Monday, September 26, 2016

Obama’s Affective Trajectory in His Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

This occurred to me while I was completing the draft to “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature,” originally entitled “Form, Event, and Text: Literary Study in an Age of Computation.” These are crude initial thoughts. I don’t know whether I believe them. You can download a PDF of this post at

Introduction: The Mechanism of Ring-Composition

I have argued the President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney exhibits ring composition, as follows [1]:
(1) Prologue (paragraphs 1-5)
(2) Pinckney & Church (¶6-16)
(3) Nation (¶17-20)
(X) Violation and Grace (¶21-27)
(3’) Nation (¶28-39)
(2’) Pinckney & Families (¶40-44)
(1’) Closing (¶45-48)
Such structures have a central section that is flanked by a symmetrical arrangement of units such that the first one is echoed/complemented/completed by the last, the second by the penultimate, and so forth. No one doubts the existence of such structures in small scale texts (sentences, paragraphs or stanzas) where the arrangement is typically known as chiasmus.

Large-scale deployment, in this case a text of 3000 words, is more problematic. Is the structure real or is it the product of the critic’s imagination? If it is real, is it the product conscious deliberation? If not, how could such an arrangement have just happened? Any sort of arrangement is possible if the writer consciously conceives of it, but we have little or no evidence of conscious deliberation for these texts. In the case of the Pinckney eulogy, so far as I know, Obama has said nothing about conscious deliberation [2]. So, if he didn’t consciously and deliberately create this design, where did it come from?

These notes are directed at that question.

Grace and Love

Let’s take a look at the central section, where grace enters the eulogy. Here’s five of the seven paragraphs:
23.) He didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group – the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court – in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn't imagine that. (Applause.)

24.) The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley – (applause) – how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond – not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

25.) Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood – the power of God's grace. (Applause.)

26.) This whole week, I've been reflecting on this idea of grace. (Applause.) The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals – the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. (Applause.) I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind but now I see. (Applause.)

27.) According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It's not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God – (applause) – as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.
In particular, note Obama’s references to the forgiveness the families of the slain showed to the unnamed killer (Dylann Roof) and his assertion, in paragraph 27, that “grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.”

That strikes me as being like a mother’s love for a child and that love is mediated by the attachment system, as analyzed by John Bowlby and his students [3]. In an essay on Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” I show how Coleridge activated the attachment in tracing the relations between himself, his friends, and the natural world [4]. Obama, I believe, is doing the same thing in this eulogy.

Now consider these three paragraphs, the last before the eulogy’s final phase, where Obama sings “Amazing Grace” and rings the names of those who’d been slain:
42.) 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." (Applause.) What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. [...] He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.

43.) That's what I've felt this week – an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what's called upon right now, I think – what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

44.) That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)
Now he’s telling us what he feels, that he has “an open heart.” He is no longer talking about what happened a few days ago, nor about God’s relation to humans, but about himself, here and now, and about what we must all do, now and in the future.

Walkabout in the Mind

Mary Douglas brought ring-composition to my attention in email correspondence. As she notes in Thinking in Circles, she finds “it hard to believe that a large poem could be chiastically ordered without anyone having knowingly created the structure”(32). As do I, but she offers no evidence on the point other than that difficulty: How could they do it otherwise? Nor, so far as I know, does anyone else have evidence, by which I mean explicit assertions that long texts are, have been, should ideally be, structured in this way. The lack of such statements doesn’t logically imply the lack of such intent, but still, you’d think that if someone went to the trouble of creating such a structure they’d have said something about it.

Knowing of my interest in the brain–she’d read Beethoven’s Anvil, my book on music, where I talk of the brain–she asked my whether I knew of any neural systems that would do such a thing. I didn’t, but it got me thinking, and what I thought about was navigation, moving about in the world from one place to another. Any animal has to do so, and so the neural structures for navigation must be both ancient and robust, for an animal’s life depends on it.

And so I created a just-so story that would generate a ring structure, but not consciously so. Imagine someone leaving home for some purpose and then returning by the same route. For example, Becky goes to the grocer to buy a bottle of milk:
1) Becky leaves home.
2) She walks past the oak tree.
3) She walks past the post box.
X) She arrives at the grocery store and buys milk.
3’) She leaves the grocery store and walks past the post box.
2’) She walks past the oak tree.
1’) Becky arrives home.
That’s a canonical ring form, with the departure from and arrival back home being the first and last elements in the ring and the purchase of the bottle of milk being the mid-point. The events in the tale are arrayed symmetrically about the mid-point. But Becky didn’t set out to generate a ring; she just wanted to get a bottle of milk.

Now imagine a slightly different trip. After getting her bottle of milk she walks down the block from the grocery store to visit her grandmother. The lay of the land is such that it doesn’t make sense for her to retrace her route home. Rather, the route home from grandmother’s goes along different streets. Now we have this:
1) Becky leaves home.
2) She walks past the oak tree.
3) She walks past the post box.
4) She arrives at the grocery store and buys milk.
5) She leaves the grocery store and walks to her grandmothers.
6) She walks past the old sycamore tree.
7) Becky walks home.
There is no ring.

