The recent movie “The King’s Speech,” has been well and broadly reviewed for the wonderful acting of stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. The film recounts the story of the arduous treatment of King George VI of England’s debilitating stutter. While the film tells a story of what media pundits call “an unlikely friendship” between Lionel Logue, an Australian actor manqué who has developed a speech defects practice and the imminently to-be-crowned British monarch, it addresses many issues relevant to the mystery of sovereignty itself. As we approach President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address, and think about our own executive’s voice, “The King’s Voice” can be gainsaid for the way it animates key sociological insights into the nature of political legitimacy, sovereignty, democracy, and the role of the leader’s rhetoric in binding a nation together (especially a nation at war).
Ever since Ernst Kantorowicz analyzed the medieval theological innovation of the “king’s two bodies,” (a theology that managed the contradictory ideas that the king is divine and thus immortal and that the king is mortal and thus vulnerable to corruption and disease), we have recognized the ways in which real-world kings and presidents have been maneuvering to appear human and transcendent simultaneously. Other sociological and anthropological work on transcendence, political ritual, war and legitimacy (Durkheim, Weber, and Geertz spring to mind) has made us conscious of the ways that rulers use their bodies and their voices to demonstrate and symbolize the collectivities they rule. Historically they have done so by highlighting their sovereign exceptionalism. At the same time, an American democratic diffidence toward transcendence and the divine has also insisted that our leaders be “just like us.”
“The King’s Speech” draws our attention to the role of the voice of the monarch in addressing the nation and, in moments of national peril, literally constituting the nation as a self-conscious entity ready to make sacrifices. George VI, catapulted by the abdication of his older brother into being king, must make an important speech as Britain goes to war in September 1939. He stutters badly under the best of circumstances and struggles to make his voice perform its authority. Meanwhile, the elected government of Britain actually takes the country to war, apparently accepting this symbolic division of sovereign labor as the King addresses the nation by way of his radio speech. The film plays with the liminal moments of sovereignty – changes of tone and posture and eye gaze are immediate upon the death of George V with his wife and sons in the room and the immediate transfer of sovereignty from George V to Edward VIII; more changes later upon George VI accepting his brother’s abdication. The film appears to be more explicit about democratic challenges to royalty in highlighting the ironic and playful banter engaged in by Lionel Logue as a commoner who “talks back” to a king. That Lionel, the commoner, can speak easily and Bertie, the king cannot is indeed ironic – but the film stops there in its deconstruction of the British monarchy. It, too, remains in the thrall of the sovereign sacred. Nevertheless, the film brilliantly focuses on the non-trivial qualities of speech, voice, gesture, and presence in constituting legitimate authority.
As Barack Obama, a wartime president, prepares his own exhortation to the nation, commentators have already anticipated the importance of the sovereign voice. Writing in Newsweek, Jonathan Alter notes that the nation needs rousing and that: “Fortunately, we have a president with the rhetorical skills to rouse us. Unfortunately, he hasn’t so far. Obama’s biggest mistake in his first two years was that he took Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum—“you campaign in poetry and govern in prose”—too much to heart. To succeed, he needs to govern in poetry, too. He needs to use the music of his voice to sell math and science and engineering and entrepreneurship and all the other skill sets we let deteriorate when our brightest college graduates went to work on Wall Street.”
Alter is right about the need to govern in poetry, but he’s wrong about the substantive referent. The sovereign voice is domesticated and profanized when it speaks of math, science, and entrepreneurship, no matter how important these things are for society. The core of sovereignty lies with its authority to wage war.
Ultimately, as Max Weber taught us, political legitimacy relies upon the constant reiteration of the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of force – violence, the war and the nation bound together, the nation heeding the voice of the sovereign, for better or for worse. The United States of America is still fighting a war that has uncertain enemies, uncertain goals and uncertain achievements. Barack Obama may speak of many things in his State of the Union address, but he must find a way to re-authorize the war that the nation is currently waging, to make it necessary and legible for his nation. Unlike George VI, Obama has been known to be a brilliant speaker, but both sovereigns have shared the mandate of legitimizing war in the eyes and ears of their nations with their voice.