Monday, November 10, 2008

The curriculum, again

In the days following the US election there's been considerable discussion both online and IRL about how bad Barack Obama's inspired victory speech made our own Prime Minister's style (and content) of public speech look by comparison.

I thought this was a little harsh, particularly in the light of the Apology to the Stolen Generations speech and the sincerity and passion with which Rudd delivered it. I also think we are suffering from short-memory syndrome, considering the much starker contrast between Obama's public presence and performance and that of our own former Prime Minister.

It can't be denied, however, that the contrast was a little painful. The last PM this country has had -- and indeed the only PM it has had in my lifetime -- who like Obama combined charismatic physical elegance with powerful oratory and highly-developed on-his-feet verbal skills was Paul Keating, and even Keating spoiled it: the public speaking skills were habitually undermined by the coarseness and cruelty he was capable of (and really enjoyed) when speaking on his feet, and his considerable physical elegance was likewise marred by the great big chips on both shoulders, which completely spoiled his line. At his best, however, he was mesmerising.

I don't know who wrote Obama's speech, but had Keating made a comparable one it would have been written, or at the very least shaped, by Don Watson, a man who has written history, biography, lectures, essays, comedy and screenplays, and who therefore understands better than most the importance of structure as the starting point for most kinds of writing. Rhetorical skills are not just about word choice; they are also about understanding exactly what you're saying, why you're saying it, and what you hope to achieve by it -- and then by very carefully structuring your essay or speech to create the audience effect that you want.

During my years as an academic I learned just how much ferocious resistance there is among people who are passionate readers but not writers to the idea that a rousingly emotive piece of writing might actually have any kind of cool thought behind it, much less any close attention paid to writing technique. As with feminism, people who know little or nothing about rhetoric tend to use the word as a term of abuse, giving it connotations of insincerity, as in 'empty rhetoric'. This mistrust of rhetorical skills is reinforced by such events as the savagely moving and, for the British royal family, utterly humiliating eulogy given at his sister's funeral by Charles Spencer, who appears to have barely seen his nephews since.

There's a strong capital-R Romantic desire for moving words to have been spontaneously generated, a desire that probably has something to do with the notion that the only authentic utterance is that produced by spur-of-the-moment gut-spilling. But genuine gut-spilling is, as Fran Lebovitz once remarked, just exactly as charming as it sounds, and is very unlikely to produce either an exquisite and heartbreaking lyric poem in complex metre or the speech that Obama gave on the day of his victory.

I think the point I'm struggling towards here is that rhetorical skill, as with so many other kinds of skill, is a neutral entity that can be used for purposes either noble or nefarious, but given that a large part of rhetorical skill involves persuading other people to your point of view, it deserves to be looked on with some degree of suspicion even when you are on the practitioner's side.

Or perhaps especially when you are on the practitioner's side. Obama's speech was carefully calculated to produce that Evangelical call-and-response effect -- and it was the one thing about his speech that made me very, very uneasy. I am a child of the twentieth century, and the sight and sound of fifty thousand people in one place chanting the same thing -- even when it's 'Yes we can' -- is always going to chill me to the marrow. Perhaps the mistrust of rhetorical technique is grounded in a well-founded fear of being manipulated. Some of us really, really hate having our tears jerked.

These are deep waters, Watson, and any minute now I'm going to start wittering on about art and affect and the fact that the word 'aesthetic' is the opposite of the word 'anaesthetic', words to do with feeling and not-feeling. In the meantime the subject of Kevin Rudd coming a bad second to Barack Obama came up again yesterday over lunch, and my friend R, who spent six years living in New York, had a very simple diagnosis. 'The Americans teach Civics and Rhetoric as a matter of course,' she said. 'And we don't.'


genevieve said...

Which possibly makes it quite amazing that we have had Keating and the Ruddster (with all his dives into HollowManSpeak) at all.

I remain impressed by Kevin's natural ability to compose long sentences on the fly, however. Never mind that they might as well occasionally be in Mandarin.
And I think both Rudd and Obama are being sucked into pretending they can fix the unfixable, which is also dangerous.
WOW captcha 'listesse'!

Anonymous said...

And yet, if anyone can get away with that rhetorical flourish of the call and response, it is someone who has some legitimate connection to the African American gospel/preaching tradition - at least that is what I heard being appealed to and displayed in that speech (as well as Spearhead). But you may be pleased to hear, that moved by hearing the speech on the way home on the radio, when I came inside and said to resident American, 'Yes we can", he replied, 'What the &^%( are you talking about?' (His car radio doesn't work).

Anonymous said...

