Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Description, Interpretation, and Explanation in the Case of Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

I want to continue the discussion in my previous two posts, Yet Another Brief for Description (and Form), and, Why Ethical Criticism? or: The Fate of Interpretation in an Age of Computation. I want to take a quick and dirty look at description, interpretation, and explanation with respect to Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney as I discussed it in “Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation” [1]. In that (draft) article I first present a (toy) model of the computational analysis of a literary text (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129) and then discuss form, arguing for a computational conception. Then I take a look at Obama’s performance (which is readily available in video form) followed by a demonstration that the text is a ring-composition [2].

The ring-composition analysis is fundamentally descriptive. To be sure, I have to do some low-level interpretation to divide the text into sections. For example, I assert that in paragraph 17 the topic shifts from Rev. Pinckney and his relations to the nation and the black church’s role in it. How do I know that? Because that’s the first paragraph where the word nation occurs; then paragraph 18 talks of the role of the black church in the Civil Rights Movement. This sort of thing seems obvious enough.

But what’s there to explain? I can imagine that, in principle, the kind of computational model I created for the Shakespeare sonnet could be created for the eulogy. That might help us to explain just how the eulogy works in the mind. But I can’t see creating such a model now; we just don’t know how. That is to say, the eulogy’s ring-form design is something that needs to be explained by an underlying psychological model. And computation will be an aspect of the model.

What I don’t do is invoke the special terminology of some interpretive system: deconstruction, Lacanian analysis, Foucaultian genealogy, and so forth. I don’t offer a “reading” of the eulogy. I don’t, for example, offer remarks about the underlying theology, which seems to invoke the notion of the Fortunate Fall in its central presentation of the mysterious was of God’s grace.

* * * * *

Nor do I address an observation Glenn Loury made in conversation John McWhorter [3]. Loury is remarking on the fact that Obama took on the role of a black preacher and drew on the tropes and stylistic moves of black vernacular preading. They are remarking that, of course, this was a performance. But not an inauthentic one, though Obama was not himself raised in the black church. Loury says:

A mask, a face has to be made. A way of being has to be fashioned. It’s gotta’ be practiced. You could see him standing in front of the mirror. John, we should write the novel John. […]
It just resonates in my mind so deeply. Because what does it mean for a people, I speak now of black Americans 30-40 million, to have the embodiment of their generational hopes, personified by a person who must adopt artifice, and manufacture, in order to present himself as being of them. What does it say of such a people.

No no no. I think this is historic profound. Excuse me if I, you know, I mean I’m just saying, here we are. Because think about it, think about it, OK, the stigma of race, slavery, OK, Orlando Patterson just brilliantly analyzes this, I think. Slavery has to be, you’re putting the slave down. The slave must be a dishonored person. OK so honor, honor becomes central to the whole quest for equality.

And having the Chief Executive of State, be of you, or at the very least, be a person who when in a position of choice, chose to be of you, is countering the dishonor in a very deep way. But perhaps the only way that the state’s symbolic power could be married to your quest for honor is through the President of someone who wasn’t quite fully of you. Your stigma still resonates even in the workings of history, that are intended to elevate you.
Those remarks are certainly worth elaboration, and that elaboration will necessarily be interpretive in the fullest sense of the word.

There’s the nature of the event itself, Obama performing before a live audience of 6000 or so people. This is of course implicit in Loury’s remarks, for much of what he’s talking about doesn’t show up in the text, though some of it does. Obama’s vocal style, his physical gestures, the audience response, all of that exists only in the performance. The means exist, of course, to describe those things in great deal detail, if not in full. I did little of that, though I did some. In particular, I pointed out that the audience response during the structural center of the eulogy (paragraphs 21-27) is the strongest that Obama had yet gotten.

