Structuralism Essay

1114 words - 4 pages

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...

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