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Obama's Speech: A Brief Rhetorical Analysis (pt. 1: the first two paragraphs)

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garthranzz Donating Member (983 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Mar-18-08 09:31 PM
Original message
Obama's Speech: A Brief Rhetorical Analysis (pt. 1: the first two paragraphs)
Edited on Tue Mar-18-08 09:50 PM by garthranzz
A Cursory Rhetorical Analysis of Obamas Philadelphia Speech
Part 1: The first two paragraphs

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Known as a Prelude (Toulmin), a familiar quote introduces the audience to the theme of the speech, and does so safely. Because we are on Common Ground (see below), we feel comfortable. We are in the know.
Often, though, an introductory quote serves more to set context, to be a background for what is to come. In other words, the speech itself will be a variation on a theme, a theme made aphoristic by the quote. Here however, as we discover as the speech progresses, Obama does something different. The quote becomes not just the theme, but the motif, so that the words of the quote echo, like the refrain of a song, reinforced by the lyrics - the structure and argument.
Perhaps because Im currently studying (and teaching) Lincolns Cooper Union speech I see a parallel. But I suspect that Obama recognized another such transformative moment. I just looked at Kennedys speech in Houston to the Baptist ministers, to see if there was any similarity. In directness and forthrightness, yes; in rhetorical mastery, obviously. But in structure, I didnt see an echo here.
But I do see an echo of Lincolns Cooper Union address. Here, after a deprecatory introduction - a bit of rhetorical lowering-the-expectations that wouldnt work for Obama (discussing why would be even more of a digression than this) - Lincoln bases his speech on a quotation, one he proceeds to analyze in a way that prepares for and supports his position. Heres what Lincoln said:
In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in "The New-York Times," Senator Douglas said: "Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now." I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: "What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?"
Note how both Lincoln and Obama base their speeches on an interpretive, rather than textual, analysis of the Constitution. Note too how Obama parses the quote, so that he gets three motifs, refrains, movements: we the people, perfect, and union. Lincoln did something very similar with his Cooper Union address.

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

If there was any doubt that Obama intended there to be echoes of Lincoln, already the second paragraph laid them to rest: Four score and seven years ago... Two hundred and twenty one years ago... For those of you who understand meter, Lincolns phrase is a tetrameter - 4 beats, and Obamas a pentameter - 5 beats. I dont want to make too much of the poesy here, and one could argue that theres a pentameter in Lincolns, by adding our fathers, but the parallel rhythm - and word choice - cannot escape notice.
I know Ive switched from Cooper Union to the Gettysburg Address, but it seems to me that Obama is channeling much of Lincoln, both content and rhetoric and style. It seems natural, then, to reference across the spectrum. But lets look at the parallels a bit more.
Lincoln: our fathers brought forth... Obama: a group of men gathered...
Lincoln: on this continent Obama: in a hall that still stands across the street
I dont want to belabor this point, though an essay could be written about just this. We should note, though, the rhetorical pause, and the power, of the parenthetical with these simple words. That is not a throwaway phrase. Rather, it emphasizes both the vision, and the ability to achieve it, that form a substrate of Obamas speech. The phrase with these simple words is far enough away from the original quote that we have to recall it to mind, but not too far away that the reference is out of mind. The pronoun these forces our mind backwards to its antecedent. We must then, mentally, repeat the quote for Obama, even as he continues, leading us forward. (The rhetorical intent becomes even more obvious when viewing the delivery. Everything to the phrase with these simple words is slow and deliberate. His delivery speeds up, his voice lowers, when he says them - forcing the listener to concentrate on them. But with these simple words is a very unsatisfying phrase, since our minds ask, automatically, what simple words? and answers itself - but quickly, in order to keep up with the speech -We the people... Oh, those simple words.
Theres another point here: We the people are, inherently, simple. Union, especially a perfect union, is inherently simple.
I want to treat lightly the last phrase of the sentence, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Just a couple of observations: launched is a verb that could only work post-1960, after space exploration. And we might ask, why the adjective improbable? I think the adjective does two things: it emphasizes the tenuousness of the experiment, a point Obama comes back to, especially when he wants to present us a choice. Thus, not only was the Constitution an experiment, it still is. And experiments, by definition, are not conclusive, the hypothesis they test not inevitable or automatically true; experiments can falsify the hypothesis, can go awry, can blow up. Experiments require trial and error, risk-taking and the humility to be convinced otherwise. An improbable experiment is all that and more. Thus, that the experiment was - and is - improbable makes our choice all the more critical, and makes the argument all the more deliberative (a technical rhetorical term here, placing it as an argument about the future & choice, in contrast to one about the present & values (demonstrative, with us or against) or one about the past & blame).

