Palinpsest

by CarlD

It’s something of a cottage industry right now for snarky intellekchles like me to gloat over the incoherence and grammatical incompetence of Sarah Palin. Language Log has a nice careful version of the genre. I am amused. I’m all for it. We are, however, missing the point.

We academocrats are used to a kind of hyperformalized orality that basically speaks in essays. I mean, we actually sit around at conferences and listen patiently to each other drone through readings of our specialized research findings. We get perplexed and offended when only a small fraction of our students want to sit still and take notes attentively while we buzz through carefully constructed, fearsomely overloaded lectures about the peanut market in mid-century coastal west Africa. We are some really strange folks.

“A good sermon differs from an essay in that an essay explains a subject, but a sermon appeals to people…” M.L. King Jr. said. People whose audience is not captive have to think more carefully about the rhetorical fit between what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and who they’re saying it to. So no, Sarah Palin is not explaining anything coherently. She is sermonizing. Her audience already know what they think (or think they do) and she is not trying to change that; she’s trying to hook into it and activate it in her favor. Her objective is not grammatical correctness or propositional coherence but instant intelligibility, using highly familiar and oft-repeated (call-and-responsable) words, phrases, inflections and gestures to appeal directly to the emotions and prejudices of her target listeners.

Who are not us. Barack does the same thing, but his target listeners’ emotional response is triggered by a different sort of articulation. The point is, in their current public performances the candidates are not trying to govern the country, they are trying to win the election. And rightly so. There’s much to learn from Palin’s self-vulgarized orality about how the Republicans think they can do that — certainly their contempt for the intelligence of their base voter could not be more clear — but her personal ability to think and speak clearly is not part of the available information.

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