From anaphora to parataxis
Professor Stanley Fish on the stylistics of Obama's inaugural speech:
It is as if the speech, rather than being a sustained performance with a cumulative power, was a framework on which a succession of verbal ornaments was hung, and we were being invited not to move forward but to stop and ponder significances only hinted at.
.. There are few transitions and those there are – “for,” “nor,” “as for,” “so,” “and so” – seem just stuck in, providing a pause, not a marker of logical progression. Obama doesn’t deposit us at a location he has in mind from the beginning; he carries us from meditative bead to meditative bead, and invites us to contemplate. ...
There is a technical term for this kind of writing – parataxis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.” ... The opposite of parataxis is hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. ...
Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.
Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.) ... Canonization has already arrived.
Yes, Obama's speech is just as surely part of the canon as, well, the Gettysburg Address. Uh huh. Keepsake editions, plates, and all.