The Origins of Modern Prose

Mercury’s Words: The End of Rhetoric and the Beginning of Prose

by John Guillory

The essay begins:

The origin of modern prose style was the subject of much scholarly debate in the first half of the twentieth century, but interest in the subject waned thereafter. Today, few scholars other than Restoration specialists or historians of rhetoric are likely to recall the terms of the debate between Morris W. Croll and Richard Foster Jones or their successors. And yet prose style has once again become an important locus of work in literary study, most conspicuously in the new field of digital analysis, which has returned scholarship to some very old concerns of literary history. After decades in which literary study has been dominated by contextual hermeneutics, it seems possible once again to think about literary change in formal terms, as Franco Moretti has notably argued: “For me, formal analysis is the great accomplishment of literary study, and is therefore also what any new approach—quantitative, digital, evolutionary, whatever—must prove itself against.” I would endorse this provocation, and indeed I want to raise the stakes of formal analysis in this essay by taking a step back from the computational project and from the favored object of Moretti’s project—the novel—and look instead at prose itself as the perennial subject of discourse about style. The aim of my argument is to recover a crucial episode in the historical conceptualization of style and thus to restore the emergence of modern prose to its key position in our understanding of English literary history.

The unresolved inquiry begun by Croll and Jones set out from the manifest difference of modern prose from its Renaissance and medieval antecedents. As a subset of language change, the development of prose style has its own set of complex determinations. All prose, let us stipulate, is the sum of stylistic features determined by a familiar set of conceptual operators: form, genre, author, period, literary fashion, and perhaps others as yet unspecified. But prose as such is a purely conceptual entity; it functions as a kind of raw material for composition, seemingly undetermined with regard to content and yet constrained by conventions of grammar and usage. The components of style further limit prose, however difficult these elements are to specify. Croll argued that the emergence of modern English prose style in the later seventeenth century was a result of the anti-Ciceronian movement, which was correlated with a reorientation of the genre system that privileged the forms of essay and treatise over the form of oratory. Jones, by contrast, traced modern prose to a series of polemics emanating from the Royal Society on behalf of the “plain style,” which he saw as directly influencing composition in prose. Although both Croll and Jones grasped aspects of the transformation of prose, their causal hypotheses failed to demonstrate a definitive mechanism of change that would explain the syntax and diction we recognize as modern. I remain agnostic about causal arguments and propose here a different kind of historical hypothesis: New developments in the discourse of prose style betray the recognition of prose avant la lettre as a medium. This recognition was more precisely a misrecognition, in the sense that the “plain style” was understood as a new kind of prose rather than an intuition about the nature of prose itself. Nevertheless, this misrecognition had the perhaps unintended effect of dislodging prose from its immemorial subordination to the system of rhetoric and severing its link to the preeminent genre of oratory. Prose changed when this regulatory regime was lifted, though not necessarily in ways prescribed by the advocates of anti-Ciceronianism or the plain style. Further, composition in prose continued for some time to be described in rhetorical terms, because no other technical lexicon was yet available. The importance of this lexical overhang is a part of the story I mean to tell, and has consequences that extend into the present.

In this story, oratory is more important than narrative. The fact that we never encounter any prose that is not generically or formally marked means that prose is always somewhere behind its manifestations, of which narrative is only one. For this reason, I do not offer here a “prosaics” based on the instance of narrative, which has been the premise of most efforts to construct a theory of prose, from Viktor Shklovsky onwards. Prose was understood in antiquity rather as the complement of verse, which long predated it as a kind of marked speech. If poetry has an obvious signal in the aural form of meter, prose has been strangely harder to define, often yielding to Monsieur Jourdain’s naive apprehension: prose is any speech or writing that is not verse. Yet prose first appeared in ancient Greece in the rarified form of an art—rhetoric—complementary to the art of poetry. The first rhetoricians called the object of their art “persuasive speech.” This speech was obviously different from poetry, but such was the oddity of it that the Greeks could only name it “bare” or “naked” speech (logos gymnos), to indicate the absence of meter. Although the sophists elaborated this bare speech into complex syntactic schemes and figurative modes of expression, it somehow still remained nominally bare speech. The Romans struggled with the same paradox in what they called prosa oratio, “straightforward speech.” Prosa, which gives us our vernacular word prose, is a contraction of pro + vertere, to turn straight forward; prose means speaking “right on,” to quote Shakespeare’s Marc Antony (who, as it happens, is speaking neither forthrightly nor in prose). Eventually the umbilicus to oratory was severed, and prose came to be associated in a special way with the kind of writing that is visually distinct from verse, or written to the margin of the page. But it is not easy to say exactly when this break with oratory was accomplished. Writing in early modernity continued to exhibit what Walter Ong calls an “oral residue” for as long as oratory occupied the highest place in the hierarchy of prose genres.

