Pourquoi le style change-t-il?
Les Impressions Nouvelles, Brussels, BE, 2021
264 pp. Trade, 19€
There is perhaps no other field where the gap between art and science has been so radical as that of the study of language. Philology, that typically Romantic and 19th Century foundation of the scholarly study of both language and literature, has witnessed during the second half of the 20th Century an ever-widening gap between linguistics (the hard and increasingly harder scientific study of language) and literary studies (whose theoretical branch has never succeeded in becoming a real science in the modern sense of the word, hence its flirt with the longer despised subfield of creative writing and, more lately, practice-led research, but this is another history).
One of the last great examples of a stimulating dialogue between literature and linguistics has been the work by Roman Jakobson, whose description of the “poetic function,” one of the six functions of verbal communication, has been fruitfully implemented in the reading of poetry but also of apparently less or non-poeticized forms of language that nevertheless rely upon the poetic function to achieve their goals. Since Jakobson’s structuralism the divergence of linguistics and poetics as well as literary studies in general has become a real gulf and one of the of major symptoms of this gap has been the withering of stylistics, longtime a chief part of the literary curriculum, today however almost totally absent from most academic programs. At least till recently, for thanks to the work of Gilles Philippe, professor of linguistics at the university of Lausanne (UNIL), stylistics is now recovering a new and once again more central position. Astonishingly avoid of any jargon and apparently unhindered by the use of traditional reading strategies (I will come back on his critique of digital distant reading methods), Philippe’s work has brought about a paradigm shift that offers a new approach of the notion of style, while asking questions that dramatically revise our ways of thinking on style.
For Gilles Philippe, style is not something that can be considered from an individual or auteurist point of view. The unique style of a writer is important, but such a style is never the mere result of an individual program or decision. Its forms and stakes can only be understood if one addresses larger, collective patterns, which are not only ways of doing (how does one write?), but also ways of thinking (what does one think of how one ought to write?). In that regard, it is crucial to stress that Philippe reestablishes the importance of the “ordinary” reader at the expense of the specialized readers represented by authors, critics, theoreticians, etc. Besides, style is not something that can be described as a gathering of stylistic features such as for instance the number of words per sentence or the preference given to either past or present tense. Style refers instead to the whole of linguistic forms as implemented in a given work or group of works, and these forms are always clustered (independent stylistic features don’t make sense), just as they are also context-sensitive (when counting the number of words per sentence, the notion of genre cannot be put between brackets; when reflecting upon the choice between past and present tenses, it would be a mistake not to take into account differences between languages and literary traditions, etc.). Finally, style as a concept, a practice, an idea, in short: a value, is also something that can only be studied in a historical perspective (technically speaking: style is the ideal tool to dismantle the traditional opposition between synchrony and diachrony). All styles are by definition moving targets: they are ephemeral, always in transition, their essence is change and it is to this essence that this essential book is entirely devoted.
A continuation of previous books on the history of “literary syntax”, the idea of the “perfect style” or the intercultural dimension of stylistic models (the topic of a book published in 2016, French Style, where he examines the way in which English authors in the years 1880-1930 tried to copy what they thought was the French way of writing, and why they did so1), Pourquoi le style change-t-il? (“Why does style change?”) aims at disclosing something that is very simple and at the same incredibly complex. The idea of the book is not to give a literary-historical description of stylistic change (a kind of revised literary history through a stylistic lens), but to understand the reasons behind the universal given of stylistic change (even “perfect” styles, that is styles that all readers consider perfect, do not survive and change over time). The key word of the title is thus “why”, not “how”, although Phillipe’s approach is always carefully supported by material evidence and close reading.
While never adopting a polemical stance (it is impossible to imagine a more polite and respectful author as Gilles Philippe), Pourquoi le style change-t-il? is crystal-clear in its rejection of all generally accepted ideas on stylistic change, which can be summarized as the belief in one of the following ideas: 1) the creative impact of an author eager to reinvent her or his own language, 2) the awareness of influence, 3) the analogy between stylistic changes and broader social, political, ideological transformations or revolutions, and 4) the acceptance that all history is determined by dialectical tensions. Gilles Philippe does not only disclose the weaknesses of each of these explanatory schemes, foregrounding numerous counterexamples and discussing internal contradictions. He also introduces new questions, most of them having to do with our unchallenged belief in the role and value of innovation for innovation’s sake and the equally unchallenged belief in the automatic link between the erosion of old forms and the emergence of new ones.
Yet Philippe always takes the stances he criticizes always very seriously (not only is he the politest of authors, he also is one of the most circumspect). He may for instance have good reasons to discard auteurist explanations or feel suspicious toward novelty effects, but these reservations will never lead him to uncritical generalizations. Individual styles and even individual features matter, and disruptive innovations do as well, but they are always framed as part of a larger picture, which Philippe suggests to summarize with the help of two basic mechanisms: on the one hand the notion of “pattern”, referring to the clustering of stylistic facts; on the other hand that of “moment”, which refers to the link between such a cluster and specific ways in which readers, at a certain time in a certain place, imagine how language and style are or should be (this concept is more broadly theorized by Philippe in relationship with the concept of “regimes of historicity” coined by François Hartog).
The final word of the book is to the notion of “value”, since according to Gilles Philippe the fundamental driver of stylistic change is the fact that authors write using the style they believe to be the best, an ideal materialized in what is called the canon. At the very heart of this book lies thus the problematic and nowadays systematically debunked idea of canon (here used in the general sense of what is being valued as well as in the particular sense of the works and authors that are chosen as models --of course this canon as used by authors and readers does not always match the official canon of their time and place). Such an emphasis, which also testifies of Philippe’s critique of the avant-garde “make it new” ideology, is more than a mere provocation. For Philippe, it is impossible to study the notion of style without a direct reference to the canon, which he directly opposes to the currently more fashionable notion of archive, that is of the total production of a period, as studied nowadays with the help of digital techniques and distant reading methods and theories. For Philippe, what drives stylistic change is (paradoxically) not the archive but the canon, for what authors and writers are thinking of when they read and write is not the former, but the latter. To put it bluntly: the fact that the archive is there, does not mean that it is actually read (for that reason it does not play a role in the way styles change), while the canon is, and it is the relationship with this canon (and once again, canons change as much as styles do) that can help understand what happens when changes occur. Philippe does not deny that distant reading practices often disclose interesting observations, but they hardly exceed the level of the “how”, while what Philippe is interested is the “why”.
Pourquoi le style change-t-il? is ground-breaking and deserves a passionate debate in all circles interested by the fundamental temporal dimension of art.