by Jennifer Burns

The Image of Language
At the most recent meeting of the College Arts Association, 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 want to provide two more readings to exemplify de Man's view of language. Both are chosen deliberately from a discipline notorious not only for its repression of the figural in an attempt to preserve grammatical transparency for its discourse, but also frequently involved in attacking visual images themselves as performing a dangerously seductive sleight-of-hand, shortcircuiting thought through an appeal to the senses. I'll begin with that section of Plato's Republic known as "The Allegory of the Cave" (Book VII, 514-517).

We find the inhabitants of Plato's cave chained in place, looking away from the cave's entrance and toward its rear wall. Their heads are fixed in this position by heavy shackles. Behind them, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners is a low wall. Crouched behind this low wall are several men with puppets, who periodically put on puppet shows using "implements of all kinds...human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material." 4 The prisoners cannot see the puppet show itself, because it takes place behind them, but they can see the reflection of it that is projected on the back wall of the cave by the firelight. Given that they cannot move their heads in order to see anything else, these prisoners "deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects."5 Not only do these prisoners mistake reality for an image, but it is an image of an image, the firelit reflection of a dumb show.

One of these unfortunates is allowed to escape, and goes staggering around the cave, his vision stunned by the light entering the distant mouth of the cave. At this point he still maintains a belief in the reality of the shadows. Then he is dragged forcibly out of the cave, into the light of the sun, and once his eyes have adjusted to the painfully blinding light, he begins a process of looking that starts with "the shadows and, after that, the likenesses or reflections in water of men and other things, and later, the things themselves, and from these he would go on to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself, more easily by night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than by day the sun and the sun's light." 6 Here we find a hierarchy of visual images, with shadows and reflections the most debased, things themselves next, then the heavens by night, and ultimately, the sun by day. When the former prisoner is finally able to look upon the sun directly, he has at last reached reliable knowledge: "at this point he would infer and conclude that this it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen." 7

Finally, Socrates informs Glaucon that this whole story of the cave has been nothing other than an extended metaphor for their state of knowledge: "this image, then, dear Glaucon, we must apply as a whole to all that has been said, likening the region revealed through sight to the habitation of the prison, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the sun."8 Thus everything we see with our eyes is nothing but the flickering reflection of a puppet show, and the sun in the story of the cave was not the sun, but a figure for the idea of the good, which is the ultimate radiating source of knowledge. Everything we see by the light of the sun is mere appearance, a mere shadow of the form of the good. In the most extreme formulation of Socrates' point, we might say that reliable knowledge is achieved solely through rejecting the appearances of the world and contemplating the form of the good.

This resounding rejection of the visible world as a means to true knowledge is certainly the grammatical sense of this passage. When we attend to the rhetoric of the passage, however, we find that the text depends heavily on the visual. Note first the language by which Socrates directs Glaucon to consider the image of the cave:

Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning... 9

When Socrates wants Glaucon to contemplate his words, he asks him to "picture" what he is saying. Conceptualization is thus figured as a form of visual representation; thought is the making of a mental picture. To 'conceive' is to 'picture'. 10 Furthermore when Socrates checks in to see if Glaucon is following him, Glaucon responds by saying "all that I see" 11 ; when he understands Socrates, he 'sees.' If the vision of our eyes is not a reliable means to knowledge (according to the grammar of the allegory), thought and understanding continue to be figured in visual terms (according to the rhetoric).

But the most obvious rhetorical strategy of this section of the Republic is the figure of the cave itself. To make his point about the unreliability of the visual world, Socrates draws a vividly detailed picture of the cave and the captive's subsequent emergence into the sunlit world. Although ultimately we are told that this is just a figure of speech, just a metaphor for Socrates' actual point, we nonetheless come to understand his rejection of the visible through the textual image he has created. It is primarily the image of the cave, and not the brief lines that recontextualize it as a metaphor for the Good, that does the most for Socrates' claim that we should reject the world of appearances as unreliable.

It needs to be stressed that the rhetorical dimension of language, so subversive of grammatical meaning, does not operate solely in texts that make little attempt to foreground their rhetorical nature. Rather, the rhetorical is present in all texts, insofar as we read them as texts. Even texts that are extremely self-conscious about the metaphorical properties of language find their meanings constantly undone by the metaphors they employ. Let's look at an example from Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, focusing on a passage that attends to the metaphors operating in traditional philosophical thought:

It is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements, which determine most of our philosophical convictions. The picture which holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as a great mirror, containing various representations- some accurate, some not- and capable of being studied by pure, nonempirical methods. Without the notion of the mind as mirror, the notion of knowledge itself as accurate representation would not have suggested itself. Without this latter notion, the strategy common to Descartes and Kant- getting more accurate representations by inspecting, repairing, and polishing the mirror, so to speak- would not have made sense. 12

In this passage, and in his book generally, Rorty critiques philosophy's picture of the mind's relation to the world- that the mind is a mirror- under which philosophy has labored. Rorty believes that this picture has been detrimental to philosophy, leading as it does to an obsessional concern with the 'accuracy' of the mirrored representation. Rorty would be the first to admit that there is no philosophy without a guiding picture of some kind; he simply wishes to provide a different metaphor for philosophical endeavor- that of conversation. Far from taking all metaphors away, Rorty gives us yet another metaphor.

This, at least, is the grammatical sense of this passage. When we attend to the text as a text, however, we find a figure that we might not expect in this context, a figure that leads us closer to Plato's formulations of philosophical truth even as grammar points us in the other direction. "The picture which holds traditional philosophy captive," Rorty says. Here the mirror is a picture that imprisons us. When we are incarcerated in the domain of the picture, the one thing we cannot see is that it is a picture: our ignorance that the picture is simply a picture, a metaphor to guide our thought, is what keeps us captive. With this phrase, we find ourselves back in chains in Plato's allegorical cave. As in the cave, in this passage our freedom of movement is constricted by fetters that don't allow us to see that the reflected puppet show is merely an image. In this prison we mistake the figure of the mirror for reality, just as the inhabitants of the cave believe that the flickering figures reflected on the wall are reality itself.


What I hope both of these readings help to show is 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.