Volume 5, Issue 1, Fall 2008

Along with an editorial from new editor Andy King, the Fall 2008 Issue of the Kenneth Burke Journal contains the following new essays: Shaun Treat “Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE”, Paul Lynch “Something Completely Different: Notes Toward a Burkean Ethics”; Katerina Tsetsura “Hierarchical Approach to Corporate Advocacy: Corporate Advocacy as a Way of Guilt Redemption”; Rebecca L. McCarthy “A Burkean Reading of the Antigone: Comical and Choral Transcendence”; & Stefanie Hennig “A German version of Kenneth Burke.” Additionally, the issue contains a letter and a short essay entitled: “Romancing Mortification: A Response to Lewis,” both responding to the essay by Camille Lewis in the Spring 2008 issue of the KB Journal. The issue concludes with a book review of Clarke Rountree’s new book Judging the Supreme Court: Constructions of Motives in Bush v. Gore.

Editor's Introduction

Tribute to the Founders

The founders, Mark Huglen and Clarke Rountree laid the granite foundation for this journal. They assembled an editorial board and support staff. David Blakesley provided technical support and an arsenal of problem solving skills. For four long years Huglen and Rountree worked the threshing room floor, soliciting and winnowing manuscripts. They made decisions about graphics, format, and accessibility. They met deadlines, averted crises, kindled morale, and gave the journal an editorial philosophy. Using the KB Society as a platform, they expanded the interdisciplinary readership. Best of all, Huglen and Rountree gave the magazine a grace and poetic sense that Burke would have admired.

The next few years may be battle years. The specter of deep recession stalks the academy. New challenges may arise. Old scholars may abandon Burkean studies while new scholars arrive. The journal will have to cope with academic fads that now seem more like ticks than serious intellectual movements. The huge generative power of Burke’s legacy may be our only constant, our lodestone and pole star in times of intellectual incontinence and disciplinary chaos.

Editorial policy will remain within the granite foundations established by Huglen and Rountree. We will publish studies that utilize, clarify and expand Burke’s insights in creative and useful ways.

Irrational Exuberance and a note of caution

Regarding this, I must supply a word of caution. Lately I have been receiving a number of manuscripts that I can only label “Papa Burke” These are short manuscripts containing trivial news, details about nail clippings and cheese pairings. They are about Burke’s walking sticks, his manner of making stew, his attempt at brewing using hop flavored malt syrup and bay leaves. They contain his ideas about public transportation and his musings about what his ideal New York Book store might look like.

These pieces closely resemble the sorts of articles that threaten the reputations of such giants as Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Because of these articles we know that Ernest Hemmingway worked standing up at a large sideboard, that he kept barbells in every room, and that he liked to entertain his friends with boring slide shows that were longer than Ben Hur. We also have learned that Fitzgerald liked to visit old churches and always carried a rabbit’s foot for luck. It has been revealed that he always decanted his alcohol into small bottles immediately after purchasing it from his bootlegger.

In order to deal with this batch of Papa Burke manuscripts I have made up a large rubber stamp. I will download these manuscripts so that I can brand them in the manner they so richly deserve... When I press it hard against the title page my new stamp will produce large puce colored letters spelling out the word, EPHEMERA. As soon as this is done I will return the papers by mail in vulgar mauve colored envelopes. This will be their fate.

I should also say that I have received some very fine manuscripts several of which are in this issue. Thus, we go forward entering the lists at a brilliant, fitful pace.

How Late! How Very Late!

I apologize for the lateness of this issue. I have been a victim of what Korean Scholar Tommy Park Byong Soo calls “Han.” Byong Soo explains: “In every life there is a moment when one feels a deep sadness. One feels that one has been crushed by he great material forces, abandoned by the world, without hope or future prospects. One’s mind aches, one’s body is in deep pain. Finally acceptance of complete failure brings a deep sense of peace. Within the peace of utter failure transformation occurs. And then behold! A new beginning lies coiled within us.” We in the editorial staff have been griped by Han. But we have emerged from its shadow!

Introducing Ryan McGeough!

Ryan McGeough, doctoral student in Rhetoric is my editorial assistant for the KB Journal. A brief sketch of his background and aspirations is in order. Ryan is a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Public Address at Louisiana State University. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and his M.A. in Rhetoric and Communication Studies from the University in Northern Iowa. In addition to Burkean criticism of religious discourse, his research interests include the study of public memory, visual rhetorics and new communication technologies. Ryan’s current research projects are focused on analyzing monuments and the reinsertion of institutionally marginalized groups into dominant public memory as well as studying the role of irony and satire in contemporary popular political discourse. He spends his free time working on environmental advocacy, exploring Southern cuisine, and watching LSU football.

Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE

Shaun Treat, University of North Texas


This article demonstrates the remarkable persistence of the "pathetic fallacy" in mass media entertainment. The Crescent City plays a role akin to that of Thomas Hardy's "inanimate actor" in prime time presentation. It also shows that Redfield's concept of the stereotypical American ideal of place is alive and well in our electronic literature.

“FROM THE MOTIVATIONAL POINT OF VIEW, there is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it. This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene…. The logic of the scene-agent ratio has often served as an embarrassment to the naturalistic novelist. He may choose to "indict" some scene (such as bad working conditions under capitalism) by showing that it has a "brutalizing" effect upon the people who are indigenous to this scene. But the scene-agent ratio, if strictly observed here, would require that the "brutalizing" situation contain "brutalized" characters as its dialectical counterpart. And thereby, in his humanitarian zeal to save mankind, the novelist portrays characters which, in being as brutal as their scene, are not worth saving.” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 6-9)

In this introductory passage, Burke points to the inherent Dramatistic limitations of the tragic scene for attempts to posit heroic agents or action. And it is hard to imagine a scene more tragic than the one televised in the hours and weeks (and now even years) following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans. We all well recall the nightmarish if not apocalyptic images televised from The Big Easy, from stranded victims being airlifted from their rooftop islands to the desperate restless faces that flooded the Superdome and even ambiguous footage of “looters” wading through corpse-tainted waters. Barely two months after the 2005 release of George Romero’s Land of the Dead, victims and observers frequently invoked zombies to describe the devastation and traumatizing impact of one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history. “They reminded me of zombies -- no expressions on their faces,” a Mississippi woman recalls of the aftermath at a local shelter, “It still hurts to recollect some of the post-storm images.”1 “The guys they choppered in from the roofs of their houses looked like zombies,” concurred an eye witness in a BBC report, “Their faces were so scared, it was terrible to thing that someone had to go through all that, spending hours stranded in such a dire situation.”2 “We are walking around like zombies when we ought to be fixing this place up," opined a Louisianan of the New Orleans political landscape one year after the storm.3 Steven Welles with The Guardian finds: “There were zombies everywhere in 2005… Metaphorical, allegorical, philosophical, political and pharmaceutical zombies ran rampant. There were even zombies in the latest Harry Potter book… During Hurricane Katrina, the news looked uncannily like a zombie movie set. People hunkered down on rooftops with ammo and hoarded water. Deserted streets, looters, abandoned corpses, gangs of vigilantes.”4 Countless personal accounts in the media and on internet blogs seemed to instinctively connect the media images of post-Katrina chaos with cinematic scenes of zombie apocalypse. “People have apocalypse on the brain right now,” observes Max Brooks, author of the successful Zombie Survival Guide, “It's from terrorism, the war, natural disasters like Katrina.”5 A monstrous scene, it seems clear, Dramatistically invites (if not begets) monstrous subjectivities and agents since: “It is a principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene” (Burke, Grammar 3)

Even before its premiere on FOX on September 17 of 2007, the buddy cop drama K-VILLE was attracting interest and attention because it was set in post-Katrina New Orleans (hence its titular renaming of The Big Easy as “Katrina-ville”). The creative team behind the TV series, veterans of the USA network’s gritty award-winning cop drama The Shield, eagerly promoted the show’s intentions to celebrate the city and actively contribute to its recovery. “(We want) to bring back a sense of hope to the community,” lead actor Anthony Anderson told reporters during a stop at the TV critics press tour; “We want to bring back jobs and revenue, and help in that rebuilding process.” The article continues, however, by ambivalently noting: “The pilot episode made available to critics is an awkward mix of gritty social realism and the kind of glossy, over-the-top action sequences you’d find in a lighthearted buddy-cop film.”6 New Orleanians, long familiar with how media tend to reductively stereotype their bayou culture as year-round Mardi Gras hedonism from Girls Gone Wild infamy, were understandably leery about how their city and citizens would be portrayed. “The show's opening scenes of the rescues and chaos in the levee breaches' immediate aftermath sent me reeling,” confessed Times Picayune writer Chris Rose: “Its wild visual ride from heartbreaking scenes of physical and emotional wreckage to uplifting images of jazz fundraisers and neighborhood ‘gumbo parties’ left me searching, reeling, remembering.”7 Other locals on blogs and The Times Picayune’s message boards, however, were far less charitable in assessing the predictable clichés, cultural misrepresentations, and badly butchered accents that punctuated violent shoot-outs and car-chases which often defied logic. Entertainment Weekly (#936, 01 June 2007) recognized K-Ville as one of its “Most Promising” shows of the Fall season but, despite decent ratings and a last-minute campaign by Louisiana loyalists to save the show, FOX did not renew K-VILLE after its abbreviated introductory season when the Writer’s Strike ended in February of 2008.

As a 12-year resident of Louisiana who witnessed first-hand the socio-political and media spectacle of Katrina’s aftermath, I am particularly interested from a Burkean perspective how the lofty ambitions of K-VILLE were Dramatistically doomed virtually from the start. That is, as suggested earlier, the post-Katrina Scene of New Orleans had already been shaped within the Popular Imaginary by media coverage as both tragic and apocalyptic. This essay argues that the buddy-cop melodrama and its heroic individualism functioned as a “trained incapacity” in negotiating Scene-Agent ratios caught within the paradoxes of heroic action while simultaneously victimized by a tragic deterministic Scene. Consistent with conflicting media portrayals blaming government failures and incompetence at the National and State level, whilst also scapegoating “looting” residents and the bayou culture as “not worth saving,” K-VILLE ultimately proves unable to navigate the paradoxes of substance and muster a perspective by incongruity that might transcend our collective un-ease with the tragic disasters both natural and man-made that befell The Big Easy. Part one begins by extrapolating Burkean Dramatism and the tragic limitations of the Scene-Agent ratio to the melodramatic orientation of K-VILLE. Part two then posits the heroic individualism within this buddy-cop melodrama as a “trained incapacity” unable to transcend the tragic fate of New Orleans’ scenic circumference. This essay concludes by reflecting upon these Dramatistic limitations of Scene-Agent orientations, and ponders its failure of a comic corrective that might transcend our Big (un)Easy with the local, national, and perhaps spiritual “dis-ease” which lingers still from Hurricane Katrina.


I. Circumference of Tragic Determinism within a Scene-Agent ratio

In A Rhetoric of Motives (1969b), Kenneth Burke advances “identification” as the central term distinguishing his rhetorical perspective from a tradition characterized by “persuasion,” and thus focuses on understanding suasive processes beyond explicit, consciously intentional acts directed towards a specific, known audience. Ontologically positing humans as symbol-using (symbol-misusing and symbol-used) animals, Burke finds the rhetorical use of language “as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). The rhetorical need for identification and consubstantiality arises from the brute realities of biologically separate beings and hierarchical estrangements from social structures, class, and linguistic negation itself. “Identification is compensatory to division,” Burke explains; “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for a rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22). Burke assumes not only that humans seek to overcome these natural experiences of separateness through communication and symbol-use, but are goaded also by the spirit of hierarchy and order to feel guilt about differences between ourselves and others who occupy different positions in the social hierarchy. “Mystery arises at the point where different kinds of beings are in communication,” Burke observes, when there “is strangeness but also the possibility of communion” (115). Burke notes “a speaker persuades and audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify with the speaker’s interests” (46). To overcome division and guilt, we look for ways our interests, attitudes, values, experiences, or perceptions are shared with others or appear to overlap to make us rhetorically “consubtantial” with one another. “When we use symbols for things, such symbols are not merely reflections of the things symbolized, or signs for them,” says Burke, “they are to a degree a transcending of the things symbolized” (192).

Within Burke’s system of Dramatism, life is drama and conflict as human beings impose their desire for order via systems of perfection. Burke identifies our symbolic power to invent negations and hierarchy in pursuit of perfection as a continuous cycle of perfection, guilt, and redemptive victimage he calls the “Iron Law of History” (Burke, 1970). Because humans can use symbols to create, negate, dream, idealize and fantasize about that which is lacking, our desire for perfection generates guilt when we inevitably fall short and thus necessitates some symbolic means for redemption (4-5). For Burke, language itself articulates modes for symbolic action so he developed Dramatism as a method for understanding human motives and symbolic choices as derived from our narratized understandings of scene, agents, acts, agency and purpose. Burke’s Pentad seeks to trace the interplay and ratios of these five dramatic elements as a “grammar” for exposing “rhetorics” of identification, division, and redemption within human affairs. Examining the interplay and dialectic between rations of these Pentadic elements, Burke insists, can reveal where the dramatic conflicts and narrative tensions lie, which in turn indicates what kinds of resulting rhetoric can be expected in the situation and what corrective symbolic action within language could be deployed in positing potential solutions.

Particularly important to this analysis, Burke (1970) notes that the guilt from failures of perfection symbolically necessitates a sacrifice or purging of this guilt on some level, theorizing that this rhetorically functions through either victimage or mortification (5). Victimage requires a sacrificial “scapegoat,” for either the social hierarchy of a factional group or the supernatural hierarchy for universal humanity, who is blamed for the social imperfection and symbolically punished or purged as evil because they violate social norms or categories (Burke, 1984, p.188). Mortification, rather than projecting the causes and solutions for ‘evil’ imperfection outward upon some Other, instead purges guilt through either punishment of self or some transformative self-sacrifice in order to symbolically atone for sinful imperfection resulting from hierarchy (1970, p.207). Although these rhetorical functions can be expected, the symbolic forms in which they manifest can vary significantly depending upon what Pentadic ratios are operating or assumed. When contemplating the types or kinds of actions being rhetorically proposed, for example, we should immediately consider “what kind of scene calls for such an act” (1969a, p.12).

The dramatic interdependence of scene, agents, acts, agency and purpose requires an attentiveness to which of these elements dominate or guide the dramatic narrative portrayed, and this essay is particularly interested in the orientations that result from tragic and comic frames. Burke’s notion of “circumference of scene” in Grammar of Motives observes that a “choice of circumference of the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself” (1969a, 77). With such shifts in circumference, “there is the reduction of one terminology to another,” Burke notes: “One reduces this to that by discussing this in terms of that” (96). “The contracting and expanding of scene is rooted in the very nature of linguistic placement,” Burke continues, and “a selection of circumference from among this range is in itself an act… with the definition or interpretation of the act taking shape accordingly” (84). As Tonn, Endress, and Diamond (1993) extrapolate:

“Arguments dominated by ‘scene,’ Burke claims, reflect a perspective that is committed to viewing the world as relatively permanent and deterministic. Persons functioning within the scene are regarded as seriously constrained by scenic elements. Immutable factors in the natural or social landscape limit their ability to act on their own volition: free will is supplanted largely by fate, thereby reducing action to motion.” (166)
For Burke, the consequences of such scenic circumference is most readily understood when comparing Tragic and Comic frames. Tragedy adheres to the cycle of perfection and victimage, and relies upon strict binaries for right and wrong where good triumphs and evil is punished via scapegoating or mortification. Burke’s “Comic corrective” considers how these restrictive binaries and polemical positions can be de-emphasized in a story of mishaps and confusion where characters may learn from mistakes. “It promotes the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation,” Burke observes (1984, p.166-67). Whereas Tragic frames of heroism and triumph promote the idea of winners and losers, Comedic frames enable the foolish to grow wiser as their experiences are used dialectically for the betterment of all via “an integrative social knowledge” (Ruekert, 1994, p.188). A comic perspective allows people “to be observers of themselves, while acting” and thus promotes a reflexivity with “maximum consciousness” (171). A Tragic perspective, by contrast, tends towards scapegoating others rather than self-reflexive correctives via mortification.

As one orientation is selected to frame perceptions of reality as tragic or comic, however, other orientations are inherently rejected and thus a “trained incapacity” to operate outside of one’s Dramatistic orientation inevitably results. Burke (1984) identifies trained incapacity as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses,” using the term as a way to discuss “matters of orientation” rather than simplistically assuming that illogical behaviors from differences in perspective “refuse to face reality” due to some convenient “escape mechanism” or intentional avoidance (7-10). Instead, Burke (1966) finds our orientations of perspective are both reflected and unconsciously conditioned by the terministic screens of language, since:

“…even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must also function as a deflection of reality” (45).
Scenic circumference and resulting trained incapacities thus occasionally result in “faulty means selecting” (Burke, 1984, p.17). Yet these Dramatistic sites of contradiction and conflict can also provide opportunities for exploiting “perspective by incongruity” to rhetorically facilitate transcendence of perspective and orientation. Shifts in circumference can exploit “paradoxes of substance” to strategically deploy identifications and divisions as a part of some shared history yet also apart from “the agon of the unending conversation of history” (Terrill, 2000). As Burke (1969a) reminds us, “by the logic of the scene-agent ratio, if the scene is supernatural in quality, the agent contained by this scene will partake of the same supernatural quality… contents of a divine container will synecdochically share in its divinity” (8). And elsewhere Burke (1973) wryly notes that the savvy Dramatist rhetor “knows when to ‘spiritualize’ a material issue and when to ‘materialize’ a spiritual one” (216). Failing to make such a savvy distinction, we must assume, would also portend the kind of rhetorical failure being considered in this essay.

Because rhetors not only draw attention to particular terms (and away from others), and characterize those terms within strategic representations of Dramatistic ratios, they also imply terministic relationships suggestive of how scenes relate (or should be perceived as relating) to acts, agents, agencies, purposes, and attitudes. As Burke (1969a) emphasizes, analysis of the interactions between Pentadic terms should attend to “the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (xviii). This is particularly true when charting larger Dramatisitic trajectories seeking to account for popular understandings of events such as Hurricane Katrina, which requires attentiveness to how media representations emerge and become perpetuated through recurring news reports as well as popular entertainments. As Burke (1969b) reminds us:

“…often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.” (26)

A television program such as K-VILLE thus presents us with an opportunity to examine the Dramatistic narrativizations that have become distilled within the popular imaginary, and consider how rhetorical potentialities for both understanding and action might be promoted or stymied as a result of the lived dramas being portrayed.


II. Melodramatic Individualism in K-VILLE as Trained Incapacity


“From writer and executive producer Jonathan Lisco (“NYPD Blue,” “The District”) comes K-VILLE, a heroic police drama set – and filmed – in New Orleans. Two years after Katrina, parts of the city are still in chaos, but hope has emerged. Battling an upsurge of violence, understaffing of police forces and a lack of crime labs and other facilities, the cops who remain in the New Orleans Police Department have courage to burn and a passion to reclaim and rebuild their city.

MARLIN BOULET (Anthony Anderson) is a brash, wry, in-your-face veteran of the NOPD’s Felony Action Squad, the specialized unit that targets the most-wanted criminals. Even when his partner deserted him during the storm, Boulet held his post, spending days in the water saving lives and keeping order. Now, two years later, he’s unapologetic about bending the rules when it comes to collaring bad guys. The stakes are too high, and the city too fragile, for him to do things by the book.

Boulet’s new partner, TREVOR COBB (Cole Hauser), was a soldier in Afghanistan before joining the NOPD. He’s tough and committed; but if he’s less than comfortable with Boulet’s methods, it’s because he’s harboring a dark secret. Cobb has come to New Orleans seeking redemption, but redemption can be dangerous.” FOX Broadcasting Company: K-VILLE (www.fox.com/kville)

The FOX network’s promotional tease for K-VILLE offers a telling description of the dramatic orientation of the story being told: a tragic scene that stymies the hopeful and heroic if troubled cops in their quest for personal and communal redemption. The pilot episode introduces us to Marlin Boulet in his “beat cop” dress blues as he struggles amidst the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help the traumatized wailing mobs as they stumble out of the flood waters, only to be deserted when Boulet’s panicked partner Charlie flees in their squad car. After this flashback, Boulet in present time is established as a troubled cop on the edge of a breakdown who is prone to explosive outbursts, drinking on duty, belligerent defiance of orders, and a penchant for using an almost feral brutality in policing his city. Boulet is distrustful and suspicious of the new partner assigned to him, an Afghanistan veteran named Trevor Cobb, who protests the constant attention that Boulet’s rogue actions inevitably attract. By the end of the show, we learn that Cobb’s “dark secret” is that he was a New Orleans petty convict who escaped jail during the flooding with only 3 months left on his sentence, but since criminal records were lost during the storm Cobb has now assumed a new identity to redeem himself. If this is a “buddy cop” genre drama, it is decidedly one in which both protagonists are profoundly troubled and flawed: Cobb is a convicted petty criminal who is guilt-ridden and seemingly “scared straight” because he was forced to drown his cellmate during the escape, while several co-workers imply that the always angry Boulet “has issues” related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from the storm and his family’s impending abandonment of New Orleans.

The pilot episode “Gumbo” follows a series of charity fund-raisers being terrorized by gunmen who are out to presumably disturb the community rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, led by the socialite daughter of wealthy casino mogul. Killed during one of the raids is one of Boulet’s few remaining neighbors, a jazz singer who unapologetically scammed FEMA for money to purchase a new sportscar. It turns out much of Boulet’s devastated Ninth Ward neighborhood is either leaving, stealing, or shamelessly working the system. As Boulet and Cobb investigate, with the unwanted help from Boulet’s remorseful ex-partner Charlie who is trying to rejoin the force and mend relations, they begin to suspect the wealthy casino owner of hiring “Dark River” (Blackwater) mercenaries to further depress real estate values so property can be bought cheaply. As it turns out, it is the socialite daughter of Rex the casino owner who is behind the property buyouts and the violent sabotage of her own charity, revenge as it turns out for the death of her brother some years earlier in a Ninth Ward carjacking. Thus, one of the main proponents for New Orleans redevelopment is revealed to be the pilot episode’s vindictive villain, a corrupt elite out to advance gentrification and profit. By the program’s conclusion, Boulet and Cobb have forged an uneasy alliance within a tragic scene that seems to overwhelm all agents and agency.

Particularly striking about most of the main characters in K-VILLE is their status as melodramatic antiheroes rather than optimistically empowered and overcoming dramatic heroes. That is, as numerous critics of the show have pointed out, the formulaic melodrama of these flawed protagonists was too often guilty of promoting rather than subverting cultural stereotypes, clichés, and painfully predictable plot twists. Within this heightened moralizing melodrama of good versus evil, most if not all of the characters introduced in the pilot episode seem tragically unsympathetic victims rather than the defiantly redeeming heroes intended: The jazz singer who is killed is defrauding FEMA, Boulet’s former partner Charlie is a pathetic coward who fled his duties, Boulet is himself a near-alcoholic brute teetering on a violent nervous breakdown, Cobb is an escaped convict now wearing a badge, neighborhood youths are “looters” of their own neighbors, and those who are not petty criminals seem pathetically fearful in abandoning their city… much to the frustration of our defiant protagonist Boulet. It is difficult to discern just who audiences are supposed to identify with, and for what reasons, which may explain the profound ambivalence of the show’s audiences both nationally and locally. This ambivalence is captured eloquently by the New Orleans Times Picayune media critic Chris Rose in his review of the pilot:

“The star, the cop -- Marlin Boulet -- is our everyman, the true believer, the guy who bleeds New Orleans. He's angry that his neighbors are moving away and he's angry that his partner deserted during the storm and he's angry that the kids he knows are reduced to petty crime (I have a feeling that stealing cypress trees won't be the worst thing kids do on this show) and, more than anything else, he's angry that his wife wants to live somewhere else.

She says: "I'm not having the conversation for the 82nd time."

He says: "What's so great about Atlanta?"

She says: "Nothing. But at least it isn't here."

Sound familiar? She says their child gets terrified just when it rains now and he says: "There's weather in Atlanta."

I have heard this conversation myself 82 times. It falls around me like rain, in coffee shops, schoolyards and grocery stores.”8

Caught within the tensions of creating a potentially cathartic melodramatic fantasy based upon terribly tragic real world events, the creators of the program seemed unable to catch their narrative stride and dramatic tone in the delicate balancing act. Rose, a sympathetic New Orleanians reviewer, again captures the unevenness of this fictional account of a still emotionally raw subject:

“Admittedly, I watched Monday's premiere episode twice and still don't really have any idea what the connection was between the evil socialite real estate baron and the casino security mercenaries but I was chilled to the bone when Rex's daughter said this:

"We're supposed to rebuild their neighborhood? Rebuild their pathetic schools and their crappy homes? Why? So we can bring home all these people who have no value for human life? The storm wasn't a disaster; it was a cleansing."

Only on fictional TV can someone utter aloud a despicable sentiment that so many silently hold true.”9

If art is indeed a lie that tells the truth, then K-VILLE valiantly attempts to package social commentary and a hopeful message within their dramatic caricature of New Orleans. “We want to create entertainment,” explained Creator Jonathan Lisco: “At the same time, we want to be socially relevant to the extent possible.”10 One cannot help but wonder about the extent to which these goals may be Dramatistically counter-purposive.

Yet it seems the nigh-cartoonish reduction of complex social and historical causes and consequences for New Orleans’ predicament seem misguidedly displaced upon the not-quite-heroic agents of K-VILLE, despite the best of intentions. As suggested earlier, the Dramatistic mistake may have been in rhetorical decisions when to “materialize” and/or “spiritualize” the tragic scene and heroic agents, to heighten the localized victimage and redemption at the expense of the more universal mortification of the nation. Burke (1969a) notes such shifts in scenic circumference as key Dramatistic moments:

“When '’defining by location', one may place the object of one's definition in contexts of varying scope. And our remarks on the scene-act ratio, for instance, suggest that the choice of circumference for the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself. Similarly, the logic of the scene-agent ratio will figure in our definition of the individual, insofar as principles of dramatic consistency are maintained” (77, emphasis mine).
With such shifts in circumference, “there is the reduction of one terminology to another,” Burke observes, “One reduces this to that by discussing this in terms of that” (96). USA TODAY’s article, “Tasteless K-VILLE is the big sleazy” by Robert Bianco, is brutally unforgiving in its withering review of such failed reductions:
“Make no mistake: K-Ville, a buddy-cop throwback set in present-day New Orleans, would be terrible no matter where it was set or when it aired. But to do the show now, to take the suffering of this great American city and turn it — not into art, as The Wire does for Baltimore — but into cheap pulp fiction, is to move beyond bad to wildly offensive…. it's hard to see what public good is served by turning New Orleans into some high-octane Deadwood on the Mississippi…. A badly acted, clumsily constructed Starsky & Hutch/Miami Vice revival that imposes fictional clichés on top of harsh realities.” (9/18/2007)
The New Orleans fan base for the program, feeling that something is better than nothing when it comes to keeping post-Katrina plight alive within America’s mediated cultural imaginary, remains equally ambivalent about this Faustian bargain for Dramatistic representation.


Conclusion: Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy

“Dramatism is always on the edge of this vexing problem, that comes to a culmination in the song of the scapegoat.” ~Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Religion (1970, 54)
The song of the Southern Scapegoat since Reconstruction, for those versed in its tone and tenor, offers a familiar refrain within K-VILLE. In the wake of September 11th and the Bush administration’s heroically framed “Global War on Terror” against evil jihadists, it is probably unsurprising that the “blame-game” for post-Katrina failures deteriorated into the scapegoating finger-pointing of government officials and agencies. As media pundits and everyday citizens continue to debate the causes for failures of rescue and recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, K-VILLE offers a Dramatistic understanding of this story every bit as conflicted and ambivalent as those debated in any New Orleans’ coffee shop. “The maxim ‘terrain determines tactics’ is a strict localization of the scene-act ratio, with ‘terrain’ as the casuistic equivalent for ‘scene’ in a military calculus of motives, and ‘tactics’ as the corresponding ‘act’…” (Burke 1969a, p. 12). The sheer scope and overwhelming scenic circumference of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the most devastating natural and man-made disaster in the history of the United States, seems almost inevitable in tilting toward tragic victimization on such an epic scale as to preclude heroic redemption much less self-instructive mortification. While media depictions of this epic tragedy teetered at moments on reflective mortification regarding the national race and institutional class issues exposed by the receding floodwaters, it is probably unsurprising that the scapegoating of incompetent government agents (like Michael Brown and President Bush or Gov. Blanco and Gov. Nagin) or impotent federal agencies (such as FEMA or the Dept. of Homeland Security) would prove far more attractive than protracted introspection. Most Americans seem profoundly uncomfortable with navel-gazing regarding the persistent racial and economic inequities perpetuated by every American’s complicity in federal funding for infrastructure amidst selfish concerns over taxes and the systemic exclusions of emergency measures providing for the poorest Americans among us. That every American is somehow complicit in the humanitarian disaster following Hurricane Katrina is an uncomfortable idea deflected on several fronts via Capitalism’s numerous trained incapacities for addressing issues of race and class. Elsewhere, Burke (1973) follows Marx and Veblen to urge that examinations of trained incapacity must consider the “material interests” of both “private and class structure,” since such interests are a part of fluctuating “contexts of situation” which shape action by giving rise to paradoxes, and such unstable contexts are “opportunities to get ahead [and] are also opportunities to fall behind” (111, 247).

This essay has suggested that the Dramatistic effort of Fox’s K-VILLE “falls behind” precisely because it attempts to posit melodramatic individualism as the scapegoating solution for a systemic, Scenic catastrophe which should instead invite reflective national mortification. Despite the conscious choices of the creative team to attempt some narrative intervention on behalf of New Orleans, the ideological and largely unconscious consequences of melodramatic conventions seemed to have Dramatistically undermined such rhetorical aspirations. By positing the problems and solutions of post-Katrina New Orleans as primarily dependent upon agents, both villainous and antiheroic, national responsibility and collective accountability is seemingly circumvented, avoided, and displaced. This analysis thus suggests that Dramatistic criticism of politics within popular culture should heed Burke’s Freudian attentiveness to the unconscious consequences of Pentadic formulations, which either promote or stymie attempted comic correctives to ideologically-charged social problems (Biesecker, 1997; Gunn and Treat, 2005). Ensuing debates over racial and economic inequities within our American system, evidenced within media coverage of the Jena 6 and even the racial (and gendered) ideological undertones of 2008’s Democratic presidential contenders, may suggest there is much individuated mortification yet to be contemplated and addressed.



*Shaun Treat is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Texas. Correspondence to: University of North Texas, GAB 320A, Denton, TX 76203-5268. Email: shauntreat@unt.edu.

