GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 29, 2011

Save the Pretzels for the Gas Jets

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:01 am

I think this item is worth a little blog post. Indeed, that people spend their time doing things like this is what sustains my faith in humanity:

Oulipo for the masses! This video of Rick Perry, made by a website called Bad Lip Reading, was a big hit on the conservative website HotAir, where I found it, and understandably so. The “rule” apparently being followed here is, as far as I know, original, and inspired: turn off the sound and read the lips of the speaker as best you, as an amateur, can. Seeing people’s lips move must have something to do with the way we understand them when we are speaking face to face, but I have no idea what, and it’s hard to imagine how you would factor that into a theory of language or speech. In this case, the first sound you “see” must tilt the rest of your “reading” as you simultaneously watch the lips and try to articulate the “sounds” that keep coming into intelligible semantic and syntactic packages. Little islands of sense emerge (I’m bored by famine”; “I cannot wait for a medieval cookie”) that, like the sentences in a Gertrude Stein poem, sound like they might refer to some internal language, unknown idiom or private joke, and that we can get maybe half-way towards understanding. If you scrupulously balance actually looking at the lips with your attempt to compose, though, the sense will never coalesce beyond a certain point. Meanwhile, the same thing happens on the side of the listener: your own tacit insistence that lip movements match sounds (we all get distracted, at least a bit, I assume, by dubbing in foreign language movies) leads you to “see” Perry saying what the translation has him say (even though, obviously many other “readings” were possible) and to line up what he does say with his “character” with all kinds of ironic results (as when he asks the construction workers, in a moment aimed at highlighting his masculinity, to build him a doghouse). And it also seems to me that it gives you a fresh look at Perry’s gestural idiom, as his gestures, postures and movements are detached from the specific words that always subsume one’s gestural idiom.

I mentioned the video’s popularity at a conservative website where Perry is as popular as any of the other candidates or prospective candidates (excepting Palin, probably) for the Republican nomination to make the point that this is not just a way of making fun of Perry. How could it be—it’s not the kind of pointed, tendentious and (to me at least) tedious satire directed that way by Jon Stewart and others. We all know full well that any of us would come out this way if the same operation were carried out on a video in which we were figured. It might highlight vulnerabilities and incongruities in Perry’s character or campaign that one might not have noticed otherwise—it is a mode of inquiry, or a discovery procedure in that sense. But it might also show up potential strengths, and even moments of beauty that one would thereafter associate with Perry, as with the title of this post, a line which for me endearingly combines the down home informal, macho and fighter pilot elements of Perry’s persona.

I feel, then, a bit vindicated in my arguments for the anthropological and political importance of “originary mistakenness.” Maybe we will get to the point where no candidate for public office would even consider not having one of these made and where privately made versions will be obligatory on our facebook pages—where, that is, they become a kind of post-millennial signature, marking our shared dependence on linguistic indeterminacy.

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