Tag Archives: rhetoric

Literature Matters, yet again!

The Web has been recently awash with literary analyses of the inaugural, of all things.  Some of this is due to the excitement surrounding the fact that Obama had an inaugural poet.  Well, I’m glad to have poetry present on the national stage, but I’ll be honest that I thought the poem was a yawner and tone deaf to the moment.  Too much writing for other intellectuals at Yale instead of the man and woman in the street.  Maybe I wanted something more incantatory and straightforward.  Walt Whitman.

There’s also a good bit of literary kerfuffle over the state of Obama’s prose in the inaugural address.   Charles Krauthammer derides “the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln’s second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush’s second inaugural.”  Ok, I might take this more seriously if Krauthammer didn’t try to assert the oratorical superiority of our last president, but he’s not alone in finding the speech tame.

On the other hand, Stanley Fish–sorry, I’m on a bit of a Stanley Fish kick these days–gives a thorough going literary analysis of the speech, spying in Obama’s use of parataxis a biblical rhetoric fitting for the occasion:

But if we regard the text as an object rather than as a performance in time, it becomes possible (and rewarding) to do what the pundits are doing: linger over each alliteration, parse each emphasis, tease out each implication….

Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.

Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.)

So the prose is Lincolnesque….or not.  It’s enough to make one believe in the kind of reader response criticism that Stanley Fish largely abandoned, wherein the reader makes up the text as he goes along.  Still, I guess if I had to choose a reader to trust, Stanley gets my vote. (Disclaimer:  Fish was my prof at Duke in grad school, and Krauthammer has irritated me for years, so what do I know).

All I know is that it is good to know we have a President whose language calls for attention that reaches beyond ridicule.

Fish Redux

A response of mine to Fish’s latest arguments about the Humanities was posted today in the comments section of the Times at Fish’s blog. I think I’m going to write my parents and tell them I’ve now been published in the New York Times! However, they think it’s a liberal rag. I doubt they will mention it to their friends at church. (Side note:  What exactly is a liberal rag in digital world–liberal pixels?  liberal electrons?  Maybe an e-rag.  I like it.)
My comment ran as follows:

I wonder whether the refutation of Dr. Fish’s position lies within the framework of his own argument, at least insofar as English studies is concerned. He begins with a marvelous disquisition on the way language works and means–or does not mean what we think it means–in Herbert’s poem. He ends by saying “I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s ‘Matins’) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’”

The rhetorical shape of his argument–to say nothing of its length–makes us conflate these two moments, and we find ourselves agreeing with him when he says, “I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

However, these are two very different moments of response, two very different pleasures, we might say. In the final instance, who, after all, would pay for us to say to one another “Gee whiz, isn’t literature grand.” The first instance, however, is an exemplary instance of close reading learned through a substantial amount of reading,training, and practice (in both reading and writing). Fish’s close reading points to the particular role that literary studies can play–though it often fails to play–in understanding the nature, history and possibilities of written language.

If I am right about this, a rationale for this kind of study lies not in Fish’s aesthetic wonderment, but in rhetoric and philology. Surely the way written language works in the world deserves the kind of careful scrutiny we give to bacteria and to economics. We don’t need to think of the utility of this kind of study in immediate terms. The study of pure science or mathematics, for instance, proceeds without any clear sense of it’s immediate utility, and students are required to study chemistry even when the day to day practice of their lives rarely requires it’s application.

Similary, we might say the careful study of how written language works need not be justified by it’s immediate application, but by a general sense that it is better to have human beings in the modern world educated in the ways language has functioned and can function and may function. A related gesture would be to return to a recognition that the study of literature can exist in part to create better writers–something that most English departments these days choose to see as beneath the seriousness of their enterprise. However, undergraduates that have understood the textual dimensions of complex, dense, and difficult texts may be in a better position to apply that understanding to their own writing in the future.

This might be a pleasure worth paying for.

Barack Obama, Black Lothario?

