Paratactics and parastrategy

I think Stanley Fish has it exactly right in his recent analysis of the prose style in Barack Obama's inaugural address. Not least because I get that warm fuzzy feeling of "he says what I wanted to say with a much greater level of precision":
It is as if the speech, rather than being a sustained performance with a cumulative power, was a framework on which a succession of verbal ornaments was hung, and we were being invited not to move forward but to stop and ponder significances only hinted at.

And if you look at the text – spread out like a patient etherized upon a table – that’s exactly what it’s like. There are few transitions and those there are – “for,” “nor,” “as for,” “so,” “and so” – seem just stuck in, providing a pause, not a marker of logical progression. Obama doesn’t deposit us at a location he has in mind from the beginning; he carries us from meditative bead to meditative bead, and invites us to contemplate.

Of course, as something heard rather than viewed, the speech provides no spaces for contemplation. We have barely taken in a small rhetorical flourish like “All this we can do. All this we will do” before it disappears in the rear-view mirror. 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.

There is a technical term for this kind of writing – parataxis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.”

The opposite of parataxis is hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. One kind of prose is additive – here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you.

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.
The thing that strikes me is that Fish is merely pointing this out and commenting on it neutrally, as if this was one way of doing things, where Obama could have chosen another and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. It seems like he's saying it's only a stylistic choice.

Me, I say that stylistics create (indeed are) content and therefore reacted negatively to precisely this style. While the paratactic (and shouldn't that be parataxic, btw?) mode of writing has a lot of use in postmodern oratory, I feel that what made Obama's previous "defining moment"-speeches (notably his 2004 keynote speech and "A More Perfect Union", his speech on race) notable was precisely the skill with which they created and sustained an argument that educated the public about a theme and thereby redefined that theme in public consciousness. Obama's keynote speech was an active element in defining away the idea that red states and blue states are coloured forever, and that led to the 50-state-strategy that won him the election; his race speech was key to creating a different way of talking about race in the context of the election (maybe even for good, now). Also, it saved his campaign from drowning - and I have numbers to back that up.

The inaugural address, instead, relied on the heavy symbolism of the moment to carry the speaker through a series of rousing rhetorical flourishes which failed to mount a sustained redefinition of the situation, as he did in the previous speeches. It's not a big deal, but it was a lost opportunity to continue the pedagogic streak in the campaign with the maximum number of viewers ever. Over 60 % of all Americans could have been exposed to some set of fresh ideas, some important redefinition of concepts. Like the "war on terror" idea or the "axis of evil"-ideas. Those stuck. Obama didn't really make any of them stick. Maybe the "era of responsibility" thing. Maybe.

In short, I think it was just this paratactic style, which I might otherwise enjoy in many forms (I am a blogger, after all) that set me off in the address. This is why I kept saying there was no theme, no argument, no redefinition. That's why I didn't think it was a speech that grasped kairos by the forelock quite as hard as necessary.


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