Another very important point, an indication of the mastery of the speech: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union" is not a complete sentence. It is, like the Constitution, or the promise of the Constitution, unfinished. Obama declares, with the opening quote: The Founders made real their declaration of independence with the Constitution, but they did not full enact it, perfect it. They left the task as unfinished as the opening phrase. But we, by forming a union, by becoming we the people can perfect it, can finish it. Of course, that is exactly the point Obama builds toward in his speech.

The next sentence begins with two contrasts, two parallels, another rhetorical device (again, I wont bore you with the technical name). Lets translate them: farmers and scholars translate to workers and intellectuals - two wings, often in conflict, of the Democratic party. (One might even note an appeal to Hillary Clinton, who claims the farmers as opposed to Obamas scholars, but thats probably stretching things.) But while farmers and scholars are obvious opposites, statesmen and patriots are not. Yet they are, for statesmen are diplomats, those who deal with institutions of power, while patriots, in the sense used in 1787, were revolutionaries. And while patriots could become statesmen, the reverse was probably not true; further, patriots could become statesmen only after the revolution had succeeded. So here is a reference to another tension of that time - and ours - a tension between the old generation that fought the revolution and the new generation (not necessarily chronological, of course) that must actualize, stabilize make real the revolution, that declaration of independence.
By this point it should also be obvious why Obama emphasizes the length of time it took to produce the Constitution, noting that the convention lasted through the spring of 1787. It was a process as exhausting, as tension filled, and as seemingly endless for its time as is the primary process in ours. But if the time consuming process then could produce the Constitution, then the time consuming process now can produce a perfection of that document, a more perfect union, a we the people where common interests and needs supersede individual group differences.

All this allows him to move smoothly into the next paragraph, the next section. We should note the sentence construction, because the parallelism, the hint of chiasmus, gives the speech a tremendous iterative power. Imagine a ball bouncing back and forth between two walls, with a string attached. As the ball goes from wall to wall, the string forms a complex, yet coherent, web. Thus Obama says, the document was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. The two adverbs emphasize time - the distance between the beginning of the perfect union and its achievement, the exhaustion of the initial process and the unsatisfactory conclusion of that exhaustive process: eventually but ultimately. And of course the words they modify also emphasize the illusion of perfection, a delusion that America is in fact perfect, a delusion that prevents it from becoming or truly forming the perfect union: signed but unfinished.
We then get the first religious reference. Note the alliteration in which it is couched, the repetitive s sound: stained by this nation's original sin of slavery. And of course, the actions of the children redeem the parents: we are the ones who can correct the founders original sin, and by elevating ourselves, by forming the perfect union of we the people, both elevate and justify them.
Further, just as slavery divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate, so racism has divided the country and brought the convention - not just the Democratic primary process, but the convention, the coming together for the common purposes, the common good - to a stalemate. (As a chessplayer, I can appreciate the reference. While a stalemate is a good thing for the player that was losing, because he or she now escapes with a draw, for the player who falls for it, allows it to happen, a stalemate is frustrating and in some ways worse than losing. Because victory (we the peoples more perfect union) was nigh, under the players control, and his or her inattention, carelessness or indifference to the position allowed it to happen. So, too, I think Obama is saying, we have allowed a victory - the actualization of the more perfect union vision - to be stalemated.)

The implication of to leave any final resolution to future generations may be too obvious to need commentary. Or I may just have run out of energy to discuss it.
To be continued...

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mac2 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Mar-18-08 09:41 PM
Response to Original message
1. Wasn't it amazing how the media and press gave Obama
such attention and discussion? Kucinich or Edwards could have stood naked and that would not have happened.
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Vinnie From Indy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Mar-18-08 10:09 PM
Response to Original message
2. On the other hand...
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

It is fascinating to explore the power of language.
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MercutioATC Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 12:11 AM
Response to Original message
3. Holy shit.
That has to be the most detailed analysis of a speech that I've ever seen...

