One of the pleasures of the semester’s startup is rejoining the Trinity talk–the sidewalk chat, the classroom badinage, the after-chapel exchanges. This afternoon, Dr. Kuecker, Dr. Peters, and I stood outside, without coats on, and doubled-over in laughter at those asinine things that just happen in banter. Can’t remember now what it was. But even though it was cold, we didn’t really want to part ways. The chat felt too good, not because it was something we were creating, but rather because it was something we were finding our bearings in. This appreciation for Trin-talk traces, for me, a decade back when as a grad student visiting Trinity’s campus, I met Professor Vander Weele, who told me, in that gentle, retiring way of his, that “the talk is good here.” I’ve certainly found it so in the intervening ten years. And maybe that’s in part why I’ve been thinking a lot lately about banter’s role in rhetorical culture, not just here at Trinity, but in our larger public culture here in the U.S.
Banter’s not a very old word in English. Professor Emerita Virginia LaGrand told me the other day that in Jonathan Swift’s day, the word was pretty young. Back then, it meant a manner of speaking that either suggested your own folly or disclosed the folly of others–or perhaps both. Daniel Defoe wrote of
A banter made to be a test of fools,
Which those that use it justly ridicules.
Banter’s still offering its test of fools everywhere today. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, Rush Limbaugh’s Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies, those two Freakonomics guys, Peter Sagal’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Morgan Spurlock with his Super Size smile on The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Often this banter is paired with traditional, serious forms of inquiry. Jon Stewart and “fake news,” Limbaugh and his fake academy, Spurlock and his sociology, Sagal and his wry punditry, and so forth. As Jeffrey Jones has pointed out in his book Entertaining Politics, this banter doesn’t really fit into neat categories. It’s not grave enough, or expert enough, to be on something like The McLaughlin Group or Meet the Press. Nor is it flippant enough and brief enough to be a one-liner on The David Letterman Show. Instead, it creates a strange sort of back-and-forth movement between serious concerns about public culture and amusing urges to make us laugh.
Some years ago, Kenneth Burke mischievously proposed a way of cleaning up public discourse: “Suppose…that a man were permitted only to say something that he could grow eloquent about.” It’s a rascally suggestion, because it’s proposing simplicity and elaborateness at the same time. Parsimony and profuseness. But that may well be the sort of combination that banter affords. This complex kind of speech, after all, alters our notions of eloquence, encouraging us to see eloquence not as something high-falutin, but rather as the capacity to help people see more than one thing at the same time. (Think of Stephen Colbert’s strangely intense smile, signaling that what he is so earnestly saying should be taken ironically.) Banter also suggests that credibility is achieved less by asserting one’s own expertness than in finding ways to talk that involve others’ participation. (Think of Jon Stewart’s strangely earnest and quite prolonged efforts to actually hear people out when he interviews them on his show.)
Hmm. You know what I suspect all this blogging banter about banter comes down to? A very elaborate, involved, over-written invitation for you to come out to Tea tomorrow! See you at 4 in the Green Room of the ARCC.