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Battles and books

slide-01This is a summary of the brief presentation I gave at the UNSW Humanities and Languages postgrad research conference Interrogating the in-between on 12 June 2015.

I opened my presentation with the questions:

  • Are there patterns in the history of linguistics?
  • Do your ideas about language affect what you do with it?

I then introduced one form that ideas take, abstractions, and discussed the term prosopopoeia, relating this to my Masters research on things, and how language constructs them, particularly the question of whether there is a difference between how a person and an animated thing are presented.

slide-02I provided examples of prosopopoeia, linking it to our use of citations of leading thinkers in our scholarly work. I explained how modern literary critics use it extensively in deconstructing text, and how it has also been described as a means whereby the author undercuts their own position – it makes the author ‘dumb’ if we see that the thing being animated is only alive because it speaks (Cynthia Chase, quoted in The Poetics of Personification: Paxson, 1994).

Positioning myself as working in academic development, I explained my interest in looking at how universities work, and how abstract terms are used within their management structure. This was why in this presentation I was looking at the genealogy of some of the current fights between staff and structures, to understand them better, and whether how language and language studies are handled within the university has implications for the future, or indeed the future destruction, of the university.

K8.7Athena

Ares and Athena

I then started to present a small historical overview of academic abstractions / prosopopoetic concepts at ‘war’.

Abstractions in the forms of gods were prominently featured in the battles of Classical epics, and their names and descriptions were significant. In Classical times, linguistics was part of philosophy. The naming of things was important in Greek and Hellenistic linguistics – they were concerned with etymology, phonetics and grammar.

For the Stoics, from around 300 BC, linguistic concerns were in part a debate between what is natural in language, like onomatopeia, and what is conventional (we would say arbitrary) in language. The grammarian who had most impact, lasting more than 1000 years, was Dionysius Thrax (c. 100 BC) and for him, grammar meant ‘what you needed to know to appreciate Classical literature’. With his treatise, ‘Techne’, the practical and observational work of linguistics becomes the norm.

As R H Robins says (1990, p. 36), this was the first turn in the active and continuing dispute between those who think linguistics is to record and analyse the revealed speech and writing of native speakers, and those who want to understand how language exists at all, and how it shows how the mind might work. The linguistics–for- better understanding-of-authors was the prevailing idea about language studies at the time the first major work in the history of Western personifications (Paxton, p. 63) was written: Psychomachia.

Psychomachia was written by a late 4th century/ early 5th century AD public servant and poet called Prudentius. It was very widely read through the Middle Ages, and a model of prosopopoetic battles for a millenium. It uses the device from Classical literature for Christian purposes, and is seen by some as an expression of the final handover to Christianity. Here is a sample:

“Faith first takes the field, her rough dress disordered … Worship-of-the-old-Gods ventures to match her strength … But she, rising higher, smites her foe’s head down … lays in the dust that mouth that was sated with the blood of beasts, and tramples the eyes under foot, squeezing them out in death. The throats is choked, and the scant breath confined …”

(This passage is read by James Paxson as being aware of the mask-aspect of personification, as dismantling or reversing prosopopeia.)

In Classical usage prosopopoeia is brought in for ‘supercharged’ persuasion, for high register, climatic situations, to ovewhelm any opposition. There is a parallel with the deus ex machina. Sadly its use in high-flown rhetorical settings lays it open to satire, as with the academic abstractions of The Battle of the Seven Liberal Arts.

Written around the middle of the 13th century (perhaps before 1250), by troubadour Henri d’Andely, it shows the fight between grammar and logic (with geometry, mathematics, law and medicine), between artes and auctores: the ‘hot’ questions are, how best to teach undergraduates, and how best to theorise language. Here is the scene being set:

Savez por qui est la descorde?   Do you know the reason for the discord?

Qu’il ne sont pas d’une science;   It is because they differ about learning

Quar Logique, qui toz jors tence  For Logic, who is always wrangling,

Calls the authors authorlings, and the students of Orleans mere grammar-boys

The satire continues: Surgery, on the artes side, is happy there is a war because she can draw arrows out of stomachs, and get lots of money; Arithmetic sits in the shade just counting. It looks like the authors might win:

Grammar strikes one of their disciples
In the body with a participle
Which felled him to the ground
Then she stretched five more of them on the sod
At the point of her adverb;
But Sir Socrates made her hide
For she could not answer all his questions

And then Astronomy grabs a thunder bolt to end the battle.

This satire that d’Andely is describing was also a real world contest, which his ‘side’ lost. The poem was written at the time when the debate between philosophically directed linguistics and the pursuit of fine classical writing as the target of grammar was turning very strongly towards philosophy, and towards speculative grammar situated in Scholastic philosophy. What was important was a thing’s ‘mode of being’ and how in language the mind takes its understanding of the being and turns it into active modes of signification.

slide-03The Scholastic apparatus was the centre of learning, based on theology, and the dominant shaper of ideas until and beyond the beginning of the Renaissance – which had as its manifesto, in part, to recreate the Classical authors and their texts.

The theme of this conference is ‘interrogating the in-between’, and my first thought when considering submitting a topic for presentation was the so-called ‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’ (the time when printing flourished, a distinct pause in a largely oral language world).

gutenberg_parenthesisDuring the period of the Gutenberg parenthesis, language theory again rocks between the speculative and the descriptive. As Europe conquered more languages, comparative linguistics was highlighted, but there was also a trend towards considering language as an entity, and looking beyond language to ideas – caricatured in the quest for encyclopedic organisation of knowledge in the Enlightenment, for example the materialism of Diderot (knowledge must be expressed in language, which changes over time), and the misunderstanding of Chinese characters as pure ‘ideas’.

The start of linguistics as labelled as such, in the twentieth century, did not always result in better linguistic understanding in the schools and universities.

In a small study of my colleagues during the formulation of a language policy for the university, the concept of good use of language is very much focussed on questions of grammar and spelling and the standard and right way of doing things. Linguistics and literary studies are kept apart, as if the ‘artes’ still have the upper hand.

Abstractions become codified; universities are built and multiply, and linguists become ‘hybrid’. We now see universities with the choice of publicising their character building, their knowledge building, or their vocation building.

Faculties shift, and the abstraction which has until recently been guiding the university’s self-assessment is Quality.

I finished the presentation with a practical and contemporary example.

child-bookAs perhaps the last war of the Gutenberg parenthesis, the reading wars of the 1980s and onwards in America are one last example of the see-saw between ‘artes’ (the skills of reading, here, phonics) and ‘auctores’ (the whole language movement). The debate itself went on throughout the twentieth century, and is still going on (perhaps more strongly in Australia now?). The Californian bureaucrat who did the most to promulgate the whole language approach from around 1987 was motivated by the need for children to develop a reverence for reading, for the great writers (auctores) of the past (actually the same person became a leader in introducing or re-introducing phonics).

The focus of education on testing for literacy, and the political weight to the topic, has monopolised the panic and attention of budgets and legislators for a long time – and we still are not quite at the middle way.


Paxson, J. (1994). The poetics of personification. (Literature, culture, theory; 6). Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Robins, R. H. (1990). A short history of linguistics. (3rd ed.). Longman: London.

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