The Immanent Frame, an academic blog launched on the release of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age , is still going strong. They’ve started a new discussion series , replete with invited scholars, centered around Obama’s traditionalistic inaugural claim that the “values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism,” are things both “old” and “true.” Barack Obama, writes David Kyuman Kim,
has proven to be a master of public rhetoric — a form of engagement understood by the ancients as the art of persuasion. As with the classical art of rhetoric, Obama enacts the basic principle that one needs not only well-reasoned argument but also a sufficiently deep and engaged understanding of an audiences values. Why? In order to effectively persuade them of something like a sense of shared and elective affinities or a mission of common purpose. In this regard, Obama, as expert rhetorician, is also a master of the mythopoetic, an expert maker of myths: especially myths about the meaning of America, and of the values and institutions that constitute a common national tradition.
Just when you thought our practical phenomenology couldn’t get any more alienating, here we go, from having to experience a mere ‘sense of’ our affinities to having to experience ‘something like’ a sense of them. I try not to get pedantic about this ‘sense of’ business; but here’s an important point about rhetoric. Obama’s rhetoric, as Kim intimates, enchants more than it reveals. But in thinking of two different spirits of rhetoric, I don’t want to distinguish merely between vagueness and specificity. Presumably, by design, concrete, specific rhetoric can prompt vague or aimless action, while abstract or dissembling language can trigger quite particular acts. The distinction to make, I think, is between the use of enchanting rhetoric designed to elicit a response of mere enchantment and the use of revealing rhetoric designed to elicit a response of repentance. By repentance I do not mean the feeling of remorse. I mean the act of repudiation — the personal turning away from wrong conduct. In his inaugural address, Obama flirted with this mode or spirit of rhetoric, quoting pointedly from 1 Cor 13:11. But how do you call for a “young nation” to stop speaking, understanding, and thinking as a child? It seems the revealing, repentant spirit of rhetoric is inherently alien or inappropriate to American political rhetoric: but then there is Lincoln.
Yet, aside from politics, our hearts and minds, in their straining for infinite youth, have grown uncannily old in their wiliness. We celebrate the fleeting repose from repentance afforded by any of our rationalized ‘vagueries’. We are content to run, though we cannot hide, until we run out of gas. The interim is ‘ours’, but the ‘play’ is the thing. In such a schema repentence itself is implicated in and made subject to therapies of deferral , practiced by rhetors in denial — we Hamlets. Oakeshott warned that what is salutary for the individual may be fatal for the society, but there is a converse possibility: a flourishing society may teem with unhealthy, unhappy souls. In this case the rhetoric of revelation and repentance has little place in politics, though it may be essential outside it. Still, that rhetoric, calibrated to resonate individualistically, falls into tension with revelation and repentance as originally conceived: not simply must a person turn away from wrong conduct, in his or her capacity as a person, but a people as a people.