Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Prosaic Rhetoric in Still-Life Paintings and Personal Essays

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Prosaic Rhetoric in Still-Life Paintings and Personal Essays

Article excerpt

If anything distinguishes the critical ethos of today, it is the way that the search for overarching designs and encompassing schemes has given way to seemingly more modest and immediate concerns. Evidenced generally in the way that "The Personal in Scholarship" was made a focal topic in a 1996 issue of PMLA, this tendency was in some ways anticipated in interarts criticism in the form of reconsidering the value and viability of a purely formalist approach. Thus in her 1982 Colors of Rhetoric, Wendy Steiner applauded structuralism at the same time that she felt a need to emphasize the role of "the perceiver's involvement in meta-artistic meaning" (65). Similarly, and more recently, W.J.T. Mitchell has argued that we need to shift attention away from abstract theorizing and focus instead on "vernacular" works which "literally and materially" conjoin the arts in the form of "imagetexts" (89). If we note in turn that what also seems to be involved here is a critique of the old notion of the hierarchy of the arts, then one can see that an interesting site for discussing interarts relations might be connections between the personal essay and the type of pictorial art which was conventionally placed at the bottom of the ladder - the "still life."

Significantly, still-life painting has itself currently attracted scholarly attention from art historians, and in Looking at the Overlooked Norman Bryson has demonstrated that, far from being "dead," still life moves its inanimate objects in three major ways - rotation, series, and arc - with a fourth being the implied bodily intimacy between the represented objects and unrepresented viewers. Essays, too, I wish to argue, employ these kinds of movements among ideas, as well as reflecting a kind of intimacy between speaker and listener, and common to both genres is not only their thematic focus on the "prosaic" or ordinary but also a "prosaic rhetoric" - i.e., a special mode of presentation which is characterized by gradualness (or repetitions of the same object/idea with slow modifications over time) and angularity (or shifting, non-linear movement which results from the cumulative effect of slightly differing inflections or modulations of line and tone). In order to clarify further what I mean by "prosaic rhetoric" and how it differs from conventional "prose," I will begin this essay by invoking and integrating the sociolinguistic theory of "prosaics" advanced by Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich with the more social theory of "prosaics" associated with Mikhail Bakhtin. Turning next to the two genres, I will attempt to show how the "ideas" in an essay, like the "objects" in a still-life painting, are given movement through rotation, series, and arc, paying special attention to the essay's "I" persona, the deployment of various narrative slants, and the shifting intimacies of "conversation." Finally, I will look concretely at the way that prosaic rhetoric operates in essays by Sam Pickering (an English professor at the University of Connecticut, whose persona was co-opted in the film Dead Poets Society) and by Cynthia Ozick (a literary critic, essayist and fiction writer whose work has frequently appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books). Although I hope that my discussion will serve to illuminate the strategies that make still-life painting so innocently appealing, my major concern is with how prosaic rhetoric gives form to the personal essay, a genre that is too often seen as presenting an amorphous and monological flux of consciousness.

The term "prosaics," coined in 1987 by Kittay and Godzich in The Emergence of Prose: An Essay in Prosaics, means the processes of revealing the constructed within the seemingly natural. Although today prose seems like the default, the "natural" way to write, medieval writers had to invent it. Through what Kittay and Godzich call "the processive threading of the text," such writers had to express the elements of decision-making - at particular places and times - that underlie the apparently "natural" order of things (48). …

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