Somewhere between the Shakespearean sonnet and a random collection of words is a line we can imagine, a line where words stop being poetry and become nonsense. Similarly, somewhere between the Shakespearean sonnet and this paragraph is a line we can imagine, a line where words stop being poetry and become prose.

We can all imagine this line. The question is, can we all agree on where to draw it? I would argue that we can only come to temporary agreements, and only for certain purposes. We are unlikely to come to an agreement that will stand the test of time, and not just because poetry keeps changing. Our reasons for wanting an agreement also change. The way we divide up the world into chunks -- poetry over here, prose over there -- depends on why we are trying to divide up the world.

A line around poetry might be needed, for instance, in order to separate people into classes: those like us with fine sensibilities and lots of money, and those with boorish tastes beside whom we would rather not sit. Language is about controlling the world, not just describing it. Language is about power.

In my research, I like to take seriously the notion that accounting is a language. Not just like a language, but actually a language that is practiced around the world. It's even got dialects: financial accounting, managerial accounting, tax accounting, with all kinds of local variations.

As a language, accounting is particularly focused on dividing the world up into appropriate chunks: revenue over here, expenses over there. Assets in one pile, liabilities in another. It also divides up its audience pretty ruthlessly: shareholders over here, the rest of you lot over there! This is very much about power, the power of managers to control workers, the power of individuals to assert a claim on corporate wealth.

With power, there is always resistance. Workers can band together to insist on a better deal. Managers can appropriate collective wealth for themselves instead of giving it to workers or shareholders.

These contests always involve accounting because accounting is a very useful language for describing collective activities, like corporations. It is particularly useful when you want to draw a line around such activities and exclude some things as unimportant, like the impact of a corporation's pollution or the cost of educating its employees. And it is particularly useful when you want to say who gets what share of the collective pie.

For more on the notion of "chunking," see Rorty's essay, "Science as solidarity."

Photo of Naarden, an ancient fortress in the Netherlands, taken in 2012. Image of Naarden from above snipped from Google Maps.