It's a very dangerous distinction, that which is so often made between rhetoric and authentic speech, and it works politically alongside certain forms of anti-elitism. It's essentially an anti-political distinction, I think (which is, of course, itself political in the broad sense). What I like about Obama is his commitment to politics as such (which is not the same as politics for its own sake), and that means caring about form as well as about content.

I remember being involved in 'debating' in late primary school and early high school, and in retrospect I don't think it really addressed itself to developing the same sort of skills and attentiveness that you're referring to here. We do seem to have a lot of good debaters in our parliaments, but few skilled rhetoricians.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Genevieve, I am now sucked in -- I'm going to download the next podcast of Kevin that I come across and transcribe his on-the-fly sentences to see how well they hold up grammatically. (I'm fairly sure they'll be fine; he's a Virgo.)

And speaking of Virgos, yes, T, that was exactly what I thought when I was listening to it -- I'm sure those churches are where Obama learned how to do it and how effective it is, and more power to him as long as he continues to Use His Powers for Good. I too of course bawled all the way through the speech (surely driving was a bit dangerous?) but that's precisely why I mistrust the effect. I prefer your resident American's approach, however it may have been arrived at.

Anonymous said...

Communication and Rhetoric - an absolutely brilliant course I took at uni, run by an American lecturer. At the time we were dissecting the rhetoric of Howard (and Bush), but taking this course during the recent election would have been superb!!

I would rate it as one of the best courses I've ever taken - school debating just does not compare. It's a framework - Rules for effective argument (stasis theory), rhetorical devices, audience context and purpose - it's just plain useful - even if you only ever use it in making a presentation, writing an essay or verbally jousting with a sibling. We should be teaching it. The Greeks had it right!

lucy tartan said...

Let me introduce just a small note of reserve with regards to the American practice of universal compulsory study of rhet/comp.

My impression is that rhetoric and composition is often taught as a set of universally applicable techniques and tools which work equally well for every topic. And although most rhet/comp courses have 'themes', these batches of content are presented as interchangeable and don't have an indivisible connection with the 'core' of the course which is rhetorical form.

I don't think this is honest or accurate, but that's not the real issue, which is that this thinking legitimates casuisitry & sophistry and the attitude of that Bush aide who said the Bush administration had transcended the reality-based community.

I read somewhere not long ago that Obama identifies Moby-Dick as one of his favourite books. Americans have a special relationship with demagoguery in all its forms, good and bad.

M-H said...

I taught a US-style 'lit and comp' course at an NZ Uni for some years. The course was run by an American. I enjoyed teaching it - it was quite proscriptive, but it did make the students think a lot about language and its uses and abuses. I agree with Laura about the dangers of this style of teaching, but, as always, it comes down to the way it's taught and assessed by the teachers. The framework that the course taught for writing/thinking is still one I find useful in my own work.

Zoe said...

Pav, a treat - it will save you time because you won't need to do all that lengthy transcription and can can start procrastinating immediately.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I take the point about a lack of clarity about the distinction between (or the conflation of) technique and content/purpose, and the perfidious places to which that can lead, which is one reason why I made it clear in the original post that rhetoric is a skill like any other than can be used for Teh Good or Teh Evil.

But as for proscription -- I don't subscribe to the popular view that that is always already a bad thing and if you think it's not you must be somewhere off to the right of Genghis Khan, though I got ticked off and accused of channelling Kevin Donnelly the other day by some simple-minded bully who clearly does believe that. Put it this way -- I think language is something you can use all your knowledge and skills with in order to build a little machine that works to do whatever it is that you want it to do -- provide clear information or instructions, make people happy, make people cry, make people go off and shoot other people, etc (see Good vs Evil). And I think that whether you build a Ferrari or a wobbly go-kart with no steering depends on how skilfully you use the tools and materials at your disposal. It's not so much a matter of 'You must do X', more a matter of 'How well do you want this to work?'

Captcha: 'junkn'. This thing can read, I swear.

Jennifer said...

I also had a slightly uneasy reaction to the call and response section of the speech, but I agree that the American church traditions make it a more legitimate rhetorical device there than it would be elsewhere.

As a complete amateur on rhetoric or any of the technique behind good writing I still found myself admiring some of the technique of that speech (even as I was being thrilled to listen to it at all).

I've been to many "presentation skills" courses in my work life, but they barely scratch the surface at this kind of persuasive writing - for the page or for the speech - but what from the english curriculum would you take out to make room for it?

But to your original point - I agree with you that rhetoric is a tool - I'd rather have that tool than not have it, and just because evil people have used it doesn't make the tool evil.

cristy said...

When I lived in the States I often found people's willingness, desire even, to be emotionally swayed by leaders etc a little disturbing. It made me feel very cynical.

