The Enormous Difficulty of Language

Robert Graves said that poetry is a struggle with “the huge impossibility of language”. While scholarship is not poetry, academic writers do often find language to be at least an enormous difficulty. This is especially true of researchers for whom English is not their native language, but let’s keep in mind that even native speakers find it difficult to write well. Linguistic competence is not automatically literary mastery.

When Roland Barthes announced the “death of the author” it was as a consequence of his views on writing (a term he preferred to “literature”). He distinguished the act of writing, we might say, from the fact of language, from which “the writer literally takes nothing”. The language does not shape the content of the writing; it only establishes a horizon for it. Language, says Barthes, “is a field of action, the definition of, and a hope for, a possibility”. But writing is ultimately a Utopian gesture. Its freedom lies beyond a “frontier”; it is almost “supernatural”. In that sense, Graves was right. Language is the impossibility of poetry. The drama of a poem is precisely to exist in the face of that impossibility.

In this regard, I suppose, scholars sometimes feel a bit like poets. But we have to remember that a scholar doesn’t, properly speaking, work within a language, but within a discourse, and a discourse is not a so much a “huge impossibility” as a particular difficulty. Indeed, as I have said before, discourse is what makes it possible for us to attain a particular degree of precision on particular topics. While the language doesn’t, as Barthes rightly notes, provide the writer with a “stock of materials”, the discourse does exactly that. And more. Foucault has argued that discourse shapes the objects and the subjects, the concepts and the strategies of research, and thereby makes it possible to form statements, i.e., claims about what is going on in the world.

Now, discourses can express themselves in several languages. Here in Denmark, most scholars will speak of what they know in Danish as well as English, and sometimes also in French or German, or any other national language. In each case, the tiny possibilities of discourse are exposed to the huge impossibility language.  It is difficult sometimes, but that difficulty is worth facing. It the essential difficulty of scholarly writing.