  1. “One small Katrina voice, many forever-changed lives.” USA Today, 12 June 2006: p. 12A.
  2. "Someone died in front of me.” BBC News blog, 2 September 2005. Last accessed Sept. 27, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4208092.stm
  3. “A 20 ring political circus; Strange crew populates New Orleans mayoral race.” The Washington Post, 20 April 2006: p. C01.
  4. Steven Welles, “G2: Shortcuts: Zombies come back from the dead.” The Guardian, 2 January 2006: p. 2.
  5. Warren St. John, “Market for zombies? It’s undead (Aaahhh!)” The New York Times, 26 March 2006: section 9, p. 1.
  6. Chuck Barney, “FOX drama K-Ville set in New Orleans,” Contra Costa Times, 25 July 2007. http://www.popmatters.com/pm/news/article/46350/fox-drama-k-ville-set-in-new-orleans/ , last accessed 3/18/2008.
  7. Chris Rose, “K-Ville gets it,” The Times-Picayune, 18 September 2007. http://www.nola.com/living/t-p/index.ssf?/base/living-9/1190096056259130.xml&coll=1 , last accessed 3/18/2008.
  8. Ibid, “K-Ville gets it,” The Times-Picayune.
  9. Ibid, “K-Ville gets it,” The Times-Picayune.
  10. Ibid, “FOX drama K-Ville set in New Orleans,” Contra Costa Times.



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"Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE; by Shaun Treat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Something Completely Different: Notes Toward a Burkean Ethics

Paul Lynch, Saint Louis University

In “The Question of Kenneth Burke’s Ethics,” (KB Journal 3.1, 2006), Timothy Crusius asks whether we can “fashion an ethics inspired by Burke’s thought.” Burke himself who goads us to this project. Crusius insists, “ethics is Burke’s first and most recurrent impulse. What we should want and not want, what we should do and avoid doing is Burke’s subject first to last.” Yet Crusius’s choice of the verb fashion reflects the challenge of any such assay. Burke’s ethics are not only eclectic, but they also do not announce themselves as such. Burke also never completed his Ethics of Motives, though there have been recent attempts to reconstruct what such a work might have been.[1] “Whoever would write An Ethic of Motives,” suggests Crusius, “must range far beyond what Burke said.” In addition to discerning Burke’s ethics, we are faced with the problem of placing them since they do not fit neatly within any of the various competing ethical philosophies, which are, as Crusius suggests, “chaotic: too many schools of thought, each entertaining its own assumptions, advancing its own premises, and arriving therefore at conclusions incommensurate with each other.” Thus, any Burkean ethics would inevitably be a reconstruction, Burkean in stance rather than system. Given these mysteries, “the situation provides unusual freedom”; however, as Crusius suggests, “[s]o much freedom is always threatening.” The freedom to discern answers to these questions, however, need be threatening only if we insist that we find the Burkean ethics rather than a Burkean ethics. In this essay, I offer one possible response, aware that should be many others. Ideally, then, any possible Burkean ethics would be fashioned in such a way that it could account for other possibilities.

In that spirit, I will argue that casuistry offers a methodology that might meet Crusius’s criteria for a Burkean ethics. Casuistry will be familiar to Burkeans: Burke invokes the practice most notably in his “casuistic stretching” (Attitudes 230), and the term also appears in the introduction to A Grammar of Motives. A Rhetoric of Motives, moreover, includes Burke’s endorsement of Pascal’s attack on Jesuit casuistry. These references make up maybe ten or twelve pages of the Burkean corpus, so it would be folly to insist that Burke is a casuist, or to insist that Burke’s ethics are simply equivalent to casuistry.  But if Crusius is accurate or even plausible in his sketch of a Burkean ethics, then that ethics has casuistic tendencies. The kind of comparison I mean to make has been called a “creative equivocation” in Michael Leff’s 1989 “Burke’s Ciceronianism” (n.2, 125). One of Leff’s reviewers offered a useful distinction for describing Burke’s influences. We can say either that Burke has“read and digested what [Cicero, Aristotle, or Gorgias] has said, profited from it, incorporated it into his own work,” or that Burke “shares fundamental presuppositions, habits of thought etc. with [Cicero, Aristotle, or Gorgias] which would have manifested themselves had [Cicero, Aristotle, or Gorgias] never existed” (n.2, 125). The second type is what the reviewer calls “creative equivocation,” and it is this kind of analogy I want to draw. Certainly one could make the first claim: there is no doubt that Burke has read casuistry (and Pascal’s critique) and profited from it and incorporated it into his work (sometimes with contradictory and muddled results). But for the purposes of furthering the discussion that Crusius has started, I’m more interested in the second claim.[2] Crusius is arguing that Burke has fundamental presuppositions and habits of thought regarding ethics, and I am arguing that these are casuistic.

My argument is that casuistry offers a methodology—a crucial term for a Burkean ethics (Attitudes 232)—that embraces rhetorical notions of virtue while avoiding Platonic metaphysics. It is an ethics that avoids the extremities of relativism and rigorism, a paradoxical ethics that is both kairotic and continuous. This may seem oxymoronic (or, as Crusius suggests by way of Monty Python, something completely different), and certainly there are risks in forwarding casuistry, an art whose historical infamy actually exceeds that of rhetoric.[3] Burke was keenly aware of casuistry’s nefarious reputation and was willing to second Pascal’s condemnation almost uncritically. Nevertheless, casuistry offers a way of articulating a version of Burkean ethics that does not fall for Plato’s heads-I-win-tails-you-lose, question-begging demand for rhetoric’s virtue. Casuistry is an ethics that agrees with Burke’s assessment of virtue and vice: “A society is sound only if can prosper on its vices, since virtues are by definition rare and exceptional” (Counter-Statement 114). Rather than prospering on virtue, casuistry is an ethics that prospers on what capital-P philosophy has often seen as vices—the vices of partiality, particularity, and probability (in other words, the vices of rhetoric).

* * *

In discerning a Burkean ethics—especially in the problems of incommensurability and the risks of freedom—Crusius implicitly lays the groundwork for a casuistic answer. Casuistry is a method of ethical reasoning for resolving problems in which the usual rules or procedures conflict. In such a situation, a person feels torn by competing duties or obligations. Lying is considered wrong, yet we often lie to children to spare them what we think are truths too difficult for them to bear. Stealing is considered wrong, yet many church doctors argued that the poor could take what they needed in order to survive. Killing is considered wrong, yet we recognize exceptions for self-defense. This last problem, perhaps the thorniest casuistic conundrum, motivated Cicero’s On Duties (44 BCE), Book III of which is thought to be the world first manual of casuistry. With the recent assassination of Caesar looming in the background, Cicero asks, “what greater crime can there be than to kill not merely another man, but even a close friend? Surely then, anyone who kills a tyrant, although he is a close friend, has committed himself to crime? But it does not seem so to the Roman people, which deems that deed the fairest of all splendid deeds. Did the beneficial, therefore, overcome honorableness? No indeed, for honorableness followed upon what benefited” (III.19). Here, as he does elsewhere in Book III, Cicero argues that certain actions are both honorable and beneficial. They must be, for Cicero insists that what is beneficial cannot even compare to what is honorable, much less trump it (III.18). But Cicero recognizes that there are sometimes reasons to doubt “the nature of the action one in considering” (III.18).“What,” Cicero asks, “if a good man were to be able to rob of his clothes Phalaris, a cruel and monstrous tyrant, to prevent himself from dying of cold? Might he not do it?” (III.29). Throughout his discussion of these cases, Cicero relies on a notion of prudentia, or practical wisdom, whose ancestor is the Greek phronesis.[4] At the same time, he is careful not to abandon the honorable in pursuit of the beneficial. Thus we see the basic tensions of casuistry: how do people maintain their moral obligations while at the same time remaining sensitive to circumstances?

After Cicero, casuistry’s case-based reasoning continued to develop in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas, who argued many of the usual casuistic questions. Was lying ever permissible? Could the poor steal food when they were hungry? Under what circumstances was killing not murder? Augustine and Aquinas were hardly casuists, but their writing did contribute to the development of the art, an art that become all the more important during the reformation. Eventually the practice reached its “High Period” in the years between 1556-1656 (Jonsen and Toulmin 153). During this time, the practice produced “immense, elaborate volumes filled with minute distinctions and detailed, sometimes contorted, arguments […] reminiscent of the art and architecture of the Baroque era” (145). Jonsen and Toulmin go on to argue that these volumes reflect “the irruption into Christian culture of the secular as reality, and as value. The dominance of the spiritual and the superiority of the religious over the lay state were no longer seen as obvious” (145). In short, casuists understood that Christians were living in a world undergoing rapid and fundamental change. 

No one understood this problem better than the Society of Jesus. Though the Jesuits were neither the first nor the only casuists, they have become most closely associated with the art (hence the derisive connotations of the term Jesuitical). As with Cicero, the Jesuits’ particular historical context made them ideally suited for casuistry, and indeed the special character of their ministry can be described as casuistic. Jesuit ministry emerged as part of the Counter-Reformation, and their ministry was driven by the principle of accommodation.[5] In The First Jesuits, John J. O’Malley, S.J., argues that the Society thought its preaching, ministry, and teaching ought to “accommodate to circumstances and to the particular needs and situation of the persons to whom the Jesuits ministered” (81). Because this principle guided all that they did, their casuistry and rhetoric informed each other: “at the center of casuistry was the rhetorical principle of accommodation to times, places, persons, and other circumstance” (O’Malley 145). As Jonsen and Toulmin suggest (and as O’Malley echoes), “It not surprising to find the Jesuits, who were dedicated to teaching classical rhetoric in their colleges, become the leading exponents of casuistry” (88). The Jesuits were adept at massaging their messages for the particular audiences to whom those messages were delivered. But the very notion of accommodation suggests both the rewards and the risks of such a project. Their willingness to shape their appeals for different hearers made them powerful preachers and influential thinkers. It was just this willingness, however, that spurred the attack of Pascal, who argued that the Jesuits’ doctrine of accommodation was actually the accommodation of virtue to vice. Pascal’s Provincial Letters 1656 forever fixed casuistry’s infamy and made the word Jesuit itself became a synonym for deceit. Even today, Escobar, the name of a famous Jesuit casuist, “remains a synonym for ‘equivocator’ or ‘prevaricator’ in contemporary French dictionaries” (Sampson 74). After the Letters, casuistry continued, and its practice were maintained and adapted even in post-reformation England.  But the emergence of the Enlightenment was no kinder to casuistry than it was to rhetoric. Cartesian philosophy served to move ethics toward “moral geometry,” the notion that a set of principles can consistently produce correct judgments. Kant (1724-1804) and Comte (1798-1857) also contributed to this geometric shift: Kant, argues James A Tallmon, was “looking for a supreme principle upon which to ground moral law” (379), and Comte went even further and tried to create a “social physics” by which society could be “organized” according to scientific certainty (380-381). Such asituational systematicity is antithetical to casuistry’s basic assumptions.

Those assumptions begin with the idea that certain situations offer problems that cannot be resolved by direct appeal to principles or rules. The word casuistry itself comes from the Latin casus, or “case,”and the etymology suggests casuistry’s guiding assumption: rather than solve a perplexing problem by appealing to principles, casuistry begins by looking at cases. In The Abuse of Casuistry, Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin define casuistry as

...the analysis of moral issues, using procedures of reasoning based on paradigms and analogies, leading to the formulation of expert opinions about the existence and stringency of particular moral obligations, framed in terms of rules or maxims that are general but not universal or invariable, since they hold good with certainty only in the typical conditions of the agent and the circumstances of action. (257)

Jonsen and Toulmin’s arguments were central to the revival of casuistry within medical ethics, the field that has seen the most vigorous contemporary discussion of case-based reasoning. Thorough the late eighties and early nineties, medical ethicists debated the usefulness of casuistry for deciding perplexing medical cases.[6] Casuistry’s proponents argued that the method could provide a means of articulating solutions to cases that invoked competing moral claims and ethical solutions. While there was a great deal of pushback against the revival of casuistry, the discussion revealed the feeling that clinicians “cannot afford the luxury of awaiting the development of an ethical theory capable of routing this contentious field by force of argument alone” (Arras “Principles,” 989). Thus, some clinicians sought an ethical how rather than an ethical what.

This move from what to how recognizes that people behave within situations, situations that affect their attempts to act morally. In this turn toward paradigm rather than principle, casuists recognize that applying the rules will often cause more harm than bending them. This is not to say that are not certain situations in which the rules simply apply. If someone steals your car, call a cop. But if someone steals a loaf of bread because he cannot otherwise eat, it makes more sense to call a casuist. A casuist would advocate for the starving man on the grounds that his miserable circumstances left him no choice (a moral rigorist, on the other hand, would insist that a crime is a crime is a crime). In making decisions about particular cases, the casuist does not reject moral strictures (as some of casuistry’s opponents would insist). Instead, casuists might decide the man is under no moral obligation to make restitution or that the punishments and penalties against stealing do not apply with the usual force.  They would come to this decision by comparing the given case against a taxonomy of previous similar cases. Casuists are still motivated by principles; otherwise the case of the starving thief would not claim the casuist’s attention. If the casuist (and the starving man himself) did not feel that it was just to sustain oneself but unjust to steal—if, in other words, people felt no moral obligations—there would be no need for casuistry. Nor does the casuist say that stealing is everywhere and always permitted. Rather, the casuist says that the laws against stealing should not apply with the same force in this and only this particular case. When casuists confront a perplexing moral problem, they first ask, “What issue that makes this case hard to resolve?” Then, “Have we seen similar cases before? What did we do then?” Finally, they will offer a judgment that lasts only as long as the present situation does. The moment the starving man has a legitimate way to obtain food, the casuistic judgment ceases to have force.

Casuists follow rhetoricians in situating their art within the practical sphere. Indeed, Jonsen and Toulmin draw a distinction between theoretical and practical arguments in a way that rhetoricians will recognize from Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument.[7] Theoretical argument, according to Jonsen and Toulmin, resembles syllogistic reasoning (34). Applied to ethics, theoretical argument is, in Crusius’s words, an attempt to “abstract from situations in a futile effort to discover what is really and always right and good.” This kind of argument works for analytic logic, but it will not work for anything more complicated (or interesting). Practical reasoning, on the other hand, eschews universal starting points and instead begins with what is happening in the “present fact situation” (Jonsen and Toulmin 35). Casuists will then examine that situation according to “general warrants based on similar precedents,” and draw “provisional conclusions about the present case” (35). The purpose of this comparison is to discern both the essential similarities and substantive differences. “Exceptional circumstances” will create further distinctions that will alter the judgment (35). Rather than abstracting rules from situations—rules that may not fit the next complex situation that emerges—casuists render judgments that apply only to the case at hand.

* * *

Though I do not suggest we can draw a direct equation between casuistry and Burkean ethics, I do think casuistry meets Crusius’s criteria for a Burkean ethics in particular (and perhaps a rhetorical sort of ethics in general). Crusius writes, “morality is always a response to a situation. If you abstract from these situations, what you’ll get are batches of inconsistent moral principles. But this is precisely what we Burkeans wouldn’t or shouldn’t do,” which is “what philosophy has almost always done, abstract from situations in a futile effort to discover what is really and always right and good.” To abstract from such diverse situations would be to create permanent solutions to temporary problems (which is also, by the way, a good definition of suicide). Because casuists realize that no situation can ever reappear in all its particulars, they do not pretend to discover what is really and always right and good. Rather, they attempt to discern what is best (as in better in relation to all other options) in a given situation. The art of casuistry embraces kairos, which Crusius defines as “a timely and appropriate response to a particular situation that we will never encounter in all its particulars again.” Because we cannot “render morality coherent”—that is, predictable and systematic—and because philosophic abstractions can distort (and even destroy) morality, we must find an ethics that changes as the situation changes.

At the same time, Crusius wants “an ethic of situations” rather than a “situational ethics”—that is, something that is responsive without being wholly relative.[8] An ethics of situations would allow both kairotic flexibility and situated continuity. It would offer a Burkean balance between permanence and change. Burke’s notion of “casuistic stretching,” which appears in Attitudes Toward History and is his most explicit and detailed use of casuistry as a critical tool, suggests the kind of ethics of situations that Crusius seeks. “By casuistic stretching,” he writes, “one introduces new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles. Thus, we saw the church permitting the growth of investment in a system of law that specifically forbade investment” (Attitudes 229). Presumably, he is referring to the debate over usury, the lending of money at interest. It is not surprising that he would focus upon usury, which had become a central focus of casuistic thinking by the advent of the Renaissance. Jonsen and Toulmin recount that the Church originally defined usury as lending at any interest, and it had forbidden the practice on the grounds that it allowed profit without labor (183). Loans were permissible for those in need and only if no interest were charged. Eventually, the Church exorcised usury by “misnomer-ing” it “theft” (183). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theologians developed a maxim against casuistry, memorable for a play upon words that might well have piqued Burke’s interest: “mutuum est quasi de meo tuum (a loan is, as it were, my property made yours). The Latin word for loan, mutuum, was defined by an etymological pun, meum (mine) becomes tuum (yours)” (183-84). A loan was no longer mine by definition; thus, to charge interest for it would be like charging interest on someone else’s property.

As economies changed, however, the perception (and construction) of usury began to change. Jonsen and Toulmin write, “The usury prohibition made its appearance in an era when the economy of Europe was largely composed of subsistence farming” (185). Emerging mercantile economies, on the other hand, invited a new understanding of how lending might be licit or illicit. The Church recognized the societas, or the commercial partnership intended to make profit, long before the mercantile age (185), but mercantilism put new pressure on the original strictures against usury. In fact, “the chief canonical document on the legitimacy of the societas was entitled Navaganti: that is, ‘to one setting out to sea’” (185). Thus, the explosion of maritime commercial activity forced changes upon the economy, and thus church doctors faced a choice: They could condemn those who engaged in this activity, or they could seek ways to introduce new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles. They could remain pure. But as Burke notes in Rhetoric, the “paradox of purity”—in which “Pure Personality would be the same as no personality” (Rhetoric 35)—“pure engagement: with the new economy would mean no engagement with the new economy. 

Partnership now helped to draw the distinction between shared risk and profit without labor. “The crucial moral difference between loan and societas rested on the sharing of risk. By introducing the concept of risk as a modality in the argument, the first step toward revision of the paradigm was taken” (Jonsen and Toulmin 185). Eventually, argument over casuistry necessitated a special commission to the Fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1580, and the commission engaged in casuistic analysis of particular cases (189-90). Again, their purpose was not to rationalize any new behavior.  Rather, “as each new case appeared [...] it was measured against the relevant paradigmatic case: a loan made to someone in distress. [...] How did each of the new cases differ from the paradigm? Did the structure, function, and purpose of the new arrangements include morally relevant circumstances? If so, did they excuse or justify the activity?” (191). As this method of analysis suggests, casuistic stretching is not relativism insofar as the stretch is always anchored to a previous understanding or case. Casuists of the past and the present do not reinvent the ethical wheel with every new situation. Such an approach also does not lend itself to abstraction, for no case ever reappears in all its particulars; particularity, however, does not obviate similarity. Cases are compared with each other not only in order to discern what is different, but also what is the same. While the contrast brings to light the relevant particular features, the comparison ensures a certain ethical continuity.

In coming to a new understanding of usury, casuists relied on the notions of damnum emergens (“loss occurring”) and lucrum cessans (“profit ceasing”), in an attempt to account for situations in which a loan caused the lender to lose money either though a failed investment or the inability to access capital while it was tied up in a loan. Eventually, these definitions of risk allowed casuists to define usury as St. Alphonsus Ligouri did: “interest taken where there is no just title to profit” (193). Ligouri’s definition offers a consummation of faithfulness to old principles within acceptance of new principles. But the faithfulness to old principles is more than “theoretical.” In spite of the shift in paradigm, some ethical absolutes remained: it was still wrong to charge interest to one in distress. But if the borrower were not in distress, then the casuists had to consider the particular circumstances of the case. Casuists thus recognized that a universal prohibition, while possessing the virtue of rigorous simplicity, and absolutist purity, could not survive contact with the world. Such simplicity and purity also risked making human judgment obsolete. In a society managed by unwavering adherence to rules, there would be no need for prudentia or phronesis, since we would always know what to do. Seen in this light, casuistry becomes a means not of enervating morality, but rather of maintaining it by engaging in judgment. Renaissance casuists—obligated to live the real world—realized that they had to prosper on vice by applying the situation to the rules as much as applying the rules to the situation.

Words like “recognize” and “realize” may, at first glance, suggest a “naïve verbal realism” (Burke, Language 5), but casuistry recognizes that what we think of as “real” “has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol systems” (5). Stretching the definition of usury from “loan at interest” to “loan at exorbitant interest” reflects not simply a passive act of “recognition,” but instead a creative act of stretching. In Casuistry and Modern Ethics, Richard B. Miller argues that casuistry is a “poetics of practical reasoning” because “practical reasoning is not merely a passive endeavor in which the mind serves as a blank slate. Rather, the mind contributes something in the process of reasoning. It plays a creative, inventive role, requiring us to use our moral imagination. We ‘make’ insofar as we must ‘make sense’ of experience, confronted as we are with the variables of a situation” (224). Here, we begin to see some of the basic similarities between rhetoric, poetics, and casuistry. Rhetoric and poetic do not merely persuade others to assent to “reality”; they both shape reality. So does casuistry. In this sense, casuistry is not only a poetics of practical reasoning, but also a rhetoric of practical reasoning in which the casuist sees the available means of decision-making in any given case.

To Pascal, however, this kind change merely reflected prospering on vice in the basest sense, as he made clear in his Provincial Letters. The letters on casuistryfeature a Jesuit interlocutor who is eager to reveal the mysteries of casuistry to a nonplussed Pascal. In their conversation on usury, the Jesuit tells Pascal that one must only utter certain words to avoid sin. “The person from whom the loan is asked, must answer, then, in this manner: I have got no money to lend; I have got a little, however, to lay out for an honest and lawful profit” (422). Pascal appears to be accusing the Jesuit of a certain kind of casuistic stretching. By refusing to use the word “lend,” and instead using the phrase “lay out,” the would-be usurer does indeed employ “mysterious words,” as Pascal calls them (421). “It would be downright usury,” quotes the father, “To take interest from the borrower, if we should exact it as due in point of justice; but if only exacted as due in point of gratitude, it is not usury” (422). To Pascal, shifting the terms did nothing to alter the reality. Sin is sin whatever it is called. Yet Pascal is writing a polemic, not a treatise, and occasionally he shifts the grounds of his argument in order to score points. While he may at one moment accuse the Jesuits of using too many words, at the next he will accuse them of using too few. “Usury,” the Jesuit goes on to say, “according to our fathers, consists in little more than the intention of taking the interest as usurious” (422). For Pascal, this tautology represents the essential vacuity of their arguments. For Jonsen and Toulmin, however, the change in the meaning of “usurious” represents something more like casuistic stretching. “The casuists did not concede their novel points merely at the insistence of imperious rulers, avaricious prelates or greedy bankers: they sought, in the midst of the economic pressures, to bring to light the morally relevant circumstances that would permit meaningful moral discriminations” (194). In this sense, the accommodation of virtue to vice was an attempt to make virtue operate in the world: rather than letting abstract virtue float above concrete situations, casuistry demands that virtue interact with situations, even at the risk of encountering vice.

Still, Burke seems to share Pascal’s concern. In the Rhetoric, he discusses, and even celebrates, Pascal’s seventh letter, in which Pascal attacks the Jesuit casuistry on permissible killing. As Burke notes, the seventh letter, and indeed the Provincial Letters themselves, were “hilarious and devastating” (Rhetoric 157), and their publication caused a sensation in French society. Even Voltaire thought the Provincial Letters one of the best books he had ever read. Because the Jesuits were powerful enemies, however, Pascal wrote the letters anonymously, and this circumstance occasions his central rhetorical conceit, in which an innocent believer asks a more worldly Jesuit father about Jesuit doctrines. This allows Pascal to maintain the appearance that the cleric is simply hoisting himself on his own petard. “You know,” says the father, “that the ruling passion of [gentlemen] is ‘the point of honor,’ which is perpetually driving them into acts of violence apparently quite at variance with Christian piety; so that, in fact, they would be almost all of them excluded from our confessionals had not our fathers relaxed a little from the strictness of religion, to accommodate themselves to the weakness of humanity” (Pascal 402). Here, Pascal is attacking what came to be known as “The Case of the Insulted Gentlemen,” which produced a casuistry that appeared to allow a person of rank to kill a social inferior in return for a slap (Jonsen and Toulmin 216). This case “appeared in the history of casuistry for a brief moment, was entertained as probable opinion, and quickly vanished” (216). Yet it remained long enough for Pascal to use it as point of attack.

Pascal’s central target is the notion of “directing the intention, which simply consists in [the would-be sinner’s] proposing to himself, as the end of his actions, some allowable object” (404). Thus, an insulted gentleman cannot say he is going to the park for a duel, but rather for a stroll. If he happens to meet his enemy there, he may be forced to defend himself, “for what moral evil is there in one stepping into a field, taking a stroll in expectation of meeting a person, and defending one’s self in the event of being attacked?” (407). Certainly the directing of intention could be abused for such nefarious purposes. But it also allowed more just responses to life-threatening situations. If the gentleman were set upon by bandits, he could kill in defense of himself, as long as his intention was merely self-preservation. The question of permissible killing also raised the doctrine of “double effect,” in which Aquinas distinguished between multiple effects of the same act (Jonsen and Toulmin 221-22). If a police officer fires a weapon in response to gunfire, and his intended effect is to stop the attacker from firing again, killing the attacker cannot be called murder. If shoots in anger, or when there were other means of disabling the attacker, then the killing is not longer licit. (Whether or not it is then murder would depend on a host of other circumstances.) “Death by cop,” in which a mentally ill or suicidal people attempt to lure police officers into shooting them, would present very thorny problems for this casuistry. Burke was concerned with just such problems of misidentification, as he notes in “The Rhetorical Situation.” There is a “kind of deceptive identification whereby an individual who may be personally modest and unassuming becomes deceptively aggrandized by thoughts of his citizenship in a powerful nation” (“Rhetorical” 269-70). Thus, Burke learns to drive a car, and is “easily tempted to mistake these mechanical powers for our very own” (269). One might say that the driver casuistically stretches himself to include the car so thoroughly that he thinks its speed is his speed. Ironically enough, he may prove himself right when he finally wraps himself around a tree. Likewise, it is a dangerous for a police officer to think that the power of a gun is his power. Surely, as British comedian Eddie Izzard has noted, it may be that guns don’t kill people, but the gun helps. Here, a casuistic examination is precisely what’s needed to see this otherwise unnoticed double effect.

Casuists found the roots of the double effect idea in Cicero’s interpretation of Roman law, the early Church fathers, and the Gospels themselves; moreover, Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas had all contributed to the theory of justifiable killing  (Jonsen and Toulmin 217-219). In other words, contrary to both Pascal’s and Burke’s reading of this casuistry, it was not mere “rhetorical convenience,” nor was it mere accommodation of, in Burke’s words, “easygoing people” (Rhetoric 156). Further, as Burke notes, the Jesuits exposed themselves to this attack by their own “processional enterprise,” in which they “speculated zealously on all kinds of cases” (157). Thus, some casuists had argued that killing in return for a slap was “speculatively probable, but not to be admitted in practice” (qtd. in Jonsen and Toulmin 226). Other casuists “quickly demolished the doctrine by showing that the consequences of the act could not be divorced from the assessment of the act itself” (227). In short, the casuists probed the argument for weaknesses and dismissed them when they were discovered. Burke, it must be said, doesn’t appear to see this, and contemptuously dismisses all other applications of the “Jesuit trick” (Rhetoric 157). Yet the casuists were practicing casuistic stretching to the letter. Burke admits, “casuistic stretching is beyond all possibility of ‘control by elimination,’”; therefore, “[t]he best that can be done is to make its workings apparent and constant” (Attitudes 230). We might say, then, that the casuists had practiced casuistic stretching. In following the arguments on permissible killing the Jesuits made the working of their casuistry apparent and constant and thus had left themselves vulnerable to Pascal’s critique.

All ethical systems and ethical situations must be subjected to this discussion because humans are “Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy” or “Moved by a sense of order” (Language 15). This sense of order reveals a tendency to look upward toward abstraction (rather than around us in situation) for our ethics. Little wonder, then, that we might initially prefer theoretical reasoning and its major premises as model for guidance. Yet we are also “rotten with our own perfection” (Language 16), a perfection that can cause us great suffering (Language 18). We are goaded by the desire to perfect the very orders that make us rotten. The judge who would pursue the starving man is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy and likely to rot in his own perfection; his inability to disturb the order of things is tragic.

The way to respond to this tragedy, writes Crusius, is with comedy: “Comedy supplies our goal, Burke’s ad bellum purificandum, ‘toward the purification of war.’ Instead of solemnly undertaking to eliminate it, we’ll take the comic route of ‘appreciating’ it instead. We will smile or laugh at our own and everybody else’s inconsistency because we know that morality cannot be any more consistent than situations are.” Jean-Francois Lyotard makes the same casuistic observation in Just Gaming: “when the question of what justice consists in is raised, the answer is: ‘It remains to be seen in each case,’ and always in humor, but also in worry, because one is never certain that one has been just, or that one can ever be just” (Lyotard and Thebaud 99). Separated, as we are, from our natural condition by devices of our own making, our options become tragedy or comedy. Comedy is more casuistic in that it doesn’t seek to eliminate vice through unyielding rules and systems. Casuistry also accepts the comic (and somewhat worried) recognition that our inconsistency does not reveal moral decay, as Alasdair MacIntyre’s complains: “We are Platonic perfectionists in saluting gold medalists in the Olympics, utilitarians in applying the principle of triage to the wounded in war, Lockeans in affirming rights over property; Christians in idealizing charity, compassion, and equal moral worth; and followers of Kant and Mill in affirming personal autonomy” (qtd. in Crusius). For MacIntyre, this inconsistency should lead us to rebuild our moral foundations, as he argues in After Virtue. For a casuist or Burkean ethicist, this inconsistency simply reveals that different situations call for different kinds of responses.

Yet the accusation of moral relativism lingers. The monist, rigorist notion of ethics has dominated the conversation for so long that even rhetoricians should not be surprised if they initially agree with MacIntyre that our ethics are a mess. As Crusius suggests, “[s]o much freedom is always threatening.” It would be easier to say, “I’m a Platonist” or “I’m a Kantian.” A moral rigorist keeps to the via tutior, the safer way. A casuist, however, acknowledges that practical problems are too complicated for one system to work all the time. Nevertheless, the spirit of hierarchy continues to goad us to look at MacIntyre’s list and choose one. Crusius acknowledges this tendency in his second criteria for a Burkean ethics: “an ethic of motives will be critical in the sense of having a depth dimension. Because we know what we want, limiting conflict to words, we’ll want to expose and criticize moral convictions and values that lead to war.”[9] The “depth dimension” of a Burkean ethics can discern the conclusions to which our language jumps. Even if one insists on a monist approach to ethics, being conscious of it at least can make the monism a subject for dialogue. The point, then, is not to become a Platonist or a Kantian, but rather to subject those theories to dialogue in order to discern how and why we are moved by them.

