Last Friday night—20 January 2017—I got into a discussion with a Facebook Friend of a Facebook Friend regarding Trump’s inauguration speech. In coming up with a way to articulate my contentions, I unwittingly recreated Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia; although this is unsurprisingly, since I engaged with Bakhtin more than once in both of my English Lit degrees and have likely internalized some portion of his thought, it was somewhat disappointing, as I was pleased with what I had come up with and would have liked to have taken credit for it. Nonetheless, if I share a version of that argument here, I can at least save you the trouble of reading Discourse and the Novel or, if you choose to tackle it, give you something to get started with. Moreover, I think Bakhtin may be the right thinker to bring to this conversation at this moment anyway, and I haven’t seen that happen yet.
In response to a friend’s observation that there was little dissection of Donald Trump’s US Presidential Inauguration Address, one of his Friends (who has chosen not to go by his name here) claimed that if such a speech required experts to parse it, then it was not a very good speech. Although he did not invoke populism, I assumed he made this claim on populist grounds: he’s made this sort of claim before and much defense of Trump is made in populism’s name—although, as we’ll see, neither Trump nor Trump supporters are really populist. The idea, however, is this: the US Presidential Inauguration Address is a speech for all Americans and, as such, should be as totally accessible to all Americans as is possible; to the extent that experts—that is, journalists, politically correspondents, and so on—are able to uncover some meaning that Joe the Plumber is unable to uncover, the speech fails.
When I responded that it is in fact impossible for everyone to 100% of the meaning of a speech, he said that media must be dropping the ball: if analysis is necessary, then analysis must be necessary in the case of Trump’s speech too.
This is a very good point. I have to concede that my friend’s observation—there is comparatively less analysis of Trump’s speech compared to Obama’s and Bush’s speeches—remains unexplained. However, I felt like there was nonetheless a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and previous US Presidential Inauguration Addresses, that this difference did at least address my friend’s observation, and that total universal semantic accessibility was not a valuable end-goal in such speeches or in almost any text object.
There are two problems conflated here which need to be addressed separately. One is descriptive: is there or is there not a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and Obama’s and Bush’s speeches, and not merely their contexts, which explains the difference in journalists’ response to these speeches? One is normative: Is it better for a US Presidential Inauguration Address’s semantic content to be more readily accessible and exhaustible to more people? The normative question also has two parts. The first part is, again, descriptive: Is it possible for a speech to be totally accessible to all people at the same time? The second part is truly normative: If it were possible, is it something we should want? Although I tackled both parts on Facebook, here I will only go into the normative part in any detail. Continue reading