Music: Love and Rockets: Express (1986)
My month-long guest stint at the Blogora is over, which means I’ll be updating here more frequently. Hooray for Rosechron!
So, I’ve been back to writing. This semester with all the traveling and grading, I’ve simply not had time to tinker on my own writing projects. Here in that strange quiet that marks the end of
days semesters, I’ve managed to carve out about four half-days to write. Gods, my annual review is going to look rather sparse this year, but if ever there was a year to seem unproductive, this one is it: with the economy the way it is and salary raises frozen, there is no reward to be had for productivity.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to sit-down and transform the speech I gave at the Public Address conference last fall into a manuscript. Aside from finding the time, the difficulty is that all my “evidence” is sound. What I call for at the end of the speech—the study of vocalics and the affective side of speech—is really hard to do as print on the page (as any good poet will tell you). This difficulty must be folded into the argument somehow, so that’s been the basic struggle. I think my solution is going to simply be this: thick description of voice qualities and footnoted URLs to audio-clips. I have to be careful to argue that those techniques already developed for delivering the human voice over to the written word—linguistics, phonetic or microanalysis, musical notation—are all insufficient and do precisely what I’m saying we should not do. Poetics, I think—the recourse to the literary re-presentation, broadly construed—is probably the closest to where I’m at.
Well, regardless: here’s the introduction as a tease.
On Speech and Public Release
Let us note an incontestable fact. The science of the Art of Oratory has not yet been taught.
Public address is characteristically transmogrifying—in many senses. As Angela G. Ray has noted in her survey of cherished, award winning monographs, as a field public address seems to have abandoned claiming a specific object of study. In recent decades, Ray argues, scholars have been “performing public address scholarship as a perspective or approach rather than an object domain.” [ii] Once upon a time we used to say that the object of public address was oratory. [iii] Then, some said it was “the text,”[iv] and later others argued the object was queer from the get-go. [v] Of course, if the previous volumes of this journal are any measure, there does seem to be a certain settled agreement about the values underwriting public address scholarship: the importance of history and moments of contingency; the significance of oratory, past and present; the necessity of the archive for understanding discursive formations in this century and those past; and the prominence of the presidential. Yet aside from the company we keep and the values we share, if one begins to push, prod, and poke the concept of “public address,” the territory begins to expand beyond any consensual map: what is and what constitutes a public today? What event, practice, or object is sufficient to constitute an address?
These and related questions unquestionably bespeak a befuddling implosion of what we once knew handily as “public” and “private,” and arguably, the object domain of public address cannot be stabilized because the mutually constitute notions of public and private are losing-or have lost-their purchase. Of course, for decades scholars have challenged the notion of the public–especially as it is reflected in Habermas’s conceptual understanding of the “public sphere”–as a productive fantasy or ideological construct that enables and disables various forms of civic labor and identity.[vi] In its stead many scholars seem to prefer to speak of publics, counterpublics, public modalities, and various iterations of publicity that, it is argued, more accurately reflect the complexities of contemporary modes of social being. [vii] On the other hand, “a simple boundary” denoted by the public/private distinction “can reverberate and make the world intelligible,” argues Lauren Berlant. There is no question that we continue to behave as if there are domains of publicity and privacy in our mundane and mediated lives. [viii] So perhaps, then, it is better to say that the implosion of the public/private distinction, this slash under siege, is the name for a condition of constant crisis-a continual, yet-to-be-finished implosion as the slash is ceaselessly asserted anew and at different locations depending on the context. If so, how might we account for the spatial reassertion of this conceptual boundary, both academically and in “actually existing democracy,” to use Nancy Fraser’s phrase? How do we make sense of the uncanny persistence of privacy, of our private lives-our private parts-as simple boundary that does a significant kind of rhetorical labor? And, what is the character of that rhetorical labor?
To begin to develop an answer, lets start with an example that helps us to discern better an ideational locus of the slash, and this by means of an obvious affective threshold crossing:
Ooh. Ohhh. Ooohah. Oooooohaah. Ohhh God ahh. Ooooh. Ooooh God. Ohh. Huh. Ahhhh. Uhhh. Oooh God. Oh yeah right there. Uh. Oh. Uhhh. Uhh. Oooohhhaah. Uuuhh. Oooh. Oooh. Oooh God. Ooooh. Yes! Yes! Yes Yes Yes Yes! Ahhhh. Oohhh. Oooh! Yes! Yes! Yes! Ohhhh! Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes! Yes! Oooohhh. Oooh. Ooh. Oh God. Ooh. Uh.
Here is a conspicuous violation of a cultural taboo that simultaneously imparts the critical problem of re-presentation: as words read on the page these “oohs” and “ahhs” violate the syntagmatic mandates that yield scholarly meaning. Yet read aloud—say, as one would poetry or the final pages of Ulysses—the paradigmatic axis emerges as a human body in feeling, and set within the wider context of the cinematic imaginary, a very specific body at that.[ix] If the reader knows her romantic comedies, she was probably able to envision the body of that enunciated these series of phonemes, likely at the occurrence of the first Joycean “Yes!” The voice which originally gave voice to these exclamations belonged to Meg Ryan, and the film was the wildly popular 1989 hit, When Harry Met Sally. Her ejaculations first appeared in a climatic scene in which Harry, played by Billy Crystal, is astonished by Sally’s claim that women fake sexual pleasure. To demonstrate, Sally sallies forth, replete with ecstatic facial gestures and fisted table poundings with each rapturous “Yes!”
