September 01, 2004

Some Open Access advice for Michael Silverstein

Michael Silverstein is a talented intellectual who is a valued member of the departments of Anthropology, Linguistics and Psychology at the University of Chicago. He won a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1982, the second year in which the awards were given. He's a brilliant speaker, both in public and in private, and his former students are many and prominent.

Like any academic, he sometimes writes and talks in complex sentences that are hard to understand unless you're familiar with the disciplinary idioms involved. This description of his research interests, for example, includes phrases like "demonstrating the systematicity of 'indexical' meanings of various of the formal, distributional facts about language structure" and "developing an adequate account of what kinds of broadly 'textual' objects are developed in contextual realtime during the course of verbally-mediated interaction, whether with interlocutor(s) or with a text-artifact of some kind".

However, his most recent book Talking politics: the substance of style from Abe to "W" (March 1, 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago) is accessible and fun to read, whether or not you've studied linguistic anthropology. There's (little or) no academic jargon here, and there are insights that you're likely to appreciate whether or not you share his political opinions.

The book starts this way:

No doubt about it. Abraham Lincoln gets the prize among United States presidents for the sheer concentrated political power of his rhetoric. When he set his -- actual, own -- mind to preparing his text, he could come up with gems such as his Second Inaugural and, of course, his 272-word "Dedicatory Remarks" at Gettysburg. Even his extemporaneous public and private talk, transcribed, shows great verbal ability. Now Mr. Lincoln had no Yale or Harvard degree as a credential of his education. But he understood the aesthetic -- the style, if you will -- for summoning to his talk the deeply Christian yet rationalist aspirations of America's then four-score-and-seven-year-old polity. Striving to realize this complex style, he polished it and elaborated its contours. He embodied the style. So much so, that Lincoln's great later text, like the late, great man himself, now belong to the ages. They form part of the liturgy of what Robert Bellah has termed America's "civil religion".

and ends like this:

Language used in the expository mode, used to create argument and therefore, at its most successful, to become the instrument of reason and rationality, is clearly not one of Mr. Bush's attributes. This is not Lincoln. This is not Kennedy. Neither Roosevelt. Whatever else we think of him, not Mr. Clinton. These were Presidents for whom language was both a renvoi, a hearkening back, to the experiences of literary imagination made concrete in words, and to systematic use of language for critical thought such as we do in science, in religion for narrative and theological investigation, etc. Whatever the field, Mr. Bush's is a phrasebook notion of political "message"-language, straight out of anxious corporate standard, in which saying the right terms, with luck in a poetically perfect arrangement, is all the message there is.

It's emphatically not the problem of "soundbites", as print journalists and their partisans in academia keep saying. This is just killing the media messenger. Short excerpts from longer texts can powerfully outline and encapsulate a message while not necessarily being only "message:" "Absolute power corrupts absolutely"; "E = mc2"; "Tune in, turn on, drop out."


In our politics, identity is "message" embodied. So listen to the language. Where, as Julia Ward Howe would have it, Lincoln, verbally embodied, would have Americans die for Freedom, Bush would have us die for Management. I'm not certain we're all, as they say in those parts, "on message."

In between, there are 130 pages mixing detailed analysis of particular speeches with general observations on history, culture, politics and language. I don't agree with all the analyses, whether linguistic or political, but the $8 that I sent amazon last year for my copy was money well spent.

Although Talking Politics has been reviewed here and there, it seems unlikely that very many people have read it. I don't know how many copies have been sold, but this book's current amazon sales rank is 634,034. This is truly abysmal. In comparison, Betsy Dyer's (excellent, but somewhat off-beat) Field Guide to Bacteria has a current amazon sales rank of 40,853, and Jacob Weisberg's little exercise in throught-free character assassination, Bushisms, has a current amazon sales rank of 7,978. Another recent book that (I happen to know) has sold around 3,000 copies overall has a current amazon sales rank of 4,788.

Based on the apparently well-informed discussion on this site, a sales rank of 600,000 or so means that about one copy is sold per month. Whatever the exact sales figures at amazon and across the whole marketplace, I think we can conclude that no one is now making any significant money out of Talking Politics. Not the author, and not the publisher. More important, only a handful of people are reading it.

So why not put the whole thing up on the web for free access, as a .pdf or in whatever other form comes easily? If the text was up there, I might try to get you interested in going through Silverstein's detailed analysis of the Gettysburg Address, or take up the question of corporate message-speak and its historical precursors. People on various sides of the current election campaign would take a look at the book and praise it or damn it, but anyhow quote it and think about it. Thousands of people -- maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of people -- would read at least parts of it, and some of those people would be journalists or politicians or political scientists or other kinds of folk who don't normally buy stuff from Prickly Paradigm Press or read what linguistic anthropologists write.

And quite a few of those people would probably find $8 to buy a paper copy, as the Baen publishing company has found out with their Free Library. I'd be willing to bet the price of a good dinner for four that sales would increase rather than decrease -- maybe even enough for the royalties to cover the cost of dinner!

[Update 9/22/2004: a .pdf of Silverstein's pamphlet is now available here. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 1, 2004 11:41 AM