Titles Describe Things

For me, it’s hard to imagine the I Have a Dream speech without King’s charismatic intonation. Just picture one of your favorite celebrities (I’m thinking Samuel L. Jackson) walking up to a podium, staring blankly at a carefully placed cue card. Then he/she begins to read:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

It just wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t have the same je ne sais quois. And this was Derrida’s point: that speech, directly from the mouth of the thinker, is more immediate and closer to the intended meaning than appropriated speech (e.g. quotations, replications, etc.). Lilt is important, in this sense. But, when speeches are written down, there is no way to inflect the words in the way the author intended or, at least, there is no way of knowing what is the correct inflection. Subtle meanings embedded in timbre, pitch, timing, and accents are obscured when written down.


Case in point:

The world knows violinist Pinchas Zukerman as a colorful musician. But he is a colorful talker, too. Buffalo found that out four years ago when Zukerman appeared on the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series –a set of five intimate concerts that take place at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.

How’s this little anecdote going to play out?

“We picked up Pinchas Zukerman at the airport, and he came off his private jet with his cape swirling,” says Phil Rehard, one of the Tick series’ organizers.

Just for your information, people, this is a cape-free zone. We will not tolerate capes of any kind.

Sorry. Had to get that out of the way. Let’s continue with the anecdote, shall we?

“He kept saying, ‘What the #@($* is this –this church? What the @#$(*&?’”

Holy crapper at a concert, Batman! Pinchas sounds like a total prima donna. “This church will never do; it only has three-hundred seats. I, the famous Zuckerman, require at least one-thousand, you brainless mother ^#*ers!” That’s how I read it, anyway. Is there any other way? He’s painted as a total dick, with a cape.

It’s pretty hard to misinterpret that.

Rehard loved the earthy enthusiasm that Zukerman, who returned to Buffalo later that year to perform for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2004 season-opening gala, exhibited for the Tick series. “He was into it in a big way,” he laughs.


That was how he expressed his enthusiasm? “What the fuck is this-this church? What the fuck?”

If Samuel L. Jackson said it, then maybe.


Sator Arepo said...

I dunno. I get your larger point about Derrida, [S]peech, inflection, etc.

But my European friends often use profanity to express surprise or for emphasis, which seems to be the case here. Okay, well, Israel is not in Europe. But you get my meaning.

Still, interesting stuff and your points about [S]peech are well-taken.

Empiricus said...

Thanks for the *&@#^ing comment.

Aaron said...

I don't know that I agree that there's any difference between the "I Have A Dream Speech" as given by King vs. the same speech given by Jackson. At least, I'm not seeing the differences in meaning you and Derrida claim there are, so I guess I'd like to see an example of that.

I can see how having a white guy give the speech would give it a different twist, but that's not a matter of the speaker's inflection, it's a matter of the speaker's identity, which is a different problem.

AnthonyS said...

Not to problematize, but isn't it Derrida's argument that writing is primary to speech? How does that work? Or do we just accept the fact that the primary medium is less transferable than the secondary one with respect to intention? Hmmm.