I was also unnerved during Obama's speech for the same reason. Hearing a crowd of people chant in unison is always a little scary. I am firmly convinced that it isn't very healthy to trust anyone with power.

Anonymous said...

It may have been that the broadcast of Obama's speech live on local ABC had "lost" the crowd response but it was not until I watched it that I got a wee bit spooked.

TimT said...

The thing that disturbed me about Obama's presidential acceptance speech was how it was the most peculiar combination of good and bad. For instance, references to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther-King added a nice touch of gravitas to the occasion. But it was centred around that silly motivational catchphrase that was part of the whole Obama campaign - 'yes we can'. Obama even described it as the 'American creed', something that it patently was not. It's a testament to Obama's substantial rhetorical ability that he was almost able to make it sound meaningful during the course of his speech.

Fine said...

The 'yes we can' chant reminded me of the freaks in the Todd Browning film 'Freaks' chanting 'one of us, one of us..'. I intensely dislike this sort of crowd chant. I wanted to a hear a small voice piping up to say. "I just can't actually." Maybe I'm just too Anglo.

genevieve said...

Hate to disrupt the high tone of the discussion with something completely stupid.
But Duck has an amazing pic to accompany. I cannot hotlink, I have no idea how it's done. Go looky here.

Her post heading is antiphonal, also.

(Let's put listesse, junkn and ocksial in a convincing sentence now. Captcha wants to learn rhetoric.)

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh yes, Genevieve -- What Ladder? is very very clever. She has an amazing archived post there somewhere called We Are All Luvz Cat Macros -- brilliant.

About 'Yes we can' -- I didn't mind the sentiment at all (a little more of the old can-do spirit would go a very long way around here, for a start) -- it was the chanting qua chanting that bothered me. They could have been chanting 'Kill the beast' or 'What do we want? Incremental change! When do we want it? In due course!' and it wouldn't have made any qualitative difference to my disquiet. The church connection is scary because that kind of exchange between the leader and the masses in a church is intended to induce hypnotic rapture, which is the very last thing you want at a political gathering. What you want at a political gathering is chins resting on hands, and raised eyebrows.

Because the ocksial listesse is a merely junkn frame of mind compared to calm, open-minded attention, after all.

TimT said...

I'm reminded of all those old representations in drama and film, of politicians wooing voters with stump speeches and soap-box talks. They're usually depicated as lively affairs, with voters insulting the speaker, throwing rotten tomatoes, cheering, or booing, where they think it's appropriate. So I think there is a kind of expectation of call-and-response between the audience and the politician, though it's gradually become more formalised. (Generally depictions of political stump speeches in films and plays of the post-1950s era have less of the rotten tomatoes, etc - though 'applause points' are still common.)

I suppose this historical change in the style of public speaking is partly a result of the advent of mass media and television.

And maybe Obama's presidential acceptance speech is a more specialised example of that: a campaign slogan which was initially designed for advertisements is worked cleverly into the final speech in a way that is congruent with Obama's own natural speaking style (ie, evangelical church-talk).

genevieve said...

Oh NOICE curriculum.

Anonymous said...

The call and response thing is interesting.
Sure, it has kind of unnerving religious subtexts, but there's more to it than jeeeeeezus.

I'm very into it, mostly from my experience in a dance community. And I'm not at all tolerant of that jeeeezus stuff.

I like call and response as a discursive model: the call demands a response. There is no 'speaking in space'; both audience and speaker must commit, must contribute and participate.
In lindy hop partners often play 'call and response' with variations - one partner does one variation (a jazz step or something interesting), the other repeats it in the next 8 (or next 2 bars). Lindy has space for variation built into the basic step - without it, it's dull. The call and response and improvisation-within-structure are essential to jazz. It's about communication between musicians within the band. Tap dancers also would often contribute to the aural part of a performance by responding to or 'calling' a rhythm echoed/initiated by a musician.

I like it because it's about communication within a group, it's about improvisation or innovation within a composition or formal structure. I also like it because it makes an audience active.
This is one thing I'm especially keen on - call and response as a fundamental part of Af-Am public discourse doesn't let audiences just sit there politely. You have to participate. I find this idea especially exciting - we don't just sit there quietly listening and then applauding afterwards. We signal our interest and emotion by cheering or clapping or 'signifying' or otherwise responding. We ask for feedback by 'calling'.
I've been trained to 'respond' to performances by my participation in the international swing dance community. It's freakin' scary getting up and doing a performance - it's worse when the audience is dead silent. Cheers and shouts and claps and laughter and more cheering in response to visual gags, 'flash and trash' show-off moves, etc are what feed the performance and give life to the show. Frankly, it's what keeps me coming back. Without it, it feels flat and lifeless.
I was at a wedding recently where I unthinkingly adopted the active audience role during the speeches, cheering and wooping actively at first. I was embarrassed because no one else said anything - they were dead silent! It surprised me because other than that the event _felt_ like a dance gig where we - as audience - show our interest by participating. Especially during something emotional like a wedding speech. But it was the wrong response in that context.
I also feel weird when people don't applaud solos during a live jazz show.