Crusius’s third condition for a Burkean ethics is that it be embodied. Recognizing this embodiment, situating ethics in this way, is more likely to reveal the contradictions that necessitate an ethics of situations. In his Conscience and Its Problems, theologian and casuist Kenneth E. Kirk casts the most perplexing ethical problems as conflicts between duty and desire: “Patriotism may urge a man to fight for his country in a cause which conscience […] cannot wholly endorse. The solidarity of his political party may seem to demand of him silence upon a point of policy against which on all other grounds he feels himself bound to protest” (320). In the face of war, such disunities can be happy events. A moral rigorist might attempt to “solve” these problems. As Crusius notes, “most traditional philosophy has tried to approach ethics abstractly and formally, as if it were an exercise in pure reason alone.” But Kirk’s examples posit human beings—each with needs and desires, virtues and vices—who confront competing goods—loyalty to one’s community versus loyalty to one’s conscience. To insist on “pure reason alone,” to disembody ethics in a way that denies rhetoric and its embrace of situation, only makes it easier for a citizen to set aside his objections and fight “patriotically,” or a politician to set aside her conscience and “get on board.”

Finally, Crusius writes, “an ethic of motives must be ecological in Burke’s extended sense of the term.” Crusius insists that Burke does mean ecological in the usual, natural environment sense, but rather that “a Burkean ethics will be a more or less constant counter-statement, as Burke’s first book was.” If one’s default position is the via tutior, there can be no counter-statement because there can be no countering. But counter-statement works both ways. If one’s default position is liberty over loyalty, then there can be no counter-statement because there can be no statement in the first place. Only one with some sense of obligation to the community will bother telling the community where it’s gone wrong. Recently, we have all had to remind ourselves that dissent is patriotic. Eventually—if we develop a Burkean, ecological, rhetorical ethics—we will have to remind ourselves that patriotism is patriotic. Only an ethics of counter-statement can shift these positions from the weaker to the stronger argument, depending on the case, depending on the situation.

To Crusius’s comedic, deep, embodied, and ecological criteria, I would add only one: methodological. Burke tries to allay his own worry about casuistry by insisting that the resources of casuistic stretching “must be transcended by the explicit conversion of a method into a methodology. The difference between casuistry as a method and casuistry as a methodology is the difference between mystification and clarification, between the concealing of strategy (ars celare artem) and the description of a strategy (criticism as explanation)” (Attitudes 232). This distinction between the mystification and clarification (in addition to suggesting that Burke read Pascal) suggests that Burke still finds the art suspicious, and it hard to blame him for that. Pascal’s criticisms were hardly unfounded, and centuries of negative associations can prove difficult to overcome, as rhetoricians know only too well. As rhetoricians have discovered, there’s no avoiding the risk of rhetoric; like casuistry, it is an art the can be abused. But Burke’s insistence on methodology goes right to the heart of the problem before us, which is how we manage to distinguish between clarification and mystification.

The usual fear about rhetoric and casuistry is that they are species of moral relativism. Rhetoricians have spent a lot of time and energy challenging the relativist accusation by rejecting the design of Plato’s question-begging accusation. The same defense can be offered for casuistry: as an ethics of situations, casuistry rejects the notion that morality happens outside of situation. But for many rhetoricians, the fear of casuistry is not the fear of relativism. Rather, it is the fear of rigorism. A Nietzschean aphorism best articulates this fear. “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity” (Basic Writings 470). The question, then, is whether casuistry can offer a methodology that avoids the rigor (mortis) of system while maintaining its integrity. Even if it can demonstrated that casuistry is not simply a(moral) rationalization, we still have before us the challenge of demonstrating that casuistry is not simply (a)moral regimentation. Some rhetoricians, unlike some of their capital-P philosophy counterparts, might prefer wizardry to theology, harlotry to purity, chicanery to sincerity, though always in humor, but also in worry. If we are to rely on casuistry to articulate a rhetorical ethics, then casuistry cannot become a system for producing good morals. Rhetoric is not looking for a more perfect ethical machine, a machine that would eventually mystify morality by appearing to remove judgment from human beings in order to place it in a nonhuman(e) procedure. In fact, it is not looking for “an” ethics, if by the article “an” is meant a system or a theory. If rhetoric is to have an ethics at all, it should only be a way of articulating—or inventing—our response to situations.

Burke insists that we can rely on casuistic stretching only if we turn it into a methodology rather than a method, a choice that demands working “at every turn, by reference to the ‘collective revelation’ of accumulated critical lore” (Philosophy 68). Methodology, therefore, means not only continuous discussion of one’s own thinking, but discussion of that thinking through the language of other peoples’ thinking. Methodology demands the parlor, full of point and counterpoint, in which “revelations,” emerge from the group rather than striking the individual. While the Baroque nature of high casuistry contributed to its reputation for Byzantine manipulation, it also suggests the babble of voices demanded in methodology. The complaint that something was “written by committee” makes no sense in casuistry, for it is only through a committee that a casuistic decision can emerge. Casuistry is the art of the conference table rather than the auditorium; its rhetoric is dialogical rather than monolingual.

In the appropriately titled “Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics,” Albert Jonsen articulates a casuistic methodology. He begins by arguing that casuistic reasoning is a form of rhetorical reasoning. Casuists of the high period, he observes, knew their Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, and in them found “a method of reasoning or, better, of arguing that was suited to cases. They were aware that practical reasoning has rules of logic that differ from the logic of scientific reasoning” (Jonsen 297). But the casuists’ approach to cases included other moves, as well. Casuistry, Jonsen suggests, offers a tripartite methodology that includes three basic considerations: morphology, taxonomy, and kinetics, and it is these three moves that resemble a putative casuistic and Burkean methodology. By “morphology,” Jonsen refers to the initial interpretation of a given case. “The interplay of circumstances and maxims constitute the structure of a case. Thus, we can speak of the morphology or the perception of form and structure” (299). Rhetoricians will recognize the importance of circumstances and maxims in approaching a given situation; like rhetoric, casuistry relies on paradigm, analogy, and maxim (Jonsen and Toulmin 257). “The work of casuistry,” writes Jonsen, “is to determine which maxim should rule the case and to what extent. To what extent means under what constellation of circumstances, for certain changes of circumstances will lead to another maxim emerging as the more significant” (298). This first move, then, reveals the difference between practical reasoning and theoretical reasoning. In the former, the particulars of the case will send the casuists back to drawing board. “In casuistry,” writes Jonsen, “the reflection bears upon the relation between maxims and circumstances: the former are appreciated as valid, but limited rules for the good conduct of life; the latter report the actual conditions of living through particular situation” (303). The casuist, moreover, is aware that interpretation is a poetic act as much as a perceptive act (Miller 224); therefore, maxims cannot have deductive force. They can always be trumped and rearranged in light of circumstances.

The next step for the casuist, according to Jonsen, begins to reveal how critical lore is accumulated: “One of the crucial steps in the casuistic method is the lining up of cases in a certain order” (301); in other words, casuistry proceeds by taxonomy. Where the question of morphology echoes the rhetorical stasis question of conjecture—asking “What is this case? What is in play here?—the question of taxonomy begins to move the discussion toward definition—“What kind of case is this? How is it like or unlike previous cases?” In answering these questions, the casuist relies on taxonomy to place the given case “into its moral context and reveals the weight of argument that might countervail presumption of rightness of wrongness” (302). This definition step begins to reveal the likenesses between the present case and previous cases that will guide the casuist toward a probable judgment. It must be acknowledged as casuistry’s most dangerously systematic step: as Jonsen notes, taxis, the root of taxonomy, “is the Greek word meaning the drawing up or marshalling of soldiers in a battle line. Just as an Athenian general might place his strongest and most aggressive soldiers in the forefront of the battle line, so the casuist seeks out those cases, within the type, that demonstrate the most obviously, unarguably wrong (or right) instance” (301). Reading this description, I move from humor to worry, and I cannot help thinking again of Nietzsche: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people” (Portable 46-7). Casuistic stretching implies the kind of comparison taxonomy makes, yet it also formalizes it in a way that seems at first glance too systemic for comfort. Putting cases into slots sounds like another way of applying rules. For his part, Burke appears comfortable with taxonomy, or at least aware that taxonomy lies beyond all possibility of control by elimination. “Social structures,” he observes in “Equipment for Living,” “give rise to ‘type’ situations, subtle subdivisions of the relationships involved in competitive and cooperative acts” (Philosophy 293-94). These types invoke taxonomy, as we see when Burke lays out his taxonomy of proverbs (Philosophy 293-295). His taxonomy does marshal armies of proverbs, but this marshalling is apparent and constant.

Moreover, and most importantly, it is mobile. Jonsen calls his third methodological move kinetics. “I mean by [kinetics] an understanding of the way in which one case imparts a kind of moral movement to other cases, as a moving billiard ball imparts motion to the stationary one it hits” (303). Jonsen’s notion of kinetics is echoed in Edward H. Levi’s Introduction to Legal Reasoning. In that work, Levi describes a process that is casuistic: “The basic pattern of legal reasoning is reasoning by example. It is reasoning from case to case. It is a three-step process described by the doctrine of precedent in which a proposition descriptive of the first case is made into a rule of law and then applied to a next similar situation” (1-2). This process, however, does not mean that the examination of precedent eventuates in hard rules. “If this were the doctrine,” he writes, “it would be disturbing to find that the rules change from cases to case and are remade with each case. Yet this change in the rules is the indispensable dynamic quality of law” [emphasis added] (2). Cases—which are, after all, simply collections of particular circumstances—can never be perfectly analogous with precedent. Each new case is literally unprecedented insofar as it features circumstances unforeseen by an abstracted law. “Thus it cannot be said that the legal process is the application of known rules to diverse facts” (Levi 3). Casuistic thinking is too kinetic to be described as the simple application of rules. Burke’s taxonomy of proverbs, for example, would not seek “to find categories that ‘place’ the proverbs once and for all. What I want are categories that suggest their active nature” [emphasis added] (Philosophy 296). The point would be to discern a proverb’s usefulness for “promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling” (Philosophy 296); thus, the lexicon rhetoricae of proverbs will always be moving. As people confront new situations, they will “‘need a word for it’ [...] to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary” (Philosophy 300). Most importantly, a taxonomy of rhetorical types—rather than genres, periods, styles, etc.—would “violate current pieties, break down current categories, and thereby ‘outrage good taste.’ But ‘good taste’ has become inert. The classifications I am proposing would be active” (Philosophy 303). In other words, new situations would not only expand the taxonomies but also shift and reshape them. Casuistry’s indispensable and dynamic quality involves not just the comparison of one set of diverse facts to another set, but also a mobile rather than rigid approach to precedent. It is a Protean rather than Procrustean art.

Perhaps fluid would be a better metaphor than mobile: morals, like words, are “thrown from a liquid center to the surface, where they have congealed” (Grammar xix). “Let one of these crusted distinctions return to its source,” however, “and in this alchemic center it may be remade, again becoming molten liquid, and may enter into new combinations, whereat it may be again thrown forth as a new crust, a different distinction” (Grammar xix). If our distinctions remains congealed, “what you’ll get are batches of inconsistent moral principles” (Crusius). Like Levi, Burke seems again to recognize that it is “disturbing to find that the rules change from cases to case and are remade with each case” (Levi 2). In ethical matters, it might seem natural to prefer ideological rigidity. But this rigor risks turning our morals (at the further risk of yet another metaphor) into fists (Burke, Permanence 192). Burke’s dramatistic methodology offers an alchemic approach to ethics: “One could think of the Grammatical resources as principles, and of the various philosophies as casuistries which apply these principles to temporal situations” [emphasis in original] (Grammar xvi). In this formulation, Burke inverts the usual dichotomy that sees philosophy as permanence and rhetoric as change. Instead, change becomes permanent: the dramatistic principles of the grammar are always available for reconsidering that which had become fixed or naturalized. For Burke, a philosophy, on the other hand, “is to be considered a casuistry” and “even a cultural situation extending over centuries is a ‘case’” (Grammar xvii). Casuistry allows us to stir even the settled, centuries-old case. “A truly liquid attitude towards speech would be ready, all times, to employ ‘casuistry’ at points where [terminological] lacunae are felt. We believe that the result, in the end, could be a firmer kind of certainty, though it lacked the deceptive comforts of ideological rigidity” (Attitudes 231). Casuistry’s certainty is a liquid certainty, a viscous certainty. If casuistry is to (re)solve problems, it must do so under the condition that the army of metaphors in “solve” be mobilized. Once the metaphors are mobile, the crusted-over distinctions—the taxis we might marshal—will begin to dissolve, and the metaphors begin to mix, and you begin to sound like you’re babbling. But this vice of worried humor is actually casuistry’s virtue. The alchemy of casuistry is so fluid that to suggest casuistry as an “answer” to rhetoric’s ethical conundrum is paradoxical, for rhetoric faces a conundrum only insofar as we concede the terms of the virtuous question. In refusing to jump with these terms to their conclusions, rhetoric remains in the practical world, where vice competes with virtue, and where the only kind of ethics worth having is a vice-prospering ethics like casuistry, the kind of ethics produced by people “huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss” (Permanence 272). We can either circumscribe that Babel with our adamantine abstractions, or we can consider it on a case-by-case basis. Casuistry gives us one available means of doing the latter.

End Notes

*Correspondence to: Paul Lynch, Ph.D., Department of English, Saint Louis University, 3800 Lindell Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63108.

  1. See KB Journal, “The Gordian Not: Appendix 5”: <http://www.kbjournal.org/thamesappendix5>.
  2. Following Leff’s model of “creative equivocation” offers the virtue invoking not only Cicero, casuistry’s first practitioner, but also the language of casuistry.
  3. As Albert Jonsen notes, the rhetorical challenge of reintroducing casuistry cuts both ways: “It seems rash to try to dispel the disrepute of casuistry by proposing that casuistry is rhetorical, for the modern reader is likely to think even less of rhetoric, which is daily derided in political campaigns, than of casuistry. However, the modern reader knows almost nothing of the rhetoric that dominated the intellectual life of western culture for many centuries” (297).
  4. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that ethics is a species of practical wisdom, or phronesis, rather than philosophic or theoretical wisdom: the notion of the good, he writes, “cannot be something universally present in all cases and single; for then it could not have been predicated in all the categories but one only” (1096a). Furthermore, “even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man” (1096b). Ethics, Aristotle argues, can be considered only in the particular circumstances in which a “good” manifests itself. While Aristotle is not a casuist in that he does not examine cases, his placement of ethics within situation is crucial to the development of the art.
  5. Though the commonplace notion that the Jesuits were “a propaganda order formed to regain for the Church ground lost since the Protestant Reformation” (Burke, Rhetoric 156) is historically and conspiratorially incorrect.
  6. For more on the question of casuistry and medical ethics, see the following: John D. Arras, “Getting Down to Cases: The Revival of Casuistry in Bioethics” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [16(1991): 29-51]; Baruch Brody, Life and Death in Decision Making [New York: Oxford UP, 1988] and Taking Issue: Pluralism and Casuistry in Bioethics [Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2003]; Albert R. Jonsen, “Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics” in Theoretical Medicine [12 (1991): 295-307]; James M. Tallmon, “How Jonsen Really Views Casuistry: A Note on the Abuse of Father Wildes” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [19 (1993): 103-113]; Tom Tomlinson, “Casuistry in Medical Ethics: Rehabilitated, or Repeat Offender?” in Theoretical Medicine [15 (1994): 5-20]; Kevin Wm. Wildes, S.J., “Respondeo: Method and Content in Casuistry” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [19(1993): 115-119] and “The Priesthood of Bioethics and the Return of Casuistry” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [18.1 (1991): 33-49].
  7. Indeed, Toulmin hinted at casuistry in his Uses of Argument, which appeared thirty years before The Abuse of Casuistry: “Practice forces us to recognise (sic) that general ethical truths can aspire at best to hold good in the absence of effective counter-claims: conflicts of duty are an inescapable feature of the moral life. Where logic demand the form ‘All lying is reprehensible’ or ‘All promise-keeping is right,’ idiom therefore replies ‘Lying is reprehensible’ and ‘Promise-keeping is right.’ The logician’s “all” imports unfortunate expectations, which in practice are bound on occasion to be disappointed. Even the most general warrants in ethical arguments are yet liable in unusual situations to suffer exceptions, and so at strongest can authorise (sic) only presumptive conclusions” (109).
  8. Situation ethics does have many similarities with casuistry. Joseph Fletcher describes his position this way in Situations Ethics: The New Morality: “There are various names for this approach: situationism, contextualism, occasionalism, circumstantialism, even actualism. These labels indicate, of course, that the core of the ethic they describe is a healthy and primary awareness that ‘circumstances alter cases’—i.e., that in actual problems of conscience the situational variables are to be weighed as heavily as the normative or ‘general’ constants” (29). While Fletcher does see situation ethics as a kind of “neocasuitry,” he does not have much patience with casuistry itself. His main complaint is that casuistry accrues so many rules that it descends into legalism (124). For Fletcher, love is the only absolute, though his critics have pointed out that his notion of love is little slippery. In an almost Burkean analysis, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., complains that Fletcher’s invocation of “love” renders it a “fetish phrase” that “constitutes a kind of methodology by incantation which makes it terribly hard to know what Fletcher is actually saying” (141).
  9. A casuist might ask Crusius whether he means all war in all circumstances. Are there no situations in which war is just? Burke own phrase ad bellum purificandum would suggest he understood that war—tragically, comically—could never be controlled by elimination. Certainly this depth dimension can reveal the entelechies of the language that leads us to war, but it can also reveal the entelechies that lead us to various sorts of peace.


Aristotle. Ethica Nicomachea. Trans. W.D. Ross. Introduction to Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

---. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Arras, John D. “Principles and Particularity: The Role of Cases in Bioethics.” Indiana Law Journal 69.4 (1994): 983-1014.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

---. Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

---. Permanence and Change. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

---. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Communication: Ethical and Moral Issues. Ed. Lee Thayer. London: Gordon and Breach. 1973. 263-275.

Cicero. On Duties. Ed. M.T. Griff and E.M. Atkins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Crusius, Timothy W. “The Question of Kenneth Burke’s Ethics.” KB Journal. 3.1 (2006): <http://kbjournal.org/book/print/139>.

Fletcher, Joseph. Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966.

Jonsen, Albert R. and Stephen Toulmin. The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Jonsen, Albert R. “Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics.” Theoretical Medicine 12 (1991): 295-307.

Kirk, Kenneth E. Conscience and Its Problems: An Introduction to Casuistry. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1927.

Leff, Michael. “Burke Ciceronianism.” The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Ed. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. 115-127.

Levi, Edward H. An Introduction to Legal Reasoning. Chicago: U of C Press, 1962.

Lyotard,Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1984. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois and Jean-Loup Thebaud. Just Gaming. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

McCormick, Richard A., S.J. “Notes on a Moral Theology.” The Situation Ethics Debate. Ed. Harvey Cox. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968. 140-146.

Miller, Richard B. Casuistry and Modern Ethics. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1996.

Nietzsche, Freiderich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.

---. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York, Viking Press, 1968.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées and Provincial Letters. New York: Modern Library, 1941.

Sampson, Margaret. “Laxity and Liberty.” Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Edmund Leites. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 72-118.

Tallmon, James M. “Casuistry and the Role of Rhetorical Reason in Ethical Inquiry.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 28.4 (1995): 377-87.

Toulmin, Stephen E. The Uses of Argument. Updated Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

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"Something Completely Different: Notes Toward a Burkean Ethics; by Paul Lynch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Hierarchical Approach to Corporate Advocacy: Corporate Advocacy as a Way of Guilt Redemption

Katerina Tsetsura, University of Oklahoma


Building on Burke’s and Gramsci’s hierarchical perspectives, this essay examines the hierarchical nature of corporate advocacy and presents corporate advocacy as an inevitable outgrowth of the power relationship between corporations and publics. Using Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption cycle, the author argues that corporate advocacy can be seen as a way of guilt redemption within the corporate hierarchy. The study provides implications for studying the nature of corporate advocacy and illustrates how a hierarchical approach to corporate advocacy can help to further examine corporate social responsibility campaigns.

AMONG THE RHETORICAL STRATEGIES COMPANIES UTILIZE for establishing and maintaining relationships with publics, corporate advocacy occupies a central place. An object of scholars’ attention for a long time, corporate advocacy is a fairly well-defined concept (Boyd, 2004; Heath, 1980; Hoover, 1997; Jacoby, 1974; Sethi, 1977). Corporate rhetoric existed as long as corporations themselves: examples of use and misuse of this rhetoric can be found as early as the 19th century (Boyd, 2001). Since the examination of origins of any phenomenon is often a key to successful understanding and usage of that phenomenon, studying the nature and origins of corporate advocacy is essential (Sethi, 1977; Schuetz, 1990; Hoover, 1997). It seems, however, that many scholars, although exploring the nature and origins of corporate advocacy in the past, have placed emphasis on exploring functions, purposes, and processes of corporate advocacy (Boyd, 2001, 2004). Researchers who examined corporate advocacy often tend to explain its nature through practical applications, such as advocacy advertising (Sethi, 1977; Cutler & Muehling, 1989; Starr & Waller, 1995).

Other scholars (Ragsdale, 1997; Schuetz, 1997) have offered an interpretive perspective on corporate advocacy. Schuetz pointed out that usage of the dramatism of Burke helped to demonstrate a connection between argumentation and corporate advocacy. The Burkean perspective provided some potential for further exploration of corporate advocacy. This study builds on the Burke’s conceptualization of guilt and argues that the Burkean analysis of origins of societal interactions can help to explain not only a process of corporate advocacy (Schuetz), but also the very nature of it. Thus, the study continues a research tradition of incorporating Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption cycle into studies of rhetoric in multiple contexts (Scheibel, 1995, 1999, 2002).

This essay argues that corporate advocacy is a result of an inevitable outgrowth of the power relationship between corporations and publics. The study contributes to the discussion on the nature and origins of corporate advocacy. This study adopts the Burkean perspective to the hierarchy and Burke’s ideas of the guilt-purification-redemption cycle. It builds on the assumption that the corporate hierarchy is present in America and analyzes the essence of contemporary guilt created within that hierarchy. Furthermore, it demonstrates how corporations use corporate advocacy to free themselves from this guilt. The author argues that such guilt, eternally present in the hierarchy, is experienced by a dominating level of the hierarchy (i.e. corporations) and as such generates a continuous practice of corporate advocacy, which is a way of corporate guilt redemption.

Another assumption is that a corporation can be viewed as a participant in public discourse. Although some may disagree with such place and role of a corporation in the public sphere (Fraser, 1992), many others (Boyd, 2001, 2004; Cheney, 1992; Cheney & McMillan, 1990; Crable, 1990; Cyphert & Saiia, 2004; Deetz, 1995; Schiller, 1989; Ulrich, 1995) support the idea that, although inequitable with a person, corporations actively participate in public discourse. For instance, in 1979, Chrysler under Lee Iacocca went to Washington as part of an elaborate “Buy American” campaign featuring Neil Armstrong, Joe Garagiola, Ricardo Montalban, Frank Sinatra, and other American icons telling Americans why they should “buy American”(Frank, 1999; Samtra, 1994). Chrysler entered the public sphere and actively promoted its point of view thus openly participating in public discourse persuading people why they have not done their patriotic consumer duty (1979 Chrysler bailout holds lessons, 2008). Thus, a corporation should and can be examined as an entity that can contribute to rhetoric of the public sphere and its discourse can be analyzed from such perspective.

The essay first introduces a Burkean and Gramsci’s perspectives on corporate hierarchy and then uses the guilt-purification-redemption cycle to explain corporate advocacy as a way to redeem the guilt formed within the corporate hierarchy. Finally, the essay presents a number of examples how corporations redeem the contemporary guilt and argues that continuous corporate advocacy is a result of the eternal corporate guilt.

Understanding a Burkean Perspective on Hierarchy

To discuss the origins of corporate advocacy one first needs to explore the process of corporation’s formation within the industrial development in America. Historically, American corporations played an essential role in the development of the American community and in the formation of the American mentality (Whitman, 1999). Back in 1937, Burke pointed out that it is only natural for Americans to identify themselves with the corporations they work for. One of the ways an American individual has developed is by analyzing and often criticizing corporate dominance (Bullis & Betsy, 1989; Cardador & Pratt, 2006; Pratt, 1998). It also seems that American society learned to criticize itself through criticizing corporate dominance.

The enduring association of the American lifestyle and habitat with business shaped two categories of people. These two categories of individuals were identified in the Burke’s model of hierarchy as superiors and inferiors (Burke, 1984). For the purpose of this discussion on the corporate nature of hierarchy (which later will be explained as one of the variants on Burke’s concept of hierarchy), this study uses these terms in reference to the following definitions. “Superiors” are managers of corporations who produce and/or distribute goods and services as well as those who own such organizations. From a marketing standpoint, they can also be referred to as sellers. In contrast, “inferiors” are buyers, or users, of products and services. In a broad sense, superiors can refer to corporations’ representatives whereas inferiors can refer to individuals who deal with these corporations. Although more than two parties can be present in any hierarchy, these two hierarchical groups are often most prominent (Burke, 1937/1961), and their examination can help to understand how the hierarchy really works.

A Burkean perspective on hierarchy can reveal the nature of the relationship between two hierarchical groups through understanding of the historical development of the relationship between the two categories of superiors and inferiors.

Through ongoing symbol-using action, humans produce hierarchies and strive for perfection in the hierarchical order. Superiors and inferiors are two categories of people who represent differences in authority in that order (Burke, 1966). Inferiors always want to move up within the hierarchy, but superiors resist this move. Hierarchy exists because of the constant opposition; such continuous force creates a phenomenon which Burke (1984) called “eternal guilt” (p. 284). Eternal guilt is a hierarchical phenomenon that is continuously experienced by superiors due to their dominant position within the hierarchy.

Guilt should be understood here in a broad philosophical sense. Experiencing guilt in hierarchy does not mean being guilty. It is a state of being for superiors that forms during the continuous opposition between superiors and inferiors. This state, however, is not stable. Because of the constantly changing conditions within the hierarchy, such as an ongoing opposition and flux, this state can be seen as amplitude of pendulum. When the pendulum is at the maximum displacement from equilibrium, it accelerates to return to its original stable state under power of gravity. Just like a pendulum that gravitates toward its central position, hierarchy constantly aspires to move to its least resisting state. To use this metaphor, by protesting the authority order of the hierarchy inferiors steadily distort the balance, the natural state of the hierarchy. The continuous force of constant opposition, the guilt, grows stronger to create amplitude and generate gravitation toward the original stable stage of hierarchy. In hierarchy, it takes form of protecting the authority order when superiors create conditions for a guilt-purification-redemption cycle (Burke, 1984) to free them from the guilt. A period, the time required to complete a full cycle by a pendulum, is a time to complete a full guilt-purification-redemption cycle.

“Inevitable in social relations” guilt requires symbolic purification and redemption (Burke, 1984, p. 279). The guilt-purification-redemption cycle in societal hierarchy can be performed through discourse: “Because blame occurs throughout human society and because face is important for virtually everyone, this phenomenon, a felt need to cleanse one’s reputation with discourse, occurs throughout our lives, public and private” (Benoit, 1995, p. 5). In what follows, I argue that the eternal guilt, originally held by individual superiors, was transformed over time from superiors to their units, or corporations, and now corporations experience the eternal guilt that is “inherent in the hierarchy” (Burke, 1984, p. 284).

Corporate Hierarchy in the United States

One can examine the evolution of corporate dominance in the United States using the Burkean principle of hierarchy to claim the existence of corporate hierarchy in today’s America. How can the existence of corporate hierarchy in the United States be explained?

Roots of corporate dominance can be found in the early development of a civil American society as examined by Gramsci (1929-1935/1971). The scrutiny of the relationships between two major classes in the United States was problematic in comparison with European observations and predictions of relationships of the same nature.

Describing the uniqueness of the United States development in the lack of traditions in the European sense, Gramsci (1929-1935/1971) explained, “America does not have ‘great historical and cultural traditions’; but neither does it have this leaden burden to support” (p. 285). Such “non-existence of viscous parasitic sedimentations” (p. 285) helped the United States to reach a level of genuine productive activity. Gramsci argued that American rationalism led to the elaboration of a new type of work and productive process. Gramsci noticed, “American workers unions are, more than anything else, the corporate expression of the rights of qualified crafts and therefore the industrialists’ attempts to curb them have a certain ‘progressive’ aspect” (p. 286). He also witnessed the existence of the corporative movement, which drove judicial changes to create formal conditions for a major economic change since American workers were not in a position either to struggle or to oppose it. Gramsci saw that as evidence that the United States is in its “economic-corporate phase” (p. 272).

As one can see, the opposition between superiors and inferiors within the corporate hierarchy in the United States presents the opposition between corporate owners, or corporations, and workers, or internal (workers of those corporations) and external (workers of other corporations) publics.

To keep the hierarchical order, which, according to Burke (1966), is a natural desire of humans, superiors need to create a particular ideology for inferiors and for themselves. Corporate hierarchy offered a money-driven ideology: to be happy is to have the ability to buy goods and services in large quantities. The invention of this ideology helped corporations to enter the golden age. Corporations started to work day and night employing workers and paying them in two ways: with money and with ideas how to spend money. The latter “payment” needed for the sake of hierarchy because money should come back to superiors to keep the dominant position.

The ideology, which praised the materialistic approach of superiors, worked perfectly within the corporate hierarchy. Inferiors did not even want to change their place within the hierarchy, i.e. to move up. Instead they started to fight for making more money (higher wages and benefits) and for spending money in better ways (better quality of products, more choices). “The economic-corporate phase” in America was so strong that it praised a materialistic approach of inferiors (publics) even more than one of superiors (corporations). So, in corporate hierarchy inferiors became much more materialistic in their aims and pleasures (Burke, 1984).

In a sense, inferiors, i.e. publics, are self-manipulated with help of corporations by keeping the process of buying alive and supporting corporations through this process. This action can be seen as a hierarchical role of inferiors. Imagine for a moment, what would happen if everyone stops buying products of a certain company not for a day or a month, but forever? Inferiors cannot and do not wish to do that. They enjoy their position in the hierarchy which allows them to enjoy the process of spending money, embraced by corporations. For instance, the Honda Corporation encourages individuals to enjoy the variety of experiences available within the hierarchy:

Honda also believes that every person involved in the process of buying, selling or producing our products should receive a sense of joy from the experience. Together, these Three Joys result in an overall joy of affiliation—a positive feeling resulting from a relationship with Honda. (Honda Web site, 2007)
So by supporting the ideology of making and spending money, both superiors and inferiors keep the presence of corporate hierarchy in American society. But inferiors also have a need to play their disruptive role in corporate hierarchy by, so to speak, constantly forcing a pendulum to deviate from its original state.

