Monthly Archives: November 2017

In Defense of Prose

The root meaning of “prose” is “straightforward or direct speech.” Today, however, it normally refers to a kind of writing. While it is often contrasted with poetry, the original meaning of prose, as a “plain” kind of writing “without ornament”, and in that sense distinct from poetry, doesn’t quite apply any longer. Much of the prose we can read, and often in academic journals, is highly ornate or “poetic”. There is even such a thing as “prose poetry”. The sixteeenth-century conception of prose as “plain” writing appears to have inspired, in the seventeenth century, the pejorative sense of prose as “dull”, so that, in the nineteenth century, the French word prosateur meant simply a “dull writer”. It is also from French that we get the derivative “prosaic”, meaning “ordinary”.

“Prosaic writing,” said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture.” Against this, he sets “a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others.” In fact, he distinguishes both “great prose” and poetry from ordinary prose writing, which writers resort to, he argues, when they are “no longer capable of … founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating.” While, this way of constructing the difference between prose and poetry appeals to me, there is a danger in interpreting it as an argument against prosaic writing. After all, given the choice between “limiting” yourself to “already accepted” meanings, on the one hand, and calling out to “each individual freedom”, on the other, it seems obvious what your ambition should be.

It is possible to read Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things as an argument for the contingency of this prosaic world. “Don Quixote is the negative of the Renaissance world,” he tells us; “writing has ceased to be the prose of the world.” (The title of Merleau-Pounty’s book was The Prose of the World.) And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty’s “new universalities” do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. Poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred.

Sometimes I get the sense that scholars think of themselves as poets–perhaps self-consciously minor poets, or even failed poets, but poets nonetheless. Many academics struggle with the language in the manner of Don Quixote, who “wanders off on his own,” as Foucault put it. We “no longer read nature and books alike as part of a single text,” in terms of their similitude, he tells us. We don’t acknowledge, I would add, the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose. We have become highly skeptical of this basic function of writing, and our students, too, have adopted this attitude. They learn to read even ostensibly factual prose as though it were the accounts of adventures of madmen, “without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness … no longer the marks of things … sleeping … covered in dust.”

It often seems to me that we have, like Foucault, come to see the representation of facts in prose as tantamount to a belief in magic. All writing has become fiction. We appreciate each other’s writing in the manner of literature rather than simply and straightforwardly “taking issue” with what is said on the assumption that the words we are using are meaningful in the ordinary prosaic way and may therefore be compared to, i.e., “read against”, the world of facts that make our utterances true or false.

It’s time to defend the virtues of prose, the value of ordinary usage, the power of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the “alliance” of “resemblances and signs”. Ironically (which is to say, appropriately), this little rant in favor of the representational function of language will be considered by many to be the ravings of a madman who has read, with a certain romance, too many books and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills? I would argue that academic prose should not be ashamed of its inability to “found a new universality”. Academic writing is very much an attempt to use the language within the limits of accepted usage. There is a whole world of prose: the universe of which it is always already possible to speak. It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims. Somebody has got to do it.

(This post is a reworked version of two posts from my retired blog.)

The Future of Objectivity (4)

The idea that objectivity is an attribute of “the male gaze” has been with us since the 1970s and has played an important part in the feminist critique of science. In her contribution to The Future of Scholarly WritingAnna Grimshaw briefly touches on this issue, mainly in a footnote on Judith Okely’s “The Self and Scientism” (from 1975, reprinted in the 1996 collection Own or Other Culture), which explored the place of personal experience, and therefore subjectivity, in anthropological fieldwork. “Okely argued against the perception among social scientists that subjectivity was a problem to be overcome in pursuit of objective research,” Grimshaw explains. “She called for the acknowledgement of the important role played by subjectivity in participant observation” (157, n3). Since Grimshaw doesn’t say more about objectivity as such, I had a look at the relevant pages in Okely’s essay for this installment in my series on the future of objectivity.

Okely rightly points out that subjectivity is seen mainly as a impediment to knowledge, as something that needs to be kept from undermining our efforts to know the world. She makes a good case for the idea that subjectivity is actually the “medium” through which we understand other people. In an important sense, we might say, the anthropologist’s subjective experience is our measuring instrument, so it does seem somewhat odd to think of it as something to be kept out of our study of other people. She cites Maquet as suggesting that fieldwork is actually only something we do out of necessity, when studying illiterate cultures, and Nadet for suggesting that anthropologists should work in teams in order to avoid dependence on a “single mind” for experience. I think she makes a compelling case for approaching subjectivity as a substantive virtue of participant observation rather than a necessary evil.

