Paul de Man: “The Resistance to Theory”

In his essay, “The Resistance to Theory,” Paul de Man analyzes traditional literary theories and theorists as well as the history of the resistance to literary theory in an attempt to explain the relationship between literary theory and resistance.

Paul de Man, in an interesting stylistic maneuver, begins his essay by stating what the original essay was intended to be, why he had begun writing it and why, ultimately, he could not write the essay he was commissioned to. The product of this, he states, is his essay “The Resistance to Theory.” He was asked to write a section on literary theory, but found this difficult, and instead wrote his essay on “…why the main theoretical interest of literary theory consists in the impossibility of its definition” (332). de Man then goes on to analyze the history of literary theory as well as the resistance to it, drawing on the theories of several traditional theorists in order to illustrate his point. He goes on to state that “The resistance to theory is a resistance to the use of language about language. It is therefore a resistance to language itself or the possibility that language contains factors or functions that cannot be reduced to intuition” (341). Finally, in the conclusion of his essay, de Man reveals that literary theories and the resistance to literary theories are inherently related, “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance” (347). de Man adds that literary theory, the more it is resisted, the more it flourishes, but questions, in the very last sentence, “…whether this flourishing is a triumph or a fall” (347).

I found the anecdote at the beginning of the essay, where de Man explains what this essay was supposed to be and why he failed to create such an essay, to be extremely interesting. In these few introductory paragraphs, de Man explains that he was commissioned to write an essay on literary theory for the Committee on the Research Activities of the Modern Language Association. de Man explains that the outline of such an essay is extremely simple, typically following some pre-determined program and ultimately becoming obsolete and forgotten within a few years. de Man explains that he “…found it difficult to live up…to the requirements of this program and could only try and explain, as concisely as possible, why the main theoretical interest of literary theory consists in the impossibility of its definition” (332). This introduction, while interesting, also provides the reader with an immediate glimpse into the project of the essay and also explains the traces of the original assignment within the essay. de Man’s essay “The Resistance to Theory” was ultimately rejected by the publication it originally intended for, however, de Man finds this rejection “altogether justified” as the essay was not a very good summarization of literary theory (333). However, the essay did work well in examining the impossibility of defining theory as well as the relationship between theory and the resistance to it.

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