Scholars have identified several beginnings of prose even after its inception with Greek rhetoric, for example, the one advanced by Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich in their study, The Emergence of Prose, which locates an origin of prose in the transition to French vernacular writing of the later middle ages. Kittay and Godzich see in this prose an irreversible movement away from the deictic situation of the French jongleurs, who recited (or sang) their vernacular verses, thus rooting their compositions in a single time and place of performance. French narrative prose, by contrast, whether chronicle or fiction, displaced this deixis to a purely “textual space” (116), in which Kittay and Godzich see the appearance of a new “signifying practice” that is highly versatile and pulls together any number of discourses in its web—in short, “the birth of modern prose” (195). That this moment of transition, which is linked to the privileged instance of narrative, fully comprehends the possibilities of prose in modernity seems unlikely to me, although where one stands on this question depends on how one defines modernity. In any correlation of prose with modernity, these two terms will define each other. Still, we can safely say that each emergence of prose enables what follows, and this is the explanatory framework I adopt in this essay. The emergence of prose in the seventeenth century is possibly the last of a series beginning in Greek antiquity—that is, if we are not now on the cusp of a new digital prose. Continue reading …

This essay offers a new interpretation of a longstanding and unresolved controversy concerning the origins of modern prose style. Setting aside causal explanations proposed for the marked changes in prose style during the later seventeenth century, I argue that what emerges in urgent polemics for the “plain style” is a recognition of prose itself as a medium of composition. This intuition about the nature of prose had the unintended effect of liberating prose from its immemorial subordination to the system of rhetoric and opening up new possibilities for its exploitation as a means of communication.

JOHN GUILLORY is Professor of English at New York University. His current work includes a book on the figure of philosophy in Renaissance writing and a study of close reading as “cultural technique.”

July Conference on Feminism and Contemporary Art

Local/Global Dynamics in Feminism and Contemporary Art

July 3 2017, Middlesex University London

A research conference open to artists, academics and curators interested in feminism and contemporary art.

Organized by Katy Deepwell (founder and editor of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal and Professor of Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism, Middlesex University) and featuring panel discussions and presentations of current feminist research by:

Giulia Lamoni (art historian, Investigadora FCT, Instituto de Historio de Arte, Lisbon)

Ebru Yetiskin (curator, Associate Professor in Sociology, Media Theory, Digital Humanities. Istanbul Technical University)

Emanuela de Cecco (art critic/art historian, University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy)

Martina Pachmanova (art historian, Associate Professor, Katedra teorie a dejin umení, VŠUP/UMPRUM v Praze, Department of Art Theory and History, Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague)

QUESTIONS EXPLORED

Writing in 1990, Elspeth Probyn argued that it was important to differentiate the concepts of locale, location and the local in order to address the broader questions of knowledge production and subject position in “where and how we may speak” – as well as a means to draw on a rich legacy of feminist thought from Adrienne Rich to Gayatri Spivak. In the production of artworks and in the analysis and presentation of the works of women artists in an international art world where globalisation, post-colonialism and a diasporic cultural politics have been predominant for two decades, this differentiation provides a starting point for this conference. Feminist questions about the politics of location; feminism’s role in countering “objective”/ “dominant” forms of knowledge, canons and historical agendas; as well as differentiating between speaking as women or Woman (as split and non-identitarian in her identifications) will be considered. Feminism has, for some time, argued that it can progress by “acting locally, thinking globally” in tackling women’s issues, often bypassing the question of the national en route to global comparisons on a world stage or by directing its critique at localised forms of nationalism.

Feminism nevertheless has also to counter perceptions of itself as homogeneous, when it is actually heterogeneous and scattered in how the position of women artists is theorised globally, and how women artists as subjects, both represented and representative and neither singular nor stereotypical, are written about. Acknowledging that individually we may speak from a location, about a locale and address local concerns requires more than personal caveats, it necessitates a commitment to dialogue and exchange as well as to hearing and engaging with other voices in the world who represent different realities/locations as well as diverse theoretical positions to our own.

This conference has been organised with the aim of building new and shared understandings across generations and geographies to think about where feminist debate in the visual arts is positioned today, especially given the current “popularity” of women artists in museums, biennales and galleries, as well as its directions for the future. The conference aims to address how different local concerns appear internationally and how locales may produce different understandings (locations) which may be productive for a stronger local and global dynamics within and across feminism(s).

All of the above approaches have been central to the work of the journal, n.paradoxa, for the last 20 years and this conference addresses the work of feminists, artists and researchers who have helped to create n.paradoxa: an international feminist art journal in a visual display of former contributors’ comments. The conference coincides with Volume 40 of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal (July 2017) on the theme of Ends and Beginnings. In its 20 years of publication, over 400 women artists, writers and curators from more than 80 countries have contributed.