The Guilt-Purification-Redemption Cycle in Corporate Hierarchy

The Contemporary Guilt of Corporate Hierarchy

Guilt, one of the fundamental concepts of any hierarchy, is generated in corporate hierarchy as well. The ideology of corporate hierarchy creates the guilt of making and spending money. The nature of this guilt itself has changed over time. Earlier, the primary guilt was the guilt for not making money, as some suggested after examining the “Gospel of Wealth" ideology that was prominent in the 19th and early 20th Century (Levinson, 2007). “The Social Gospel,” which was developed later in response, introduced the guilt of having money (Chandler, 1986). Today a desire to have money reigns despite of “the Social Gospel.” But the contemporary guilt is not as much about making money as about spending money in inappropriate ways. Inappropriate ways include spending money on any products and services for individual “aims and pleasures.” The inappropriate ways of spending money are in the mainstream of public and corporate debates in modern America.

It is very interesting that the contemporary guilt can potentially be felt by both, superiors and inferiors, within the hierarchy. Yet, in consistence with the hierarchy tradition, this guilt is associated with superiors, not inferiors, and superiors recognize the guilt and address it in its discourse. Stressing the guilt, inferiors use public discourse to attract attention to the state of the guilt. Superiors experiencing the guilt look for ways of atoning from it. Thus, corporations turn to corporate advocacy, as a tool to enter the public debate arena with corporate discourse, to redeem the guilt.

Corporate Advocacy as a Way of Guilt Redemption

Through corporate advocacy, corporations engage in the guilt-purification-redemption cycle symbolically trying to free themselves from the guilt. Publics, inferiors in corporate hierarchy, have a right to accept or reject corporate advocacy. In other words, inferiors are in power to allow or to forbid the corporations’ purification that leads to the redemption of the guilt and fulfills the cycle. In a way, inferiors are not only in charge of that distorting force, but also the gravitational force which brings the pendulum back to its original state. This two-way directional power of inferiors is critical for understanding the nature of corporate advocacy.

The Role of Dual Power Relationships in the Cycle

The power relationships between superiors and inferiors in corporate hierarchy can be defined as dual power relationships. On one hand, corporations have power within the hierarchy because of their superior positions. They can control hierarchical ideology and generate interest of inferiors in certain ways (achieving ideological goals rather than moving up within the hierarchy) in order to keep superior priority. On another hand, corporations are dependent on inferiors to free them from the experienced guilt, generated as a result of continuous opposition. Inferiors, or publics, realize that and often use this knowledge to their benefit. They emphasize the importance of the guilt-purification-redemption cycle in the corporate hierarchy. Placing this cycle in a central position gives publics a power over corporations within the hierarchy, which has not understood before.

Thus, the corporate hierarchy approach allows one to examine a corporation-public relationship from a new angle, as a dual power relationship. Corporations lose their power over the publics (most often thought as monetary power) specifically in situations when publics are the ones who decide whether they want to grant redemption. The newest economic crisis, for example, showed that the U.S. automotive industry depends on the public to grant such redemption. The latest bailout battle was particularly illustrative as six in ten Americans opposed using taxpayer money to help the ailing major U.S. auto companies (Steinhauser, 2008); it took almost two months for Congress to approve the release of initial funds to the industry, and many senators and members of the public now oppose the release of the second $350 billion tranche (Solomon & Paletta, 2008; US Fed News, 2009). Publics also have a non-monetary rhetorical, discursive power to allow corporations to complete the guilt-purification-redemption cycle. And sometimes publics can have a monetary power, too as it is the case with the recent bailouts for the Corporations can and often do use their financial strength to communicate certain messages to publics by the means of, for example, buying advocacy advertisements or employing public relations practitioners who communicate corporate interests to publics and the media.

However, corporations become almost powerless in situations when they simply ask for redemption as the nature of the cycle does not permit indulgences. The pendulum instability of hierarchy generates a corporations’ desire for completion of the guilt-purification-redemption cycle, and corporations often make completion of the cycle their highest priority, as a means of existence within the modern corporate hierarchy.

Therefore, this essay argues that corporations, consciously or unconsciously recognizing the principles of hierarchy, are forced by the hierarchical order to engage in acts of corporate advocacy as a way of atoning for their guilt. Because of the importance of completing the cycle, which is initiated and actively promoted by publics, corporate advocacy becomes extremely important for successful social interaction within the modern corporate hierarchy. Simply put, corporations may have a hard time surviving in the modern world if they do not constantly redeem the generated guilt.

Here the pendulum metaphor is once again useful. The laws of physics state that it is relatively easy to calculate and predict the period, the length of time required for a pendulum to complete a cycle, of small amplitudes for a simple pendulum: two elements should be known, a pendulum length and acceleration of gravity, which is a constant ~9.87m/s². However, the calculation of the period for large amplitude pendulum is much more complex. Here, accurate calculations can lead to an elliptic integral in which the mass of a pendulum, the angle of swings, and the number of periods, in addition to length, should all be considered.

To explore this metaphor further, one can envision corporate hierarchy distortions as pendulum swings. Even a small distortion within the hierarchy can deviate from a simple, calculated return to its most stable, or neutral, state since its gravitation-like force is controlled by the inferiors and is not a constant. In other words, inferiors may accept the arguments from superiors and decide to accelerate the return to the neutral state, with no distortion within the hierarchy, slow the return down when they do not accept superiors’ arguments, or even use the force in a different direction, so to speak, to generate even higher amplitude for distortion. For example, inferiors, or publics, can choose to organize and develop activist groups that will protest against the superior, or the corporation or call for boycott of the corporations or its products. In addition, a small amplitude, a deviation from a neutral state (such a certain issue that is being discussed by a small group of people), if gone unnoticed, can lead to larger amplitudes (the issue can become “hot” and discussed in the media) so that the return to the neutral, original state would be much more complex and may generate multiple, unpredictable periods. In other words, inferiors, or publics, are in control over the stability in a hierarchy, the neutral state of the pendulum, to follow the metaphor, just as much as superiors, or corporations, are in control over the hierarchy itself.

That is why corporations are genuinely interested in creating a strong bond with their publics, and, ultimately, in protecting their hierarchical superior position. In a recent video message posted on the issue-driven website Willyoujoinus.com, Vice Chairman of Chevron Corporation Peter Robertson, for example, said that he believes Chevron goes a long way to protect the planet and address environmental concerns. He continued, “Chevron is not just a company; we’re people” (Robertson, 2005-2008). And s the Honda Corporation puts it, “it is our desire that in every community in which we do business, society will want Honda to exist” (Honda Web site, 2007).

Creating Corporate Discourse

Since ultimate decision of guilt redemption is based entirely on the publics’ perception of corporate advocacy, corporations seek the best ways to present their case through discourse. Today, to make corporate discourse successful corporations provide some evidence of appropriate ways of spending money, or evidence of corporate social responsibility. That is why corporations get involved in projects, which are aimed to resolve social, environmental, educational, and other problems and demonstrate the results of their efforts through corporate advocacy. In other words, they tell stories about their socially responsible actions. Represented through corporate advocacy, such acts answer critics of corporations who appeal to the contemporary guilt of corporations. Philanthropic efforts of the world’s leading automakers, Toyota and Honda corporations are good illustrations of how corporate discourse gets created to satisfy the guilt-purification-redemption cycle.

For example, Honda Corporation claims, “Honda has always made it a priority to be a contributing member of society and to give back to the community” (Honda Web site, 2007). Toyota Corporation emphasizes that its primary commitment is education and provides details how much money was donated to specific educational programs, “One of our largest philanthropic partnerships, the Los Angeles Urban League Automotive Training Center, represents more than a $10 million investment” (Toyota Web site, 2007).

How Does Corporate Advocacy Redeem the Contemporary Guilt?

Today clear representation of such acts through corporate advocacy is one of the main criteria that define the corporation as a good and socially responsible citizen. Personification of the corporation is metaphorically appropriate as it helps all sides of corporate hierarchy to better understand the terms of the guilt-purification-redemption cycle. For instance, Honda Corporations personifies itself addressing the inferiors in the following statement:

We consider our responsibility to help make society a better place just as important as the goal of offering our customers products and services that result in the highest level of satisfaction. (Honda Web site, 2007)
The proposed quite personal relationship with Honda is transferred to the corporation from its individuals, “This viewpoint governs how we act as a company—and as individuals” (Honda Web site). The same strategy is used in the current advocacy advertising campaign “Tylenol promise” by makers of Tylenol. The campaign is a series of personalized statements from Tylenol employees in which they promise to make a quality product and then share intimate family stories about their work and how they became a part of the company (Tylenol Web site, 2007).

The recognition of the guilt becomes a result of accepting superiors’ repentance and allows superiors to redeem the cycle. For instance, Chevron argues:

We are proud of Chevron's more than 125-year legacy of corporate responsibility, but we recognize that this is not a static concept. We are committed to continuing to expand our knowledge and understanding of social and environmental issues that affect and are affected by our operations, to integrating that knowledge into how we do business, and to continually improving our performance in this important area. (Chevron Web site, 2007)

Many examples of social responsibility acts can be found in corporate discourse. Guilt experienced by corporations plays a major role in the process of choosing a theme for corporate advocacy. Often, guilt experienced by corporations comes from the essence of their businesses. It might be a very specific guilt that is obvious to publics. For instance, the environment is one of the most popular themes used in corporate advocacy by corporations that experience or might experience guilt for harming the environment or having a potential to do so. Honda Corporation periodically discloses information on its efforts to create environmentally friendly automobiles. Announcing a new partnership with the University of California, Riverside, and special interest organizations, a company press release (June, 9, 2000) quoted Ben Knight, a vice president of Honda Research & Development, as saying, “We believe this open, cooperative research coupled with the advancement of this emissions measuring technology will benefit society” (p. 1). Another statement under the heading “Environment and technology” on the company’s official website said, “Green grass. Blue skies. Clean water. That’s why. It’s not hard to figure out why over two decades Honda has led the way in developing environmentally friendly technology. We want a cleaner and better tomorrow, just like you” (Honda Web site, 2007). In addition to a strong appeal, the quotation perfectly reflects the guilt-atoning goal that Honda Corporate tries to reach through this discourse.

Honda demonstrates that it not only experiences guilt (by simply addressing the issue), but also purifies (“Honda has led the way in developing environmentally friendly technology”), and asks for redemption (“We want a cleaner and better tomorrow, just like you”) (Honda Web site, 2007).

The sole purpose of “environmentology,” the latest green-themed advertising campaign by Honda, has been to emphasize Honda’s "environmentally responsible" technology " (Honda environmentology Web site, 2007). Honda produced a number of TV spots and print ads and launched the Environmentology website.

Ford Motor Company also engages in corporate advocacy and, by doing so, aims to complete the guilt-purification-redemption cycle. Its official website has a special page, “Environment,” that covers different environmental programs the company conducts and supports. Among programs voiced through corporate discourse on that web page are cleaner manufacturing (“Ford’s proactive approach to reducing or eliminating hazardous materials from its products and facilities”); global initiatives (“Ford Motor Company’s mission to use recycled materials in new vehicles is a part of the company culture,” said Strout, a director of European Recycling Action Team); and community involvement (Ford’s intensive support of a St. Jude’s Ranch for Children program for collecting and recycling cards) (Ford Web site, 2007).

Through these and similar acts corporations demonstrate their commitment to society and therefore confirm their eligibility to be in that society. At the same time, corporations want to stress a point that many positive changes in the society occur only because of their superior power, which should be perceived as legitimate and even necessary in corporate hierarchy. Chevron, for instance, claims its pivotal role in developing the fastest-growing economy in Africa:

Among foreign oil firms operating in Angola, we are the largest employer, with approximately 3,000 employees and an additional 12,000 contracted workers. We have more than a dozen major projects in design or execution stages. With partners, our capital investment in Angola is expected to exceed $10 billion through 2010. (Chevron Corporate Responsibility Report, 2006)

The positive side of this hierarchical corporate power is that it is not only unites publics, but also, what is most important, helps to set bigger goals and reach them faster. One can find support for these ideas in examples of corporate advocacy presented on the “Environment” page of the Ford Motor Company website:

“People everywhere are recognizing the many benefits of this idea,” Acho [Ford’s director of Environmental Outreach and Strategy] said. “We receive calls frequently to find out if we are going to continue this program at this year’s auto show. Other people are sending cards from all across the nation.” Over the past seven years, Ford contributed more than two million cards for the charity – the largest collection of any company or organization in the 29-year history of the program. (Ford Web site, 2007)

Satisfaction comes when the guilt-purification-redemption cycle is completed. Ford’s corporate discourse, presented on the company’s website, is a good example of described satisfaction:

“Recycled greeting cards are just another example of our broad commitment to protecting the environment through recycling efforts,” said Andy Acho, Ford’s director of Environmental Outreach and Strategy. “This program is not only helping Mother Nature, but the children from St. Jude’s as well.” (Ford Web site)

Redemption becomes important and desirable in relations between corporations and publics. Corporations value publics’ recognition and thank publics for allowing them to complete the cycle, as it is demonstrated in a press release from Target Corporation (2000):

Target Corporation announced it has received an Environmental Initiative Award for environmental management from the Minnesota Environmental Initiative (MEI), a nonprofit organization that works … to promote environmental excellence. The award recognizes Target’s Environmental Services initiatives, including comprehensive waste-prevention, materials use-management, environmental education and recycling efforts. “We are delighted to receive this distinguished environmental award and the recognition it bestows on our commitment to the environment,” said Jim Bosch, environmental services manager for Target Corporation. (p. 1)

Why is the Guilt Experienced by Corporations Eternal?

As one can clearly see, corporations use corporate advocacy to reach their ultimate hierarchical guilt-atoning goal. They do not stop, however, when and if the cycle is completed. A corporation might think it is completed the cycle, but ultimately this decision is not within a corporate realm. Members of the public are the ones who ultimately decide whether the cycle was successfully completed. Often, public is encouraged to critically evaluate and scrutinize corporate discourse, specifically by activist groups and by researchers and ethicists. As Pauly, Burleigh, and Scripps (2007) wrote, “…we ought to hold powerful corporations more ethically responsible for the stories they tell” (Pauly, Burleigh, & Scripps, p.227).

But in corporate hierarchy, superiors continue to experience the guilt even after the guilt-purification-redemption cycle has been completed. Because corporations continue to profit from their businesses, they continue to have a superior position within the corporate hierarchy. The continuous process of making money calls for the continuous process of spending it: corporations cannot spend money in a better way one time and then stop doing so. Thus, as corporations constantly recognize the presence of guilt in corporate hierarchy, it should be characterized as eternal guilt. In order to be guilt-free in hierarchy, corporations, being superiors in corporate hierarchy, are obligated to continue to look for better ways of spending money. Publics actively support this search and often initiate it:

After this lunch [of the “Hewlett Packard (HP) LaserJet Print Cartridge Recycling Program” for Indonesian government officials], HP should actively visit offices to keep on campaigning about this recycling program because the latter are the biggest users of toner cartridges. If the echo of this program is just limited to its launch, most users will not be aware of it and tend to go the easy way with the toner cartridges, by simply throwing them into the garbage can (Tjung, 2000).

The example shows that publics are not always interested in taking actions to develop the corporations’ initiative. Publics do not use their resources to encourage members within the hierarchical group to promote a socially beneficial program; rather, publics want corporations to spend more resources to support programs. Corporations, in turn, cannot stop participating in a project without involving themselves in a risky situation of losing the rights for redemption. Thus, eternal guilt in corporate hierarchy calls for continuous corporate advocacy.

Even after Honda decided to phase out its Environmentology campaign in April 2007, the Honda representative Sage Marie claimed the "the environmental message will continue to be part of Honda" (Miller, 2007). One member of a public agreed:

“Honda's campaign wasn't very compelling,” said Bill Moore, publisher of evworld.com, a site devoted to eco-friendly practices in the auto industry. "I'm surprised they would do away with it so soon, but I doubt they will ever abandon presenting their image as a green company," he said. (As cited in Miller, NPAG)

At the same time, it is not in the nature of hierarchy and not in the corporate interest to spend corporate money and agitate publics for spending publics’ money outside of corporate markets. Thus, corporations constantly face a dilemma what decision is more beneficial at the moment: to free from the guilt or to empower a superior’s position. Corporations periodically find ways to combine their goals of trying to appear socially friendly and pursue their profit at the same time. One of those might be adjusting the corporate message. As Rex Briggs, CEO of Marketing Evolution, a marketing research consultancy based in El Dorado Hills, California, reasoned responding to the Honda’s decision to cut the Environmentology campaign, "There is more of a challenge now because consumers now what to know what's in it for them in addition to helping the world. Environmentology doesn't translate in that way" (as cited in Miller, 2007, NPAG).

Cause-related marketing also perfectly illustrates the duality of corporate goals. Cause-related marketing is a tactic that a corporation uses to generate money while supporting a project of a non-profit foundation or any socially important efforts. Cause-related marketing tries to draw publics’ attention to corporations’ efforts to spend money in better ways in order to get publics’ approval for fulfilling the cycle.

For example, a Ralph Lauren fashion company sells special Christmas edition toy bears and claims on its web site that the company will give a portion of proceeds to the What to Expect Foundation’s efforts, which provides educational materials and support to the disadvantaged “so what they can expect is a healthy pregnancy and happy baby” (Ralph Lauren official website, 2006). The maker of Yoplant yogurt organizes an annual campaign for fighting breast cancer, in which consumers can send yogurt lids to the company which, in turn, will donate 10c for every lid to American Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In fact, multiple corporations actively engage in pink campaigns to benefit from cause-related marketing.

However, members of public are quite skeptical about the true nature of such campaigns and often encourage others to check carefully the terms of cause-related marketing promises (see, for instance, Think Before You Pink Web site, which encourages consumers to ask several critical questions before engaging into any pink ribbon campaign).

Successful and timely use of corporate discourse becomes critical for corporations: through different means of corporate advocacy corporations tend to present any of their actions as socially beneficial so that publics can grant them redemption. Publics have power to choose when and to what extent to grant such redemption. As members of corporate hierarchy, corporations continuously use corporate advocacy for their own good and, in many cases, for the good of others.


The argument introduced in this essay expands a new understanding of the nature and origins of corporate advocacy. A Burkean perspective on hierarchy is used as a framework for understanding the presence of corporate hierarchy in America. Individual relations between superiors and inferiors within the Burke’s model of hierarchy (Burke, 1984) transformed to the groups’ power relations between corporations and publics within the corporate hierarchy. The existence of corporate hierarchy is supported by Gramsci’s (1929-1935/1971) arguments that power relations between corporations and workers were formed as a result of the “economic-corporate phase” (p. 272) in the American industrial development.

This essay argues that guilt, one of the fundamental concepts of Burkean hierarchy, refers to corporations as superiors and publics as inferiors in the corporate hierarchy. Traditionally experienced by superiors, the guilt in the corporate hierarchy is associated with corporations. Corporations, driven by a desire to complete the guilt-purification-redemption cycle, seek ways for completing this cycle. They use corporate advocacy as discourse for successful completion of the cycle. The importance of a constant process of corporate advocacy is emphasized through dual power relationships between two entities of the corporate hierarchy, corporations and publics. In addition, publics have two-directional power to grant redemption or escalate the guilt. Because corporations and publics together perceive the cycle as a necessary action to be performed in the hierarchy, corporations utilize corporate advocacy to achieve redemption and treat it as a highly important part of hierarchical interaction.

This study extends previous research (Scheibel, 1995, 1999, 2002) by using the Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption cycle to explore the nature of corporate advocacy. The essay offers several directions in which further thinking on the nature of corporate advocacy might progress. First, a closer look at the Burkean hierarchical perspective can build understanding not only of the origins of corporate advocacy but also of the goals that corporations might pursue practicing corporate advocacy. Second, research of purposes and goals of corporate advocacy can benefit from this essay by taking into consideration a fundamental hierarchical approach to origins of corporate advocacy. An in-depth analysis of specific examples of corporate discourse from a position that corporate advocacy is a way to fulfill the guilt-purification-redemption cycle can enrich one’s understanding of corporate efforts to communicate with publics and to recognize and appreciate publics’ evaluation of a corporation.

Most importantly, such hierarchical approach to corporate advocacy can help one to form a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the American corporate environment and the relationship between corporations and publics in the United States. Often when corporations in other countries borrow American strategies to establish and maintain relations with publics, they do not succeed in their efforts. It seems that the hierarchical perspective on the nature and origins of American corporate advocacy may provide a plausible explanation for these failures. The nature and origins of corporate advocacy from a hierarchical perspective therefore should be further explored.

*Katerina Tsetsura is an Assistant Professor at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma. The author would like to thank the editor of the KB Journal and anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback. Correspondence to: tsetsura@ou.edu


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A Burkean Reading of the Antigone: Comical and Choral Transcendence

Rebecca McCarthy, Kaplan University


In Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke writes about the concept of transcendence: “When approached from a certain point of view, A and B are ‘opposites.’ We mean by ‘transcendence’ the adoption of another point of view from which they cease to be opposites” (Attitudes Toward History 336). One of the best ways to transcend “opposites” or either/or arguments is through a perspective by incongruity or, as Burke terms it, the comic corrective where a “comic synthesis [of] antithetical emphasis would ‘Transcend’ them by stressing man in society” (170). There is no dramatic piece that better demonstrates the tragic results of either/or arguments, the process of developing and adopting another, dialectically ordered point of view in order to achieve transcendence, and the pivotal role that a perspective by incongruity, the comic corrective, plays in transcendence than Sophocles’ Antigone. Although tragic, when examined through a Burkean lens the Antigone reveals itself to be not only a heartbreaking tale ending in death and destruction, but an allegory, a lesson regarding the reaffirmation of life and renewal of symbolic action through the process of transcendence.

I argue that Sophocles did not intend to present either Antigone or Creon as the hero/heroine for his tragic play, as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and others stipulate. Rather, Sophocles presents the Chorus and the Watchman as the true heroic figures. First, I will briefly review Sophocles’ Antigone, and demonstrate how Antigone and Creon rely on bureaucratized reduced scoped frames (Burke ,em>Attitudes Toward History 100-02) of ideographic (McGee 1980) “rule-of-law” arguments that not only reinforces “parliamentary” and “barnyard” conflict (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187), but work to induce what I term “Ismenism,” a type of Burkean sheer motion. Next, I will explore the Chorus’ use of lyrical/dramatic perspective by incongruity and its affect for an audience. Finally I will demonstrate how the Watchman, though the use of comedy, is able to create a comedic perspective by incongruity for the Chorus of Elders who is then moved to create an ultimately ordered mode of transcendence (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187) through the collective action frame of justice. This wider scoped frame of justice successfully counters the narrow either/or parliamentary rule-of-law arguments used by Antigone and Creon.

The Antigone

Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone was introduced to an Athenian audience as a solo entry in the Dionysian competition around 442-441 B.C.E. Part of Sophocles’ unintentional trilogy, the now called Theban Cycle included Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone (Woodruff xxvii).[1] In Antigone, which depicts the story of the final fall of the house of Oedipus, Creon, Antigone’s uncle and King of Thebes, has decreed that no one shall bury Polyneices, Antigone’s brother, who brought an army against Thebes in order to take the throne from his brother Eteoclês. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the reader finds that Polyneices and Eteoclês were at first content to allow their uncle Creon to rule as regent in order to avoid bringing pollution onto the city of Thebes. However, as Ismene explains to Oedipus, there soon developed a rivalry between the two brothers, and the younger brother Eteoclês deprived Polyneices of the throne (Oedipus at Colonus 228-29). Polyneices, determined to win kingship, brings an army against Thebes, and war ensues. Antigone resumes events after the war, revealing that Polyneices and Eteoclês have killed each other during battle, leaving Creon to rule (Antigone line 14). Creon is honoring Eteoclês as a hero of the state, giving him a proper burial, but he is condemning Polyneices as an enemy by leaving his body unburied and exposed to the elements. Antigone, who is engaged to Creon’s son Haemon, cannot bear to leave her brother Polyneices unburied, and defies Creon’s edict twice in the name of “unwritten laws” which, she says, supersede the laws of man and state (line 457). It is the nonburial of Polyneices that causes the main conflict in the play. As Woodruff points out, in the introduction to his translation of Antigone, not burying a traitor was common in ancient Greece since it placed shame on the traitor as well as his entire family. However, to leave a corpse exposed as food for animals was extreme. The body was normally thrown into a pit or the sea, thereby avoiding the possibility of its causing pollution, a type of curse that invades the land “that has not treated its dead with propriety,” while still maintaining a stigma of shame (Woodruff x). Antigone is reacting to the extreme nature of Creon’s edict. When she is caught during her second attempt to bury her brother Polyneices (Antigone lines 423-35), she claims that ancient unwritten laws, greater than the laws of man, dictate that the gods be honored by proper burial of the dead. Creon retorts that order must be maintained by obedience to the laws of the state. Thus, when Antigone is caught after burying her brother a second time, Creon condemns her to be buried alive (lines 773-776). Yet his condemnation and his burial edict towards both Polyneices and Antigone bring “pollution” to the city of Thebes (lines 1014-1015). Creon learns of his crimes too late, by the blind seer Tiresias, and his own house falls with the consequent suicides of his last living son Haemon, and his wife Eurydice.

There are several other characters in Antigone, including Antigone’s sister Ismene, the Chorus, a Watchman, and a Messenger, but many scholars, theatre goers, and readers leave this play with the tragic image of Antigone and Creon fighting it out, holding their ground rigidly and finally dissolving into non-winnable oppositions of private versus public, man versus woman, the secular versus the religious, and so on. Playwrights reinterpreting or translating the Antigone tend to focus on the either/or conflict between Antigone and Creon, often at the expense of other characters including the watchman and the Chorus, who is frequently reduced to a single player or gotten rid of altogether. The attraction, of course, is the intense and tragic relationship between Antigone and Creon and how we, the audience, identify with either Antigone’s argument for family and the gods, or Creon’s argument for the state.

Antigonal and Creonic Framing and Ismenism

Antigone[2] and Creon[3] utilize an identical form of righteous, absolutist argument construction to defend their respective causes – frames that allow no transcendence of their either/or construction. A frame is a word, phrase, or concept that evokes a “conceptual structure used in thinking” (Lakoff "Simple Framing" para. 1; Tarrow 61). Deep or master frames, as defined by Lakoff and Halpin, are conceptual frames rooted in our values and principles (para. 13) that work on an unconscious reaction level in the same way that ideology is said to sway individuals. From a Burkean point of view, master frames can reduce action to motion, creating “a kind of inverted transcendence” (A Grammar of Motives 10), where an individual is no longer “in conscious or purposive motion” (14).

Indeed, many employers of deep frames rely on the fact that humans will simply react to the frame used instead of critically acting. This often occurs with polarizing frames that rely on, first, an appeal to emotion (pathos) and, second, a reduction of scope where “there is the reduction of one terminology to another” (Burke A Grammar of Motives 96). With regard to the former in Antigone, both Antigone and Creon resort to using emotional fear tactics whenever someone challenges their master frame. Creon, for example, insults and tries to scare the Chorus when they suggest that maybe the gods had a hand in burying Polyneices: “You want to prove that you’re as stupid as you are old?” (line 279). Likewise, when Ismene disagrees with Antigone’s plan to bury Polyneices, Antigone threatens to cut Ismene out of her life (lines 44-77). With regard to a reduction of scope, both Antigone and Creon reduce their discourse to a narrow frame of “parliamentary jangle” (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 189), constructing what I term Antigonal and Creonic discourses. Antigonal discourse, with its appeal to the-unwritten-rule-of-law, involves vague language that is linked to concepts of “universal law,” “universal rights,” “divine laws,” or “private rights” that are not defined or specified. Similarly, Creonic discourse, with its appeal to a nationalistic rule-of-law, is vague discourse that direct issues back towards concepts of the state and civic/public rule-of-law. Both forms of discourse rely on the emotional and the reductive to propel individuals into what Burke calls an “inverted transcendence” (Burke Attitudes Toward History 90) and sheer motion space that I term Ismenism.[4] This Ismene syndrome is demonstrated through the character of Ismene (Antigone’s sister) who disagrees with Antigone’s plan to bury their brother Polyneices, originally refusing to help (lines 49-68). Later, however, she will declare herself Antigone’s accomplice (lines 536-537), because she fears being cut out of Antigone’s life (lines 544-545).

It is important to clarify the concept of Ismenism in relation to Burke’s understanding of sheer motion. As Burke explains, action, dramatically considered, is defined as “the human body in conscious or purposive motion” (A Grammar of Motives 14). Sheer motion, on the other hand, occurs when the human body is being acted upon and is lacking conscious will. Burke further states that the action-motion pair constitutes a basic polarity ("(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action" 809); however, whereas sheer motion does not require symbolic action for its existence, “there could be no symbolic action unless grounded in the realm of motion” (811). This distinction is vital because there are times when humans react symbolically, and these reactions are sometimes conscious reactions, and, in other moments, habitual reactions that take on the characteristics of sheer motion. Burke views reaction, Ismenism, as “action-minus” or “attitude-minus,” which is “halfway between motion and action” (A Grammar of Motives 237). Unfortunately, just like the character Ismene, who disappears from the final half of the play, Ismenism works to move people into the background, or backdrop of life—a tactic that both Antigone and Creon rely on

Narrow Worldviews

Life, for Creon, can only be understood through the narrow lens of the public sphere and the state. Creon relates his views on family, honor and love back to the state, and the state works to define and determine these relations and conditions (Nussbaum 55). Likewise, Segal calls this narrowing of the Creonic framework a “perverted concept of logos” that Creon uses as “an instrument of rule” (162). Consequently, as Nussbaum shows, all ethical issues, all personal and private issues, are connected, for Creon, narrowly with the state and a perverted logos: honor and respect (55), what is just and good (56), family, sexuality (57), and the role the gods (58). For example, concerning what is just or right, Creon does not look at the larger issues of ethics or the contingent nature of what constitutes the good, but sees leadership and justice in absolute terms: “But when the city takes a leader, you must obey,/ Whether his commands are trivial, or right, or wrong” (lines 667-668).[6] Here, the civic good is established only through a leader: “Creon has, then, made himself a deliberative world into which tragedy cannot enter. Insoluble conflicts cannot arise, because there is only a single supreme good, and all other values are functions of that good” (Nussbaum 58). This reduction of linguistic and ethical scope, of reducing one terminology to another (A Grammar of Motives 96), is central for Creon’s attempt to control his surroundings and therefore avoid tragedy. In the end, Creon’s linguistic and ethical framework is so narrow that he cannot entertain other modes of being, nor can he transcend conflict insofar as he works to deny the validity or existence of conflict itself. Conversely, yet similarly, Antigone views life through the narrow lens of the private sphere and the family. Indeed, Antigone’s discourse is narrowed to connect conditions of love, honor, family and state to the narrow frame of kinship (Nussbaum 63) and a perverted sense of “mythos” (Segal 165). Just as Creon’s definition of the state is “impoverished” and simplistic (Nussbaum 60), so too is Antigone’s definition of kinship a “ruthless simplification of the world of value” (63). As Nussbaum further points out, Antigone draws a tight “circle around the members of her family: what is inside . . . is family. Therefore loved one and friend; what is outside is non-family, therefore, in any conflict with the family, enemy” (63). Segal agrees, and adds that Antigone “stand[s] in an ambiguous relation to civilized values . . . by challenging one principle of civilization in the name of another, she generates a tragic division that calls the nature of social order itself into question” (152). Further, as in Creon’s case, anyone who disagrees with Antigone is cut from her life and, in a sense, no longer exists.