I’m less comfortable with the somewhat radical conclusion she draws from this, and with the gendering of the issue. These are brought together in a quote from Anaïs Nin’s diaries:

Now analysis is revealing how little objectivity there is in man’s thinking … Man generalizes from experience and denies the source of his generalizations. Woman individualizes and personalizes, but ultimately analysis will reveal that the rationalizations of man are a disguise to his personal bias, and that woman’s intuition was nothing more than a recognition of the influence of the personal in all thought. (Quoted by Okely, p. 29)

It is one thing to promote subjectivity and quite another to denigrate objectivity. The idea that it is somehow false, and perhaps even oppressive, doesn’t sit very comfortably with me. The quest for objectivity, as I understand it, has never tried to disguise the fact of personal biases; it has merely suggested that those biases can be countered and that a limited, but clear, view of the facts can be achieved. Finally, I really don’t think that subjectivity and objectivity are gendered traits. As Nin points out, men are ultimately as subjectively grounded as women, although in 1975 it may have been accurate to say the men were more conditioned to check their subjective biases and adopt an objective stance. Today, four decades later, women are raised with the same awareness of objective reality as men. Indeed, I would add that women are as capable of objectivity as men. I’m not going to get into the question of whether this capacity is equally distributed among men and women, though I hope it won’t be controversial to suggest that it’s not equally distributed among individuals. Moreover, the interest in being objective is itself a personal matter, a subjective attitude, if you will.

It’s not my place to propose feminist strategy, but I don’t think the rhetorical opposition of a genuine female subjectivity with a mere pretense of male objectivity gets the issue quite right. Subjectivity and objectivity alike can be authentic postures or superficial gestures. We can pursue them in earnest or merely pay lip service to them. Men are no more capable of pretending here than women are. And women, in my experience, are are no less capable than men of recognizing and overcoming subjective sources of error.

Picture, Texture, Scripture

Every now and then you should take a close look at the words you use. Arm yourself with a good a dictionary–one that tells you not just what words mean but where they came from. I’m often grateful for the existence of the Online Etymology Dictionary. Just today, in fact, I uttered a silent prayer of thanks (though its creator says he holds no particular faith) as I discovered the intimate connection between the words “picture” and “scripture”. I was led here by a series of early morning thoughts.

I often compare writing to drawing. Both commit marks to a page in order to evoke an image in the mind of the reader/viewer. Both make use of relatively simple means. I got to thinking of how neatly similar the words “drawing” and “writing” are, and how their likeness translates (as it were) even into their Latinate cousins, e.g., description and depiction. Ordinarily, however, I would contrast pictures, not with “scriptures”, which has too much religious baggage, but with “texts”. I’m always unsatisfied when the word forms don’t line up so neatly, however.

Draw-ing, write-ing: I like that. De-pict-ion, de-script-ion: I like that too. On this model, I would put “texture”, not “text”, across from “picture”. (“Pict” means something too different, though the root is the same.) Maybe, I thought, the etymologies could help me recover a sense of order, but, as it turns out, I appear to be more or less stuck with the contrast between pictures and scriptures, which is much more appropriate than I thought.

“Picture” leads us through the Latin “pictura” (for “painting”) from pictus, the past participle of pingere “to make pictures, to paint, to embroider.” We are now directed to the verb “to paint” which comes from Old French peint and then, again, to the Latin pingere, which, we are told, comes the Proto-Indo-European root *peig- which means to “cut” or “mark by incision”. “Scripture,” meanwhile, leads us to the Late Latin scriptura, meaning “the writings contained in the Bible” or “a passage from the Bible,” which in turn stems from classical Latin, denoting simply “a writing, character, inscription.” But this, it turns out, comes from scriptus, which is the past participle of scribere and this comes the from the Proto-Indo-European root *skribh-, which, thrillingly, also means “to cut”. That is, both words–“picture” and “scripture”–stem from roots that suggest marking up a surface. Indeed, the Online Etymology Dictionary connects the PIE skribh to Greek skariphasthai “to scratch an outline, sketch,” Latin scribere “to carve marks in wood, stone, clay,” Lettish skripat “scratch, write;” and Old Norse hrifa, “scratch.”

