Obama, Kairos, and Prosopopoeia

Strategies and tactics identified and practiced in ancient rhetoric appear in our political, social, and academic discourse all the time, chiefly because they’ve been absorbed–to some extent unconsciously–and not because writers and speakers have necessarily studied rhetoric.

A good example was and is Barack Obama’s major speech on race, a speech he was more or less forced to give during the campaign because of his opposition’s having seized on the alleged controversial remarks of the Reverend Wright,  pastor of a church the Obamas attended.  (I should point out that the remarks and rhetoric of Reverend Wright, captured on video, probably did not seem controversial to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with African American church traditions–as Obama subtly alluded to in his speech.)

No doubt Obama, his campaign directors, and anyone else with a hand in composing the speech ever uttered the words “kairos” and “prosopopoeia,” but both concepts figure significantly in his speech.

A definition of kairos, from the site Silva Rhetorica: “The opportune occasion for speech. The term kairos has a rich and varied history, but generally refers to the way a given context for communication both calls for and constrains one’s speech. Thus, sensitive to kairos, a speaker or writer takes into account the contingencies of a given place and time, and considers the opportunities within this specific context for words to be effective and appropriate to that moment.”

“Prosopopoeia” is a synonym for “personification,” but more specifically it refers to when a writer or speaker shifts into another’s voice or point of view briefly.

How did Obama deploy kairos?  First, I’d argue, by turning a defensive position (forced to say something about Wright) into an assertive position (giving an extended, formal speech on race, in which might be embedded remarks on Wright).  He made the speech “major” before he gave it. Second, I’d argue, by deciding to go to Philadelphia and Independence Hall to give the speech.  Philadelphia, city of brotherly love and site of the writing of the Constitution, which in effect and in print defined African American slaves as 3/5 human. Symbolism, anyone?

Then Obama opened his speech this way:

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.”

So, having deployed kairos, he then began the speech conventionally and patriotically, by quoting famous words. Later in this section, he compares slavery to original sin.  As I watched/heard the speech live and heard “original sin,” I knew he’d moved from the conventional to the serious.  One may quibble with the Christian context of the analogy, and/or one may think it is too melodramatic.  I thought it was apt in the sense that the colonies and then the Republic stumbled over slavery and that the U.S. has never fully recovered, partly because it has never fully confronted the implications and consequences of slavery. Note that the Governor of Virginia recently and “mistakenly” left slavery out of a proclamation concerning Confederate history.  Way to prove Obama’s point, governor.

To conclude the speech, Obama deployed prosopopoeia–personification. For a moment, he allows “Ashley” (and an elderly Black man) to speak for him, or at least to articulate a point for him:

. . . She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

A sentimental anecdote? You bet. An obvious parable? You bet.  The elder black man shows up to support Obama’s candidacy, not because the man and Obama are black (so the parable reads) but because of a selfless young white woman–in the South.  And a white person and a black person are working together, for Obama, in the South. A subtext may be this: Obama may have been indirectly saying to his opponents, who extruded as much emotion and visceral reaction out of Reverend Wright’s rhetoric as possible, “So now the campaign is about emotion, playing on people’s heart-strings? Okay!”

Classical moves in a contemporary speech, with a lot at stake: instructive.

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One Response to “Obama, Kairos, and Prosopopoeia”

  1. Köhler agierte anstatt zu reagieren - kleiner aber feiner Unterschied - Das Rhetorikblog.com - Rhetoriktipps für Ihren Erfolg Says:

    […] der Stunde oder den richtigen kairos zu nutzen wissen – die Blog-WM 2010 oder  Meisterredner Barack Obama sowie viele […]


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