Conversely, yet similarly, Antigone views life through the narrow lens of the private sphere and the family. Indeed, Antigone’s discourse is narrowed to connect conditions of love, honor, family and state to the narrow frame of kinship (Nussbaum 63) and a perverted sense of “mythos” (Segal 165). Just as Creon’s definition of the state is “impoverished” and simplistic (Nussbaum 60), so too is Antigone’s definition of kinship a “ruthless simplification of the world of value” (63). As Nussbaum further points out, Antigone draws a tight “circle around the members of her family: what is inside . . . is family. Therefore loved one and friend; what is outside is non-family, therefore, in any conflict with the family, enemy” (63). Segal agrees, and adds that Antigone “stand[s] in an ambiguous relation to civilized values . . . by challenging one principle of civilization in the name of another, she generates a tragic division that calls the nature of social order itself into question” (152). Further, as in Creon’s case, anyone who disagrees with Antigone is cut from her life and, in a sense, no longer exists.

A Burkean Tragedy

It is important to note that both Antigone and Creon’s actions and argument frames entail what Burke terms tragic. Tragedy, for Burke, “is not profound unless the poet imagines the crime—and in thus imagining it, he symbolically commits it” (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 48). In the case of the Antigone, both Creon and Antigone imagine a crime and then proceed to commit the crime imagined. For example, Antigone imagines that Creon’s crime against the family occurs when he refuses to allow both of his nephews’ proper burial, putting “fatherland” above familial bonds (line 516). However, Antigone betrays family bonds at the top of the play when she ostracizes her sister, Ismene, because she does not agree with Antigone and refused to help bury Polyneices. Creon also commits the crime he imagined others committing. For Creon this entails duty to the rule-of-law. In this case, Creon is relentless to those who would break his decree regarding the burial of Polyneices. Yet he, himself, commits the crime of breaking the rule-of-the-unwritten [spiritual]-laws the moment he forbids the burial of Polyneices (lines 23-26). In both cases, Creon and Antigone cannot see their own tragic crimes partly because they frame their worldviews within a strict reductive frame (ethical as well as linguistic) that, in effect, acts as a blinder, or as Burke would suggest a terministic screen (Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method 45). Again, this reductive scope is seen in the language employed by both Antigone and Creon, including their use of the “rule-of-law” ideograph.

Ideographic Rule-of-Law Framing

Both Creon and Antigone rely on parliamentary ideographs for their frames—hindering efforts at transcendence. As Michael McGee says in his essay “The Ideograph,” ideographs are the “one-termed sum of an orientation, the species of ‘God’ or ‘Ultimate’ term that will be used to symbolize the line of argument” in political discourse (429). These species of ultimate terms contain a “unique ideological [cultural] commitment” (428), rely on the status-quo of language, and are powerful tools for the rhetor who wishes to maintain the status-quo of not only discourse but power relations. In summing up the characteristics of the ideograph, McGee states:

It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable. . . Ideographs are culture-bound . . . [and] each member of the community is socialized, conditioned, to the vocabulary of ideographs as a prerequisite for ‘belonging’ to the society. (p. 435)
Words like “freedom,” “liberty,” and “justice” are all ideographs because, for the audience, they hold a multitude of emotional and cultural specific meanings, but are not specifically defined. As a consequence, a rhetor can use these words to sway an audience without asking them to think about the use or the context of the word being employed. Further, it is vital to note the connection between ideographs and frames, since ideographs can be used to erect and sustain master frames. As McGee rightly asserts, we are “‘conditioned,’ not directly to belief and behavior, but to a vocabulary of concepts that function as guides, warrants, reason, or excuses for behavior and belief” (428). I argue that frame building, a linguistic, symbolic act often occurs within a vocabulary that is culturally conditioned through and by our use of ideographs. I would also suggest that the frame itself is born into existence and becomes valid though the use of ideographs. Both the organizational frame and the supporting ideographs are in continuous need of each other, which can be understood by examining Antigone and Creon’s ideographic rule-of-law arguments.

In a brilliant move, Sophocles has both his main characters rely on the same parliamentary ideographic jangle or argument frame: The-Rule-of-Law. Both characters make the same argument: The law requires . . . However, because Antigone argues for the private/spiritual rule-of-law, while Creon argues for the public/civic rule-of-law, the two characters cannot see the similarities in their frames or arguments. As Burke explains in his Rhetoric of Motives, dialectical parliamentary jangle or confrontation occur when we allow arguments to “merely [confront] one another” without attempting to arrange the arguments in a “hierarchically” order, which would transform the “dialectical into an ‘ultimate’ order” (188-189). Both Antigone and Creon are stuck in this “barnyard” of parliamentary butting-heads because they cannot find a guiding principle that would unite their individually bureaucratized uses of the rule-of-law ideograph.

Antigone’s arguments are utopic and ambiguous in nature (Segal 152), and are based within her primary frame, the private familial and spiritual realm, which is constructed through her ideographic call to the rule-of-the-unwritten-laws (line 457). Her call to the “unwritten laws” is utopic because Antigone suggests that these “unwritten laws” are universal laws, that exist in a space of perfection above the laws of men: “These laws weren’t made now/ Or yesterday. They live for all time,/ And no one knows when they came into light” (line 457-458). This call is also ideographic insofar as the spectator, and the characters in Antigone, including Antigone herself, cannot know who wrote such laws, what such laws cover, and if there can ever be a time when such laws can be suppressed, or made to yield to, the laws of humanity. Further, Antigone’s call is political in the sense that these laws require political as well as spiritual recognition, as Creon tragically learns later. These unwritten laws are also culturally specific because they are directly related back to the laws of Hades and the gods that rule the underworld—as worshiped in ancient Greek society. Finally, her primary frame, the private familial and spiritual sphere, could not be upheld without her reliance on the unwritten laws or her call to the-rule-of-spiritual-law. This is seen in the opening of the play where Antigone, speaking with Ismene, relates the private realm, that of family, to the spiritual, to burial rights, to the law (lines 21-32).

Like Antigone, Creon relies on the concept of law, but for him the law is man-made. These man-made laws are created to maintain the state, which is likened to a lifeboat: “I know this well: The City is our lifeboat: we have no friends at all/ Unless we keep her sailing right side up./ Such are the laws. By them I’ll raise this city high” (lines 187-191). Creon relies on the public/civic ‘rule-of-law’ ideograph, what he terms the “established law” (line 481), which constitutes and upholds Creon’s master frame. Reflecting on McGee’s definition of the ideograph, the “established law” concept in this case is both politically oriented and culturally bound. Further, for the Athenian audience, it relies on the fact that “each member of the community is socialized, conditioned, to the vocabulary of [this] ideograph as a prerequisite for ‘belonging’ to the society” (435). It is for this reason that, after Creon declares the “established law” of not burying Polyneices, the Chorus of Elders simply agree to Creon’s decree, stating: “Make any law you want—for the dead, or for us who live” (Sophocles line 214). This initial choral act of Ismenism, or acquiescence, is part of the reason why Creon’s city as a lifeboat image becomes emotionally charged for Creon’s audience (both the Chorus of Elders and the audience spectators), who understand the danger of sailing and the need to have a strong captain at the helm to steer the boat straight—to keep the passengers safe—by creating, as the Chorus sings in their Ode to Man, the laws that govern the city (line 357). Yet when closely examined, the ideograph of “established law” or “rule-of-law” used as a stand-alone, ambiguous phrase becomes weak and unsustainable. Here, in the concept of “lifeboat,” it is specifically implied that the city or “lifeboat” is always in distress, is always at risk of tipping over. Furthermore, rational “laws” will not always save the lifeboat from harm. Contingencies such as the sea, the wind, the food supply, and the other crew members do not always behave in rational terms and respond to rational laws. As McGee states about ideographs (430)[6] and Lakoff about frames (Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate 10-11, 35),[7] the rational plays no real part in this equation—it is the idea and the resulting affiliations with the idea that sway an audience. In the end, it is not only Antigone who “stand[s] in an ambiguous relation to civilized values” (Segal 152), but also Creon. In the words of the Chorus, humans are deinon, wonderful and terrible (Segal 153; Nussbaum 52), standing on that edge of the comedic and the tragic: “Many wonders, many terrors [deinon], But none more wonderful [deinon] than the human race/ Or more dangerous” (Sophocles lines 332-334). Antigone and Creon stand for the absolute extremes of deinon, extremes that take them away from their humanness (Nussbaum 65), and work against transcendence. Thus, as Burke would insist, a third point of view, dialectic and “developmentally” ordered (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187) regarding the rule-of-law is needed in order to “ultimately” transcend the Antigonal/Creonic tragedy. This third point of view is evolved and adopted by the Chorus when they introduce the idea of Justice which bridges the parliamentary use of rule-of-law. This transcendence in the Antigone is accomplished through a dramatic/lyrical and comedic perspective by incongruity that allows for frame bridging (Attitudes Toward History 224).

The Chorus and the Watchman—Perspective by Incongruity

A Burkean reading of the Antigone reveals that the initial process of transcendence from Antigone and Creon’s tragic either/or frames occur on two levels: First, for the audience watching a Sophoclean performance of the Antigone; and second, for the Chorus of Elders who end the play by assuming Creon’s place of power. In both cases, a break from the dominate argument frames is accomplished through a Burkean understanding of a perspective by incongruity. A dramatic or lyrical perspective by incongruity is offered by the Chorus for the benefit of the audience, in order to help the audience critically question the positions of Creon and Antigone. A comic corrective is offered by the Watchman for the benefit of the Chorus so that they can bridge Antigone and Creon’s rule-of-law arguments within a sequentially ordered pattern that gives birth to the transcendence frame of Justice.

Before examining Antigone’s Chorus specifically, it is helpful to consider the role of the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy in general. Although modern tragedy no longer utilizes a Chorus [8], tragedy, from the Greek tragōidiā or “goat song,” developed out of an original tragic Chorus, as a separate form, as well as out of the satyr plays, and the origins of the two are intertwined. The first tragedies contained only the Chorus (Nietzsche 47), and numbered around fifty members at the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E. (Weiner 205). Durant describes these original performances as religious “mimic representations, in dancing and singing, of satyrlike Dionysian revelers dressed in the costume of goats” (Durant 231). The early Greek Chorus was confined to the orchestra, the dancing place (Weiner 205), and performed a combination of poetry, dancing, and singing (Kitto 1b). However, we know nothing about what the music sounded like, or what the dancing looked like, since we have no records or description of the original performances (1b). We do know that Thespis of Icaria was the first to separate himself from the Chorus and recite lines as an individual (Durant 232), and once actors were introduced, the Chorus was diminished in numbers. Aristotle states that Aeschylus raised the number of actors to two, while reducing the Chorus to twelve, and Sophocles raised the number of actors to three (Aristotle 4.12-13), but also restored some members back to the Chorus, raising it from twelve to fifteen members (Weiner 205). The original poetic rhythm, or meter, evolved from the trochaic tetrameter to an iambic measure, moving tragedy from a musical genre to a space of dialogue (Aristotle 4.14).

But one question remains: As tragedy evolved from a religious choral experience to what we see in Sophocles’ Antigone, what was the function of the Chorus? This is a difficult question to answer because past and modern scholarship demonstrates that there is no single theory regarding the purpose of the ancient Greek Chorus (Weiner; Nietzsche; Kitto; Aristotle; Schiller; Schlegel). Within the Poetics, Aristotle barely discusses the Chorus, stating only that the Chorus should function as one of the actors who take a “share in the action, in the manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles” (18.7). Thus, for Aristotle, the Chorus does not function separately from the other actors, the play, or the plot as a whole, but should be an active participant within the play. This comment stems from Aristotle’s observation that later tragic playwrights only used the Chorus, and the choral odes, as “mere interludes,” a practice initiated by the tragic playwright Agathon (c. 448-400 B.C.E.), that pertained “as little to the subject of the piece as to that of any other tragedy” (18.7). Later theories regarding the Chorus range from the Chorus functioning as the ideal spectator (Schlegel 59)[9], to acting as a buffer between the actors and the audience, to being the entity that transforms the passions of the characters on stage “which are necessarily diffused, into sharp focus” (Weiner 206), and finally to being a “‘foreshadowing’ of constructional democracy,” an idea rejected by Nietzsche (47). However, considering Sophocles’ Antigone, I argue that this Chorus and the choral odes work to create a distance between the audience and the action on stage in order to promote critical reflection. Further, this distancing is accomplished through the use of dramatic incongruity.

Adam Cracking- Lyrical/ Dramatic Choral Incongruity

In the corpus of Kenneth Burke’s work a “perspective by incongruity” is central. For Burke, a “perspective by incongruity” is “a way of seeing two ways at once” ("Counter-Gridlock: An Interview with Kenneth Burke" 350). That is, when presented with a limited or narrow framework, Antigonal or Creonic frames for example, Burke suggests that we need to challenge that frame with another incongruous frame in order to see things in a new light (Burke Attitudes Toward History 308-09). Drawing on Burke, dramatic incongruity, as proposed here, works on two levels: First, incongruity is accomplished on a linguistic level where cognitive frames are challenged by incongruous vocabularies and metaphors, accomplishing what Burke terms “atom cracking” (ibid.). Second, incongruous dramatic styles, dialogue vs. lyrical meters for example, and acts disrupt what is perceived to be a unified space of action or thought, thereby creating a distance between a speaker and audience. This distancing resembles a Brechtean alienation effect, which promotes reflection and critical thinking. In the Antigone, the choral odes accomplish both these tasks on a dramatic level.

The theory that the choral odes create distance between an audience and the action on the stage, which then prompts the audience to critically reflect, is not a new one. Frederich Schiller in his essay “On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy,” sees the Chorus “as a living wall which tragedy draws itself in order to achieve insulation from the actual world, to preserve its ideal ground and its poetic freedom” (49). Schiller believed that the old tragic Chorus grew naturally out of the “‘poetical’ aspect of real life” (8). The poetic (in this case the Chorus) acted as a medium between the ideal and the everyday—it was a buffer that allowed the audience time to reflect on the action taking place on stage. In this formulation, the choral function of creating distance between the action on stage and the audience occurs partly because the “naturalistic” action on stage is disrupted by the “poetic” choral odes. Reflecting back to early Greek tragedy of the fifth century, the choral odes were stylistically and rhythmically different from the main dialogue in the play which utilized, as Aristotle points out, an iambic rhythm, or iambic trimeter (4.14).[10] Kitto reminds us that the word ode means song (1b), and the rhythms used in the ode were not speech-rhythms, but musical rhythms (2a) that offer a “ground-plan of a music-dance movement” (2b). As a result, the choral odes were stylistically incongruous to the naturalistic style of the dialogue. This incongruous juxtaposition between a more naturalistic action and dialogue with the poetic and lyrical odes can create a distance for the audience, allowing them to stop, consider the action taking place and to reflect on the frame being presented.

The choral odes’ use of dramatic incongruity in order to create a distancing or an alienation effect (as proposed by Brecht), is also promoted by Albert Weiner in “The Function of the Greek Chorus.” Drawing on Aristotle’s short paragraph regarding the Chorus, Weiner suggests that the choral songs were not “dramatic” interruptions, but “lyric” interruptions that acted as “major interludes of alienation during which the audience could readjust itself, relax, watch the dancing, listen to the music” and that aroused “the emotions and passions of the audience while forcing it to think at the same time” (211). According to Brecht, the audience needs some distance from the action on the stage in order to begin critical thinking which then leads to the creation of independent conclusions (Brook 73). Ultimately the Sophoclean Chorus Odes in the Antigone offer incongruity not only because they are stylistically different from the dialogue, but because the odes employs what Burke calls verbal “atom cracking.”

As briefly discussed above, in Attitudes Toward History Burke defines “perspective by incongruity” as “a method for gauging situations by verbal ‘atom cracking.’ That is, a word belongs by custom to a certain category—and by rational planning you wrench it loose and metaphorically apply it to a different category” (308). To challenge a master frame and its terminology with an incongruous vocabulary is to challenge our assumptions regarding that master frame, since we are forced to look upon these things with a different perspective. The work of atom cracking, then, also works as a “frame-discrediting break” (Goffman 403) where an incongruous vocabulary promotes distance from a master frame. Within Sophocles’ Antigone, Burkean “atom cracking” is accomplished through the choral odes where master frame vocabularies, subject matter, and metaphors are challenged.

We are first introduced to the Chorus in Antigone after the intense first scene between Antigone and Ismene. Antigone informs her sister that Creon has forbidden the burial of her brother Polyneices under penalty of death (lines 27-36). Wishing to go against Creon’s “established” law and bury Polyneices, Antigone asks Ismene to help her, to “share” in the “work and trouble” (line 41), but Ismene refuses (lines 59-60). The scene rises to a crescendo when Antigone accuses Ismene of betraying her family (lines 69-77). After they exit, the Chorus enters and sings their entry song or the Parodos (lines 100-54). In direct contrast to what just took place, the Chorus sings in joy and praise. Kitto states that the Parodos does not start out with the normal anapaest meter, a typical opening marching meter, but the glyconic meter which is a “plastic dance-rhythm”: “This means that the chorus enters, not processionally, but dancing” (5b). This would be appropriate, since the Chorus in Antigone is celebrating victory in the war (lines 148-149), the defeat of Polyneices (lines 120-126), while praising the sun (line 100), Zeus, and Thebes. Woodruff sees this ode as a “hymn of jubilation” (xxiv), but he also points to the odd shift of spiritual emphasis between referencing the power of Zeus (Antigone lines 127-33), and celebrating Bacchus and the joy of dance (lines 150-154): “This shifting focus, unusual in such an ode, promises us a wild ride from the chorus and a turn to Dionysus toward the end of the play” (Woodruff xxiv). Not only are we promised a wild ride, but the audience has been distanced from the intense emotions and actions that were witnessed between Antigone and Ismene. This distancing is further accomplished through verbal ‘atom cracking’ where metaphors and concepts used by the Chorus challenge traditional notions associated with the image of birds, a metaphor first introduced by Antigone and then transformed by the Chorus.

In the first scene between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone uses the image of the victorious vulture enjoying the “sweet treasure” (Antigone line 29) of Polyneices’ “miserable corpse” (line 26). Here the vulture is portrayed as victor—enjoying the fruits of war. However in the Parodos, the Chorus describes Polyneices as a “screaming eagle” (line 112) who after losing the war is not able to pluck “his beak in our blood” (line 121). The ‘atom cracking’ occurs in Sophocles’ treatment of our traditional notions of bird metaphors, or, as Burke suggests when examining associational clusters, “what goes with what” (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 20). First, the vulture is rarely depicted as a bird associated with victory, but usually as a creature associated with death. It is a scavenger bird that feeds on the carcasses of dead animals. However, in Greco-Roman tradition, the vulture was also sacred to Apollo because it was the bringer of omens (Chevalier and Gheerbrant "Vulture" 1075). In the Antigone, the vulture is associated with both victory and death, but the emphasis in lines 29-30 focuses on the birds’ victory and the prize of blood, which delights their beaks. Further, the vulture image offers a prophetic function as well, suggesting that more death is yet to come. Likewise, a screaming eagle is often seen as a metaphor for the successful warrior bound for victory, the king, and the messenger of all messengers (Chevalier and Gheerbrant "Eagle" 323). Indeed, the Eagle is Zeus’ bird (Nussbaum 72). In this ode, the eagle is defeated, its “white-snow wing” (Antigone line 114) struck down “with a missile of fire” (line 131), and unlike the vulture, its beak will never delight in the prize of blood (line 121). In both cases, our traditional notions of “what goes with what” become incongruous as the vulture is associated with victory, while the eagle, Zeus’ bird, is placed in the category of defeat. This leads us to ask: Who is hero? Who is enemy? Can we ever know with certainty? Questions the audience is again asked to consider during the next choral ode.

The first Stasimon (Antigone lines 332-375), Sophocles’ famous Ode to Man, occurs after Creon has gotten the Chorus to agree to his new law regarding Polyneices’ burial, and after the Watchman has come, reluctantly, to report that someone has broken the law and buried Polyneices. Here the audience is introduced to the unyielding and righteous Creon who, Segal suggests, “subverts the civilized principles that he should be defending” (152). Creon asserts his new-found place as King of Thebes, and defends the importance of his commands (line 191). Then, the Watchman enters and tells Creon that Polyneices has been buried and given full burial rites (lines 245-247). This defiance angers Creon, and when the Chorus suggests that the gods might be behind the act (line 279), he is enraged further, accusing the Chorus of being as stupid as they are old (line 281). Looking for someone to blame and punish, Creon holds the Watchman responsible, suggesting that he did it for money (line 322). The Watchman denies having a hand in the burial and accuses Creon of false judgment (line 324). Both the Watchman and Creon exit the stage leaving the Chorus alone to recite their first Stasimon.

The Ode to Man again distances the audience from the action through the use of a Burkean dramatic incongruity by using the ambiguous word deinon, meaning both wonderful and terrible, to describe humanity: “Many wonders, many terrors,/ But none more wonderful than the human race/ Or more dangerous” (Antigone lines 332-334). Contrasting this dual view to the decisive and unmoving nature of Creon, the Chorus begs us to consider those moments when the human race is at its most glorious, the moments where we are at our most dangerous and, finally, those times when the line between wonder and terror is blurred. Even in those ventures that we might consider wondrous, such as our conquering of the earth (line 338), our yoking of the animals (lines 342-352), or the invention of language (line 354), there is an element of terror involved. As Woodruff points out, the end of the ode “comes as a shock: Man (the gender is clear on this point) may have tamed animals and women, but he has not tamed death, and disaster awaits those who are wicked” (xxv). But who, we are led to consider, is the wicked one? With the end of the Ode to Man, there is really no way to know who the Chorus might side with, Creon or Antigone, as their last lines seem to justify the position of both characters: “If he honors the law of the land/ And the oath-bound justice of the gods,/ Then his city shall stand high” (Antigone lines 370-371). The choral questioning compels the audience to again question their positions: Shall we stand with Antigone or with Creon? Or, one may suggest, neither? Notably, it would have been difficult to reflect on this question during the play without the Chorus’ ability to distance the spectator from the action, which is necessary for such reflection.

The rest of the choral odes produce a similar type of distancing in conjunction with, and in contrast to, the action on the stage. Not only are we offered, as the audience, a physical repose to the action, Sophocles uses linguistic “atom cracking,” such the word Deinon, that challenges what appears to us, the audience, as right or just—where our loyalties should lie. The Chorus never allows us to settle on one position, propelling us with each dramatic or poetic act of distancing and incongruity to reconsider our personal stance and loyalties. But who, one may ask, compels the Chorus to evolve and think? Where do they receive their own distance which helps them develop from simple “yes-men,” at the beginning of the play, to critical thinkers? The answer, I believe, can be seen in Sophocles’ rendering of the Watchman and his ability to offer a comic perspective by incongruity.

The Comic Corrective or the Comic Perspective by Incongruity

In Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke describes the comic frame as the “attitude of attitudes” (xiii). It is the “methodic view of human antics as comedy, albeit as a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy” (ibid.). The comic frame mediates upon and, one hopes, corrects what Burke calls the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.” This “process of processes” occurs when humanity tries to “translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment, thus necessarily involving elements alien to the original, ‘spiritual’ (‘imaginative’) motive” (ibid.). Once the ideal has been translated into the material, we have the makings, or the potential for, tragedy. In the Antigone, both Creon and Antigone tragically bureaucratize the imaginative. To serve the law and the rule-of-law, Creon enacts his ideal to such a degree that he fails to follow the spirit of the law (his wish to keep Thebes from pollution) and, by sticking to the material letter-of-law, concerning the burial, causes pollution and thus tragedy. Antigone does the same with her call to the unwritten laws, bureaucratizing the spirit into the material. Yet as Burke reminds us, we have a disruptor at our disposal to help avert the tragic: The comic corrective, or a comic perspective by incongruity. In the Antigone, the Watchman acts as a comically incongruous figure for both the audience and, importantly, for the Chorus—provoking them to think critically and to create a hierarchically ordered transcending frame of justice.

The Watchman first enters at a pivotal point in the action. The Chorus of Elders have met with Creon and agreed, easily, to Creon’s decision that Polyneices should not be buried, in fact, should be left exposed for “birds and dogs” to feed upon (Antigone line 205). At this moment, lines 211-214, the Chorus appears as simple ‘yes-men’ ready to agree to anything Creon proclaims. In some ways, the Chorus of Elders’ easy compliance is puzzling. Although they are joyous that Thebes was saved and eager to support their king, they are also, one assumes, aware of the religious burial rites required by the gods of the underworld. Certainly the Chorus has great respect for the gods, as is seen in the Parodos where they praise Zeus’ power (lines 127-133), and celebrate victory through being ruled by Bacchus (lines 148-154). For them to easily ignore the possible, although unknown, consequences associated with disregarding the laws of the gods, of Hades, is perplexing. In any case, no critical thought is involved in their answer to Creon, only Ismenian motion. The scene ends with Creon asking the Chorus not to side with “anyone who disobeys” his new law (line 219), while speculating that some man will try to bury Polyneices because “hope/ And bribery—often have led men to destruction” (lines 221-222). At this moment, the Watchman enters with critical news—someone has indeed buried Polyneices.

From the start, the Watchman is incongruous to the other characters as well as to the tragic and serious tone of the play, since he is comically fashioned as a wise but bumbling fool. As he enters the stage, we find him trying to sum up the courage to inform Creon that someone has defied his order:

WATCHMAN: Sir, I am here. I can’t say I am out of breath.
I have not exactly been ‘running on light feet.’
I halted many times along the road so I could think,
And I almost turned around and marched right back.
My mind kept talking to me. It said, ‘you poor guy,
Why are you going there? You’ll just get your ass kicked.’ (Antigone lines 223-228)
By so fashioning the comic Watchman, Sophocles offers his audience and the Chorus of Elders a comic perspective by incongruity, which distances the audience and, importantly, the Chorus from the master, tragic frame being played out by the other characters. Once jolted out of the tragic frame, the Chorus is allowed the space to think more deeply about the situation at hand. For example, when the Watchman explains that the guards have no idea who committed the crime because no clues were left behind (line 252), the Chorus is finally compelled to think, critically, about the gods and, I suggest, about the consequences of not following their laws: “You know, sir, as soon as I heard, it came to me:/ Somehow the gods are behind this piece of work” (lines 278-279). Upon hearing this, Creon tries to stop the Chorus from the process of independent critical thought by suggesting that they are as “stupid” as they “are old” (line 281). Creon believes that everyone should be on one plane of reality or thought—his (Nussbaum 71). This becomes clear when we see Creon question Antigone, asking her if she is not ashamed to have “a mind apart from theirs” (Antigone line 510). Still, Creon’s insults cannot stop the process that the Watchman’s comic frame has started. It is at this moment that the Chorus stops being Creon’s ‘yes-men,’ and starts the journey of learning. When the scene ends with the exit of the Watchman and Creon, the Chorus continues their critical-thinking journey with the Ode to Man (lines 332-375), which ends with the Chorus reflecting on the importance of the laws of both man and gods (lines 369-375).

Finally, it can be argued that the Watchman, as a comical incongruous character, is directly responsible for the Chorus’ creation of the Ode to Man. The critical word deinon, A central theme in the Ode to Man, is used only twice before in the Antigone, both times by the Watchman. The Watchman uses deinon first when he breaks the news that Polyneices has been buried: “It’s terrible [deinon] news” (line 243). One can read this as both terrible and wonderful news. Terrible because the news will anger Creon and, wonderful news because the unwritten spiritual laws have been upheld. The second time the Watchman uses deinon occurs towards the end of the scene when he becomes the first person to challenge Creon’s judgment head-on: “It’s terrible [deinon] when false judgment guides the judge” (line 323). Could Creon, the king, possess false judgment? Certainly, but his judgment has not been questioned to his face before this point. The Chorus, who were just shut down and shut up, after suggesting that the gods buried Polyneices, hears the Watchman, a lowly being on the pecking scale of Theban life, question Creon’s judgment, quite incongruously—a peasant questioning a king. The Watchman’s questioning and his use of deinon propels the Chorus to think not only on the deinon of humanity, but humanity’s place with respect to judgment and law (lines 369-375).

The Collective that Transcends and “Orders”

The Chorus in Antigone (2001) acts not only as a distancing vehicle between the action on stage and the audience, but as a dramatic collective character that undergoes character evolution and influences the action of the play by developing the dialectically ordered collective-action frame of justice. Although the Chorus takes little direct action in Antigone, the fact that this collective reflects and learns is important. As Nussbaum notes, the overall theme of learning in the Antigone is seen on two levels: first, in the complicated and interlinked choral odes, and second, in the Chorus as a dramatic character (68-69). On Nussbaum’s first argument, the choral odes, read critically and serially, demonstrate Sophocles’ concern with the theme of learning (to embody justice) and discourages the “search for the simple and, above all, for the reductive” (89), or as Burke would insist, the bureaucratized. The theme of learning is also the subject of the final line in the Antigone where the Chorus states: “So it is one learns, in old age, to be wise” (Antigone line 1353). As the final line suggests, even the Chorus is not exempt from the process of learning and, indeed, as a dramatic character, they excel in this process.

As discussed above, at first the Chorus appears as nothing more than Creon’s yes-men (Antigone lines 213-214). However, even early on, with the Ode to Man, the reader and spectator realize that the Chorus is not made up of simple beings, but are wise and insightful elders who learn gradually transcend as material circumstance unfold before them. The first glimpse of this choral learning personality is seen when they describe the complexities, indeed the parliamentary jangle of humankind as deinon, trying to control a contingent world and nature, learning all the while what is needed to survive in an unpredictable world (lines 332-375). Humanity as deinon might not have been a new concept for the Chorus, but they at least relearn this concept when listening to the Watchman. For the Chorus, wisdom can be learned from anyone including a lowly Watchman or from a man who is young in years (line 723). Unfortunately, the Chorus may have learned this wisdom too late to save Creon or Antigone, but not necessarily too late to ultimately save Thebes. Further, because the Chorus takes the time to listen and to critically think, they do not jump blindly into action or decision. When they decide to act, however, as they do on two occasions, their action appears wholly justified by events.

