Obama and Carnival Rhetoric

Since has Chanon already brought up the Obama campaign, I thought I’d jump on that bandwagon (again – I did it once already in 2008) and write something about our president’s rhetoric.

But let me backtrack a little first. I was recently reading M.M. Bakhtin, who has rightfully become a major theorist for us rhetoricians as well our friends in lit, but also occasionally maddens us (or me, anyway) by setting up a stifling binary that separates the rhetorical from, and subordinates it to, the poetical. Folks like Jeffrey Walker, Kenneth Burke, Wayne Booth and even (arguably) Aristotle have already carved out good common ground between these two areas, but I’d like to highlight one way Bakhtin’s own terminology might help us understand one area of that intersection.

Bakhtin writes about carnival, a term which by which he refers to the celebratory congregation of human bodies, meeting without cognizance of social hierarchy or preoccupation with individuality—bodies eating, drinking, talking, shouting, dancing, and most importantly laughing. Moreover, Bakhtin draws a distinction between carnival laughter and satirical laughter. While he observes carnival laughter at work (or play) in the literature of Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare and others, Bakhtin claims that “[t]he bourgeois nineteenth century respected only satirical laughter, which was not actually laughter but rhetoric” (51).

I tend to agree that satirical laughter is, or can be, highly rhetorical, but I also see Bakhtin’s distinction between “real” carnival laughter and rhetorical satirical laughter as part of his ongoing vendetta to exclude rhetoric from all realms respectably literary. And here’s where Obama comes in: there is great rhetorical potential, I argue, in carnival laughter, and several of Obama’s speeches have harnessed that potential. I’m thinking especially here of his victory speeches, mainly the acceptance speech at the DNC that Chanon discussed, and that after winning the general election.

These speeches, of course, are also prime examples of what Aristotle calls epideictic oratory, ceremonial rhetoric that seeks to shape the audience’s perception of the present. I see a big overlap here between the poetical and rhetorical: not only does Aristotle quote Homer at length to illustrate the methods of epideictic rhetoric, but Bakhtin’s notion of carnival seems applicable too. (I realize merely applying a literary term to a rhetorical event doesn’t necessarily make it rhetorical-literary, but the broad applicability of “carnival” to both sides of the fence suggests some intersection to me—and, besides, there’s arguably something very “poetical” to Obama’s oratory in its own right.) The carnival atmosphere—composed of laughing, shouting, joyous human bodies feeling as one—seems very much present, and indeed rhetorically essential, to these speeches. Obama is a great speaker, that is, but a certain oomph would be lacking sans the carnival backdrop. If you rewatch the videos of these events, you’ll sense that the laughter and cheering of the crowds does not connote any satirical condescension or derision toward McCain and the Republicans, but rather an intense communal joy about the state of the present. Even the most red-blooded, dyed-in-the-wool, Obama-is-a-foreign-born-Muslim-socialist conservative has to admit there’s something very persuasive about that.


Aristotle. Rhetoric and Poetics. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Modern Library Ed. New York: Random House, 1954. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984. Print.

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4 Responses to Obama and Carnival Rhetoric

  1. mojoofrhet says:

    I loved this! This post really got me thinking, Ben. And about something that has always compelled my thinking (most often after a few glasses of wine:) – laughter and the social construction of its meanings. I read some anthro article forever ago about how all human laughter is rooted in aggression. This is supported by Hobbes’s “superiority theory” of humor – which a lot of people have used to do literary/cultural analysis of wit and comedy – or at least this is what I remember from the paper about long 18th Cent. humor/satire that my best friend wrote :).

    The point is, your post is really divinely timed for me because I generally accepted this cynical view of human laughter – until recently. See, my daughter is into gorillas and bonobos right now. When she’s into something, she makes me “google it mommy.” And so we did – and we learned that laughter in chimpanzee populations is related to aggression, yes – but most often it occurs during play, contact, intimacy, tickling – essentially, carnival. Chimp babies even laugh at their mothers’ tickling and cooing. I realize (’cause I now know more about primates than I ever really wanted to) that we split evolutionarily from the chimpanzee 6 million years ago, but they are our closet kin in the animal world.

    I haven’t read Bakhtin, but it interesting to note, that like researcher, Gruner (who is a big Hobbes fan) he connects laughter to language (rhetoric) and labels it “satirical” – the laughter of aggression. I’d like to think chimpanzees (who do not use language in the ways that humans do) help illustrate the possibility of Bakhtin’s second, real kind of laughter – one of “intense communal joy.” 🙂

  2. Brent Simoneaux says:

    All of this talk about laughter made me think of one of my favorite Cassavetes moments: http://youtu.be/OUrzJ60EdjA

    Like most of the scenes in this film, this one dissolves into incoherence… and laughter plays a huge role in breaking down what little coherence there was to begin with. Another rhetorical function of laughter, perhaps?

  3. Ben says:

    Ah … so what would a rhetorical situation where incoherence is beneficial look like? (Tea Party rallies are pretty incoherent … hmm …)

  4. Brent Simoneaux says:

    Maybe not a political situation. But in terms of art/film, it’s beneficial in that it jams the circuit of familiarity.

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