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Extended Oxymoron -- The Essence of Powerful Speech

Abstract: Powerful speech takes the form of extended oxymoron, where there is a dichotomy between what is being said and what is being done by saying it. The speaker is performing the very act that is being enunciated; what the speaker is talking about, though, becomes the oxymoron of what happens as a result -- an oxymoron extended over time. Includes several examples.


In producing powerful speech, the speaker is performing the very act that is being enunciated. What the speaker is talking about, though, becomes the oxymoron of what happens as a result -- an oxymoron extended over time.


For example: Two thousand years ago, Christ makes a speech. He's telling a group of his fellow Jews that going to synagogue is worse than a waste of time; you can stand up in shul all you want, says the carpenter, and it won't do you any good at all, because your prayers in synagogue are repetitive and "public", because you say the same things over and over again, day after day and year after year, just to show your neighbors how devout you are. It's better to go into a closet and have a heart-to-heart talk with God, and make up the dialog as you go along. Don't know what to say? Try something like this, he says....

The injunction against repetitive prayer was then followed by a sample prayer that became the most repetitive prayer of all time -- the Lord's Prayer. The entire speech where he enjoined his fellow Jews not to pray like hypocritical lemmings in a synagogue became itself a preachment, and the sample prayer became the most publicly repeated mindless prayer of all time. The crowd liked the statement "Pray devoutly in secret." But in time, the oxymoronic statement "Pray repetitively as you are told to, in church," would come to embody the crowd's true wishes.


For communications generally, there is

1. plain speech, taken at face value, like directions to walk to one place from another; "Walk South on Virginia Street here one block, turn right, then it's the second house on the left." This is straight, unambiguous speech, speech that may refer to signs but the speech itself is straight.

2. speech with a twist, speech that stands for something, speech that means a lot or a little of the opposite of what the speaker is actually saying-- speech that is to a greater or a lesser extent oxymoronic.


And then there is powerful speech: The oxymoron is extended over time, the person is performing the act they're talking about, and the opposite comes to pass.


Take another example, a filmic image: Spielberg makes Jurassic Park, the biggest hit movie ever made, where the Director is supplying his semiotic vision of the book of the same name. In the book (the semiotic vision of the writer Michael Crichton) a character makes a speech about how if you study karate long enough to get good at it, you learn whatever it is that you learn that keeps you from going around and just stomping people for the sheer hell of it. Similarly (the book goes on) you shouldn't do biology experiments unless you have taken the time to study biology; in the process of studying, you osmose the wisdom to not stomp out the whole world.

The first part of the movie echoed these thoughts brilliantly. Just after seeing the Park for the first time, the chaotician, played with intensity and brilliance by Jeff Goldblum, spake thusly over lunch:


The lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here staggers me.

Don't you see the danger inherent in what you're doing ? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his Dad's gun.

I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: It didnt' require any discipline to attain it. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves. Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and now you're selling it.

Your scientists were so preoccupied with what they could do, that they didn't stop to think about whether they should do it.


This eloquent piece of screenwriting is an injunction against genetic engineering, against cooking up a small batch of dinosaurs or large batches of human growth hormone. In the real world we have in fact already given a pretty warm handshake to genetic engineering. We have made a hit of Jurassic Park and its lunchboxes. The filmmakers themselves did pretty much what the book (and even this early part of the movie) was talking about. If, in the future, we embrace genetic engineering whole hog, we will have even more fully manifested the opposite of that injunction. Whomever Michael Crichton got that spiel from (the one about karate/biology/chaos/depth -- the original semiotic vision here) had communicated with powerful speech, speech that speaks for itself, that is producing the oxymoron of what the speaker said.


So: Powerful speech is speech that speaks for itself. Powerful speech takes the form of extended oxymoron, where there is a dichotomy between what is being said and what is being done by saying it. What is being said becomes the inverse of what comes to pass.*


Richard Katz = katz@frogOJT.com. 510-843-3764. Richard wrote a play called "In the Best Interest of Anna Freud"; then he wrote a guidebook to rollerskating trails.


*Don't discuss what I wrote. Find more examples, or find examples that demonstrate that this is all false, or has some flaw. The latest example I saw: An eighteen wheeler that had the logo "Creative Meatpacking" on the door of the cab. Two more examples: 1. "Speaking"Hebrew: Jewish kids have to learn Hebrew at Hebrew school; they learn to mouth it without knowing what it means. This is powerful speech; in the act of doing their speaking, they become alienated from their faith. 2. A rote recitation of the "scientific method" in school, followed by a scientific "experiment" of something that's been done a zillion times before.


UPDATEs in 2002: Okay, kids, we've got some interest in this from a sharp grad student at Cal Berkeley named Ben Campbell. I'm going to summarize what I think he said because I'm too lazy (or it's too late in the day) to go fetch the email he sent. He says that a three card monte player is practising this kind of powerful speech thing; and do you think those people watching the monte-man actually believe ANY of his spiel? So here, let me comment on that. That's GREAT. Now I had a little difficulty with this generally, only because I kind of rule out genuine criminal behavior in this topic; but let's just say for the sake of argument that the monteman is a legitimate entertainer and not a carnival goniff; well then, what Mr Campbell has going here is a general notation pointing to con men. A GREAT example: Conmen. The Confidence Man. A con man understands this notion so well that he actually USES it.

For a minute there, I had almost got myself convinced that some real biggies, like Adolf the Third Reich dude, was in that class. But naaaah, not him. He believed his own bullshit. He lost it. Maybe at the beginning, he was doing the Christ thing, supra, but somewhere along the line, he just lost it.

Best I think you could ever get along the lines of these montemen and other con artists is probably Jimmy Popiel, and the other members of his family who were Pitchmen. Maybe you readers don't know exactly who and what the Popiels do, with the Pocket Fisherman and the Vegematic and that chicken cooker thing on TV; there's a lonnnnng article on them in the New Yorker, sometime in 2001 I believe, and I couldn't have told the story better myself, nor made the points better (the author's riff on What Popiel's VCR would look like is right on the money; the author makes up, on his own, the Popiel VCR and says it would have (if it existed) great big buttons marked 1 and 2 and 3 and that's it. Reeeeal simple. Because the way the VCR is, Jimmy Popiel wouldn't touch it with your ten foot pole. That's one thing you can definitely say about this powerful speech stuff: Complexity is not what it's about. Profundity, but not complexity. You start talking about metabolic pathways or market models or hell, anything that's got a degree of complexity to it, you're just plain insulated from this kind of crap. Like Mark Twain wrote, Slogans are what people use to save themselves the trouble of thinking. And in the wrong hands, Love thy Neighbor can turn into war; and you can understand the why and the how if you get your head wrapped as tightly around this Powerful Speech thing as young Ben here does.

What Ben Campbell actually wrote (an email, no permission asked or granted; anybody who thinks their emails are private had better go have a long talk with the Microsoft corporation.) I did edit out some of the stuff maybe a little bit.

(c) 1997 Richard Katz. FrogOJT Systems, Berkeley, CA. email to Richard Katz

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