The Chorus influences and redirects the plot twice (Woodruff xxiii), in so doing they act by directing the actions of others. First, the Chorus convinces Creon not to condemn Ismene along with her sister Antigone, since Ismene had no part in breaking the law (Antigone lines 768-771). The second vital moment of dramatic intervention occurs towards the end of the play. Tiresias, the priest, has come to report a bad omen for Creon and for Thebes. Drawing again on the image of birds, Tiresias states that the birds were “clawing each other to death with their talons” (line 1004), that his sacrifice was not accepted, leaving no omens to read at all (lines 1012-1012), and that all of this was a result of Creon’s edict regarding Polyneices: “So, now, surrender to the dead man./ Stop stabbing away at his corpse. Will it prove your strength/ If you kill him again? Listen, my advice is for your benefit./ Learning from good words is sweet when they bring you gain” (lines 1029-1032). Once again, Creon will not listen and, reminiscent of his accusations towards the Watchman, accuses Tiresias of trying to exhort money from the crown (line 1063).[12] The Chorus, having listened to the exchange between Tiresias and Creon, is shaken: “The man is gone, sir. His Prophecies were amazing,/ Terrible. . . ./ I’m quite certain he has never sung a prophecy,/ Not once, that turned out to be false for the city” (lines 1091-1094). The Chorus suggests to Creon that “good judgment is essential” (line 1098), and Creon, finally ready to listen, asks the Chorus what he should do:

CHORUS: Let the girl go. Free her from underground.
And build a tomb for the boy who lies exposed.
CREON: Really? You think I should give in?
CHORUS: As quickly as you can, sir, before you’re cut off.
The Gods send Harm racing after wicked fools.
CREON: It’s so painful to pull back; it goes against my heart.
But I cannot fight against necessity.
CHORUS: Go and do this now. Don’t send others in your place. (lines 1100-1107)

The Chorus not only directs Creon’s act, they insist that he do it alone! This is critical, since Creon has denied responsibility for his actions throughout the play. The Chorus, who has watched, listened and learned, knows this and so they know that it is only Creon who can save Thebes from destruction. Moreover, the Chorus was only able to affect the action in the play after they formed a new master frame, a frame which bridges Antigone and Creon’s polar rule-of-law discourses: Justice.

For Burke, transcendence of conflict occurs when two conflicting frames, “A” and “B,” are bridged by finding an alternative, “C.” However as he also reminds us, ultimate transcendence, the movement into the mystical, is accomplished only when the “competing voices” are placed in “a hierarchy or sequence, or evaluative series, so that, in some way . . . an ‘ultimate’ order of terms” would lead to a “‘guiding idea’ or ‘unitary principle’” (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187). In the Antigone, the Chorus work towards this “upward way” of transcendence (245) by dialectically ordering the rule-of-law frame towards a dialectical procession of justice: Justice first, then the spirit-of-the law, and finally the rule-of-law. The ordering of public and private rule-of-law will depend upon the doxa (defined here as probable knowledge) of the moment (in the Antigone we can see this need to reorder our values and actions according to doxa through Triesias’ pronouncement that Creon must stop his actions and adjust to the new realities of the situation in lines 1012-1032). This means that we must judge the pragmatic ordering of these two law realms depending upon the material unfolding of events and circumstances. Yet our guiding principle should be justice, a concept best understood through acquired wisdom which, we shall see, develops from a balance of logos, pathos and ethos.

The Chorus realizes that Antigone and Creon’s use of rule-of-law is reductive because their respective uses of this frame works to exclude other realms of law—reducing law to an either/or structure. Once rule-of-law is reduced in this manner, justice cannot prevail. With this realization, as is first suggested by the Watchman (line 322) then articulated in the Ode to Man (lines 369-375), the Chorus starts to develop a collective-action frame which bridges and subverts the material rule-of-law. The Chorus’ work to dialectically develop a hierarchal series first occurs in the Ode to Man where they arrange Antigone and Creon’s material uses of the Rule-of-law towards the upward way of justice. So it is that the state of Thebes cannot stand strong or tall unless, first, man’s rule-of-law is upheld and, on the upper rein of the hierarchal ladder, the Gods’ rule-of-law of justice is also respected, which will lead us to an ultimate dialectic order of justice and state stability: “If he honors the law of the land/ And the oath-bound justice of the gods,/ Then his city shall stand high./ But no city for him if he turns shameless out of daring” (lines 370-372). The “law of the land” and “justice of the gods” is what affects the doxa of family (private rule-of-law), and state (public rule-of-law). This newly ordered master frame, the justice frame, will eventually allow the Chorus to transcend the polar conflict, while giving them the ability to redirect action (public to private) when needed. The choice of a justice frame, in this case, is not reductive insofar as it recognizes the plurality of law (private and public), while redirecting thought and action towards the spirit of law and away from the material and reductive letter-of-the-law. The Chorus finally establishes the transcendent value of this new master frame while speaking to Creon towards the end of the play: “Yes, it is late, but you have seen where justice lies” (line 1270).

Taken alone, Antigone and Creon’s ideographic arguments do demonstrate the limits of dialectic and of “action,” as Burke understood it. In this light, we have what appears as a masterfully construct “train-wreck” between two hegemonic arrangements of public vs. private. Here, no “Burkean” action towards transcendence is possible because we are moved into a space of Ismenism where we accept whichever hegemonic arrangement agrees with us the most in order to survive. But this is only true if we, first, focus our attentions solely on Antigone and Creon, ignoring the Watchman and the vital Chorus who, as I have discussed, “acts” by redirecting the plot twice; and second, if we are defining our understanding of “action” within a limited frame of reference. In his Grammar, Burke explains action as “the human body in conscious or purposive motion” (14). Burke’s definition of action is ambiguous in that motion, other than being purposeful and consciously directed, is ill-defined. The human body in motion can be understood as both physically moving and “doing” and as mental movement as well. With this understanding, the Chorus in the Antigone acts not only by redirecting the plot twice, but acts toward transcending the unmoving dialect of Creon and Antigone by acquiring wisdom and selecting justice. Indeed, the Chorus finds that active and delicate balance of pathos, logos and ethos, which is missing from all the other characters that tend to embody an extreme understanding of these qualities. As the Chorus reminds us in the final lines of this play, “wisdom is supreme for a blessed life” (line 1348). Yet this balance and the act of transcendence is not an easy task to achieve or maintain. We flounder. Which is why, according to Burke, transcendence cannot last and we are plugged right back into the thick of things where logos, pathos and ethos become victims once again for barnyard politics. Regardless, the end of this play leaves us with wisdom, not simply with sorrow as many would like us to believe about the Antigone. As Woodruff reminds us in his footnotes about the concept of wisdom in line 1348, wisdom was and should be understood as phronein, the good sense needed for the most broadest understanding of happiness, eudaimonia (58). This is the lesson Sophocles’ leaves us with—and tragically, it is the lesson that is most often overlooked by critics of the Antigone. We have a choice. We can re-enact the tragedy or we can transcend this particular tragedy by seeking out justice through wisdom.

Who, it might rightfully be asked, receives this final presentation of enlightenment? The Chorus certainly, who is left with the daunting task of ruling Thebes now that Creon has been emotionally destroyed along with his entire family, who are left dead in the wake of his actions. Yet I argue that the audience has also been left enlightened as well. In the end, there can be no true attraction to the destructive paths of Creon and Antigone. To follow the example of either character is to simply re-enact their train-wreck. To follow the Chorus’ example, however, is to follow the path of transcendence through the development of wisdom and the reaching for justice. Although Sophocles’ Chorus qualifies wisdom as that which is learned in old age (1353), the audience also learns that the journey towards wisdom does not lie in the narrow frames that make up the limits of dialectic communication, but in the path that adapts to the doxa of circumstances, working to avoid idealistic and unbending frames of argument.

At the end of the Antigone, the reader and spectator notice that the Chorus, as a collective, and the Watchman, as the comic corrective, are the only characters who are the least physically touched by tragedy and misfortune. Indeed, the other major characters in the play are either emotionally damaged for life (Creon and Ismene), or dead (Antigone, Haemon, and Creon’s wife Eurydice). What is interesting and truly tragic is that philosophers, especially Hegel and Kierkegaard, and many adaptations including, but not limited to, Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Antigone, Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona’s 1974 The Island, Gambaro’s 1992 Antígona Furiosa, and Heaney’s 2004 The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone, all focus on the characters of either Antigone or Creon as the hero, often eliminating the roles of the Chorus and the Watchman in order to, one assumes, heighten the dramatic text. Yet, as Sophocles knew and as a Burkean reading of the Antigone reveals, the true heroes of this play are the Chorus of Elders and the Watchman—characters who are able to rise above the reductive either/or argument frames used by Antigone and Creon, truly survive the tragedy and, finally, are able to learn from and transcend the tragic conflict by looking for and creating a new perspective.


*Correspondence to: Rebecca McCarthy, Ph.D., Kaplan University, 7267 48th Ave South, Seattle, WA 98118. Email: Rebamccarthy@gmail.com

  1. Although performed as the last segment of this unintentional trilogy (Durant 394), Antigone was written first. Sophocles then wrote Oedipus Tyrannus (after the plague in Athens, 430-29), which is considered part one of the trilogy. Part two of the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus, was written last and towards the end of Sophocles’ life (Woodruff xxvii). Although now discussed as the “Theban Cycle,” it is important to remember that these plays were produced separately and presented over the lifetime of Sophocles’ career. As such, both Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus can be read as standalone texts. Oedipus at Colonus, however, should be understood in its context as an effort to bridge the two earlier works by Sophocles.
  2. The name Antigone comes from the Greek meaning both “born,” and “against.” As woodruff suggests, Antigone is “born for trouble” (xvi), and she embodies the extreme of pathos or passion.
  3. The name Creon comes from the Greek meaning “ruler,” a role that is said to be ideally ruled by logic and knowledge or logos. But as Creon grows suspicious of conspiracies (Woodruff xix), he embodies a perverted logos (Segal 162), just as Antigone relies on a perverted form of pathos.
  4. The inspiration for this term came from Spyros Payiatakis’ description of the Greek people as “Ismene,” in relation to Greece’s place within the UN Security Council: “Along with Antigone’s sister Ismene, we Greeks have to argue with square humanistic logic: ‘We are in the grip of those stronger than ourselves, and must obey them in this and in things still more cruel.’” (S. Payiatakis, Letter from Washington Dc--Antigone Goes to America, Feb. 7, 2005, Electronic, Greekembassy.org, Available: http://www.greekembassy.org/Embassy/Content/en/Article.aspx?office=3andfolder=761andarticle=14616, June 14 2006.)
  5. Throughout this paper, I use a slash (/) to indicate the end of a line within the Antigone.
  6. For McGee, ideographs are not related to the rational or the ethical, but the social and the “idea” (430). Thus, you could not use an ideograph to test a truth or establish a truth (431).
  7. Lakoff specifically debunks the “rational actor metaphor,” which states that people are rational and always act in their own self-interest.  Instead, Lakoff maintains that we act in accord with our values or ideas, not facts or rational “self-interest” (33).
  8. George Steiner points out that after the sixteenth century, productions of Antigone usually did away with the Chorus.  Steiner does point to some exceptions including Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone (170-171), and there have been others since Steiner’s book appeared.
  9. Schlegel introduced the theory of the Chorus as the “ideal audience,” a theory rightly criticized by Nietzsche who states: “If we hold this view against the historical tradition according to which tragedy was, in the beginning, nothing but a chorus, it turns out to be a crude, unscholarly, though dazzling hypothesis” (pp. 47-48). 
  10. Some of the choral meters used included: dactyls, a metrical foot composed of one long syllable followed by two short syllables; anapests, a march-rhythm utilizing a metrical foot composed of three syllables with the stress placed on the last syllable; trochees, a metrical foot composed of two syllables with the stress being placed on the first syllable; and glyconics, which Kitto describes as “a four-bar phrase, of which the first or second or third bar is in four-time, the others in three-time” (5b).
  11. For a more detailed account of the Ode to Man, see Segal (1981), pp. 152-179.
  12. It could be argued that that the blind prophet Tiresais embodies a flawed ethos in that his unwillingness to stay and reason with Creon, further stems from the fact that he allows his annoyance at Creon’s boorish behavior to outweigh his logos-the urgent need to redirect Creon’s actions in order to save what is left of Thebes.


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"A Burkean Reading of the Antigone: Comical and Choral Transcendence" by Rebecca L McCarthy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

A German version of Kenneth Burke

Stefanie Hennig, The Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen


The German Philosopher Hans Blumenberg causes vehement disputes among German scholars. To some, he is a rhetoric scholar, to others he is not. As a result of the disagreements on Blumenberg’s categorization, a new rhetoric approach has been created: Rhetorische Anthropologie, Rhetorical Anthropology. In fact, Blumenberg should be considered a New Rhetoric advocate. In order to prove this hypothesis, this article provides a comparison of Blumenberg and an indisputable New Rhetoric advocate: Kenneth Burke. The significant parallels between Blumenberg and Burke will clear up the German dispute, allude to some underlying problems within the discipline in Europe, and recast Rhetorical Anthropology from its status as a unique cast of rhetorical ideas.

IN HIS 1951 ESSAY, “Rhetoric – Old and New,” Kenneth Burke contrasts two constructions of rhetoric that distinguish the traditional view from the contemporary: “The key term for the old rhetoric was ‘persuasion,’ and its stress was upon deliberate design. The key term for the ‘new’ rhetoric would be ‘identification,’ which can include a partially ‘unconscious’ factor in appeal” (63). With this definition and an impressive range of amplifying works, Kenneth Burke has qualified as the magisterial leader of a modern approach to rhetoric, the New Rhetoric, which, from the German research angle, has always been seen as a specifically American phenomenon, considering the US background of other advocates, like Richard M. Weavers, Ivor A. Richards, and the General Semantics scholars.

It was exactly 30 years later that Hans Blumenberg, a German philosopher, published an article which all of a sudden drew the attention of rhetorical scholarship. “Anthropologische Annäherung an die Aktualität der Rhetorik” (“An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”; 429-58) can be seen as the cutting-edge initiation for the rhetorical anthropology approach in Germany. However, Blumenberg, as well as Burke, does not theorize without controversy; his ideas are discussed and promoted, but also challenged. In contrast to Burke, though, Blumenberg has to face a fundamental debate that puts his essential validity into question, that is to say, some German scholars argue that Blumenberg’s ideas cannot be classified as rhetorical ones at all. Thus the critics put into question the relevance of the approach motivated by these ideas; they challenge rhetorical anthropology as a whole.

My hypothesis is that Blumenberg could be seen as a (delayed) German equivalent to Burke. Both Burke and Blumenberg share the same anthropological ideas and the resultant rhetorical concepts. This essential agreement has several consequences: Up to now Blumenberg has been discussed as something which he is not. German researchers have analyzed him as if his was an Old Rhetoric---whereas his formulations are congruent with the New Rhetoric. So what is at stake is a paradigm shift in German rhetorical scholarship based on three assumptions: By my proving him a New Rhetorician, Blumenberg would, firstly, finally be accepted in Germany as a rhetorician. Secondly, New Rhetoric would not be a purely American and thus distant phenomenon any longer. And, thirdly, one could recast the “rhetorical anthropology approach” away from its status as a unique set of ideas.

To prove my hypothesis, I will provide a comparison of Blumenberg’s and Burke’s ideas. For that purpose I will present each of them, with an introduction to Blumenberg first and my conception of Burke second. Thereafter, I will juxtapose their ideas to elaborate the substantial parallels and to show the significant conceptual analogies between Burke and Blumenberg. Finally, I will describe the theoretical implications of merging both of their conceptualizations, to wit, that the New Rhetoric can no longer be treated in Germany as a foreign, purely American phenomenon.

2.1. Hans Blumenberg’s Idea of Man and Woman, and Rhetoric

Hans Blumenberg’s essay “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of rhetoric” aims at identifying the human being as a being that is before everything else a rhetorical one. Blumenberg employs Ernst Cassirer’s “animal symbolicum” (438, emphasis in original) for that being. Published in 1981, Blumenberg’s combination of anthropology and rhetoric was enterprising enough to induce a lively debate among German scholars forming a whole new research approach: rhetorische anthropologie, “rhetorical anthropology.” Blumenberg’s argumentation unfolds by paralleling anthropology and rhetoric regarding their very constitutive questions. As to rhetoric the primal dispute is that between Plato and the Sophists. Whereas for the Sophists the creature man/woman does not possess truth, as truth does not exist, for Plato truth does exist and it is obtainable by the human being. As far as anthropology is concerned, the question is whether man and woman are to be seen
as a poor or as a rich creature. The fact that man [sic] is not fixed, biologically, to a specific environment can be understood either as a fundamental lack of proper equipment for self-preservation or as openness to the fullness of a world that is no longer accentuated only in terms of vital necessities. Man is made creative by the urgency of his needs or by playful dealings with his surplus talents. (“Approach” 429; emphasis in original)

Blumenberg parallels rhetoric’s and anthropology’s antitheses, linking each to their major options: “Man as a rich creature exercises his dispositions over the truth that he possesses with the aid of the rhetorical ornatus [ornament]. Man as a poor creature needs rhetoric as the art of appearance, which helps him to deal with his lack of truth” (“Approach” 430). Plato’s human being is anthropology’s rich creature, which has to do “with the consequences of possessing truth” (429-30). To the sophists man is anthropology’s poor creature, who has to do “with the difficulties that result from the impossibility of obtaining truth” (430).

Having established these parallel alternatives, Blumenberg makes a decision: his following remarks are based on the assumption that man/woman is the poor being. Having decided in favor of the “creature of deficiencies“ (“Approach” 430), Blumenberg installs two coordinates of human being which he frequently gets back to throughout his argumentation: “Evidenzmangel” and “Handlungszwang“ (“Annäherung” 117)---“lacking definitive evidence and being compelled to act” (“Approach” 441).

The term Evidenzmangel depicts human life as a state of being, where not a single issue presents itself as the better or worse option. Evidenzmangel is the situation which lacks the obviousness that would disengage things from the necessity of being interpreted and construed. Evidenzmangel is “a deficiency of pre-given, prepared structures to fit into and of regulatory processes“ (“Approach” 433). This deficiency is a specifically human one. Man and woman are an anomaly in “nature, which otherwise only presents itself in pure form and regulates itself straightforwardly“ (432). “In the case of man [sic],” Blumenberg writes, “things have come together that have difficulty harmonizing“; to Blumenberg the human being is “a point of intersection of heterogeneous realities” (432).

Handlungszwang is tied to Evidenzmangel: In a world lacking definitive evidence, “Action compensates for the ‘indeterminateness’ of the creature man [sic]” (“Approach” 433). Humans are condemned to act: For a creature “fallen back out of the ordered arrangements that nature has accomplished … actions have to take the place of the automatic controls that he [sic] lacks” (433). Handlungszwang signifies man and woman’s need to act in order to live, that is, in order to create a reality out of a whole range of possible realities available to them out of their indeterminateness. “To act,” then, means to select and rank the various elements intermingled, to accept some of them and reject others. “The problem of conduct is to assign to one of these elements authority over the others“ (432).

Evidenzmangel and Handlungszwang apply to both the relationship of humans to their environment and the relation of humans to themselves, that is, the self’s relation to the self. As well as man/woman lacks “specific dispositions for reactive behavior vis-à-vis reality,” he or she “has no immediate, no purely ‘internal’ relation to himself [or herself]” (“Approach” 439, 456). As well as they need to act regarding their environment, persons need to act regarding their self: “The substantialism of identity is destroyed; identity must be realized,” as “being able to live and defining a role for oneself are identical” (456, 442).

From Evidenzmangel and Handlungszwang, Blumenberg proceeds to the animal symbolicum idea. Assuming that the world does not regulate for humans without any effort on their part, the implication is that they are unable to relate to reality directly, that is to say, without intermediation. The “poor creature man [sic]” “masters the reality that is originally lethal for him [as it exceeds the degree of impressions, ideas, possibilities and implications he is able to bear] by letting it be represented“ (“Approach” 440). As he or she is not designed to stand the thousandfold-dimensioned reality, the human creature has to grasp it by reducing its complexity, by outlining it---Blumenberg names that necessity the “creative symbolism with which he makes himself at home in worlds of his own“ (429). Facing an enormously complex reality, humans set substitutes. These substitutes represent reality, they are symbols of reality---thus it is the “animal symbolicum” (438) reacting on Evidenzmangel and acting out Handlungszwang. To Blumenberg it is only as this animal symbolicum that the “creature of deficiencies” (430) is able to live. From this it follows that “the human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’“ (439). This, again, applies to the relation of the self to the environment as well as to a person’s relation to himself or herself. Says Blumenberg:

The process of definition that goes with the role concept---a process upon which the consciousness of identity depends, and with which it can be damaged---is itself rooted in metaphor and is asserted and defended, both internally and externally, by metaphor. (442)

Blumenberg’s idea of rhetoric ensues at this point. As he puts it: “Alles, was diesseits der Evidenz übrigbleibt, ist Rhetorik” (“Everything that remains beyond definitive evidence is rhetoric”; “Annäherung” 111). Man and woman’s reality is what they have made out of their ever-complex environment. As well as the process of definition concerning their identity, their construction and permanent validation of what Blumenberg calls reality is a rhetorical process. Persons erect and protect the identity they have created, may it be that of their environment or that of themselves. Blumenberg employs a major rhetorical term here:

The “agreement” that has to be the goal of all “persuasion” (even of self-persuasion) is the congruence---which is endangered in all situations and always has to be ensured afresh---between one’s role consciousness and the role expectations that others have of one. (“Approach” 442)
Every time they confront the world, encounter other people or themselves, humans are in need of persuading others or, respectively, themselves of their construction proving true; that is, they are in need of a rhetorical act. “Rhetoric is the effort to produce the accords that have to take the place of the ‘substantial’ base of regulatory processes in order to make action possible” (433).

“Man [sic] copes with the excess of demands made on him by his relation to reality” (“Approach” 439) by stylizing the world around and within himself. However, this construction has to face permanent challenges; it has to prove itself before oneself and others. If it fails to do so, the animal symbolicum would fall back into a state of the unbearable absence of truth. The failing rhetorical act results in crisis. The successful rhetorical act keeps the human role players’ conception of the world (and of themselves) from offense. Rhetoric does not supply persons with truth, but it is the medium through which they create a truth conception and through which they preserve what they have designed as truth. Blumenberg calls this process “the rhetorical shielding” (443). Establishing and preserving make the rhetorical act. Humans cannot do without a provisional truth, as there is “a realm of statements that have very important practical consequences, consequences that cannot be suspended, although in their theoretical status these statements are based, perhaps forever, on an insufficient rational foundation” (“Approach” 448). There is no other way than accepting these assertions, despite their insufficient foundation, because extirpating them “involves bringing practice---which depends on such premises---to a standstill, and thus becomes illusionary” (448).

To sum it up, Blumenberg’s rhetorical concept is based on his anthropological assumptions of Evidenzmangel and Handlungszwang. Everything beyond definitive evidence is in need of being rhetorically enacted, of being represented by an abstraction, reduction, or simplification, that is to say, by symbols. Creating and preserving them define the rhetorical act. Human beings are the animal symbolicum, as Blumenberg considers symbol-making and symbol-preserving constitutive criteria for their very existence:

The circumstance of being compelled to act, … which demands primarily a physical reaction, can be transformed, rhetorically, in such a way that the enforced action becomes … “merely” a rhetorical one. (“Approach” 440)

2.2. Kenneth Burke’s Idea of the “Symbol-using Animal” and Rhetoric

With his White Oxen and Other Stories (1924), Counter-Statement (1931), and numerous translations and reviews in the 1920s, Kenneth Burke first appeared as a novelist and literary critic. However, over the years Burke has developed an entire philosophy comprising neo-platonic aspects as well as Marxian and Freudian ones. As Hermann Holocher, a German rhetoric scholar, puts it: “Literatur ist zwar der Gegenstand, nicht jedoch das Ziel Burkes. Sein Augenmerk gilt der Gesellschaftsanalyse“ (“Though literature is Burke’s matter, it is not his end. Rather, what his study aims at is society”; 108.) Looking upon language as the basis of social signification, Burke looks to literature as the symptom of society.

Consequently, Burke considers an author’s work the deposit of ritualized strategies employed by the author to handle his or her life. In The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), Burke says: “we think of poetry … as the adopting of various strategies for the encompassing of situations” (3). Burke labels these situations “dramatic situation[s]” (88), as, like in the classical drama, two incompatible principles, moralities, or attitude options are at odds with each other and likely to collide. As Rueckert puts it in his remarkable analysis Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1963): “This constitutes the drama … ---the continuous interaction between agent and scene and between the conflicting impulses within the agent“ (44).

Human life is, for Burke, “the ‘unending conversation’ that is going on at the point in history when we are born” (Philosophy 94). This conversation is a dialectic one; it is a playful act of say and counter-say: “Then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him [sic]; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you” (95). Thus human history is nothing but the seesaw changes in arguments, the seismograph of alternating beliefs which have made themselves generally accepted truths. “History . . . is a ‘dramatic’ process, involving dialectical oppositions“ (93). Speaking of “dialectical oppositions,” Burke has in mind the various options being at man and woman’s disposal in particular situations. As for the question what to do in these situations, humans have “a number of alternatives from which to choose“ (Rueckert 132).

The drama of the human being results from the necessity to select from a “set of values” (Rueckert 132). “The self . . . accepts and rejects various alternatives, merges with and separates from certain things“ (43). Only then can persons live, when they decide, because deciding equals “Sinn aus Wahrnehmungen zu machen” (“turning cognitions into meaning”; Holocher 120). As Roland Barthes put it in his 1978 lectures: “Das eine auswählen und das andere zurückweisen heißt stets dem Sinn opfern, Sinn hervorbringen, verfügbar zu machen“ (“Accepting one thing and rejecting another always means sacrificing meaning, breeding meaning, providing meaning”; 33). Based on the assumption that meaning is the bedrock of living, selecting from the alternatives is not only a privilege, but a vital necessity. “The poet or thinker . . . . cannot leave matters at that. Exigencies of living require him [sic] to choose his alignments,” Burke writes in Attitudes Toward History (106). It is this necessity that constitutes the dramatic character of “human affairs” (Philosophy 98). Every issue bears a dramatic potential as every issue implies ambiguities and contrariness, “die vielfältige Identifikationsmöglichkeiten bietet” (“providing various identification options”; Holocher 128).

The dramatic situation is a permanent one, even though not always discerned as a situation of conflict. It is most obvious when social significances are destabilized and deteriorate from their former status of being the “truth” to a new status of being only an option of “truth.” However, the dramatic situation is not necessarily one demanding a revolutionary change, but may be an every-day situation. “Even if there were no important historical changes taking place in society which called into doubt accepted values and conceptions of human purpose,” Rueckert writes, and then quotes Burke, “’The mere changing of one’s glandular system would involve him [or her] in “new situations”’(ATH, II, 215-216.)” (44). In short: life is drama.

With this permanent situation, “Existence is a kind of dialectic of division and merger, disintegration and reintegration, death and rebirth, war and peace” (Rueckert 42). Therefore, Burke’s dramatic conception of life and history can be considered the overall principle of being. “Man [sic] in search of himself and toward the better life is, for Burke, the universal situation“ (43; emphasis in original). It is determined by the two master motives---fear and desire. What humans long for is identification, that is, “unity, merger, and integration”; what they fear is “disorder, division, and disintegration” (42). The symbol-using animal “attempts to put his self together, to discover and maintain his identity so that he can act purposefully and feel at home in the world” (45).

Persons seek to avoid dramatic feelings, because such feelings are closest to what they fear, “’Entfremdung’” (Attitudes 140, emphasis in original). Therefore, they are in need of reconciling vehicles legitimating their decisions, retroactively, in a highly complex world. These vehicles are symbols. Symbolizing clears a matter and/or integrates the competing principles of the dramatic situation. “To act” in terms of disputing dialectic antitheses, in terms of reflecting and gauging them in a structured and/or dramatically complex world, relies on such prescinding and synthesizing “vessels” or “mergers” (106), which symbols are. They rescue persons from the ever-impending division they fear and ensure the ever-promised identification they yearn for.

Burke concentrates on symbolization through language and describes that act as “erect[ing] a series of transcendental bridges“ or “producing a synthesis atop the antithesis“ (Attitudes 92). Burke names the act of producing a symbol “stylization” (Philosophy 110). In fact, what he names “stylization” in his earlier works is the rhetorical act he refers to in his later works. In the Rhetoric of Motives (1950), for example, he writes: “Rhetoric must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard …“ (23). What he describes here is the same function he accounts stylization. Stylization, that is to say the rhetorical act, serves to find a way out of the dialectic coppice viable for humans, restricted by their bounded rationality and finite cognitive abilities. Stylization (the rhetorical act, as coded into culture-specific patterns of appeal) is to compensate for inconsistencies and loosen gridlocked antipodes, for securing a person’s identification with himself and his or her surroundings. The symbol provides men and women with the service of avoiding the disruption they fear. Burke has a whole cluster of adjectives describing this conciliatory-salubrious effect of language and the symbols realized through it, for example, “. . . unifying, integrating, transcending; and redemptive“ (Rueckert 48). Based on its function, Rueckert provides us with the following definition of the symbolic (rhetorical) act: “Any act (whether physical or verbal) that is in fact representative of the self which performed it, and any act that has a compensating function for the self which performs it is a symbolic act” (58). From being the tool to handle dramatic situations, it follows that the symbolic action is as ubiquitous as dramatic situations themselves. This tool is essential to human beings, as it means to find a way “out of the wasteland toward a better life through symbolic action” (43).

2.3. Comparison of Burke and Blumenberg

In The Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke illustrates his understanding of symbolic action by depicting an alcohol addict who either drinks or writes, that is to say, whose life is an incessant alternation between the “malign alcoholic spell and the benign literary spell“ (103). The purpose of the story is to point out that symbolic action does not cling to a certain form, but both relapsing into an alcoholic debauch and writing squibs are “different parts of the same spectrum” (103), that is to say, both drinking and writing are “symbolically enacting the [same] mental conflict” (10). The two stages do not conflict, but “are part of the same cluster; they function synecdochically” (104). In my understanding, Burke’s accentuation of the substitutional relation between the physical and the literary action matches Blumenberg’s idea that “a physical reaction can be transformed, rhetorically, in such a way that the enforced action becomes … ‘merely’ a rhetorical one” (“Approach” 440).

