27 October 2008

'The Early Death and Inevitable Rebirth of 'Message' Politics"

I attended another great lecture this evening, this one in the anthropological vein with linguistic elements (rather than a discussion of literature as the last one I discussed on the blog). It was entitled "The Early Death and Inevitable Rebirth of 'Message' Politics," by Michael Silverstein.
I find that I gain more from these lectures hosted by the academic departments with featured speakers than the class lectures in those same departments. But I'm fairly convinced that's a matter of my treatment of it, because I get genuinely excited for a fresh speaker - what a special opportunity at our university - don't know what to expect beyond what I infer from a well-crafted title... whereas for the courses in which I'm enrolled, it's: oh hey here are the basic tenets of the argument in that article - please share your interpretations of the reading - don't forget your papers are due next class. Oh! - There's maybe a better reason. Everyone who attends these departmental lectures is interested in the subject. They aren't required to attend; therefore, attendance tends to be sparser but discussion is palpably charged, listeners are thoroughly engaged and responsive to the ideas set forth. Heh, and the professor-to-student ratio is much more in favor of the professors.
Okay, okay.

So the lecture itself was on "message" politics, especially in regards to the current presidential campaign. Michael Silverstein is important in the field of linguistic anthropology, highly influential in shaping the way theorists study language in the social context. He's also well-informed in American political history, which he demonstrated tonight. This particular discussion took on the idea of how these messages or brands of the politicians have re-emerged in this electoral cycle as negative messaging. He outlined the rhetorical styles of both Barack Obama and John McCain, the combination African-American pulpit style meeting American civil rhetoric in Obama, and the so-called "straight-talk express" of McCain.
Silverstein definitely drew some laughs when he took some time to decode what he termed the "concept soup" of Sarah Palin's speech - giving examples of these syntactic stretches she joins by seemingly arbitrary connectives. He compared these to the responses that professors are so accustomed to reading on exams, those written by students who only half paid attention in class and have memorized a few key phrases to string together without understanding their meanings. He also discussed the new linguistic features of web campaigning (hey out there, blogosphere!), the trope of place as a source for the essential quality of a candidate (as understood by the media machine), the escalation of campaign slogans and how they play off of each other, and much more that he was able to convey in that hour or so.

A lot of what Silverstein relates to this week's "This American Life" broadcast. You can listen to the program online - follow that link or download it on iTunes. It's a quick, down-and-dirty, yet informative, look at how the presidential candidates are faring in the state of Pennsylvania. There are stories from both the Obama and McCain camps, and what especially struck me was the interviews with self-proclaimed racists who are proud to admit that they're voting for McCain because they're not going to let a black man into office. Honestly, what year is this?

And funneling down to the local level... High heel drag queen race in Dupont tomorrow! Parade from 7 to 9pm on 17th Street between Church and R Streets NW, followed by a race of queens kickin' off at 9. I'm goin' with co-workers, slingin' that cam, and postin' right here soon. See you all there!

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