All posts by Gary C. Woodward


 Written texts give us a chance to polish our thoughts. But they come without the immediacy of ’embodied’ speech.

Researchers looking at manuscript copies of oral messages are often surprised to discover how broken, incomplete and scattered they can be.  Material written down is usually worked out to make an idea “scan.”  By contrast, conversation mostly happens “on the fly.” To see the second in the form of the first can be jarring. On the page, a conversation is full of thoughts that trail off, sentences left unfinished, pauses, irrelevant U-turns, and many “you knows” or “umms.”  Interestingly, conversation usually happens without much reference to hard information or confirmed facts.

And yet there is value in performing our attitudes in the scattered cadences of speech.

Functioning as the carrier of our own thoughts  is very different than sending them on their way in our absence.  We have increasingly embraced the idea of allowing what we think to exist only on the page or a screen.  But we often get more from communications that involve people ‘performing’ their passions. Our spoken rhetoric has a recognizable “signature.” The ways we say words can reveal our state of mind.  Some words are meant to be cradled as they are delivered.  Others are spoken as if in quotes, suggesting a personal distance we want to keep for the idea we are expressing.  And some sentences are initiated with so little conviction that we lose interest in finishing them. So we usually accept the messiness of the process as normal and revealing. The verbal riff that goes astray causes little worry.

Interestingly, stutterers sometimes report greater alarm over their momentary hesitations than those who listen to them. I had a college professor who tripped over the first syllables of words when he was his most animated. The small tic was actually effective. His nonfluencies signaled his enthusiasm for an idea.  His eyes would brighten as a worthy thought crossed his mind.  He’d begin to stammer a bit.  And soon his ideas would spill across the threshold of the verbal blockage at lightning speed. The effect was sheer eloquence.

Scriptwriters usually flatten the rough edges of conversation. The goal is to make every word count in the fragile medium of ear-based communication.  But some are able to suggest the serendipity and confusion that comes with words spoken in a rush. The best, like David Mamet, add depth and mystery to their stories by preserving the broken rhythms of natural dialogue. His terrific psychological thriller The Spanish Prisoner (1996) is a classic case.  The story about the theft of an industrial process is given depth by broken cadences of the characters’ interactions. Click below to see a representative scene.

It’s clear that nonfluencies are woven into the fabric of communication.  And there is something to cherish in the immediacy of embodied speech. But it’s also clear that we notice them more when oral speech is written down. The difference is a reminder that written prose is the nominal result of critical thinking. Words on the page or screen invite us to test and reconsider our thoughts. That’s usually a win for basic rationality, but not always. After all, the mindless rhetorical ejaculations from Twitter and elsewhere are also “texts.”



Trump’s Strategy Mindset


It can be no surprise that a businessman known for turning his name into a brand would also see himself as a master dealmaker. There is perceived power in the flattering perception of being several steps ahead of competitors.  

Anyone struggling to parse the President’s behavior confronts a virtual festival of personality tics. There are the graceless declarations of his “high” intelligence, the pretension of being a master strategist, and the unearned certainty that accompanies the declaration of bogus truths. The endless issuing of false claims is especially stunning (i.e., The U.S. has the highest taxes of any nation; Fredrick Douglas is doing an “amazing job,” etc).  And then there are all of the threatening tweets and serial name-calling.  Vituperation used to be a White House rarity; it was never a presidential form. Presidents  have customarily vented in private and praised in public. Trump’s manufactured feuds not only mark him as an indifferent caretaker of important traditions, but a figure who sees an advantage in the constant name-calling. Its management by division, using presidential rebukes as forms of intimidation.

What is going on with this needy and self-dealing figure?  Why the manufactured hostility?  Have we ever had a leader who was so imprisoned by limited rhetorical skills?

Trump’s kind of bluster seems to be a consequence of both his social awkwardness, and a New York aggressiveness expressed in the language of marketing. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described a “marketing personality” as a character type common in individuals captured by a compulsion to sell themselves as a commodity. It follows that they find personal legitimacy in self-referential comments affirming their acceptance and enviable success.

Normally a marketing mentality comes with a degree of affability.  A communication form such as selling is intrinsically “other-directed.” But if a person is not capable of other-direction, and if the “brand” to be preserved is one’s own name, there seems to be a clear motivation to engage in aggressive self-protection. This can take the form of the preemptive bluster that defines Donald Trump.  But it also includes immodest assertions of power, such as using 20-foot letters of his name on the outside of  his buildings. Both the aggression and self-promotion function to assure the doubting that he’s a “player,” and “deal-maker:” the smartest man in the room who can bend anyone to his personal goals.

There is perceived power in the flattering perception of oneself as several steps ahead of competitors. Mastering markets results in a lot of talk about “tactics” and “targets,” “ratings” and “winning.” It persists even if true success alludes him. Indeed, ambiguity over genuine markers of achievement actually helps, since it allows individuals to declare their own “winning” moments.  Investment analysts, traders and marketing “creatives” are often deep into this game, and often able to profit from the mystifications that come with vaguely understood “deals,” “yields,” “growth projections,” and “branding.”

All of this seems to be a particularly masculine need. No set of thought-patterns are fully gender-specific. But it seems clear that there are psychic rewards for performing what seems like the uniquely masculine stance of the consummate strategist. In fact, this male can find it downright fun to watch a set of strategic masterstrokes play out.  We usually need a film like George Roy Hill’s classic The Sting (1973) to pull it off. The story of a “con” played against a ruthless New York mob leader remains a thing of beauty, helped by the fact that male icons Paul Newman and Robert Redford seemed to relish their characters’ guile. In a different way the same anticipation of secret moves sprung the unsuspecting is obvious when listening to a ‘color commentator” rhapsodize about the ideas of an NFL coach.  And while women play poker and frequently win, it’s mostly the men around the table who love to talk about strategy.

Our point is that it’s frequently enough to perform the attitude of a consummate strategist.  And so in Trump we find that specific questions about future presidential actions—a few as consequential as whether the nation will wage nuclear war with North Korea–end up being answered with no more than a half smile and a “we’ll see.” The real estate tycoon relishes these teases. They are meant to remind us that he already has some winning plan. It’s a developer’s prerogative to bet on on implausible promise. Never mind that the building  planned for an empty field will never be built.  An illustrator’s evocative image on nearby sign is reason enough to celebrate. In the same way all the talk of “action” coming from this White House  functionally diverts attention from an administration foundering amidst legislative and diplomatic failures.

The rhetoric of strategy is inherently inflated with bluffs.  But that feature destabilizes when used by a head of government. Governments need transparency and predictability, neither of which are possible if a leader imagines that leadership is a game of moves and countermoves.