Friday, January 14, 2011

Epitaphios Logos

Yesterday, I guessed that there would be an enormous number of responses from rhetorical scholars to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday in the months and years to come. Because I am what I am, I’m going to take an initial pass at placing the speech (and Palin’s) into the context of rhetorical scholarship, at least in one specific way.

One of the first things to notice about Obama’s speech is that it falls into a genre: the funeral or memorial oration. A lot of great speeches, from Pericles’ Funeral Oration that Thucydides offers us in his History of the Peloponnesian War to the Gettysburg Address to President Reagan’s speech following the Challenger disaster.

As the reference to Pericles suggests, the funeral oration as a genre of oratory goes back to ancient Greece, Athens in particular. In Greek, the term for these kinds of speeches was epitaphios logos.

The first time I read Pericles’ funeral oration (given on occasion of the state funeral for Athenians killed in the war with Sparta), what struck me was the relatively little amount of time spent talking about the actual dead. Much more of the focus was on praising the wonders of Athens and telling his audience what they ought to do to honor their city and the fallen.

When I got to grad school and read the speech again in the context of doing research on ancient Greek rhetoric, I learned that this was the norm for such speeches. Whether Pericles created the genre or was following rules that predated him is debatable, but the upshot is that his speech wasn’t odd because of its focus on Athens and in its exhortations to the living. It’s just how such speeches were given.

The usual format for such a speech was to 1) begin by talking about the impossibility of words to live up to the loss suffered or the honor due to those who died, 2) give an account of the shared history of the community, 3) praise the special nature of the community and the dead’s devotion to it, 4) exhort the living to live up to the example of the dead and to honor their community.

At this point, in an academic paper, I’d walk through the Obama speech, giving numerous specific examples of how the speech moves through these four stages quite clearly. Since I’m just bloggin’, I’ll only point out in a general way that Obama starts out talking about how no words can do justice to the loss of those who died, then moves on to a quotation from scripture (invoking a shared collective history), and then eulogizes the dead not simply as victims, but as representations of particularly American qualities, as embodiments of what America is at its best. Then, he closes with a call for his audience to live up to the best of what America is, to create a public space that is “worthy of Christina.”

Obama does this in ways that are quite different than Pericles (the situations are, after all, quite different), but the essential structure is there, even after 2,500 years.

What’s most important about this, I believe, is the conclusion—the exhortation to his audience to live up to what is best about the nation. It ends a funerary speech with a look forward, a positive call for action. No small feat, that.

And it’s one where we see the stark contrast with Palin’s speech. As noted yesterday, even a cursory glance at the language use showed Obama’s to be a far more “human” speech, and less focused on the “I.” While Palin’s speech starts much like Obama’s (and Pericles’) in its acknowledgment of the futility of words to adequately address the circumstances and its invoking of the American heritage, it falls down both in the linking of the dead (who Palin never speaks about as individuals) with the community of the living, and in its focus on critiquing past actions rather than an exhortation to future positive actions.

There were many tactical missteps in Palin’s speech. The gauche invocation of the phrase “blood libel.” The illogical suggestion that while words could not have led to the massacre in Arizona, they *could* lead to an incitement of violence against her or her political allies. The bizarre mention of “those who embrace evil and call it good” (who exactly is she talking about?).

But far and away the biggest failing of Palin’s speech in comparison’s to Obama’s, as examples of the rhetoric of remembrance, is precisely the lack of articulating a positive vision of what we might do to better serve our community, how we might live in a way as to honor the dead. With Palin’s speech, there was quite a bit of praise of America for what it was and is, but it lacked the necessary, forward-looking call to make America still better that was so central to Obama’s speech.

That, as much as anything, is why the audience for Obama’s speech was so vocal (to the faux surprise/disgust of a small minority of conservative commentators). Palin had no live audience, but it’s hard to imagine her speech invoking such a response even if there had been.

In the end, much of the explanation for the success of Obama’s speech, particularly in contrast with Palin’s, is simply that he more effectively mastered the genre, more fully creating a speech that met the expectations of an audience shaped by 2,500 years of Western history and rhetoric.


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