In both cases Becky took a walk with deliberate intention to accomplish something. In the first case the local geography was such that her path described a ring of landmarks. In the second case, it did not.

Could something like this be taking place in at least some long-form ring-compositions? Journeys, of course, are frequent in stories, but that isn’t quite what I had in mind (and the various examples I’ve read about aren’t symmetrical journeys). I think I’ve got a candidate example in Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney.

Ontological Walk

We need to look at what happens before and after the central section of the eulogy. Obama starts with a focus on individuals, Pinckney along with his friends and relatives (6-17). Then he moves to collective entities: the black church in general, and the nation (18-20). In the central section we step outside the progression to talk of murder and of God’s grace. Then Obama traverses the ontology in reverse order, from the nation and the black church (28-39) and back to Pinckney and his relations (40-44).

Think about the people in attendance, 6000 of them. At least some of them knew Pinckney and/or some of the others who were slain. Some were relatives, others friends and acquaintances. In some cases the relationships would be close in other cases they would be more distant. We thus have emotional bonds, though not necessarily involving the attachment system (a complication, and an important one, but I don’t want to deal with it now).

From individuals Obama moves to the church. Individuals are real physical creatures. Church’s are not. Yes, individual buildings are physical objects, but the real church is an abstract corporate object in which the members participate. The same is true of the nation. While I do feel that the nation is somehow more abstract that the church, I’m not quite sure how to account for that. I’m willing to set that aside for later.

Pinckney was pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston; the others were his parishioners. Hence many in the audience would have been parishioners there as well. This church is often referred to as “Mother Emanuel”, and Obama twice refers to it in that way (¶5, 19). That, of course, puts us squarely within the orbit of the attachment system, if only metaphorically. But metaphor is sufficient to get the affective job done.

In paragraph 5, which is in the Prologue, Obama addresses himself: “To Jennifer, his beloved wife; to Eliana and Malana, his beautiful, wonderful daughters; to the Mother Emanuel family and the people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina.” In paragraph 19, well into phase 3, the Nation, Obama asserts:
That's what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. When there's no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel – (applause) – a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes. (Applause.)
He generalizes from Mother Emanuel, to the black church in general, and then to the nation.

That strikes me as being a ‘walkable gradient’ in the cognitive system:
1. Pinckney and other individuals, to
2. Mother Emanuel, the church of which they were members, to
3. the black church in general, to
4. the nation.
Obama walks that gradient to the middle section where he invokes God’s grace. Now, in the ‘presence’ of that grace, he walks that gradient in the opposite direction, from the nation and the black church, mentioning two other incidents of mass murder (¶36), to arrive back at Pinckney in paragraph 40:
But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. (Applause.) Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual – that's what we so often do. To avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. (Applause.) To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change – that's how we lose our way again.
He again invokes Pinckney in paragraph 42, ending with an open heart: “He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.” He tells us of his own open heart in the next paragraph (which I’ve quoted above) and now we’re set up for the Closing, in which he leads the audience in singing “Amazing Grace.”

When they do that they affirm their bonds with one another but also their bond with an abstract object, the nation. The eulogy is over. People can now go about their daily lives, revivified through the transport of religious ritual.

Addendum: On the Phases

In my analysis of ring-composition I present the table as though there were a ‘sharp’ division between the segments. It’s not clear to me that that is true.

I think the framing sections at the beginning and the end are sharply distinguished from the others, and I think the central section is sharply distinguished as well. But it is not clear to me that the intervening ‘legs’ are sharply subdivided. The first moves from a focus in individuals to a focus on the nation while the second moves from nation to individuals. But the transition from one to the other might not be sharp. It might be more ‘statistical’ in character.

Imagine a topic analysis of the text. In the front leg we see the individual topic give way to the nation topic and, in the back leg, we see the reverse. So there isn’t a clean break from one paragraph to the next. Rather, there is some overlap.


[1] On ring composition: Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring-Composition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

For my argument about the eulogy:
Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney: Technics of Power and Grace (2015) 42 pp.

President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Analytic and Descriptive Tables (2015) 14 pp.

[2] See Michiko Kakutani, “Obama’s Eulogy, Which Found Its Place in History,” The New York Times, July 3, 2015,

[3] John Bowlby, (1969). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, Basic Books.

C. M. Parkes and J. Stevenson-Hinde (1982). The Place of Attachment in Human Behavior. New York, Basic Books.

Nelli Ferenczi, Tara C. Marshall
, “Exploring Attachment to the ‘Homeland’ and Its Association with Heritage Culture Identification,” PLoS ONE 8(1): e53872. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053872

[4] William Benzon, Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison." PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004,

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