One peculiar feature of the Anglo-American reception of French thought since about 1970 is the view that the variety of thinkers and tendencies involved reduces everything to language. One crucial place to test such a reading is with regard to a set of texts devoted to painting and the visual arts, for the latter would seem to be situated at or beyond the boundaries of language, a place that Julia Kristeva calls the semiotic. The alleged reductionism of the French is usually construed as the claim that language is a seamless whole in which all meanings are defined in terms of one another. But it is characteristic of French poststructuralist thinkers to deny precisely this view, and to emphasize the fissures and fractures in linguistic systems, their susceptibility to psychological, social, or institutional power, and their tendency to generate inconsistencies and aporias. So even if the alleged reduction were to occur, it would be to a language that was already understood in what might be called a "materialistic" fashion. On the other hand, if language is construed more narrowly and conventionally as verbal, then the leading tendency among poststructuralist thinkers would seem to be the desire to distinguish between the linguistic and the visual while at the same time tracking and articulating the structure and play of their incursions into and intersections with one another. In this respect Jacques Derrida speaks for these theorists when he suggests (in The Truth in Painting) that we should question the traditional philosophical hierarchy or system of the arts, according to which it is the arts of language to which the others aspire and which complete their mission (the traditional view is found to be especially strong in G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger). Given this approach, it becomes an important task for poststructuralist thinkers to be self-critically vigilant about the position of the speaker or writer who addresses painting.

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Copyright © 1998 . This article first appeared in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Edited by Michael Kelly. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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