Essay by gakuseCollege, UndergraduateA-, March 2004

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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...