My favourite type of jazz requires audience participation: the trumpeter is testifying, and we let them know we hear them, that we get what they're saying. This is especially important with things like classic blues, where each line is a testimony: "My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea" responded to by the musicians in the band. The response is a way of acknowledging public discussion of emotions or actions or intentions. Historically speaking, simply having the right to respond was important for African slaves. The gospels - which were all about slavery - were especially important to African American slaves. And the call and response is also a development of the work song - call and response to keep in time, to ease the tedium of repetitive physical labour.

Without call and response James Brown would be dull:

And the call and response of live lindy hop is absolutely exhilarating:
It's not just one person speaking and the audience replying. It's about one couple in a group of 'performers' 'bringing it' and then the rest of the performers 'responding'. It feels like collaborative creativity. It's also tremendously exciting.
The developing excitement and thrill of the performance and participating in calling and responding rings alarm bells if you're in a church or at a KKK meeting. Group hysteria, anyone? It's harder to stay 'objective' if you're actually participating, responding.
The interesting bit (for me) lies in how we learn how to participate and how this group emotion is managed by a 'conductor' and harnessed, not allowed to barrel out of control.

...sorry for the big comment. :)

lauredhel said...

dogpossum: I loved your comment.

I've been trying to figure out why the "Yes we can" audience responses didn't bother me, while the "USA! USA!" chants at the Republican convention I found terrifying. And apart from the audible differences (the "USA!" chants were deep-voiced and staccato), I think the answer also lies somewhere in your comment; the "Yes we can" chants were responses to Obama's calls, they were bonding, communication, and there was positive intent. The

"USA!" chants felt more like a nationalistic, threatening mob to me; this was no doubt exacerbated by the context - as I recall, the chants were after the Repubs were talking about sending their sons to war in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

If you compare Obama's acceptance speech with Rudd's acceptance speech, the differences between them are obvious: while the former was (as has been noted in comments above) of the inspirational, call-and-response variety, the latter sounded just like an aspirational bureaucrat moderately high on Gannt charts. I remember feeling disappointed and slightly soiled when I heard it.

Compare Obama's speech with Rudd's apology speech, however: just like Obama's "Yes we can", Rudd's repeated use of "And for this we are sorry" was (for me anyway) extremely effective and moving, despite the heavy religious undertones. The repetition was also appropriate because, after everyone had waited so long to hear the word, there really wasn't much point in saying it only once.

But once you have said "Yes we can" a hundred times, uhm, what can you do next?

I prefer the "fired up, ready to go" speech, because it actually talks about an ordinary person using that phrase, rather than trying to get everyone in a stadium to repeat it ad nauseum.

That being said, I would gladly Lindy-hop with Obama any day!

(ps - captcha - give plardip a chance).

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Dogpossum, yep, great comment. (I don't mind how long comments are as long as they're not abusive or stupid!)

Davey, that's a great comment too. I didn't think of the repetition of 'And for this we are sorry' as Biblical, although the unusual syntax might serve as a connection: I thought of it more in musical terms, as a repeated motif or a chorus. It also shows very skilled use of a repeated rhythm -- 'and-for-THIS-we-are-SOR-ry' -- which also suggests music. I would very much like to know who wrote that speech -- does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

Hi again Pavlov,

Yes I see what you mean - I think I was trying to get to the rhythm or musicality of those words too.

Geoff Page wrote a great poem in Overland about Howard's "we will decide" guff, analysing it in terms of the rhythm of the phrase, claiming it for poetry ... pretty funny, and probably applicable here too.

For me the religious angle was more in the content of both the speech and also reconciliation - the idea of the act of saying sorry and then the act of forgiveness to follow (if you're lucky) ...

... and also that, for at least some people (for example, people who have worked or grown up in Christian missions), the use of religious images/symbols might have had a significance similar to Obama's use of the preacher call-and-response as an African-American.

I wish I could articulate that a bit better ... and maybe I am just trying to segue into my favourite topic, the abolition of the Lord's Prayer at the beginnging of the parliamentary day. But we won't go there ;-))

Not sure who wrote the speech but could it possibly have been the same person(s) who wrote Rudd's acceptance speech? Methinks not ...


genevieve said...

Plardip? It must be watching Red Dwarf.