I also cited a variety of evidence about interpersonal coordination in conversation and in groups. Some of this is about timing and some is about neural activity. I could also have cited work on applause, which was present sporadically throughout and, of course, was sustained at the end [4]. Here I was making an argument about the nature of such groups. I was arguing that we can think of the group as a whole as a computational system that is distributed over many individuals. In such a system some signals happen internally in the brains and nervous systems of participating individuals while other signals pass between individuals in the form of speech (mostly Obama’s), applause, and physical action (standing and sitting, facial expressions, etc.).

I’d really like to be in a position to say that I was invoking that literature as a way of describing what was going on. To do that I would have to first establish that distributed computing systems have such and such characteristics and those characteristic allow as to explain how the system works. Social groups, such as the one gathered to hear Obama, display those characteristics. From that it follows that the group WAS a distributed computational system; as such one can go to the literature and find appropriate explanatory material. In principle, that’s what I’m after.

In fact, we’re not there. So it would perhaps be more accurate to say that I was invoking that evidence as a way of interpreting the group activity. But it’s certainly not the kind of interpretation that literary critics engage in. I wasn’t interpreting a text. I was offering a speculative characterization of group activity.

Now, let us ask, with a nod to Loury: Why did Obama make that speech at that time? It is one thing to start with the speech as an accomplished event and ask how it works in the mind. I can see how, in time, we will be able to create a psychology and a group dynamics that will tell us a great deal about that, that will explain that. But that doesn’t tell us how that text came into existence in the first place. What about that?

If we want to explain that, in terms commensurate with an explanation of how the speech works, then it seems to me that we’re going to have to simulate Obama and the historical situation in which he found himself. THAT kind of simulation is Lucy in the psychedelic pie in the sky impossible. It’s not simply that I can’t imagine doing such a thing in the coming century. I rather doubt that we’ll ever be able to do such a thing, though the coming century might see a fully explicit argument about why that’s impossible. If that’s what we want to know, then interpretation is our only tool, now and ever.

Either that, or we could just ask him: Why'd you do it Barack? We could ask the same thing of everyone who showed up for the memorial service. For that matter, we can ask that of anyone about anything. But do they really know?

* * * * *

I keep thinking that human beings are “causal singularities.” If you want to understand how something new comes out, you need to take into account what has gone in. And that is, to a first approximation, everything. Hence we’re causal singularities.

But if that is the case, you ask, how can you claim that, at least in principle, we’ll be able to explain how Obama’s Pinckney eulogy works in the mind?

Hmmm… That’s a very good question. One part of the answer is surely that we can explain the eulogy only to the extent that we can describe it [5]. It is through description that we bring phenomena into intellectual discourse where we can interpret, explain, or, for that matter, evaluate. Moreover, here we are not asking how something, the eulogy, came from nothing. We are taking it as given and asking only: How does it work? And we ask that only to the limits of our descriptive capacity.

Let me take another crack at the notion that we are causal singularities. Old School interpretative criticism took the author as the causal source to the text. The text is the way it is because that’s what the author wanted. So, Obama made the eulogy THAT way because that’s what he wanted. New School critics came along and erased the author, replacing him with social forces, (impersonal, sub-personal) psychological forces, and semiotic systems. They created the text. But in either case it was the critic’s job to interpret the text. Interpretation IS explanation.

But what is it that connects the author as source with impersonal systems as source? That’s our causal singularity. Sociologists have ways of explaining social systems and psychologists have ways of explaining minds. But the relationship between minds and social systems is tricky. Why? Because causal singularities.

Of course that’s mostly tap dancing and hand waving.

More later.

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[1] Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation, Draft, 11 August 2016,

[2] My blog posts on ring-composition:

[3] The conversation took place on Blogging Heads TV, June 29, 2015. They’ve had many discussions there, and so are familiar with one another’s interests, attitudes, and moves. The discussion starts at roughly 46:14, after they’d discussed the eulogy itself. Here’s the link:

[4] See these blog posts, for example:

The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality

Synch and Society, Two Articles: A Synthesis and Review and a Study of Applause

[5] See Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best, “Building a Better Description,” Representations 135, Summer 2016, pp. 1-21.

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