1
LITERARY LANGUAGE
AND MISREADING
Blindness and Insight

Almost everything Paul de Man wrote is related to the question of reading. The primary interest of literary theory and the purpose of critical thinking is that it will make us better readers. However, de Man’s understanding of the term ‘reading’ radically expands the meaning of that term, displacing it from its conventional use. Hillis Miller says of de Man’s use of the term, that reading is ‘the ground and foundation of the whole of human life’ (Miller 1987, 48) because ‘reading’ for de Man includes not just reading as such, certainly not just the act of reading works of literature, but ‘sensation, perception, and therefore every human act whatsoever’ (Miller 1987, 58).

Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971), de Man’s first collection of essays, shows the early development of de Man’s understanding of reading and explores related ideas on literary language. The volume also reveals de Man’s early engagements with deconstruction with which he is now so strongly associated. This chapter will begin by examining the essay ‘Literature and Language: A Commentary’ (a text added to the revised edition of Blindness and Insight in 1983) which encapsulates de Man’s key ideas on the question of reading. In outlining his own definition of reading, de Man identifies the misreading of literary language at the heart of many contemporary critical theories and develops the idea that critics (paradoxically) display the greatest blindness at their moments of greatest

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