfigurement (or defacement is not too strong a word for the impact of these texts on a certain anthropomorphism, or for the condition of Wordsworth's Blind Beggar, Freud's Oedipus, Shelley's Rousseau, but these texts engage us not with images of effects of violence but, rather, with intricately contradictory rhetorical operations. The salient term, then, is disfiguration, which, in naming both a rhetorical and physical process or effect and leaving uncertain the relationship between them, exemplifies the interpretive predicament it would describe. Disfiguration names the impossibility, coincident with the status of language as rhetoric or figure, of fixing a figure's referential status. It is inherently misleading to discuss and define disfiguration in this way, making abstract, ostensibly literal assertions about effects of interference with assertion or representation. It must be encountered instead by way of readings that attend to the vicissitudes of particular tropes—the erosion, for instance, of the figurality of vital rhetorical figures, with the indetermination of meaning that this entails; for the stripping away of figurality is in no sense an emergence or restoration of literal language. It is, rather, a disruption of the logic of figure or form—not only a departure from representation, but the decomposition of the figures forming the text. (5)

The remainder of the introduction discusses some of the texts which she will read in each body chapter—Wordsworth’s Prelude, Rousseau’s Sixième Promenade, Baudelaire’s “Le Soleil,” Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater” and “Improbable Veracities”, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Freud’s Oedipus and Emma. There are also significant sections on de Man and Hegel. She does not mention that she will spend a chapter on Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; perhaps that chapter was a later addition, already having been published in Lyric Poetry: beyond New Criticism (ed. Hosek and Parker). I’m going to leave off here and perhaps update this post when I get around to reading one of these chapters fully. And I might link to this a separate post on Barbara Johnson’s “Disfiguring Poetic Language,” on Baudelaire’s “Le Gâteau,” in A World of Difference, 1987 (first pub. in The Prose Poem in France, 1983).

Last update: 02-May-22 14:57