The Prose of the World (1)*

The Prose of the World is the title of a posthumously published book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who borrowed the phrase from Hegel) and the title of the second chapter of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. “Prosaic writing,” said Merleau-Ponty, “limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture.” He distinguishes both “great prose” and poetry from such ordinary prose writing and says that the latter is what you get “when a writer is no longer capable of … founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating”. Well, I would argue that academic prose is also incapable of “founding a new universality” (though it should risk communicating), and this is really for the better. 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 possible to read Foucault 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.” And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty’s “new universalities” do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. For him, poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred. Again, I want to emphasize the virtues of prose, of ordinary usage, of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the “alliance” of “resemblances and signs”. It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims — and expose them to critique. Somebody has got to do it.

And not nearly enough of us do, I think. 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. But why not? Why don’t we acknowledge the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose? Why have we become so skeptical of this basic function of writing? My answer is simply that we are out of practice, and therefore a bit out of shape. We’re in poor form.

Students and, too often, scholars do not make writing a regular part of their studies, of their life of inquiry. In relative terms, they do “read a lot”, but they 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” (Foucault, op. cit.). Maybe we will never recover of our form. All it would take, of course, is a bit of regular work. We would need to sit down, for an hour or two every day and record what we know as claims that have support. And when we read the work of others, we would read them as making claims and offering support in turn.

Instead, it often seems, we have, like Foucault, come to see such activities 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. We suspend disbelief, we might say. We don’t assume 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. 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 (written by logical positivists!) and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills?


*This was originally published in 2011 on my old blog. Lightly edited here.

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