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Prolepsis: A Rhetorical & Literary Device

This article features a brief introduction to the concept of Prolepsis, along with an expert definition; followed by a succession of examples from film, TV, and literature; then a film & soundtrack set related to a connecting theme; and concluding with a list of the relevant links.

Books: A Dictionary of Literary Devices; Seinfeld and Philosophy; The Second Genesis

Prolepsis is a highly significant device used in literature and rhetoric, as it achieves quite a profound effect on the attitude of the target audience. The essence of prolepsis is to anticipate and effectively neutralize an opponent’s argument (in the mind of the audience), or a listener’s objection (the audience directly).

A Dictionary of Literary Devices – Gradus, A-Z, by Bernard Dupriez, Translated and adapted by Albert W. Halsall (1984/1991)

When first hearing of prolepsis, it made me aware of the significance of literary devices, after which I sought to find a good dictionary to buy; and upon searching I found this one, which the translator describes in his preface as being “unequaled in English” (hence his eagerness to translate it from the French original).

Prolepsis defined (page bottom)
Prolepsis defined (continued at page top)

Since having become aware of prolepsis, I have noticed a few memorable examples which I think should help to illustrate its principles and indicate its effectiveness.

Example 1: Fictional Prolepsis (i.e. between fictional characters)

8 Mile (2002 Film)

This film illustrates a striking example of prolepsis, specifically in the finale; in fact the whole story is a build-up to it, making it that much more notable.

The film, themed on hip-hop and battle-rap, builds towards the local rap tournament, where Rabbit (played by Eminem) meets his villainous rival (Papa Doc) in the final; and significantly, Rabbit is due to go first, meaning that he has two minutes to rhyme insults at his opponent, who will then have two minutes to reply, after which the crowd will express their verdict on who won the contest.

Right before he goes on stage, his loyal but dim-witted friend Cheddar Bob [how do they come up with these names?] starts enumerating all of the embarrassing things regarding Rabbit that have transpired throughout the movie, and which Papa Doc will have as ammunition to use against him: from family matters, to being beaten up, to his whiteness … “What are you going to do Rabbit?”—at which point, it hits him: “You’re a genius Cheddar Bob.”

Rabbit then takes to the stage and begins to rhyme to the crowd all the things Papa Doc is itching to say about him, in a manner as if to say “So?” In finishing what is essentially a very technically impressive “diss” to himself, he says: “…I’m audi, now tell these people something they don’t know about me.”, and tosses him the mic. The beat kicks in, its his time to rhyme … but nothing comes out (“choke!”, as the crowd chants): his whole “argument” has been totally pre-empted—he got prolepsized (Note: I just made that word up).

Example 2a: Narrational Prolepsis (i.e. between the author and the reader/viewer)

Seinfeld and Philosophy – A Book About Everything and Nothing, Edited by William Irwin (2000)

Whilst watching an episode of the TV show Seinfeld with the DVD commentary on, the show’s two creators—Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David—were explaining a problem they encountered towards writing the conclusion to the episode: the resolution to the story was simply too unbelievable. Furthermore, they could not think of a better way to resolve the story, whilst also not having enough time to rewrite the episode.

They then explain that, to solve the problem, they simply had the characters remark to each other how unbelievable it was that things worked out the way that they did. They further explained that although this solution was not ideal, it solved the problem because it effectively neutralizes any feeling of incredulity on the part of the audience.

Unlike 8 Mile, in which there is a character-against-character prolepsis (i.e. it is directed to the audience within the film, that being the crowd judging the rap contest), this Seinfeld example is one in which it is directed at the audience of the show: the technique is used to affect our attitude, which is something I always find interesting to learn about and observe.

TV/Film and Philosophy Books

The series of books called “…and Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of…” cover many of the top TV shows and films, and I decided to try one of them out with the Seinfeld edition, since I have seen all of the episodes. I found the format to be an appropriate one, as it perfectly blends insightful commentary (on the show/film) with philosophical concepts, explaining them in a casual but not over-simplified manner, making for a thoughtful and pleasant read.

Example 2b: Another Narrational Prolepsis (i.e. between the author and the reader/viewer)

Cruel Intentions (1999 Film)

Like the Seinfeld example, this film features a notable example of prolepsis directed at the audience. Aside from this, the film is even more notable for its depiction of young, affluent psychopaths and sociopaths—a high school girl and her step-brother, respectively—as they manipulate innocent people for sport, in particular the headmaster’s daughter: a nice girl who the boy schemes to thoroughly suduce and “deflower”.

However towards the end of the film, the sociopath boy actually falls in love with the good girl, which his psychopath step-sister does not like at all: when she confronts him and sees that he is being serious about this, this is what she says to him:

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot, you’re so in love. Do you honestly believe you’ve done a complete 180 in the few days you’ve known her? Well let me tell you something, people don’t change overnight. You and I are two of a kind. At least I have the guts to admit it. You were going to leave school a legend, now you’re going to leave a joke.”

And she’s right: the evil character of the boy was made quite clear throughout the film; and even if it were possible for it to be changed into a good one, it is utterly ridiculous to suppose it can happen in the way depicted: he would first have to have a nervous breakdown upon the realization of the cruelty he has dispensed throughout his life, and the effects it has had on others. Hence the scriptwriters putting into her mouth the precise words that describe the implausibility of the development; and thereby, an example of prolepsis.

Example 3a: Sociological Prolepsis (i.e. between the authorities and society)

The Second Genesis – The Coming Control of Life, by Albert Rosenfeld (1969)

This book represents a scientific forecast of human biological enhancements, and displays on the cover praise by Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and René Dubos. Within it, many things are discussed which may have seemed like science fiction at the time, but which will not seem that way now, as science and society has made steps towards the scenarios depicted in this book.

In one section, the author explains a term he coined: “BSP: biosocioprolepsis”, which he defines as “the anticipation of biology’s impact on society.” However, it’s the “socio-prolepsis” I find most significant, because what he implies (in my interpretation, a kind of hint to the institutions and organizations of influence) is that the future impact of biology on society should be projected to society, so that “objections are anticipated [to the “coming control of life”] in order to weaken their force.”

BSP: Biosocioprolepsis

In other words, to continuously acclimatize society to the ideas concerning these progressive changes, so that the changes will long have been familiar (and expected) by the time they are implemented. Of the three examples I recalled here, this type of prolepsis is the most sophisticated and significant, in that the audience is society and the medium is cultural. In any case, I find techniques of persuasion to be a worthwhile subject to investigate, since they are often embedded into things we take for granted.

Example 3b: A Product of Sociological Prolepsis

A good example of the kind of illustrated projection (i.e. prolepsis) alluded to in Second Genesis would be the sci-fi thriller:

Gattaca (1997 Film)

Gattaca: DVD Film & CD Soundtrack

The film depicts a near-future society which is divided into a caste system, primarily in the division between the genetically modified elite and the subordinate unmodified humans. The protagonist is one of these unmodifieds, but who is obsessed with living the elite life and goes to extraordinary lengths not only to match their enhanced standards, but at the same time, to keep his true genetic profile (i.e. “inferiority”) a secret. It’s a very good film to watch (in a kind of proto-Black Mirror way) on the theme of biogenetics and its possible impact on society and individuals.

Nothing to do with Prolepsis (i.e. just some really nice music)

The Departure (theme from the Gattaca Official Sountrack)

The film’s main theme is really nice to listen to on its own, and works especially well in the film. The soundtrack is composed by Michael Nyman, who is renowned for having “popularized” classical music by blending it with modern styles; and the films he composes for tend to be very interesting ones.

Stepping stones . . . . for the anticipation of prolepsis . . . .

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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