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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



On Representation by Louis Marin, translated by Catherine Porter (Meridian: Stanford University Press) (PAPERBACK) At his death in 1992, the eminent philosopher, critic, and theorist Louis Marin left, in addition to a dozen influential books (including Sublime Poussin, Stanford, 1999), a corpus of some three hundred articles and essays published in journals and anthologies. This is a collection of twenty-two essays by an eminent philosopher, critic, and theorist that appeared between 1971 and 1992. The book interrogates the theory and practice of representation as it is carried out by both linguistic and graphic signs, and thus the complex relation between language and image, between perception and conception.

The essays are grouped in four parts that reflect the continuity and coherence of Mann's interests in semiology, narrative, visuality, and painting. The interdisciplinary horizon of the book draws on multiple scholarly resources‑the cultural history of the seventeenth century, the philosophy of language, the tools of discourse analysis, the history of art and aesthetics, the analysis of reception‑to address a stunning diversity of subjects ranging from historical painting through cartography to the processes of deciphering texts, interpreter t s, and reading images.

Throw out his essays, Marin's reflection on representation is supported and deepened by his brilliant exegesis of graphic art. His analysis of works by Caravaggio, Philippe de Champaigne, Le Brun, and Poussin, among others, provides the armature that allows him to describe both the structural logic of representation and the intricate processes of production and reception that make it dynamic and unstable. Marin demonstrates with consummate rigor why the pursuit of a general theory of representation is experienced by artists and critics alike as an inevitable, yet unattainable object '.


Excerpt: These tenets of linguistics are fundamental for the dual problem of history and the subject. How can the problem of "the passage from one state to another in a continuous form" be overcome? Does history not "reestablish our connection, outside ourselves, with the very essence of change"?'9 Better still, is that image of history not the projection of self evidence on the part of the conscious subject in the grasp of his very essence, which is experienced at once as sameness and as otherness and thus here again as the very being of change? Now is this same problem not raised with particular clarity by the dialectics of the diachronic and the synchronic? The diachronic phenomenon cannot be called into question: sounds and meanings do change, and change continuously. "There are never permanent characteristics. There are only studies of language [langue] that are perpetually the transition between the former state and the following one.  But in the dialectics of exchange, at any given moment of the history of language [langagel, there is only one single meaning: "words have no memory"

From here on, through one of those paradoxes in which Saussure seems to have delighted and which are actually just the dialectical paradoxes of language and the science of language, the synchronic is based "ontologically" on the very experience of communication of signs, and the diachronic can be known only through the structuring and comparison of language states, that is, of moments of communication; continuous change is not and cannot become an object of knowledge except by the introduction of the synchronic discontinuity whose radical place Saussure found in the dialectical unity of communication. Hence the simultaneous conception of a synchro‑diachronic history and a subject that is the space of an exchange in which there appears and is constituted for knowledge a totalization that it does not bring about; rather, it is the place where that totalization is brought about.

Thus language [langue] is at once in the speech of the historical subject and separated from it as a synchronic system. The instrument of a dialectical practice of language [langage] and the object of a theoretical dialectics of the science of language, language [languel totalizes the human subject's capacity to produce meaning, but it can do so only outside the practice of a speaking subject. Language [langue] is not linguistic theory internalized in the human individual's memory, consciousness, and will. But only linguistic theory can bring language to light, as what allows and rigorously determines the free speech of the human subject. Speech in turn manifests language in the lived situation of communication, while remaining totally unaware of it. "Language, an unreflective totalization, is human reason which has its reasons and of which man knows nothing. It is that other totalization in which man finds his apodictic experience of sameness.

I suggested at the outset that the historical event of the constitution of linguistics as a science may well have had a transcendental signification, and that, for that reason, the linguistic structuring of the language object functioned and ought to function as a model for the other human sciences. This fundamental project is set forth clearly by Saussure himself, but it is marked by the same dialectical ambivalence that inspires all the concepts and operations of linguistics. Linguistics is only a part of a more general science, semiology, which "would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them .... [The laws discovered by semiology] will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well‑defined area within the mass of anthropological facts." 23 If the linguistic problem is a semiologic problem through and through, perhaps it is necessary not only to base the study of language on what it has in common with all other semiologic systems in order to discover its true nature, but also to consider the whole set of phenomena and human activities as systems of signs and thus to approach scientific knowledge of them semiologically. If the generation of meaning is the distinguishing characteristic of human activities and phenomena ­and perhaps of living beings more generally then semiology is the fundamental science, since it constitutes itself by modeling these phenomena and activities as sign systems. "Far from language being swallowed up in society, it is society which is beginning to recognize itself as `a language' … These innovating investigations suggest that the basic characteristic of language, that it is composed of signs, could be common to all those social phenomena which constitute culture."

