• Andrew

Discussion Post | Style as a "Lower-Order Concern"

Did I read more this week than Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception? Yes. Do I have to finish a syllabus by the end of the day? Yes. So here’s a short one.


In my short life thinking about writing and style, I always hear the style-oriented parts of writing called “lower-order concerns.” The other things—research, argument, ideas—get called “higher-order concerns.” Well, for someone like mewho has decided that style and the words-on-paper process of writing is the focus of his scholarship, that “lower order” designation feels a little dismissive. Honestly, the only way I can wrap my head around the thought that style is of a lower order than content is to think in terms of a hierarchy of abstraction. Then, style is obviously “lower order” because it is more concrete. Ideas are more abstract than sentences. Where concrete terms are lower in the hierarchy than abstract terms, I can accept that style is a “lower-order” concern.

However, I struggle to accept what happens when “lower order” means less significant. As I mentioned last week, Merleau-Ponty points out that “The musical signification of the sonata is inseparable from the sounds that carry it” (188). Interestingly, he goes on to say:

But despite appearances, the same is true for the expression of thoughts by speech. Thought is nothing “inner,” not does it exist outside the world and outside of words. What tricks us here, what makes us believe in a thought that could exist for itself prior to expression, are the already constituted and already expressed thoughts that we can silently recall to ourselves and by which we give ourselves the illusion of an inner life. But in fact, this supposed silence is buzzing with words—this inner life is an inner language. (188 – 189)

Merleau-Ponty challenges the distinction between between thought and language by asserting the non-distinction between notes and music. Without notes, there can be no music—and, without language, there can be no thoughts. Later, Merleau-Ponty discusses the paintings of Cézanne, saying, “In the works of his youth, Cézanne sought to pain the expression first, and this why he missed it” (337). That is, “[A] face only expresses something through the arrangement of colors and lights that compose it; the sense of this facial expression is not behind its eyes, but upon them, and a touch of color more or less is enough for the painter to transform the facial expression of a portrait” (337).


I can’t help but wonder how often we ask writing students to write the expression first—and then we act surprised when they miss it. How can someone paint a convincing portrait of a happy person without first understanding the anatomy of the smile? How can we expect students to give expression to their “thoughts” (which are really no more than an inner language) if we haven’t given them the understanding of writing—modulating inner language into written language? I can recognize a smile when I see one. I can even picture one in my head—but I can’t make paint or pencil recreate those smiles: I don’t have the skills or knowledge. Is drawing two circles with a curve underneath really a valiant effort in drawing for ideas without letting the pesky rules of form, value, or anatomy get in my way?


There may be good reasons for it (that I can’t fathom), but I wonder if we’re just playing a version of Pictionary with our students, not expecting them to really write what the mean or to draw what they see, satisfying them and ourselves instead with unclear writing that “gets the idea across” before the timer runs out.


Without a thorough instruction leading to a fully realized style, we leave our students to represent their ideas as best as they can—rather than giving them the skills to represent their ideas in the best way possible. People draw stick figures to make do, not to fully render their inner imagery. Not everyone will be a painter—but we make sure that nobody will become one when we worry that teaching painterly technique will be too stifling. No matter how good a writer’s thinking is, we only have access to it through their style. When we worry that teaching style will be too stifling, we deny our students the ability to represent their inner discourse with anything more compelling or evocative than stick-figure drawings and thesaurus-substituted diction.