Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Music Man

A fascinating article by John McWhorter in The New Republic on the changes in oratorical styles in the last century.
If Abraham Lincoln were brought back to life, one thing that would throw him, other than electric power and the Internet, would be that audiences disrupted his speeches by clapping after every three or four lines. As ordinary as this seems now, this kind of applause is actually a custom of our times: Wesleyan political scientist Elvin Lim has documented that, in records of presidential addresses since Franklin D. Roosevelt, 97 percent of the applause lines appear in speeches by Richard Nixon and his successors. To speakers in Lincoln's day, a public address was typically a lecture. In our time, it is more often a love-in, more about the speaker "connecting" with the audience than teaching it anything new; hence the constant interruptions for clapping....

Given the standard assumption that our political culture would be better off if everyone would just "stick to the issues," the heavy performative streak in modern political speechmaking could be seen as counterintuitive. Wouldn't we expect the average person, when behind the podium, to simply talk? Why do so many find it natural to slide into a dramatic speaking style alien to their everyday selves when speaking to audiences--and why do they say so little when they do?
(Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan refers to this impulse as "reaching for the marble," that is, the hope of every presidential wanna-be and might-have-been to hope that their rhetoric will be so high-flown and compelling that it will be carved on the walls of their national monuments some day. -ed)

Interestingly, modern speakers have discovered they can play down to their audiences without seeming to. The intonations of casual speech are a kind of music; and, when wielded effectively, they can satisfy in the same way as a good song. Steven Mithen at Reading University has even proposed that language began as strings of musical syllables, gradually reinterpreted as nouns and verbs. Thus, euphonious intonation has a way of sounding like grammar--i.e., logic. In fact, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig have discovered that the part of the brain that processes musical sequences is the same one that generates grammatical syntax.

If our expectation that a subject will be followed by a predicate is founded in the same process that leads us to hear the sequence of notes of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star / How I wonder what you are" as a proper tune, it's no wonder Obama can get so much out of the sheer melody of his delivery. With our brains configured in a way that makes melody feel like logic, the only question would be why Obama's savory intonations would not suggest leadership ability to his fans. In fact, intonation has arguably been as key to Obama's success as his heritage or intelligence. One senses that the women fainting during his speeches are overcome more by the way he talks than what he is saying: With his mastery of cadence and vocal texture, he could rouse an audience reading from a phone book.

However, we must be careful what we wish for. In our sound-bite culture, America not only does not, but perhaps cannot, process logos-based oratory the way it used to. Hillary Clinton's content-rich addresses during the primaries got her nowhere, and Obama's masterfully composed speech on race this spring left his detractors unmoved, many seemingly challenged in even following his lines of argument. For all the complaints from voters about Obama that they don't know "who he is," if he had stepped onto the national stage patiently explaining who he was, how many people would have even been able to listen?

H/T Allah

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