Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney: Technics of Power and Grace

I've uploaded a new working paper. Links etc. below:

Abstract: President O'bama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney took the form of a sermon in the black vernacular tradition. This particular sermon exhibits ring-form composition; as such it is symmetrical about a structural midpoint. It opens with the recitation of a scriptural passage and closes with the hymn, “Amazing Grace”. Grace is introduced as a theme in the middle section, which is also where Obama mentions the killer. The sermon is placed in a traditional of black performance going back to 19th century camp-meetings. Finally it is suggested that the performance takes place in an emerging discursive space that is neither religious nor political, but partakes of both.


Introduction: Confluence 2
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy and the Place of Religious Discourse in Civic Life 4
The Circle of Grace 9
Performing Black, Three Discussions 12
The Technics of Grace 16
To Redeem a Nation 21
Appendix 1: Black Preaching, the Church and Civic Life 28
Appendix 2: Text of the Eulogy 31
Appendix 3: Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates 36

Introduction: Confluence

The posts in this document lie at the confluence of three streams of inquiry. Two are obvious: 1) African-American culture and 2) literary form and mechanism. And one is not so obvious: 3) the future. Let us consider them in turn.

My interest in African-American culture centers on music and, within music, predominantly jazz. Just how I became interested in jazz is not entirely clear. While there was music in the house when I was growing up, my father liked classical music, Beethoven in particular; there was no jazz. I found that by myself but the mystery is where and how.

The only thing I’m sure is that Disney had something to do with. He had two shows on TV, the Mickey Mouse Club, which aired on weekday afternoons, and his omnibus show which aired on Sunday evenings. Both would occasionally feature a Dixieland band called The Firehouse Five Plus Two. I heard them and loved them. And somehow I found my way to jazz records at the local discount department store: Louis Armstrong, Maynard Ferguson, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and others – I favored trumpet players because I was myself learning trumpet at the time.

From the music itself I became interested in the musicians and began reading jazz biographies. Somewhere along the line I learned that this music had roots in the black church. And that, as they say, blew my mind. There was no music remotely like that in the church I’d attended as a child. And so my interest in the music and the musicians became an interest in the culture and its interaction with and influence on American culture in general.

I suppose my interest in literature is grounded ultimately in the fact that I loved to read. But I didn’t go to college to study literature. I went to study philosophy;I figured that was where you got to put everything together. Wbat I discovered is that while academic philosophy had its points of interest, it was not a discipline where one worked on broad intellectual synthesis.

But literature, that turned out to be more a promising arena for synthesis, particularly as it was taught by Richard Macksey at Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work. The story of how I went from an interest in literature to a specific interest in form and mechanism is more complex than we need entertain here. Suffice it to say that it happened.

And then three decades or so after that, early in this millennium, I entered into correspondence with Mary Douglas, the great anthropologist. She got me interested in ring-composition, in which the sections of the text are symmetrically arrayed about a mid-point (I explain this more fully later). It’s a form mostly studied by Biblical scholars and classicists, but Douglas was attempting to broaden attention to the form and, to that end she gave a series of lectures at Yale which became her last academic book, Thinking in Circles.

Once Douglas had gotten me interested in the form I found examples in modern texts – Tezuka’s Metropolis, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – and films – three episodes in Disney’s Fantasia, the original Japanese Gojira, (as opposed to the American re-edit and re-shoot as Godzilla, King of the Monsters) and Apocalypse Now. I wasn’t looking for another example when I starred working on Obama’s Pinckney eulogy, but indicators quickly appeared (e.g. the distribution of the word “grace” in the text) and, with a bit of work, the pattern became clear.

That’s all well and good, you say, but what has any of that to do with the future? Consider this paragraph near the end of the eulogy:
Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history – we haven't always had a deep appreciation of each other's history.” What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can't be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.
“A roadway toward a better world.” A better world, in the future.

At the same time I’ve been thinking about Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications, that put it in the same place in my mind as Obama’s eulogy, and that looked to the future as well. As tenuous as it is, that’s really it, this look to the future.

But there’s one more thing. As I began thinking about the post for 3 Quarks Daily that became the first section of this document I listened to a discussion that Glenn Loury and John McWhorter had about the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. And what their remarks did was lead me to postulate the emergence of a liminal space, an undefined region of discursive possibility, that is emerging in contemporary discussions. That’s where we also find Obama’s eulogy and Laudo Si’.

Is this where we begin to forge the outlines of new ways of being in the world, of 21st Century society and culture? I don’t know, but that’s what’s on my mind these days.

* * * * *

About the rest of this document:

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy and the Place of Religious Discourse in Civic Life: This is the last post I wrote in this series. This is where I suggest, as I’ve already stated, that we’re seeing the emergence of a new future oriented-dialog.

The Circle of Grace: I lay out the possibility that the eulogy is a ring-form and concentrate on the mid-section, where Obama mentions the murders and where grace becomes a theme.

Performing Black, Three Discussions: Here I trascribe sections of three interviews: 1) Glenn Loury and John McWhorter discussing Obama, 2) Barack Obama and Marc Maron discussing comedians, and 3) Ike Turner and Sam phillips discussing Elvis Presley.

The Technics of Grace: Here I discuss the rest of the eulogy, how Obama moves two and then frum the middle section, and clinch the ring-form analysis. I also remark on audience interaction, which we can judge from the video tape.

To Redeem a Nation: Here I discuss Obama’s choice to deliver this address in a specifically black style and say a bit about the history of black expressive style.

Appendix 1: Black Preaching, the Church and Civic Life: This is an older post about the potential of black preaching to enrich our civic life in general.

Appendix 2: Text of the Eulogy: This is the entire text, to which I have added paragraph numbers for ease of reference during analysis and description.

Appendix 3: Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates: This is a large part of the discussion of Coates as a quasi-religious figure and, in general, of the emergence of antiracism as a secular religion.

Finally, when working on the eulogy I created a set of analytic and descriptive tables, President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Analytic and Descriptive Tables. Here’s the link where you can download them: 

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