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    An Analysis of Art History Books

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    After reading some Art History books, I was surprised by what seemed to be. The general consensus among the theoretically-minded. That art history bears a particularly problematic relation to theory. It seemed fairly clear to everyone that the works of art we attempt to discuss. Are obstructions to our theorizing, roadblocks which force us to detour off the theoretical highway. In most cases the presenters still wanted to engage with an image or two. But this engagement was typically presented as a sacrifice demanded by the hungry gods of the discipline, a sacrifice always at odds with the rites required by the equally demanding gods of theory.

    It seems that one of the things that is being fantasized here is a realm of pure thought in. Which ideas float weightlessly, unhindered by contact. With the sort of solid objects into which art history continually finds itself bumping. Helping to secure this fantasy is a certain view of language. One which sees language as precisely that ethereal, non-resistant medium in which this pure theory is articulated.

    In this paper, I want to revisit a particular critique of this view of language- Paul de Man’s 1979 essay “Semiology and Rhetoric”- in order to offer us a way out of this untenable split between pure dematerialized theory on the one hand and dense, resistant visual images on the other. De Man’s understanding of language is. I think, particularly useful to art historians in. That is foregrounds the imagistic within language, and the way in. Which this figural component resists and disrupts the smooth flow of grammatical meaning.

    The title of the essay announces de Man’s basic project: he divides language into two parts. The semiological, or grammatical structure of language, and the rhetorical. Or figural dimension of language. 1 These two components of language are deadly antagonists in de Man’s view, battling each other ceaselessly, yet never resulting in a clear victory.

    De Man’s clearest formulation of these two properties of language comes in the following example: Let me begin by considering what is perhaps the most commonly known instance of an apparent symbiosis between a grammatical and a rhetorical structure, the so-called rhetorical question, in which the figure is conveyed directly by means of a syntactical device. I take the first example from the sub-literature of the mass media: asked by his wife whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over or laced under.

    Archie Bunker answers with a question: “What’s the difference? Being a reader of sublime simplicity, his wife replies by patiently explaining the difference between lacing over and lacing under, whatever this may be, but provokes only ire. What’s the difference’ did not ask for difference but means instead “I don’t give a damn what the difference is.’

    The same grammatical pattern engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning.2 Read figurativel, the sentence “what’s the difference?” shouldn’t be answered at all, because of course the point of the remark was that “there’s no difference.” Read literally, the answer is “the difference is that (fill in the blank).” These two different meanings of the sentence exist alongside each other and can neither be reconciled with each other nor definitively decided between.

    De Man goes on to claim that grammar and rhetoric, literal and figurative meaning, always find themselves in this antagonistic relation with each other. Furthermore, de Man insists that this antagonism is fundamental to how language operates. To read a text as if it is able simply to say what it means (based on its grammatical structure) is to repress the presence of the figural which is everywhere working to undermine that meaning.

    Although de Man would acknowledge that it is possible to read in this literal-minded way, he suggests that professional interpreters cannot afford to subscribe to this belief in grammatical transparency. He challenges us to undertake the rather more difficult route of attending to both the semiological and the rhetorical, and of showing how the never-ending battle between the two simultaneously constitutes and makes impossible whatever the text is trying to say.

    For de Man it is this mode of reading which comes into play whenever you read a text as a text. In a later essay, de Man writes: The resistance to theory is a resistance to the rhetorical or tropological dimension of language, a dimension which is perhaps more explicitly in the foreground in literature (broadly conceived) than in other verbal manifestations or- to be somewhat less vague- which can be revealed in any verbal event when it is read textually.

    Since grammar as well as figuration is an integral part of reading, it follows that reading will be a negative process in which the grammatical cognition is undone, at all times, by its rhetorical displacement. 3 De Man here proposes that the approach to interpretation known as deconstruction has met with resistance precisely because it attends to the figural dimension of language, and the way in which figurative meaning undoes the work performed by the literal meaning of the words.

    Rather than evaluating the accuracy of this diagnosis, I want to focus our attention on de Man’s explicit location of the imagistic within language. The image, with all its complexity, with all its resistance to reading, is an integral part of the strange creature we call language. There is, in this sense, no theory without images.

    I hope these readings help to show that the figural does indeed pose a significant challenge to grammatical meaning, a challenge that threatens the easy unfolding of theoretical argument in any discipline. If we locate the subversive operations of the image within language, then struggling with the imagistic- and continuously finding one’s meaning suspended as semiology and rhetoric battle for supremacy- is very much part of doing theoretical work. If art history imagines that there is a language or disciplinary locus where it is unnecessary to contend with the recalcitrance of images, it not only misrecognizes the nature of the theoretical enterprise, but its own possibilities for contributing to that enterprise.

    Foot Notes 1. One place where we might want to call for greater precision in de Man’s formulation is in his conflation of the rhetorical, the figural, and the tropological, terms which he uses interchangeably. For the purposes of this brief sketch, however, I am leaving this unchallenged.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    An Analysis of Art History Books. (2022, Dec 15). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/an-analysis-of-art-history-books/

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