But the same movement that situates linguistics as a particular science within general semiology reverses that position dialectically. The principal object of semiology will be the set of systems based on the arbitrariness of the sign. "In fact," Saussure continues, "every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior -- or ­what amounts to the same thing‑- on convention." Thus language, the object of linguistics, is the semiologic system par excellence, both "the most complex and universal of all systems of expression . . . [and] also the most characteristic,"'‑' It is the semiotic system that serves as general interpreter of all the other semiotic systems. By the same token, the linguistics that studies it is at once the model for all semiology, even though language is a particular system, and its foundation, by virtue of the irreversible semiotic relation of interpretation that connects it with all the other systems. This relation does not entail logical or ontological anteriority; it is rather a dialectical relation. Thus, to take one example, society encompasses language as a particular system in a "relation of embedding" in which the extrinsic dependencies of each are objectivized; but, conversely, language encompasses society to the extent that it is at once the necessary and general interpretant of all the other systems that constitute it and to the extent that the latter are only social or cultural systems in that they reproduce, in a more or less complete or complex fashion, the features and modes of actions of the modeling structure of the "great semiotic matrix" that is language.

We still have to ask, in conclusion, what feature is reproduced by semiotic systems other than language. This feature turns out to lie in the fundamental structure of duality in which we recognize the dialectical nature of structural linguistics and linguistic structure. What characterizes a phenomenon, an element, a thing endowed with meaning, is that its identity is intrinsically constructed from one relation to next. This fundamental articulation is reiterated at all levels, at all degrees of complexity: nothing signifies in itself and by itself. Meaning is relation; its "ontology" is a System of references in which it is produced by what it is not. Here we find the contradiction or originary lack whose embedding is constitutive of language, of symbolic systems, and of the structure of exchange in general.

The association between symbolic systems characterizing phenomena and human activities on the one hand and language on the other does riot mean that the two are identical. Claude Levi‑Strauss, one of those responsible for opening and clearing that path, puts it quite clearly: "The kinship system is a language; but it is not a universal language .... In dealing with a specific culture, we must always ask a preliminary question: is the system systematic?" This question is absurd, Levi‑Strauss adds, in substance, only insofar as language is concerned, since language is systematic or else it does not signify. But with other symbolic systems‑such as social organization or art­ of the tion must be rigorously examined," insofar as the signifying value of these systems is "partial, fragmentary, or subjectivity. If symbolic systems can be considered according to the model of language understood as a set of operations destined to ensure a certain type of communication among individuals and groups, whether the messages are constituted by women (kinship), words (language), or goods and services (economy), and provided that the differences are rigorously articulated, one can envisage reaching "a deep enough level . . . to make it possible to cross from one to the other; or to express the specific structure of each in terms of a sort of general language, valid for each system separately and for all of them taken together, a universal code that would come very close to realizing the Saussurian wish for a general semiology.

The other remark concerns the object of this study, the question of man as subject and signifying intentionality. By analyzing Saussurian linguistics as a dialectical science, by raising the question of the basis for the human sciences as the question of the circularity of an interpreting system with respect to the systems interpreted, or that of meaning as "transposition from one level of language [langage] to another, from one language to a different language . . . as a possibility of transcoding," it is indeed the question of the subject and of signifying Intentionality that turns out to be raised. Here again, we have to conceptualize it according to the model of language [langue] and linguistics, as a dialectical subject (of science and of speech), as a dialogic structure of exchange, transposition, and transformation of symbolic systems among themselves, of the various levels of the symbolic order. When Saussure seeks to define the object of linguistics and to delimit and define linguistics itself in the process, he describes the speaking‑circuit between two persons, that is, the operation of exchange between the sending of a message and a potentiality for comprehension. Such is the signifying subject that we discover in the linguistic model at the heart of the human sciences. In this model, human beings do not appear as subjects who give meaning, but as the place of production and manifestation of meaning, a space of rule‑governed exchanges, selections, and combinations among symbolic systems, a field of operations in which these systems limit and constrain one another in a specific way: a place, a space, a field in which meaning is produced in the illusion of its self‑creating substance, an illusion that we shall read as the effect of a dialectics of which it is the privileged operator.

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