INVITATION TO ATTENDEES

All attendees, in the spirit of exchanging work and ideas, are invited to bring a poster outlining their own research work on feminism and contemporary art. The poster can represent a current art project, a research project, a thesis proposal or a plan for an article, chapter or book. The poster can be speculative, a proposition or a projection of future work. Part of the extended lunch time will be given over to attendees to discuss / present their poster displays.

Organiser: Katy Deepwell  K.Deepwell@mdx.ac.uk <mailto:K.Deepwell@mdx.ac.uk> or katy@ktpress.co.uk <mailto:katy@ktpress.co.uk>

Vision and the Firefly

Does a Glowworm See? Sigmund Exner’s Study of the Compound Eye

by Christoph Hoffmann

The essay begins:

In 1891, the Viennese physiologist Sigmund Exner published the first comprehensive study of complex, multifaceted eyes. Today, his book The Physiology of the Compound Eyes of Insects and Crustaceans is a classic in its field. Scholars still refer to Exner’s findings, even if “it took the scientific community 80 years to catch up with his state of knowledge.” The most popular outcome of Exner’s studies was a picture proudly printed opposite the title page. According to the caption, the figure shows “the erect retinal image in the eye of the firefly (Lampyris spldl.).” The original photograph was made with the help of Josef Maria Eder, author of the Handbuch der Photographie and renowned director of the Viennese Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (Academy of graphic arts). Eder placed the eye—fully stripped of all tissue behind the lens structure—under a microphotographic apparatus, focused on the plane almost directly behind the inner endings of the ommatidia, and then recorded the image that would have formed at this point on the removed retinal layer. The resulting photograph shows the window of the laboratory room; the letter R, slightly distorted, mounted on one of its panes; and finally, beyond the pane, the “Schottenfeld Church and church tower, approximately several hundred paces distant” from the laboratory. This, at least, is what a human observer notices when studying the picture. Far more questionable is what the glowworm might see. Even if the photograph exactly reproduces the image “which the eye of the glowworm beholds,” as Eder claimed, it is not at all clear whether the resulting impression is comparable to the one perceived by a human being, and, even less clear, whether we can suppose that seeing always takes place in the same way.

From today’s perspective, Exner’s monograph indeed marks a moment in which the then still uncontested equating of the visual process with the perception of images took shape as a widely valid but nevertheless limited understanding of vision. The phrase “from today’s perspective” deserves special emphasis because Exner himself never drew this conclusion in his writings. My suggestion is motivated, rather, by a tension between Exner’s focus in research on the mechanisms of image formation and his ideas about the purpose of the compound eye in animal life. This tension is most noticeable in the photograph of the retinal image of the glowworm (the folk name for the “firefly”). The impression captured is in some respects misleading because the depiction of objects, according to Exner, plays only a minor role in seeing with a compound eye. Instead, for him, the main purpose of such an eye was to detect perceptible changes in the environment.

In the following pages I argue that the unspoken conflict marking Exner’s discussion of the compound eye may be considered a window into the way Western scientific thought has constructed a framework for vision since at least the beginning of the seventeenth century. In part 1 I focus on the fact that Exner, with the photograph of the retinal image, visually cited a crucial experiment. For scholars in physiological optics, the retinal image did not constitute one phenomenon among others, but represented the very moment when seeing began: the formation of a picture of the outside world in the back of the eye. Originally based on observations made with the single-chambered-lens eye, image formation also guided scholars who, since the end of the seventeenth century, had begun to explore the capacities of the compound eye. As part 2 shows, the very different structure of such an eye only underscored the notion that the formation of the retinal image must take place slightly differently. Exner’s studies followed this line of research; for the two basic types of compound eyes, he successfully documented how the complex lens apparatus is able to form a retinal image of the outside world. Nevertheless, as already noted, Exner also subverted this line of research by emphasizing that such an eye must be particularly apt for perceiving changes in the environment. In part 3, I frame the resulting inconsistency, to quote Ludwik Fleck, as due to the “tenacity of systems of opinion.” I argue that the concept of vision based on the perception of images was so dominant that Exner overlooked the potential consequences of his own ideas. Continue reading …

What does seeing mean with respect to different living beings? Is seeing with a compound eye similar to seeing with a single-lens eye? In what way is vision conceptually coupled with the formation of a retinal image? These and other questions arise from consideration of a famous photograph of the retinal image formed by the eye of a glowworm in Sigmund Exner’s authoritative treatise on compound eyes of 1892.

CHRISTOPH HOFFMANN is Professor of Science Studies at the University of Lucerne. His current research focuses on experiments in animal communication and data work in the sciences.