However, this parallel is not a selected point only. It rather suggests a structural analogy between Burke and Blumenberg sharing the same anthopological and rhetorical ideas. Blumenberg’s decision in favor of man as the poor being, of the being lacking truth, that is, definitive evidence, corresponds to Burke’s basic assumption of the dialectic-dramatic space humans are exposed to. Both Burke and Blumenberg prefer to consider men and women’s environment the “result of the complex and ever-changing conflict relation” (Rueckert 42) to praising indeterminateness’s opulence of options available. Blumenberg’s characterization “that in the case of man things have come together that have difficulty harmonizing with each other“ (“Approach” 432) parallels Burke’s “good and evil elements intermingled” (Attitudes 106). Both the authors emphasize the inconsistency symbol-users have to face, with Burke asserting all things’ ambiguousness and Blumenberg diagnosing the “heterogeneous elements“ (“Approach” 432).

Just like Burke’s relating to both the “continuous interaction between agent and scene and … the conflicting impulses within the agent” (Rueckert 44), Blumenberg’s ideas apply to both the role concept inward, “defining a role for oneself” (“Approach” 442), and outward, “the congruence … between one’s role consciousness and the role expectations that others have of one” (442).

As well as for Burke, for Blumenberg, too, it follows from that situation, that humans are in need of a medium to come up against the “originally lethal” reality (“Approach” 440). Burke writes about the Perseus myth to illustrate this idea: “Perseus who could not face the serpent-headed monster without being turned to stone, but was immune to this danger if he observed it by reflection in a mirror” (Philosophy 53). Blumenberg considers “the human relation to reality [as] indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective” (“Approach” 439). As both Blumenberg and Burke primarily relate to language, speech (and thus style) “is this mirror” (Philosophy 53); “the human relation to reality is … above all ‘metaphorical’” (“Approach” 439).

In my remarks on Burke’s example of an alcohol addict, I have already shown that both Blumenberg’s and Burke’s idea of “act” is of broader range than that of the popular understanding, which is limited to physical action. Not only is the rhetorical act of the same value as the physical act; it even outranks the physical act. This is implied by Burke’s identifying “the taking of the alcohol” as “the attainment, in a simplified, restricted idiom, of the effects got in a more complex idiom through the writing of the squibs” (Philosophy 104); and it is implied by Blumenberg, too, saying “that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind [sic]” (“Approach” 440). In their conception of the “act,” they even share the same distinction between acting and moving. Holocher writes of Burke’s distinction that moving belongs to the animal aspects within humans; that is to say, “to move” is motivated by the baser human instincts and needs. Man/woman’s reaction to these stimuli is “to move,” whereas “to act” implies judging and reflecting on the situations (Holocher 109). Blumenberg frames it like this: “Action shrinks to reaction the more direct is the path from theory to practice that is sought” (“Approach” 446).

As well as Burke, Blumenberg employs the term “symbol” to label the result of the rhetorical act. Albeit a different terminology, they also share the same idea concerning the accomplishment of the symbols. Burke’s term for it is “stylization,” which means to prefer certain aspects of one thing to the others, and thus accept certain aspects and deny others. Blumenberg rather employs the term “rhetoric.” However, his understanding is in accord with Burke’s: “The problem of conduct is to assign to one of these elements authority over the others“ (“Approach” 432). Additionally, neither for Burke nor for Blumenberg is stylization an option, but rather a necessity. To Burke “stylization is inevitable” (Philosophy 110). “Für Hans Blumenberg ist Rhetorik das Medium des Überlebens“ (“To Hans Blumenberg rhetoric is the medium of survival”; 90), Norbert Bolz, a German philosopher, writes in his essay “Das Gesicht der Welt. Hans Blumenbergs Aufhebung der Philosophie in Rhetorik.”

As far as the symbols themselves are concerned, the correspondences are especially striking when Blumenberg and Burke do not only share the conception of them, but even the terms employed. Based on the anthropological assumption that persons depend on tools to ease reality, and assuming that these tools are the symbols they create, Blumenberg centralizes the animal symbolicum. Burke’s key concept is that of the “symbol-using animal,” which he defines in Language as Symbolic Action (16).

Let me dwell on Burke’s definition of “man,” or the human, to show how its items coincide with Blumenberg’s ideas. Burke writes:

Man [sic] is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection. (16)

Though “rotten with perfection” seems to be just another item in a series, in fact, it is the summing up of the four antecedents. The term’s linguistic vigor not only results from its position at the end of the definition, but rather also from the paradoxical combination of “perfection” and “rotten.” People usually consider perfection a positive thing, so how can it be “rotten”?

To Burke, man and woman’s perfection is that they are endowed with speech, an equipment unique among all creatures. Again, it is only on the surface that Burke considers language. In fact, through speech he surveys human conduct: “In the theory of the negative Burke reduces reason and morality (conscience) to language (symbol-using)“ (Rueckert 130). This is because speech is based on attitude, which forms morality and reasoning. “These strategies size up the situations, name their structure and outstanding ingredients, and name them in a way that contains an attitude towards them” (3). Symbol-users are the exceptionally endowed animals. Their extra is their reason, enabling attitude, enabling speech.

However, not every extra is a favorable one. Humans are a unique being, endued with reason and language, but these attributes can corrupt them. Language and reason inhibit any “innocent” action. Innocent action requires an evident world. However, verbal animals are “forsaken by evidentness” (“Approach”, 432); through language they have fallen off their very original state, which is what Burke, as well as Blumenberg, regard as the evident, innocent world: “Eliminate language from nature and there can be no moral disobedience” (Religion 187). The idea that persons have fallen from an innocent state of mind implies that such a condition must have existed somewhere along the way. Interestingly, both Burke and Blumenberg depict their idea of an innocent world by citing the biblical Fall. Along these lines, Eden is the evident, thus innocent, world. The self is „truly at one with its environment“ here (qtd. in Rueckert: 46); identification at its best. Everything being evident in the Garden of Eden, symbolization is redundant. There is no need for a “purgative-redemptive function” (Rueckert 60), there is no need for reconciling mergers or vessels in a self-regulatory environment. In paradise creatures do without symbols, that is, „humans,“ if we may use that term, do without rhetoric. Thus Adam and Eve before the Fall represent Blumenberg’s idea of man and woman as a rich creature, like Burke’s conception of persons enjoying total identification.

As described above, Eden is considered to be a state as desired long ago, that is to say, irrecoverable. After the Fall man/woman is the poor creature respecting the self, suffering division and disorder. To make matters worse, it is man and woman’s own fault. Though forbidden, Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Tempted by the serpent, they take the bait of achieving knowledge of Good and Evil. Indeed, they are given that knowledge: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew” (New American Standard Bible, Gen. 3.7). Significantly, the first thing Adam and Eve become aware of is themselves: “They knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3.7). Having eaten the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve have gained more knowledge, that is, they are endowed with an add-on, but it does not prove favorable. Instead it causes fear. The act setting man’s expulsion from the innocent state is followed by an action motivated by guiltiness: “I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself," Adam says (Gen. 3.10). Being aware of oneself means experiencing oneself indirectly. Seeking knowledge, “man” caused disintegration and the irreversible losing of an evident, that is innocent world: “Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden“ (Gen. 3.23).

Rueckert considers Burke’s concept of the symbol-using animal as the "secular version of the Christian drama“ (46, emphasis in original).“ Man [sic] falls every time he follows the impulse toward abstraction which reason and language make possible“ (46). As indicated by Adam and Eve’s hiding in the Christian equivalent, to Burke, “Man is … of ‚guilt-laden substance’” (46). Men and women are perfect, they are “complete” in terms of their extra features, but the options these features enable them to be aware of, separate them from „nature, which otherwise only presents itself in pure form and regulates itself straightforwardly“ (“Approach”, 432). In a state lacking every implicitness, humans cannot react im-mediately; their directions are indirect ones, since they are required to decide. Blumenberg therefore diagnoses this symbolizing creature with “poverty of instincts” (439). Correspondingly, Holocher writes of Burke: “Reagieren Tiere auf Zeichen instinktgeleitet, so ist der Mensch für Burke das einzige Lebewesen, das Zeichen als Zeichen sehen kann und diese interpretiert” ("Whereas animals react instinctively, the human is, to Burke, the only creature perceiving signs as signs and interpreting them”; 110). It is human beings’ perfection that is their problem: being per-fect, complete, they always see the two sides of a story, as the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” points at. Man/woman’s perfection results in their sensing an unbearable complexity. However, they cannot accept issues in their entireness, because they would not then be able to act. Awareness of total complexity inhibits action. “Action requires programs” (Attitudes 4), which are a result of human decisions; and any „decision usually sums up,“ or abridges, „a complexity of motives“ (Rhetoric 99). Due to Evidenzmangel humans alone must regulate what to consider right or wrong. As “programs require vocabulary” (Attitudes 4), these decisions are reflected in speech.

The rhetorical act, that is to say the act performed through speech, is therefore a vital necessity to the animal symbolicum. To Burke, „guilt as a permanent part of man’s [sic] condition makes purification and redemption a continuous necessity” (Rueckert, 46). Purification and redemption are achieved through rhetoric, more precisely through symbolic action. Symbolic action is therefore “the secular analogue for Christ, the sacrificial redeemer” (46). In his Matthäuspassion (1988), Blumenberg calls rhetoric the “Heilsgeschichte in nuce” (“the salvific history in nuce”; 256, emphasis in original), as speech is of hybrid character: it causes human division and, at the same time, it is the medium to get over that division. Symbolic action, the rhetorical act, is the salvation from the vastness of possibilities disposed to man and woman. Bolz writes on Blumenberg’s philosophy: “Wo es Optionen gibt, gibt es Rhetorik.” („Where there are options, there is rhetoric“; 95). This idea matches Burke’s consideration that it is rhetoric that „must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, … the Wars of Nerves, the War“ (Rhetoric 23).

Against the background of these explanatory remarks, Burke’s definition of “man,” or the human, can be seen as an over-concise summary of Burke’s philosophy. He considers “man” the

“inventor of the negative” (that is, of the alternative, the other option, depicted by the Evil), who is “separated from his natural condition” (that is, expelled from the paradise state of an evident world) “by instruments of his own making” (that is, eating the forbidden fruit, he gains reason and language) “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by a sense of order)” (that is, having to rank reality options to live), “and rotten with perfection” (Language 16)

I have already shown how Blumenberg’s Evidenzmangel and Handlungszwang match Burke’s philosophy. Now let me give some more analogies concerning Burke and Blumenberg’s rhetorical ideas.

Firstly, I would like to address the relation between speech and rhetoric. To both Blumenberg and Burke, speech is rhetoric. As every statement is necessarily a result of stylization, that is, every statement creates and conveys meaning or social significance, via recognizable norms or “styles” of expression, speech can never be non-rhetorical from Burke’s point of view: „Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion’” (Rhetoric 172). Every single word spoken is motivated by the human fear of division and desire for merger. Only in Eden, when the self was „truly at one with its environment“ (qut. in Rueckert: 46), was there no necessity to proclaim identification, thus it was only in Eden that speech was “innocent,” that is, non-rhetorical. The same is true for Blumenberg, to whom speech is the medium to defend, “both internally and externally,“ the individual’s “role concept” (“Approach” 119), with “role” signifying the self’s role, as well as the role it has defined for its environment. Man and woman are compelled to rhetoric as it “signalisiert … Gewißheiten, die man nicht haben, auf die man aber auch nicht verzichten kann” (“signals … certainties one cannot have, but which one cannot do without either”; Bolz 93). Burke described the same tension to his friend Malcolm Cowley in 1947: “How can a world stay respectable with rhetoric, how can a world without it even exist?”1

Secondly, rhetoric is located on a borderline position by both Burke and Blumenberg. To Blumenberg rhetoric oscillates between “den unerträglichen Grenzwerten des Realen als Trauma und Simulation“ (“the thresholds of two reality states: reality as a trauma and reality as a simulation”; Bolz 90). I consider this dichotomy as corresponding to Burke’s two anthropological-existential coordinates, division and identification, because reality as a trauma bears division, reality as a simulation provides identification. The strait between is where rhetoric has settled: „But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric“ (Rhetoric 25).

Thirdly, I want to discuss Burke and Blumenberg’s shared understanding of historical processes. If man fails “not to encounter contradiction, both in the internal sense, as a problem relating to consistency, and in the external sense, as a problem relating to acceptance” (“Approach” 442)---if the rhetorical act fails---individuals will seek to find other symbols, that is, another speech, to adjust their internal perceptions with external circumstances and vice versa. Blumenberg says, “The deeper the crisis of legitimacy reaches, the more pronounced the recourse to rhetorical metaphor becomes” (452). Both Blumenberg and Burke decode societal changes as symptoms of situations when a majority of people lack the feeling of identification. Holocher writes about Burke’s idea of history and society: „Das die Gesellschaft beherrschende, persuasive Prinzip ist dabei das Produkt erfolgreicher rhetorischer Handlungen.“ (“The persuasive principle ruling society is the product of successful rhetorical action”; 130). As far as Blumenberg is concerned, “Die Realität der Geschichte ist die jeweilige Umbesetzung, die sich rhetorisch vollzieht. … Namengeben ist alles andere als harmlos; in ihm vollzieht sich die Ernennung des Geschichtssubjekts.“ (“The state of history is the particular reallocation taking place rhetorically. … Labelling is anything but innocent; labelling is appointing the historical issue.”; Bolz 93; emphasis in original).

3. Theoretical range

Having completed the comparison of Kenneth Burke and Hans Blumenberg, I would like to present its theoretical implications for the German perspective. Therefore, I will introduce the discussion on Blumenberg first, because already from the criticism passed on Blumenberg one can deduce that he is a New Rhetorician. Secondly, I will provide further evidence for my hypothesis by assigning the parallels between Burke and Blumenberg to the three major characteristics of the New Rhetoric approach. To conclude, I will outline the German theoretical area of conflict, in order to locate New Rhetoric, Kenneth Burke, and Hans Blumenberg within this area.

Kenneth Burke’s role within the New Rhetoric approach is without controversy. The German Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric) regards Burke as the most influential advocate of the New Rhetoric (Kramer 265, cp. Holocher 108). In contrast, German scholars are highly at variance concerning their understanding and thus classification of Hans Blumenberg. For example, Peter L. Oesterreich, a German professor of philosophy and author of Fundamentalrhetorik, says in his essay “Anthropologisches Argumentieren” (2000) that Blumenberg’s conception is just the replication of Sophistic ideas already formulated in Plato’s Protagoras, particularly in his Theaetetus dialogue, which directly adresses the issue of Evidenzmangel (cp. Oesterreich 367). Astonishingly, Lothar Bornscheuer, a German professor of literature, identifies the Sophist’s ideas as “Gegenvorwurf gegenüber dem des Evidenzmangels“ (“objecting to Evidenzmangel”; 103). So whereas Oesterreich reproaches Blumenberg for rehashing the sophistic agenda, Bornscheuer reproaches him for contravening the sophistic agenda: Blumenberg’s alternatives on the animal symbolicum “[gehören] nicht … zu den anthropologischen Grundvorstellungen der Sophisten“ (“are not part of the anthropological basics of the Sophists”; Bornscheuer 105). Hubert Robling, a rhetorical scholar, even challenges Blumenberg’s classification as a rhetorician, saying rather that he addresses ethical issues more so than rhetorical ones (2). So does Bornscheuer (102).

Let me dwell on Bornscheuer, as he is probably Blumenberg’s harshest critic. Analyzing Bornscheuer’s remarks on Blumenberg, what I consider to be the core problem of the German Blumenberg reception emerges. Bornscheuer’s criticism is directed at the dichotomy of either humans as a poor or as a rich creature. He argues that Blumenberg considers these options as unrelated alternatives, whereas from Bornscheuer’s point of view, they are essentially interlinked (99). In my understanding of Blumenberg, Bornscheuer’s remarks are invalid, as they result from a misconception: Bornscheuer interprets Blumenberg wrongly, accusing him of denying any relationship between the poor and the rich creature (102). Instead, Blumenberg explicitly advocates such a relationship, which is best depicted by his word for rhetoric as the “salvific history in nuce” (Matthäuspassion 256): Man is rich with respect to his add-on feature, language. At the same time language puts man in a condition requiring language. Even though Blumenberg’s initial decision is in favor of the poor creature „man,“ he does not deny that there is a connection between the two anthropological options he establishes at the very beginning of his essay.

There is no agreement on this issue either: Bornscheuer does consider man/woman to be the rich creature (106). He does so due to the fact that the Sophists were paid for their service (106), a superficial argument at best, something of a joke at worst. It is in no way adequate to what Blumenberg takes as an indicator for his decision. Blumenberg’s index is whether humans possess truth, which makes for the rich creature, or lacks truth, which makes for the poor creature. A profound criticism, from my point of view, would rather question the indicator and/or its evaluation, instead of applying a standard not in the least relevant to the conception given. Therefore, I think, Bornscheuer’s reasoning does not prove of value.

Furthermore, Bornscheuer attacks Blumenberg’s animal symbolicum, via this tack: “nicht die ›Metapher‹, sondern das konsensuelle Urteil ist das ›signifikante Element der Rhetorik‹“ (“not ‘metaphor,’ but the concurrent verdict, the consensus, is the ‘distinctive element of rhetoric’”; 104). However, Bornscheuer ignores that a society’s metaphors are in need of and display the vast majority’s agreement. A metaphor will never work, if the transformation constituting it lacks the acceptance of the people it is to appeal to. Thus metaphor is the consensus, which Bornscheuer opposes to metaphor.

At this point it becomes clear what is the problem of his criticism in principle. It takes Blumenberg for someone he is not. The German scholars’ difficulties with Blumenberg result from classifying him as an Old Rhetorician, whereas he is a New Rhetorician.

To provide evidence for this hypothesis, I have already shown the parallels between Blumenberg and Kenneth Burke. Completing my argument, I would like to assign these parallels to the three essential characteristics of the New Rhetoric approach.

According to the Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric), New Rhetoric’s major characteristic is the idea of language as a medium of symbolic action (Kramer 259). New Rhetoric defines man/woman as the creature that employs symbols (Holocher 136). Speech always highlights certain aspects and obscures others of one and the same issue, that is to say, speech produces representatives of an issue. As this limitation is inherent in speech, it is necessarily of symbolic character. Speech cannot appropriately encompass the complexity of the world. Therefore, to reflect reality is to arrange it. From that intractability it follows that the verbal version of the world displays a “Abweichung der Wirklichkeit” (“a ‘deflection of reality’”; Holocher 138). This deflection, in turn, affects social reality. Linguistic conditions shape the self’s reality (Holocher 140). Burke addresses these issues with his “symbol-using animal” and his idea of the persuasive principle ruling society. Blumenberg’s term for the same issues is the animal symbolicum, which copes with reality’s ambiguous elements by “assign[ing] to one of these elements authority over the others” (“Approach” 432). As Burke does, Blumenberg refers to history as “rhetorische Prägung” (“rhetorical imprint“; Bolz 93).

The second characteristic is New Rhetoric’s broad idea of rhetoric. This notion opposes that of Joachim Knape, a major German professor of Rhetoric, who argues that the rhetorical act is not the use of language per se, but rather a specific verbal act (Knape 65). New Rhetoric advocates do consider “Sprache als immanent rhetorisch” (“speech as inately rhetorical”; Holocher 137). Furthermore, New Rhetoric is not only about speech acted out, but also about everything that happens before. “Zwar verlieren die Autoren nie die produktive Seite der Rhetorik aus dem Blick, aber zunächst wenden sie sich vor allem dem kritischen Potential zu” („Even though the authors never deny the active part of rhetoric, they focus on its discerning potential”; Kramer 260). Burke brings this issue up when writing on dialectic and drama. What he calls “dialectic” is the rather passive part of rhetoric, which, nevertheless, sticks to the active part. Burke considers rhetorical potential to be inherent in every dialectical approach to an issue (Holocher 138). This potential is activated the minute persons open their mouth to speak. The culmination of this understanding is Burke’s definition, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. Wherever there is ‚meaning,’ there is ‚persuasion’” (Rhetoric 172). The same is true for Blumenberg: he abandons rhetoric’s specific, conscious application, illustrating its ubiquitous necessity in every communication, due to the permanently pestering Evidenzmangel. If in every communication the individual’s inward and outward reality concept is in danger of being eroded, there is no situation left innocent of persuasive dimensions, if not intentions.

The third characteristic concerns rhetoric’s function. The New Rhetoric authors emphasize rhetoric’s harmonizing potential. “Das übergeordnete Ziel dieser Praxis ist nach einmütiger Auffassung ‚Kooperation’” („On universal agreement the superordinate of this practice is ‚cooperation’“; Holocher 137). Burke takes this line when centralizing “identification”: “The key term for the ‚new’ rhetoric would be ‚identification’” (“Old”, 63). Blumenberg, too, focuses on the unifying, integrating capability of rhetoric. Saying that “what is important is not to encounter contradiction” (“Approach” 442) and that “without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind [sic]“ (440), Blumenberg is concordant with Ivor A. Richards, another leading New Rhetorician, for whom rhetoric holds as the “wichtigste Instrument der Zivilisation” (“the most important instrument of civilization”; Holocher 136).

By now I have, firstly, presented the parallels between Hans Blumenberg and a New Rhetoric author beyond dispute, Kenneth Burke, and, secondly, shown these parallels to be characteristics unanimously attributed to the New Rhetoric. Therefore, my hypothesis stands established, I submit: Hans Blumenberg should be considered a New Rhetorician.

Not only does this line of argument call on German scholars to reassess Blumenberg, but it also implies that their criticism passed on Blumenberg is criticism passed on the New Rhetoric. This points to a major discussion among German rhetorical scholars displaying two contrarian ideas of what rhetoric is. In the following I would like to outline this discussion as it reflects on the perception of the New Rhetoric, and thus Kenneth Burke, in Germany.

The scholars spareheading the discussion are Joachim Knape, a major German professor of rhetoric, and Peter L. Oesterreich, a German professor of philosophy. Both Knape and Oesterreich have formulated a Fundamentalrhetorik, each claiming theirs to be the definitive concept of rhetoric.

There are three crucial points at issue. The first one concerns rhetoric’s function. Whereas Oesterreich emphasizes rhetoric’s function as a medium of social cohesion, Knape sets two socially conflicting principles for rhetoric: “Das erste Prinzip,“ Knape writes in his constitutive Was ist Rhetorik, “ist die Metabolie, Veränderung oder Wechsel, das zweite Prinzip aber ist die Systase, die soziale Bindung“ („The first principle is Metabolie, change or alternation, whereas the second principle is Systase, the social bonding”; 34). New Rhetoric, however, emphasizes Systase before Metabolie, setting identification as the key term of rhetoric and focusing on rhetoric’s coordinating, integrating, and unifying power rather than on its antagonistic side. Knape considers rhetoric’s function as a social tie as subordinate. On Burke’s identification concept, Knape comments as follows: „Damit ist der (naturgemäß sehr eingeschränkte) rhetorische Beitrag zur sozialen Beziehungs- und Konfliktlösungstheorie angesprochen” („It addresses rhetoric’s (by nature very small) contribution to the theory of social relations and conflicts.”; 85). Thus, Knape has an issue with Blumenberg as well. Just like Bornscheuer he would indirectly accuse Blumenberg of ignoring “daß Rhetorik z.B. auch immer ein wesentliches Instrument von Macht war” (“that rhetoric has always been an important instrument of power”; Bornscheuer 102).

The second point concerns the scope of rhetoric: Whereas to Oesterreich, „existiert … das Rhetorische schon lange vor der Erfindung der Redekunst“ (“rhetoric exists already before the invention of oratory”; 354), in Knape’s conception rhetoric is not concerned with man and woman’s general communication skills, but rather with “the specificity of the rhetorical communication situation or process” (86). New Rhetoric, again, is a lot closer to Oesterreich’s conception of rhetoric, considering every speech to be of persuasive character, may it be intended by the speaker or not. This points to another difference between Knape on the one side and Oesterreich on the other side. Knape identifies unconscious elements during the persuasive process as communication handicaps (46), whereas Burke’s definition of the New Rhetoric explicitly includes uncontrolled factors: “The key term for the ‚new’ rhetoric would be ‚identification‹,’ which can include a partially ‚unconscious’ factor in appeal” (“Old” 63). In accordance with that characteristic, Oesterreich calls Knape’s notion “das Phantasma persuasiver Allmacht” (“the phantasm of persuasive omnipotence”; 359).

However, this difference might be considered as crucial to why rhetoric is of broader scope to Oesterreich and the New Rhetoric than to Knape. One of Knape’s major intentions is not to waive rhetoric’s specific feature; he does not believe in “permanent persuasion” (86). In contrast, Oesterreich regards mere every-day conversation as a rhetorical situation, as to him rhetoric starts with dialectic, that is to say, the play of statement and response. From his point of view, symbol-users are part of that play “vor und ohne Bekanntschaft mit der Rhetorik” (“already before and without knowing the artistry of rhetoric”; 359).

This leads to the third conceptual difference, which addresses their image of the orator. To Knape this is a special entity, which he coins the “handlungsmächtiger Orator” (34). The term is best paraphrased by “the strategic communicator who possesses a maximum awareness and and control of influencing factors.” To Knape this specific orator is the “very crucial point of rhetorical theory” (33). His opponent Oesterreich denies Knape’s centralization of the orator as the major rhetorical factor (Robling 2). Oesterreich splits rhetoric, so he assigns Knape’s orator conception to the Kunstrhetorik, ‘artistry of rhetoric’, and labels his own Fundamentalrhetorik as Naturrhetorik, ‘natural rhetoric’ (359), which does not require the orator to be aware of how he speaks. Oesterreich’s conception of the orator can be denominated homo rhetoricus, that is, a creature who acts rhetorically in every situation, even without consciously taking an oratorical initiative (359).

4. Conclusion

It is obvious that Blumenberg, Burke, and the New Rhetoric approach are close by Oesterreich’s point of view. However, each of the four named are treated differently in German scholarship. Considering New Rhetoric to be a specificly American phenomenon, it has long been distant enough to pass judgment on it. It might be that the uncertainties concerning Blumenberg some German scholars evince result from this perspective on the New Rhetoric. If they did not stick to the idea of the New Rhetoric as a purely American approach, they might be able to resolve their fundamental difficulties with classifying Blumenberg. Instead of admitting that the New Rhetoric is not an exclusively American phenomenon, they created a new approch named rhetorische anthropologie, „rhetorical anthropology,“ which I consider to have tremendous parallels to the New Rhetoric, so that rhetorische anthropologie could be labelled a German version of the New Rhetoric. Interestingly, the Germans’ perception of Kenneth Burke is of a hybrid character. Knape, for example, holds him in high regard for centralizing the author as the text producing authority, at the same time criticizing the rhetorical ideas characteristic of the New Rhetoric advocates, which Burke also belongs to. However, Knape’s criticism does not address the New Rhetoricians directly, but instead Oesterreich, who serves as a representative in a sense.

It is difficult to find a reason for the Germans’ restraint on the New Rhetoric. A range of problems results from that restraint. Blumenberg might represent only one aspect of those problems.


*Stefanie Hennig is a graduate student in Rhetorical Studies at the Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen. The author wishes to express her deep gratitude to Edward C. Appel for his tireless support and help in the translation of my article, but even more for his encouragement and inspiration. Correspondence to: Stefanie.Hennig@gmx.de

  1. This is my own translation of the line Holocher cites from that letter: “Wie kann eine Welt mit Rhetorik achtbar bleiben, wie [jedoch] kann eine Welt ohne diese überhaupt existieren?” (108). Unfortunately, I do not have access to the original (i.e. English) version of it.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Das Neutrum. Ed. Eric Marty. Trans. Horst Brühmann. edition suhrkamp 2377. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2005.

Blumenberg, Hans. “Anthropologische Annäherung an die Aktualität der Rhetorik.“ Wirklichkeiten, in denen wir leben. Ed. Hans Blumenberg. Universal-Bibliothek 7715. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999. 104-135.

---. “An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric.” Trans. Robert J. Wallace. After Philosophy. End or Transformation? Ed. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy. Baskerville: MIT, 1987. 429-458.

---. Matthäuspassion. Bibliothek Suhrkamp 998. Frankfurt / M: Suhrkamp, 1988.

Bolz, Norbert. “Das Gesicht der Welt. Hans Blumnbergs Aufhebung der Philosophie in Rhetorik.“ Rhetorische Anthropologie. Studien zum homo rhetoricus. Ed. Josef Kopperschmidt. München: Fink, 2000. 89-98.

Bornscheuer, Lothar. “Anthropologisches Argumentieren. Kritische Überlegungen zu Hans Blumenbergs ‘Anthropologische Annäherung an die Aktualität der Rhetorik.’“ Rhetorische Anthropologie. Studien zum homo rhetoricus. Ed. Josef Kopperschmidt. München: Fink, 2000. 99-111.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1959.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form. New York: Vintage, 1957.

---. The Rhetoric of Religion. Boston,: Beacon Press, 1961.

---. Language as Symbolic Action. Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: California Press, 1966.

---. “Rhetoric – Old and New.“ New Rhetorics. Ed. Martin Steinmann. New York: Scriber, 1967. 60-67.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Holocher, Hermann. Anfänge der ›New Rhetoric‹. Rhetorikforschungen 9. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1996.

Knape, Joachim. Was ist Rhetorik? Reclams Universalbibliothek 18044. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2000.

Kramer, Olaf. “New Rhetoric.” Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik. Ed. Gert Ueding. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2007.

New American Standard Bible. Ed. The Lockman Foundation. 1995.

Oesterreich, Peter L.: “Homo rhetoricus (corruptus). Sieben Gesichtspunkte fundamentalrhetorischer Anthropologie.“ Rhetorische Anthropologie. Studien zum homo rhetoricus. Ed. Josef Kopperschmidt. München: Fink, 2000. 353-369.

Robling, Franz-H.: „Was ist rhetorische Anthropologie? Versuch einer interdisziplinären Definition.“ Rhetorik und Anthropologie. Ed. Peter D. Krause. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004. 1-10.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1982.

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Romancing Mortification: A Response to Lewis

Micah McCormick, Independent Scholar


The following letter and subsequent essay respond to the article by Camille Lewis in the Spring 2008 issue of the KB Journal. Micah McCormick calls for a sagacious tone in engaging with religious sectarians in hopes of fostering productive dialogue.

IN CAMILLE K. LEWIS' RECENT ARTICLE, “Publish and Perish?: My Fundamentalist Education from the Inside Out,” Lewis makes public the intended final chapter of her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism.1 Introducing the chapter, Lewis recounts the conflict she experienced with Bob Jones University (BJU) over the chapter’s content, a struggle that eventually led to her resignation from the school in 2007. Lewis acknowledges that along her journey she has become more prophetic and less sagacious, a move readily apparent when one compares chapter six with the first five chapters. Yet Lewis’ goal is neither simply to expose nor to rant but to imagine “a productive criticism for sectarian rhetoric and religion.”2 In short, Lewis fears that Jim Berg, dean of students at BJU, represents a recent trend toward a rhetorically tragic frame, and she puts forward instead the more comedic frame offered by Walter Wink and Jim Wallis. Lewis’ goal is certainly admirable, but at the end of the day her criticism is not as productive as it could be. Her most recent rhetoric is, from one perspective, captivating, but it is not Burkean enough, because it is not romantic enough, to use her own frame.

