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.)

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