In fact, I had been thinking of something along these lines this morning. There are “natural” pictures, I thought to myself. The camera obscura must have been discovered by accident in a cave or through a pinhole tear in a tent. But even a shadow is a natural picture (at least of the outline) of the tree or person that casts it. The footprint, too, is a “picture” of the foot, and one that is produced through no particular artifice. Is there an equally “natural” form of scripture? Is there a kind of writing that we merely imitate, a natural process of inscription that taught us how to construct a sentence? Perhaps there is. Perhaps the individual footprint is a picture, but a series of footprints tells a story. “Someone walked here, and went that way,” it seems to tell us. Did we learn to write by interpreting these natural signs, these records of the events?

We all know that “text” stems from the PIE verb tek, “to weave, to fabricate, to make wicker”. The root of the “article” is the act of “joining” things together. Perhaps we can begin to see how our experiences are woven from materials, pictures and scriptures, that are cut from the manifold of images that come to us, willy-nilly, in experience. Whether we try to capture these images by drawing them or writing them, the task is to mark up a surface and make and impression.

How Do We Know?

The universe is expanding. In four billion years, Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way. There are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and most of them have planets. The Earth revolves around the Sun once roughly every 365 days. The Moon revolves around the earth once every 28 days and is moving away from us. Modern humans are descendants of primates. Over 14,000 years ago, we invented war. The climate is warming. The human population will reach 10 billion around 2050. The gap between rich and poor is growing. The human body sways to the rhythm of a 24-hour clock. Cell division is controlled by proteins called cyclins. Life on Earth began about 4 billion years ago when molecules that could replicate themselves emerged in the primordial ooze. Molecules are made of atoms and atoms are made of particles that are really organizations of energy. Energy is always conserved in a physical system. In the beginning all the energy in the universe was contained in a single point.* One more thing: there is water on the Moon.

How do we know these things? That depends on what you mean but  the short answer is “science”. As a culture, we know these things because of a collective process of inquiry; as individuals, we learn them in school. That is, some of us discovered these things and taught them to others, who taught them to others, and then, perhaps, to us. Some of us don’t know these things, but we know them. Almost anyone can learn them, too, i.e., become knowledgeable about them. Given ordinary intelligence, sufficient curiosity, some time and a good book or teacher, a human being can understand these things at a level that we’d consider “knowledge”. But how do we know? What did we do to acquire this knowledge? What are we doing when we know them?

This question fascinates me. It has many different answers, but I’m after a very practical one. I want to understand the practices by which we come to know things, both collectively and individually. Obviously, I want to know (!) how the collective and individual practices intersect. Ultimately, I believe that only things that can be known by individuals can be known at all. But that does not mean that there aren’t things that it “takes a village” to discover. It’s hard to imagine the discovery of water on the Moon by anything less than a coordinated effort. But once the discovery has been made, the knowledge is available to each one of us. This is very important to me, and I don’t think the point is trivial. When I look at what passes for knowledge these days, especially on social media, it sometimes seems to me that people believe things without assuming that anyone–any one person–knows them. They defer not to one expert or another but to an anonymous, undifferentiated, collective “expertise.”

Naturally, they don’t themselves claim to know what they believe either. They merely assert that “we know” or “it is known”. This saves them the trouble of defending their beliefs, and I think we let them, and ourselves, get away with this at our peril. No one is responsible for knowing everything, but we should assume that if anything is known it can be known by “little old me” too, perhaps in a simplified form, or at some level of generality, but, even if I would never have thought of it myself, or stumbled on it in my own experience, I can understand any knowable thing well enough to know it too. I want this to be a norm of “educated” people.

In that case, then, I want to suggest that we know things mainly through experience and conversation–broadly understood to include writing. Indeed, almost everything we know comes to us through conversation with others, through discourse with other knowledgeable people. We listen to them and read what they have to say. We question them and add thoughts of our own. We help each other sharpen our points and discard our errors. If we don’t participate in this process we don’t really know anything. It is not enough to look into a telescope or read a history book. We have to make sense of what we see or read there in collaboration with others. Once I’ve understood something well enough to hold my own in a conversation about it with other knowledgeable people, I, too, can claim to be knowledgeable. Until then, I’m still learning.


*Update, 24.04.20: It has come to my attention that this may be a myth about the Big Bang.