In the final 24 hour run-up to Hillary Clinton’s victory this evening, seduction was in the air. Literally, actually, as a word used in repeated reference to Barack Obama by Clinton supporters interviewed in the street. I somehow remember Hillary herself or someone from her campaign using the word, but it may be a false memory. I can’t find a reference anywhere on the net, in any case. This a different kind of jab at Obama’s eloquence than those I’ve noted over the past couple of days, but one still freighted with gender and the politics and history of race in the United States.

Just out of curiosity, I googled “Barack Obama” and various versions of the word “seduce.” Seduction, Seducer, Seduced. I came up with about 70,000 instances. Discount the ubiquitous advertisements for sex aids and dating services and you’ve still got a healthy discourse of Barack Obama, the seducer of our political souls.

According to one news service, “Obama woos women,” and describes Obama as “not just attracting scores of young voters, but also seducing women and independents ahead of Tuesday’s primary.” A blogger on the Huffington Post tells us the that “The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive” .

Main stream news outlets use the term, and the discourse extends overseas. The Brits especially seem a bit dismayed by Obama’s overly sexualized politics. The Economist says that at a typical campaign rally “Mr Obama eventually moseys onto the stage and starts massaging the crowd with his seductive baritone.” Barack Obama, political call boy.

(And “moseys”? Do the Brits even know what “mosey” means? Having grown up in Oklahoma where people really do mosey, I can testify that Obama does not do mosey. My general sense is that Kenyans, Hawaiians, and Indonesians–the cultures which Obama grew up around–don’t do “mosey.” Chicago? I have my doubts.)

Even French philsopher Bernard-Henri Levy has gotten in on the act saying that Obama has decided” to stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”.

What role is the representation of language, especially as it plays out in relationship to race and gender, serving in this campaign. The emphasis on Obama as a seducer makes his eloquence—his greatest political asset—a net negative. The seducer, almost always a man, uses language to deceive others, almost always vulnerable women, for his own nefarious ends. The image of Obama as seducer in some ways “hypermasculinizes” his use of language, over and against the femininizing implications of using flowery rhetoric that I parsed yesterday. In either instance, though, language, especially as used by a man, is empty and suspect.

There’s a long tradition of being suspicious of language in the West. Satan was, if nothing else, a good rhetorician. In the American context, the Puritan plain style that dominated American letters from the Puritans to Hemingway and on to latter day inheritors like Raymond Carver was deeply suspicious of ornament and rhetorical figure. This tradition was, in practice, deeply masculinist. The real man, like Raymond Chandler’s heroes, used words sparingly if at all, and the words he used were to be direct and to the point. Girls, by contrast, talk too much and use language too well.

The figure of the seducer, then, embodies an interesting conflation of hypersexualized masculinity and a failure of manliness. I say “failure” both because the seducer depends upon language–a “feminine” and suspect tool–and also because the purposes to which that language is put fall short of various images of manly integrity.

The portrait of Obama as a seducer leaves me a tad uncomfortable in terms of the discourse of race, especially as it has been applied to Obama’s appeal to young white women. In some ways Clinton has positioned herself as the maternal protector of the virtue of the nation, and of women especially, sounding cautionary notes to all those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings who are in danger of being swept off their feet, swooning in the arms of a grinning black lothario.

I suggested yesterday that Obama’s literary persona blunted fears of a black male planet; but it is intriguing to me how the rhetoric of seduction plays in to and enhances those very same fears. In the New York Times yesterday, Gloria Steinem all but explicitly cast down the challenge to white women to stand up to the black male threat—pointing out that black men have always gotten ahead before women.

The specific of race, class and gender make Steinem’s claims dubious in themselves. Look at things like the life expectancy or class status of white women and black men and ask whose shoes you’d like to be in on average. More, Steinem conveniently glosses over the fact that many white feminists in the nineteenth century actively opposed black male enfranchisement on the basis of racial superiority. I don’t think Steinem goes quite that far, but I don’t like the smell.

The image of Obama as a seducer may not be being actively promoted by political operatives. It may even be true. And I’m not sure it has had that much of a political effect. Clinton won because she worked hard–as is her wont–and because New Hampshire voters troubled by the economy thought she would do a better job. Not, I think, because she mocked Obama’s use of language.

Still, it’s not too far from ugly.