Belching. Hiccupping. Farting. Stuttering. Lip-tongue-teeth smacking. Verbal clutter. Helpless laughter. We try to keep this body stuff in private. But sometimes it shows up in our public speech. And what does it say about us when do this body stuff in public? Sometimes it just tell us that we’re uncouth.
But Joshua Gunn in a 2010 Rhetoric and Public Affairs essay, “On Speech and Public Release,” thinks otherwise. He names several moments of (what he calls) “involuntary public release” that have proven culturally momentous:
- When Monica Seles—or Moanica as she came to be called—screamed on the tennis court. (Or when Selena Williams grunted.)
- Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream Speech” in the 2004 Iowa Caucuses: “….And we’re going to South Dakota, and Oregon, and Washington, and Michigan! AND THEN WE’RE GOING TO WASHINGTON DC TO TAKE BACK THE WHITE HOUSE! Yaaaahhhggggggggghhhh!!!!”
- Hillary Clinton’s laugh. (We now have to add to this list Mitt Romney’s laugh.)
Gunn says that these noises in public are critical cues. Whenever you hear a helpless bodily sound in public, you’ve found something important. Not just something rude. Not just something impolite. But something telling. And what does it signify? It tells us our unspoken rules for public speaking. It tells us the code we’re all trying to obey behind the mic, in front of the camera, on the stage. That involuntary public release, says Gunn, is what normal public speech is always trying to disguise. For a bare (and baring) moment, our speech slips, and our body shows. It’s a rhetorical wardrobe malfunction.
Okay, so what’s interesting to me—and maybe to you, too—is not just what grunting and screaming and laughing have to say about our public life. That’s pretty fascinating, actually. But I’m even more interested in the critical move Gunn makes. Notice what he does. He points to some phenomenon and says, hey, look—that thing there: that tells us something. Every time you see that happen, then you know that this other reality is also happening.
In Wednesday’s chapel talk, Dr. Starkenburg said, “I think I saw the Church on CNN the other day.” That feels like a similar critical move to me. He’s located something on TV that doesn’t look like it belongs on TV, that, in fact, is what TV is always trying to disguise. So, let’s think about our own campus for a moment. If someone came around to study our community, what sorts of involuntary cues might Trinity offer? Is there anything going on in our community that alerts people around us that something else is going on besides the normal liberal-arts, somehow-religious, small-college stuff?
Think with the body metaphors for a moment. Think about postures—an image whose usefulness the College’s Overarching Unity Task Force has begun to communicate with the broader campus. A posture is habitual, unconscious, just there. It’s an involuntary public release. Well, that’s not quite right. Because a posture can also be something you deliberately set about changing. Okay, so what are our characteristic postures? What are the postures we wish to become characteristic? The Overarching Unity folks are commending four such postures: responsiveness to God, formativeness, hospitality, connectedness. It’s interesting to think how these might look if they were bodied forth on our campus. What might we see?
Let me ask you. What are some other ways that we might deliberately/indeliberately posture ourselves to be responsive, formative, hospitable, connected? Any ideas come to mind? What sorts of involutary public releases should we be gradually, voluntarily, cultivating?