Of course, there’s nothing terribly astonishing about Sally’s orgasmic yawps; we’ve all made similar sounds, or at least faked them. Or rather, there’s nothing terribly astonishing about Sally’s orgasmic yawps except for the fact that she is releasing them in public. In the filmic diagesis, Sally’s dispatch was made at a crowded, local diner. What is both fun and horrible about this orgasm is that it is public: Like Sheena Easton, Sally seemingly invites strangers into her sugar walls, violating a presumed barrier between public and private.
Spectators enjoy this scene, of course, because it is make-believe; Sally’s screams comprise a fake depiction of Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in public, and these layers of fakery provide a more comfortable, ideational distance from Sally’s private publicity. Yet even despite the our comfortable distance as spectators (or ever further away, as readers of a transcription of a fake of a fake), Ryan’s orgasm is nevertheless a public release of a certain character, one that indexes the depth of intimacy culturally associated with pleasure or pain. In general, such intimacy is often resigned to the register of the sexual, a register that is signified by the cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp.
The cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp: these vocal utterances are aligned with the sexual because they are not meant for public company, certainly not for public scrutiny. Of course, I would underscore the term “sexual” in its broadest sense, not reducible to the genital, but rather consisting of a wide range of bodily stimulations and excretions that result in pleasure, pain-or both-from the visual enchantments of cinema to the uncomfortable bliss of endorphins on mile ten of that marathon some readers ran yesterday. The cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp index the sexual, here understood as the body in feeling. These also bespeak an absence of self-knowledge, a loss of control, even a tacit mindlessness associated with extreme emotional states.
The cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp represent what we could simply term “uncontrolled speech,” and in this essay I shall argue that uncontrolled speech plays a much larger role in public life than many have supposed.[x] The trick is to understand involuntary or uncontrolled speech as that which measured speech always threatens to reveal-that every time we witness masterful eloquence, there lurks the possibility of a hiccup or belch waiting to rupture the ruse of public propriety. For just as the measured talk of two friends flirting in a diner portends the promise or threat of a coming scream, so does a president horrify and infuriate with an impending “duh” or the possibility of an unthinking, barbaric yawp. In this sense, I will argue that the unspoken-uncontrolled is the regulatory organ of eloquence.
In plainer language, my thesis is that uncontrolled speech, represented by the cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp, is the normative constraint of public address, and that this constraint is sexual in character. As I corollary, I will suggest that the object of speech, and by extension oratory, should remain central to public address. Indeed, I will argue for re-privileging the object of speech in public address as the center. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the study of oratory included a robust understanding of speech that put argument and affect on equal footing. An attention to uncontrolled public speech not only helps us to recover that affective or pathetic dimension of rhetoric that has been repressed, but also helps us to make better sense of the ever-evolving extinction of the slash between public/private, the implosion of prurience and propriety, and the collapse of entertainment and politics. To this end my argument unfolds in three parts. With reference to psychoanalytic theory and the work of Lauren Berlant, I first turn to a discussion of public intimacy and the sexual significance of speech as such. Then, in the second part of my talk I bring an understanding of uncontrolled speech to bear on the polarizing oratory of Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. Finally, I conclude by discussing how a renewed attention to the object of speech helps to locate the contribution of psychoanalysis and elocution to public address in the canon of delivery.
[i] Abbé Delaumonse, The Delsarte System, trans. Frances A. Shaw (New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1893), 3.
[ii] Angela G. Ray, “The Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award and the Living Tradition of Public Address.” National Communication Association Public Address Division webpage. Available http://www.ncapublicaddress.org/documents/Ray-LivingTradition-2007.pdf accessed 25 April 2009.
[iii] Herbert A. Wichelns, “The Literary Criticism of Oratory.” Studies in Rhetoric and Public Speaking in Honor of James Albert Winans, ed. A. M. Drummond (New York: The Century Company, 1925), 181-216.
[iv] See Michael C. Leff and Fred J. Kauffeld, eds., Texts in Context: Critical Dialogues on Significant Episodes in American Political Rhetoric (Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1989).
[v] See Charles E. Morris III, ed., Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007).
[vi] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).
[vii] See Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80; Robert Asen and Daniel C. Brouwer, Counterpublics and the State (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005).
[viii] Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” Intimacy, edited by Lauren Berlant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3.
ix See James Joyce, Ulysses, Gabler Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 642-644.
[x] Some readers familiar with linguistics may object to the term “uncontrolled speech” as oxymoronic. Cries and so forth, some might argue, are better understood as vocalizations, not speech. Such a view, however, is focused on the voice in isolation. Speech implicates both someone who vocalizes as well as someone who hears that vocalization. Insofar as a vocalization is understood as meaningful by another (e.g., Sally is experiencing sexual pleasure), I argue it is speech, controlled or involuntary.