Academic journal article French Forum

Representation, Poeticity, and Reading in the Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article French Forum

Representation, Poeticity, and Reading in the Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Studies of the epistemology of representation(1) in the writings of JeanJacques Rousseau have generally fallen into two categories: content analyses and analyses based on the function and structuring of texts. Content studies such as those by Pierre Burgelin and Jean Starobinski(2) first examine Rousseau's description of representation's evolution as a category of experience, then project the consequences of this evolution into other areas of Rousseau's discourse. In this approach, representation comes into being through a counterposing of unity with loss-the loss of transparency that occurs with humanity's fall from nature to society. This fall stimulates an upsurge of artificiality in humankind, creating an excess of appearance (as opposed to being) through the establishment of the nature/culture duality in all its manifestations. Afterwards this duality expresses itself through and as representation, since from this point of view representation is nothing but this establishment of duality and appearance in the place of unity.

More recent studies of Rousseau's works have focused on representation's functioning in language and have concentrated on its capacity to generate dualities that perpetuate artifice. This strategy accords with Jacques Derrida's linkage of Rousseau to logocentrism.(3) These studies foreground processes of textual production and of reading, yet retain preestablished assumptions about representation's effects in that they present language as attempting to recall an unobtainable "presence" that is understood as "truth," "being," "authenticity," or "identity." For Derrida, Rousseau reappropriates presence at the symbolic level, and writing "supplements" an unattainable authenticity by simultaneously replacing it and being added to it. As a substitute, however, this supplement never actually negates spatio-temporal lack or the need of substitution. Taking a different tack, Paul de Man(4) examines rhetorical inconsistencies in Rousseau's writings in light of the interpretations of language put forth in the Discours sur 1'origine et les fondements de l'inegalite and the Essai sur l'origine des langues. By locating patterns of substitution and repetition that display the mechanics of figural and denominative language while erasing or negating standard interpretations of Rousseau, de Man highlights nodes of meaning that provide keys to further contradictory understandings, adding fuel to his overall view that rhetoric undermines semiotic "truth."

While these analyses of representation's significance have advanced Rousseau studies immensely, too often they become overly linear or polemical. Critics have tended not only to overlook idiosyncrasies that might give rise to variable readings of Rousseau's texts, but also to brush aside Rousseau's own intuitive awareness of the precarities of language and authorship, (5) and thus of representation itself. In fact, when Rousseau examines political, theatrical, or linguistic representation--the forms he directly approaches--he generally attacks their functioning and operations, describing the artifice they generate in terms that feed into Burgelin's and Starobinski's contention that representation marks a fallen state. (6) Specific instances of these functions have been explored by Richard Fralin (political representation vs. direct participation), David Marshall (theatrical representation in its relation to amour-propre), and Derrida and de Man (the linguisticbased criticisms cited above). (7) All these criti ques and analyses of representation, I believe, fail to come to terms with the full significance that representation holds for Rousseau. This significance lies in representation's potential to concretize abstract ruling structures and patterns which allow socialized humanity to realize non-identity as authenticity. In this condition, identity is lost through an external identification that recalls the essential non-distinction of self from other that was available to humanity in its state of primordial being. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.