For Lewis, Berg portrays religion as mortification rather than romantic cultivation. Thus, in a dramatic twist, Berg becomes the unorthodox outsider who needs to be refused if the romantic separatist ideal is to succeed. I suggest another alternative: Berg can be reread and incorporated into Lewis’ romantic frame. This move is more strategic, not least because the concept of mortification is not as marginal to fundamentalist identity as some might wish. Even more, Scripture, the constitutional document for Protestant fundamentalism, can be employed to engage these religious sectarians rather than to drive them away. The resources for such a democratic inclusion (and potential transformation) are actually latent in Lewis’ own work.

“Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality.”3 So observes Burke. If what he says is true of the vocabularies we seek and the language we speak, perhaps even more so is it true of the language we borrow from others. Historians select their events, journalists select those they interview, and writers select they quote and what quotes they choose to use. Lovers quote each other, for better and for worse. In examining Lewis’ use of Berg, selection and deflection develop along the timeline of her relationship with BJU.

Lewis says that when she read Berg’s When Trouble Comes, she was presented with someone who was “not at all the Berg I thought I knew.”4 The Berg she thought she knew was her original inspiration, the one who pointed her towards desire, towards a romance wherein the secular Other wanted what the religious sectarian had. Yet the post-9/11 Berg, unlike the Berg of 1999, appears enmeshed in tragedy. In the remodeled Berg, “the Christian walk is . . . a tragic precipice upon which we teeter. One little slip to the left or the right, one little glimpse down below, and we’re doomed.”5

I would suggest that there has not been such a striking change in Berg. Rather, if I could trade on the romantic imagery, the earlier Lewis was full of hope over the prospects of establishing a long and fruitful relationship with BJU. She “honestly believed” change and progress was possible.6 It was easier to overlook the foibles of BJU administration. But as time went on, and communication stagnated, it became more difficult to overlook their shortcomings, and the weaknesses of important campus personalities like Berg grew more pronounced.

The first clue that this is a more realistic assessment comes from the title of Lewis’ chapter six: “Just Two Choices on the Shelf—Growing Grace or Killing Self.” Here she plays off of one of Berg’s favorite quips: “Just two choices on the shelf—pleasing God and pleasing self.” Berg’s statement has a tragic ring to it, and for Lewis it actually spells the killing of self rather than the Christian habit of growing grace. And yet, note the year of the book from which the quote is drawn—1999. In other words, if Berg is to be rhetorically criticized for this aphorism, he had it coming quite a ways back.7 That Lewis could ignore the saying in earlier days and find it so abrasive now does not demonstrate a rhetorical about-face from either Berg or BJU, but a change in her perspective.

Lewis goes on in the chapter to argue that Berg’s view of the Christian doctrine of sanctification is essentially Keswick, and is thus at odds with historic Protestant theology.8 Sanctification deals with the believer’s growth in holiness. This growth is certainly a desirable thing from a Christian perspective, and the traditional viewpoint sees the believer as active while at the same time dependent on God’s empowering grace. In contrast, Keswick theology tends to stress passivity—let go and let God, so that “any sign of will is certain doom.”9 But paradoxically for Keswick Christians the focus often does end up on the individual rather than on God. The believer must continually ask, “Am I surrendered enough?” The good dog and the bad dog within are equally powerful, and a weight of guilt and responsibility can rest heavy on the Keswick believer’s shoulders, instead of a confidence in the God who is more powerful than sin, the God who acts on behalf of his people and within his people, as in the historic viewpoint.

In pinning Berg as Keswick, Lewis argues that in regards to sanctification, “Berg presents the believer as the agent alone.”10 Lewis makes her case by merely lifting out statements in which Berg emphasizes the fact that the believer has certain responsibilities. Yet traditional historic Protestant theologian would deny this facet of sanctification. Again, from the historic Protestant perspective, both God and man must act in sanctification.11 To say that believers are obligated to repent, or love, or pray, or follow any other Scriptural command does not mean that sanctification is primarily, much less solely, up to them, and one might question whether Berg really espouses such a viewpoint. On the very first page of When Trouble Comes, Berg says that God is the one who “can rescue us . . . .”12 Right from the outset, God is the primary agent. Shortly thereafter, after listing potential “troubles,” Berg assures the reader that every trouble is presents an opportunity “to watch God at work.”13 Also of note, Berg has actually written a book specifically on the subject of sanctification.14 In the opening chapter, “Understanding Biblical Change,” he includes a section on “the person of change,” which he identifies as the God’s Holy Spirit.15 So God begins “the work of changing;” he “empowers;” he “works in the ‘process of change.’”16 In addition, the Christians from the past whom Berg most approvingly quotes on sanctification are not Christians who stand within the Keswick movement but theologians from the more historic Protestant perspective.17 Furthermore, in many places Berg does not espouse a graceless, guilt-filled post-conversion experience; he speaks of post-conversion changes toward holiness as “a cooperative venture between God and us.”18 Christians can never live in their “own strength”;19 rather they live by the supply of God’s power,20 and importantly, they change not in order to earn a relationship with God but because they already have one.21 I will not belabor the reader with more quotes to demonstrate my point, but a historic outlook on sanctification prevails in the vast majority of that book.

Lewis’ selectivity needs to be tempered with gentility. Those who woo should not be blind to faults, but those seeking to persuade sectarians should be prepared to paint their subjects in kinder colors. Lewis need not present BJU or its dean of students as a picturesque figurine void of blemish. But just as Lewis read her initial BJU texts in a more generous and romantic fashion, there is plenty of room to read the current Berg in the same romantic light.

At the heart of Lewis’ rhetorical critique of Berg is agitation with the idea of “mortification.” The notion of a believer purging himself through mortification is wrong-headed from the get-go. The self becomes a scapegoat which can never finally be driven into the wilderness, and a vicious cycle of suicidal (if metaphorical) violence is inevitable. As an alternative rhetorical model, Lewis puts forward the work of Walter Wink. Wink, in eschewing violence, posits a solution akin to Burke’s comedy: “ownership of one’s own evil and acknowledgement of God in the enemy.”22 Wink would have us break the myth of redemptive violence.23 God loves us and accepts us, though we are flawed; God loves our enemies, though they too are flawed; we should therefore love our enemies. Lewis asserts with confidence, “Wink’s strategy finds resonance not only with Burke, but also with our romantic sectarians.”24 On a certain level, what Wink says can indeed gel with various aspects of sectarian rhetoric. But a more important question must be asked: will Wink really find a home in Protestant Fundamentalism? Will they be persuaded to adopt his ideas? If the answer is “no,” is it worth the energy to try and foist Wink upon the separatists? Unfortunately, this particular rhetorical identification simply will not gain currency among Protestant fundamentalists.

Just as the religious sectarian seeks to persuade the secular other to want what it has, so too the secular other must seek to persuade, rather than merely vilify, the religious sectarian. If change occurs in the context of a conversation, sectarians must be engaged rather than simply denounced. For Burke, there is a well-known link between identification and persuasion. Thus the politician speaking to farmers says, “I was a farm boy myself.”25 He might also dress in overalls and use their vocabulary.26 In speaking to our others, in engaging them in conversation, we must also use their texts, and use them in a faithful manner. The problem with linking Wink as an ally of Fundamentalism is that they can never view him as such. In his push against redemptive violence, Wink argues that the central act of Christian history and Christian Scripture—the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—should not be viewed in the traditional way.27 Fundamentalists find tremendous solace in singing lines such as, “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus . . . .”28 For them, the wrath of God is a stark reality, and the only way people can escape it is because Jesus bled for them. This is Conversion Doctrine 101. So when Wink attacks “penal substitution” while still claiming to espouse a Biblical Christianity, he presents an insurmountable contradiction. Fundamentalists will be unlikely to approve of anything he says, even if he is “orthodox” in some areas. They will not be persuaded to join arms with a “heretic.” A secularist maybe, but not a heretic.

A fundamentalist’s first allegiance is to Scripture: this is the Sacred Text by which everything must be tried. The Apostle Paul notes among things of “first importance” that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”29 Scripture says that God put Jesus forward as a propitiation in the place of sinners.30 Now of course a perusal of Scripture does bring out some commonalities with Wink: we are all sinners;31 we should love our enemies;32 we should leave vengeance to God.33 But the best way to dialogue with fundamentalists is to appeal directly to their Scriptures, or at least to cite one of their conservative Protestant heroes.

Fundamentalists feel under obligation to obey everything that Scripture says. So yes, they must love others and recognize that the image of God is in them. Yes, they must recognize that the faults of others can be found in themselves as well. But if Scripture says that Christians should go one step further and actually oppose the sin they find in themselves, then they must in all seriousness do it. Merely chuckling at it or ignoring it would not be a robustly biblical action—it would be more like motion. Wink offers an alternative that is comedic, but from a fundamentalist vantage point it is, quite simply, not Christian enough. After all, over and over Christian Scripture speaks positively of the need for believers to put to death the sin in them (“mortify,” to use the language of the old King James Version). Colossians 3:5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” Romans 8:13: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” It was in light of passages like these that the 17th century Protestant giant John Owen wrote his book, The Mortification of Sin.34 Mortification will live on as long as the Bible lives on. And yet even Owen’s title is suggestive: mortification need not be seen as the death of self, but as exchanging the ugly for the beautiful.

The comedic critique is a step in the right direction. It is true that at times religious sectarians put on a holy facade and fail to recognize that the immorality “out there” in the world is also in them. But given that “mortification” can not be jettisoned, that it will never become extinct through distraction or disuse, how can Protestant fundamentalists interpret this concept? First, they can be persuaded that mortification does not involve the annihilation of personhood.35 The end goal of mortification is not a race of robotrons or a cookie-cutter civility. The Bible’s portrait of a perfect heaven militates against this very notion. There at the end, where all is done, and only the believers remain to enjoy God’s presence, one finds people “from every tribe and language and nation.”36 This picture is contrary to the popularized notion of heaven as a realm where disembodied human spirits flit about, looking exactly the same, and playing exactly the same harps. In Scripture, a certain kind of individuality flourishes in and through cultural community into eternity. Mortification is an attempt to cleanse sinful elements from humans, but never an attempt to destroy humans or culture altogether.

Second, and in conjunction with the first point, fundamentalists can be persuaded from Scripture that what is put to death is the sin that we find in ourselves. In the apostle Paul particularly, terms like “earthly” and “deeds of the body” connote not so much what is human or what is material, but what is morally wrong, what is sinful.37 “Spiritual” deeds like love, joy, peace, etc., stand in contrast to “earthly” deeds like murder, debauchery, drunkenness, etc.38 There will certainly be lively discussion between the secularist and the fundamentalist over just what is morally wrong, but without such discussion transformation is unlikely.

Third, fundamentalists can be reminded that the list of vices reaches to the depths of the heart. Pride, greed, and lust all find their place among the traditional seven deadly sins, and all are condemned in Scripture. These heart issues cannot be mortified merely by isolation. After all, even Jesus said that it is what comes from within a person that defiles that person. It is from within that evil thoughts, murder, adultery, and theft come.39 Religious sectarians can be drawn into conversation with the recognition that they have the obligation to be in the world, even though they can not ultimately be “of” it.40

Yet what of that remaining word that sounds so tragic? Can there be a more constructive identification of mortification? If “mortification” must remain, and if a comedic frame is not weighty enough to hold up the fundamentalists’ somber picture of sin, how can we stave off a downward spiral of hopelessness? How can sectarians keep from perpetuating tragedy? An answer can be found in Lewis’ alternative frame of romance.41 In Romancing the Difference, the sectarian separates in order to woo. Separation becomes an expression of love rather than hatred. Even a concept as grisly as mortification can also be framed as an expression of love. In this story, the beloved is the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ, and the sectarian acts as the bride to be.42

Mortification need not be construed as dismemberment, suicide, or annihilation. Rather, it can be seen as preparation for marriage. Importantly, this is not preparation to impress a potential suitor. This is not Cinderella’s sisters putting on a faux charm and trying to force their feet into a slipper that doesn’t fit. The engagement ring is already secured. The wedding is scheduled and will take place, because Jesus can never go back on his word. He loves his bride, warts and all. And yet, this would not stop the bride from preparing, especially when the bride realizes that she is remarkably overweight and that her behavior and her station in life leave much to be desired. Mortification is shedding pounds, corralling the demon of drunkenness, and learning to live a life that squares with her new and glorious calling.

In the Old Testament, God’s people are told, “Your maker is your husband.”43 At the end of Scripture the second coming of Christ is presented as a coming to the marriage banquet.44 In these times between Christ’s life on earth and his return to earth, the apostle Paul labored to present the Corinthians as chaste virgins to Christ.45 Strikingly, the early Christians were told that upon conversion they “died” with respect to their former husband, the law, that they might belong to another, Jesus Christ.46 That former relationship of bondage, in which they labored to fulfill a seemingly impossible checklist to find their spouse’s acceptance—that former relationship has been itself “put to death.” Paul uses the very same word, θανατοω, that he uses later in Romans when he tells Christians to put sin to death. They can strive to “mortify” in freedom because the law, that goad to perfection, has already been mortified once and for all by Christ, their betrothed.

To come at the matter from a different angle, if a bride-to-be truly loves her beloved, won’t she seek to prepare herself for married life? Won’t she willingly give up her old bad habits in order to live a new and better life? For biblical sectarians, in Scripture, the tragedy is that they, like all people, have spat upon their lover, slapped him, and trampled him underfoot. They have crucified the Son of God. The remarkable comedy is that he has not killed them. Romance provides a frame wherein they can live a transformed life, not from fear but from hope. Metaphorically, they present their bodies as a living sacrifice;47 they die to their old foolish desires and actions because they are so in love with Jesus Christ.

Fundamentalists can be led down this path of biblical interpretation by means of some of their own favorite guides. J. Gresham Machen, former professor at Princeton in the early 1900s, is sometimes called the “Father of Fundamentalism” for his battles to preserve what fundamentalists saw as historic Christianity. He wrote a book drawing a line in the sand between the new Protestant religion (“Liberalism”), and the old Protestant religion (“Christianity”),48 just the type of demarcation fundamentalists love. Yet in this very doctrinal book he writes of people as “longing for communion with the Holy One.”49 He goes on to clarify, “The new relation of the Christian to Christ, according to Paul, involves no loss of the separate personality of the Christian; on the contrary, it is everywhere intensely personal; it is not a merely mystical relationship to the All or Absolute, but a relationship of love existing between one person and another.”50 Here Machen does not specify the type of personal relationship, whether a metaphor of friend/friend, parent/child, king/subject, or spouse/spouse. However, the vocabulary of “intensely personal” seems to find the best echo in a spouse/spouse metaphor. Machen, a hero of Fundamentalism, can fit comfortably into a romantic frame.

Even Berg can be drawn into the romantic frame. Lewis says that romance in Berg’s text “is absent.”51 And yet, when we take in his whole vision of the believer’s sanctification, we find that this is not the case. He makes clear in his programmatic work on sanctification: “Please do not miss the thrust of the previous four chapters . . . . Biblical change leads to a passionate relationship with the God of heaven that makes every other love pale in comparison.”52 He goes on to speak of the “God-exhilarated lover” and cites Mary, David, and Paul as examples of extravagant lovers.53 Berg need not become the sectarian scapegoat when he can be redirected and incorporated into a vibrant rhetorical project. In this alternative narrative, mortification is not tragic. It is comedic, but it is more than comedic. It is romantic.

Burke refused to let any discipline fall outside of the purview of rhetoric. As ably demonstrated in The Rhetoric of Religion,54 Burke found theology to be a fascinating and fertile rhetorical field. In theology people proclaim their most basic and ardent beliefs about the most important subjects to them imaginable. This is persuasion with a passion. No wonder Burke found the theological domain so suitable for rhetorical study. It is a little surprising to hear Lewis drive a wedge between theology and rhetoric, as when she told BJU she was not critiquing Berg’s theology but his rhetoric.55 How could she not be doing both, especially if rhetoric is so constitutive of truth claims? There is no need to apologize here: in presenting sectarians with alternative rhetorical strategies, these strategies are best presented to sectarians as good theology. Therein lies their appeal.

Lewis argues in Romancing the Difference, “If critics understand the motive behind the religious romantic, they can more successfully prevent scapegoating this Other and more likely include it in a robust democratic practice.”56 This is wholesome advice, especially when we can do more than understand—we can provide sectarians with a romantic motive by reminding them of the romantic frame present in their own texts. In this way the conversation is expanded rather than narrowed, and the goals of democracy find more plausible development.

The problem with prophetic confrontations is that sectarians thrive under such denouncements. They see it as a badge of commendation. After all, their Scripture says, “Do not marvel if the world hates you.”57 Lewis’ shift in tone, especially given her history of conflict with BJU, is understandable, but at this juncture a more sagacious voice will be more productive. Lewis is a magnificent writer—artistic, imaginative, powerful, and precise. Her voice cannot help but be heard. However, who will listen and how will they listen? The academy might be drawn to take another look at religious sectarianism, but will it be encouraged to engage fundamentalists or to shun them, to speak with them or to denounce them? The pious expect condemnation. Their expectations are frustrated not when they are excluded but when they are included. They can and should be given a theological platform, a Burkean microphone, and a script that is robustly romantic. Who can say what changes might take place in the process?


* Correspondence to: Micah McCormick, Independent Scholar. Email: micahmccormick@gmail.com

  1. The article appeared in the Kenneth Burke Journal, Spring (2008), available at http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis. The book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was published by Baylor in 2007, and it presents a reworked version of Lewis’ dissertation under Bob Ivie.
  2. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  3. A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: U of California P, 1969), 59.
  4. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  5. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  6. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  7. And since Berg is a regular public speaker both within and outside of the BJU community, who knows how long he might have been using that phrase? One suspects it would have been common parlance, at least around BJU, for quite some time.
  8. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  9. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  10. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  11. For example see John Calvin’s commentary on Philippians 2:12-13, Ages Digital Library; this point is not in particular dispute; rather the question is what Berg himself teaches.
  12. Jim Berg, When Trouble Comes (Greenville: U Bob Jones P, 2002), 1.
  13. Berg 6.
  14. Jim Berg, Changed into His Image: God's Plan for Transforming Your Life (Greenville, SC: U Bob Jones P, 1999).
  15. Berg Changed, 7.
  16. Berg Changed, 7, 9.
  17. In the book Berg appears to quote John Owen (26-27, 41, 58, 90) more than any other Christian thinker. Owen is likely the premiere exponent of sanctification from a traditional Protestant perspective. Berg also references Jonathan Edwards (218, 272), J. I. Packer (115, 165), and John Piper (214, 219), all exponents of the more traditional perspective.
  18. Changed, 9.
  19. Changed, 917.
  20. Changed, 7.
  21. Changed, 113-141; 311-352.
  22. Lewis, quoting Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Trade, 1999, 60).
  23. Walter Wink, “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence,” available at http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml. See again The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Trade, 1999).
  24. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  25. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: U California P, 1950), xiv.
  26. This is what Denzel Washington’s character does in the movie The Great Debaters.
  27. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
  28. This 19th century gospel hymn can be found at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/n/b/nbtblood.htm.
  29. I Corinthians 15:3.
  30. Romans 3:24-25.
  31. Romans 3:23.
  32. Matthew 5:44.
  33. Romans 12:19.
  34. John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004).
  35. Contra Lewis’ portrayal of Berg’s rhetoric, http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  36. Revelation 5:9.
  37. Once again, Berg forthrightly endorses this careful distinction (Changed, 25, 91).
  38. Galatians 5:16-23.
  39. Mark 7:17-23.
  40. I Corinthians 5:9-10; John 15:19.
  41. Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism (Waco, TX: Baylor U Press, 2007). Granted that in my picture Christ is the beloved. Still, there is a sense in which believers are wooing unbelievers to want what they have.
  42. Although I will not offer a full-fledged Pentadic analysis, it might look like this: Scene = this life; Actor = the Biblical Fundamentalist; Act = mortification; Agency = the Holy Spirit; Purpose = Prepare for Wedding.
  43. Isaiah 54:5.
  44. Revelation 19:7.
  45. II Corinthians 11:2.
  46. Romans 7:1-6.
  47. Romans 12:1.
  48. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923).
  49. Machen 134.
  50. Machen 189.
  51. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  52. Berg, Changed, 213-214.
  53. Berg, Changed, 214-218.
  54. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: U California P, 1970).
  55. http://www.kbjournal.org/lewis.
  56. Lewis, Romancing, 11.
  57. I John 3:13.

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Romancing Mortification: A Response to Lewis by Micah McCormick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.

Book Review: Judging the Supreme Court: Constructions of Motives in Bush v. Gore

Rountree, Clarke. (2007) Judging the Supreme Court: Constructions of Motives in Bush v. Gore. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Reviewed by Zac Gershberg, The University of Montana.

Further proof—as if any were needed—of the resounding impact of Kenneth Burke’s critical methodology sketched out in the eight-and-a-half page introduction to his 1945 work, A Grammar of Motives, Clark Rountree has provided us with, behold, a 400-page pentadic analysis of the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision which ended the 2000 election. The author adopts a dramatistic scope to identify and evaluate the motives that inform the High Court’s majority, dissenting, and concurring opinions in the case. Additionally, he outlines and comments upon the media coverage as well as editorial and scholarly legal treatments of Bush v. Gore. The book is intended for all citizens living under a democratic form of governance, given Rountree’s impassioned plea for fairness and transparency in the political process; but in particular, Judging the Supreme Court will prove useful to any academic scholar invested in analyzing legal discourses or comparing them to more rhetorically-inscribed communicative situations. It also serves as a superb example for younger scholars or students who are looking for ways to adapt Burke’s pentad.

By asserting, in the introduction, “judicial opinions are rhetorical performances” (xv), Rountree demarcates his scholarly orientation as apart from media and legal studies of the case. Specifically, the pentad is invoked as a way to more profitably examine legal decisions. The first chapter sketches what Rountree calls the judicial myth: how “[t]o maintain their credibility—which is the ultimate basis of their power—judges must look and act as if they are constrained by the law” (4). While this may prove a subversive temptation to undermine all legal rulings, Rountree reminds us of the civic importance the judiciary branch of government (is supposed to) provide(s). Articulating this brief, ambivalent conception of the judicial myth and its relationship to American governance is, in fact, one of the heuristic theoretical contributions of the book and appears ripe for more study along the rhetorical-Burkean nexus.

As the title suggests, Rountree spends the majority of the text focusing on the decision and the responses to the case itself. From the voting errors and the appeals-path up the judicial chain, including a section on the Florida Supreme Court, there is a concerted effort in the opening chapters to objectively recount—capture, that is—what happened. There is then a summary of the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions of the High Court’s actions in Bush v. Gore. Along the way, Rountree maintains a neutral tone and provides short as well as extended passages from the opinions themselves. He does, however, contextualize the opinions in terms of the pentad: for instance, when Chief Justice William Rehnquist states, in his concurring opinion, “We deal here not with an ordinary election, but with an election for the President of the United States,” Rountree categorizes this within the scene-act ratio and infers how this remark informs the majority’s justification for the Court’s stay and its resulting adjudication (50). The same pentadic ratio is on display when Rountree considers Richard Posner, one of the scholarly defenders of the High Court, who disagrees with the Court’s logic but vindicates the majority on the basis of scenic ramifications. The book excels in pointing out how the majority opinion and those agreeing with the decision describe the alternative(s) as fraught with peril: chaos would ensue if, God forbid, votes were (re-)counted, and “potential” harm could be inflicted on George W. Bush.

Rountree employs the pentad not just to understand the High Court’s opinions but also evaluate its motives. A helpful example is again from treating the Chief Justice’s concurring opinion:

[I]t was critical for Rehnquist to make the case unequivocally, for he was second-guessing a state court interpreting its own state law. Terms such as ‘clear,’ ‘plain,’ ‘absurd’ polarized his opinion, portraying his judgment as emphatic and absolute. To maintain this level of certainty, Rehnquist refused even to address Florida’s arguments to the contrary. (56)
Interestingly, Rountree notes how Rehnquist’s clever rhetorical composition allowed for many of the Court’s defenders to prefer this concurring opinion as opposed to the rationale of the majority proper. The framing of such an analysis as this can be of help to both legal and non-legal scholars examining future rulings, as well as help us understand how Bush v. Gore was argued, fought for, won, and later defended. Rountree painstakingly goes over the scholarly reconstructions of the case, but few, if any, possess this author’s interest or expertise in discursively piecing together the rhetorical productions of the opinions themselves.

It is, in short, too obvious—and too easy—to charge the High Court with political motivations. The novelty of this enterprise is that Rountree acknowledges such political machinations but penetrates the rulings with greater depth, tying all judicial decisions back to the tenuous relationship between agency, “the most powerful motive term in law” (211), and purpose, the “meting out [of] justice” (252). The difficulty for those not trained in the law is that, in typical rhetorical acts, “purpose [is meant] to drive agency, rather than the other way around,” whereas “judicial discourse…is supposed [to rely on the law] to dictate the outcome” (394). While Rountree chooses not to provide an extended overview of the legal philosophy of originalism, he is apt to point out the agentic inconsistencies between federalism’s deference to the states and strict constructivism with how the High Court’s conservative bloc engaged in judicial activism to decide Bush v. Gore.

Two middle chapters deal with how the media reacted to the case, combing both reporting and editorial coverage across daily newspapers and weekly or monthly magazines. “Despite journalistic goals to be objective and fair,” writes Rountree, “there is no ultimately neutral vocabulary for describing motives” (100). As such, reporters are seen as “much more subtle” than editorialists in constructing their analysis of the case. One freshly thought out point Rountree makes is that the media, even those who vehemently disagree with Bush v. Gore, did a poor job contextualizing the Florida Supreme Court Case, Gore v. Harris. As such, the Florida Supreme Court was left open to charges of a similar political bias as the Supreme Court, albeit for the Democrats. This overlooks, as Rountree argues in his own analysis found in the final chapter, “Judging the Supreme Court and Its Judges,” that the Florida Court ruled against Gore in some of his motions concerning the recount.

This book may also appeal readers for the rhetorical kernels of wisdom found at the beginning and end of each chapter. Rountree’s voice largely disappears during the course of his review of the opinions, media coverage, and literature reviews of legal scholars—excepting when he applies the pentad—but he bookends the chapters with the advice worthy of a consummate rhetorican, at times a theorist and at others a practitioner. Take, for instance, the concluding paragraph to the chapter on editorialists:

The rhetorical lesson of these editorials is clear: If you are defending someone faced with evidence that he, she, or they have engaged in an inappropriate act, move attention away from that particular act and toward (1) other acts that might have created a situation in which those you are defending were reluctantly forced to act or (2) other acts of the accused suggesting that they do not have the motives attributed to them in the particular case. On the other hand, if you are attacking them, focus attention on the act itself and away from the acts of others that may have contributed to a situation requiring a response from the accused. (169)
Rountree distills from all of his analyses a Burkean frame with which to make suggestions and offer judgment. We find, then, a pentadic approach that is not merely limited to the legal rulings of Bush v. Gore but extends to media and scholarship as well.

Whereas throughout most of the book Rountree speaks through Burkean terms and detached neutrality, his conclusion is a refutative broadside leveled at the decision and those who would justify it. “The conservative justices […] should have kept their federal noses out of this state business in the first place” he writes, adding that they “sacrificed legitimacy for the decision” and “yielded justice for no one” (386, 396, 401). By limiting Bush v. Gore as the one and only Supreme Court decision without precedent, the High Court is accused of “simultaneously ignor[ing] its responsibilities to the past, the present, and the future—to following the law, to doing justice, and to laying down clear precedents” (392). In short, the book’s conclusion permits Rountree permits to unleash pent-up anger (not entirely unjustified given the hypocrisy and weak arguments he fleshes out), even imagining a world in which Al Gore, not George W. Bush, governed as president. He does, however, suggest a couple of alternatives to how the case played out: first, as mentioned above, a defense of the Florida’s Supreme Court is offered, though Rountree does not mention whether the state court could have argued differently—maybe with a federal poison pill, of sorts, or a decision with greater clarity for the recounting procedures. Second, the High Court’s majority opinion is pigeon-holded to either refuse the stay or render a 7-2 decision joined by Justices Breyer and Souter, both of whom acknowledged equal rights protection violations. Had the Supreme Court followed this path in its per curiam, it would have allowed the recount to continue, only under more uniform methods of recounting the vote. As Rountree asserts earlier in the book, “The irreparable harm in recounting could be realized only if Bush lost his lead in the election” (31). For the most part, though, Rountree’s conclusion focuses on rejecting the uncertainty that the scene-act defense of Bush v. Gore relies upon. The High Court suggests that the state court “held that the [safe harbor] deadline was sacrosanct under Florida law,” which, for Rountree, scholars, and the state court’s decision alike, is patently untrue (388). “December 18, the day the Electoral College met, should have been the earliest deadline insisted on by the High Court,” concludes Rountree, to ensure a more faithful record of counting votes (389).

Judging the Supreme Court is a particularly sound piece of Burkean scholarship which also serves as a civic appraisal of the American judiciary branch. While the book’s breadth comprises everything one can imaginatively conceive of regarding Bush v. Gore, some readers may be left wanting for more of a Burkean/rhetorical analysis of justice or the law itself. I raise this criticism if only because Rountree, whose purpose in this book is admittedly limited, positions himself as adept to do so and almost teases the reader with his theoretical insights. Stanley Fish is renown for rhetorical engaging legal philosophies and discourses, and, in Doing What Comes Naturally, takes Rountree’s antagonist Richard Posner to task for his ideas on language. Supreme Court Justices, meanwhile, often write popular books and deliver public lectures on their judicial philosophies. Not to be so Perelman-esque, but they are decidedly not philosophical systems of thought, merely rhetorical methods with which to analyze discursive arguments and construct rulings. Rountree demonstrates the degree to which originalism and the Court’s conservative bloc sold their legitimacy to the Republican Party, yet ex-President Bush advanced the nominations and confirmations of Justices Roberts and Alito with little fierce resistance. Relying on divorcing agentic action from legal rulings and a belief in the purity or transparency of language, strict-constructivism continues to be peddled unabated today. If ever originalism should be exposed and pitched to the ash-heap of history, I imagine it will be at the hands of a Burkean or rhetorician capable of rejecting its tenets. Here’s hoping that Rountree or some other enterprising scholar constructs a decisive second act to this impressive foray into judicial rhetoric.

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Review of Judging the Supreme Court: Constructions of Motives in Bush v. Gore by Clark Rountree. by Zac Gershberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
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