I found it fascinating
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Frank Booth Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 01:27 AM
Response to Original message
4. I agree with the poster above. This is a fascinating analysis.
I hope you continue your analysis with other parts of the speech.
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TahitiNut Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 01:39 AM
Response to Original message
5. Excellent. More. More.

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FrenchieCat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 01:58 AM
Response to Original message
6. I loved this.......very engrossing....
Will be Waiting for part deux! :)
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pointsoflight Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 02:12 AM
Response to Original message
7. Fascinating analysis. Question for you...
Do you believe all of these literary devices were used intentionally, or an emergent property of what sounded right to his hear and captured his thoughts?
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FrenchieCat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 02:27 AM
Response to Reply #7
10. He did it in two I'm guessing that he has a certain gift with this
speech writing thingie.
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garthranzz Donating Member (983 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 04:56 AM
Response to Reply #10
13. A gift - and practice, yes. N/t
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garthranzz Donating Member (983 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 04:55 AM
Response to Reply #7
12. Yes
First, thanks to all of you who complimented the analysis. It's still rough; in a nod to SNL, it's not quite ready for prime-time (publication). I'd need to include the names of the rhetorical devices, polish, etc.

But to answer the question: Given what I know of Obama's education, he has immersed himself in classical rhetoric and the great speeches of history and our time. JFK and his speechwriter Sorenson, for instance, did a lot of research before the inaugural. The famous lines (such as perhaps the most famous chiasmus in history, "ask not...") did not come out of a vacuum, but against a background of rhetoric. That said, the revision process operates on - over and against, to use a literary terminology - your rather excellent phrase of "an emergent property." To get the phrase to "sound right" requires experience and practice, the inspirational moment - which may require a self-wrestling, and the dialogic (back and forth) of revision.

Great comment.
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woolldog Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 02:13 AM
Response to Original message
8. x marks the spot
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HCE SuiGeneris Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 02:24 AM
Response to Original message
9. Brilliant,
Edited on Wed Mar-19-08 02:26 AM by BushDespiser12
and exhaustive analysis. Thank you for posting this!

I too, await part deux...
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Swamp Rat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 02:39 AM
Response to Original message
11. Great analysis, though I have a minor correction.
The verb launch or "launched" has been used for a very long time regarding naval ships.

Christopher Marlowe, in "Doctor Faustus", referring to 'Helen of Greece':

"Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."

Look forward to more analysis. :hi:

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garthranzz Donating Member (983 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 05:04 AM
Response to Reply #11
14. True, the word "launch" has a long history,
almost as long as "breakfast" (sorry, it's an early morning pun).

What I meant was that had such a speech been given in a different context, without the background of space exploration, the echoes of Kennedy's challenge - the New Frontier of space and the new frontier of civil rights, the international space station thing, perhaps even Star Trek, and thus without the implications of exploring new social territory and boldly going, Obama would have chosen a different, more conventional verb, one that does not otherwise call attention to itself.

For instance, the example you use refers to launching war ships, not an experiment.

Shout out to a fellow New Orleanian.
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Swamp Rat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-19-08 05:12 AM
Response to Reply #14
15. Ok, I understand what you mean.
Btw, Star Trek is on TV Land right now... the episode where they discover an imperfect eden run by a dinosaur computer. :D

Well, this vampire must sleep for a few hours. Looking forward to more speech analysis. Later alligator. :hi:

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Copepod Donating Member (3 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-20-08 04:59 AM
Response to Original message
16. Beautiful phrases and authorship
A funny observation.
In Obama's speech, when I heard the phrase "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery"
I thought - that's such an original and amazing turn of phrase.
Then it occurred to me to Google it.
Up popped:
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the American Presidents.
George Washington chapter.
"The American terrain was infinitely stained by the original sin of slavery"

Obama's speech: "launched America's improbable experiment in democracy."
I think Obama first used this turn of phrase in Audacity of Hope (2006).
AP story with photo captioned "Improbable Experiment with Democracy".
Polls Open in Historic Afghan Election
Fri, Oct 08, 2004
By PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's first-ever direct presidential election began Saturday, with people across this ethnically diverse land casting the first ballots in an improbable experiment with democracy.

I guess some of the most beautiful phrases aren't actually his.
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